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Uwe Tellkamp's novel "The Tower" - an excerpt


18. The Island of Coal
Ridged like a karst landscape, like the debris of jagged piled up ice floes, the island of coal stretched out in front of the four visitors; three of them showed their passes at the bridge control, then, when Richard had lowered little Philip from his shoulders and slipped his hand into Regine's, they made their way over the 'Copper Sister' to the offices beyond. The mist hung low over Ostrom, dampening the whistle of 'Black Mathilda' as she signalled her arrival through the tunnel at the heating works. The snow on the bridge had been trodden flat by numerous shoes, even at this early morning hour; it was the first Tuesday of the month – administration day. Meno shielded his eyes, the whiteness was dazzling, and he noted the first sharp shafts of the March sun striking off the heavily sloping, frost-encrusted roofs of the buildings, their frozen windows now clear as water, now a concentric whirl, like the splintering drops of dew caught in a spider's web, igniting sparks, flaring into a sudden confusion of light and a multi-faceted prismatic display that was echoed countless times in the broken axels of the buildings' depths: it found its counterpart in the compressed slabs of quartz, the ridges, the needles of ice.

They had arrived before the doors opened and joined the queue that stretched from the colonnaded entrance as far as the Marx and Engels monument area in the centre of the courtyard; cleared of snow, its grey concrete swept clean, the space could hardly be bridged by a human voice. Marx and Engels were holding books of bronze which they appeared to be reading; crows settled on their heads and the sentry on duty, not permitted to budge, tried to shoo them away with regular clicks of his tongue. Some of those waiting looked on with pity and raised their hands ready to clap, only to be discouraged by acquaintances less benevolently inclined, their gaze fixed on the colonnaded entrance. Richard gave up counting at 'one hundred', opened his bag, reassured himself that the report was still there (but who could have taken it – he had packed the bag himself and checked before leaving); Meno had opened his worn briefcase, too, and was rummaging through papers. Regine held her violin tightly to her chest, let go of little Philip's hand and the child made a beeline for the sentry at the monument; as the clocks in the administrative building started to chime, he manoeuvred his machine gun with its squared butt and stood to attention, eyes staring straight ahead from beneath his steel helmet – in the hours that followed, until he was relieved, he would show no awareness of the queue of visitors that dispersed at the front and grew steadily longer at the back, no flicker of recognition of anything. Philip tugged at his uniform, pulled faces, but garnered only restrained amusement from a few of those in line. The queue inched forward. Bluish, purple, violet flecks of light danced off the salt and pepper granite of the lobby. A cord regulated the passage to the kiosk-like lodge where the porter sat perched between telephones mounted on pincers on the wall that moved back and forth with the exaggerated slowness of the tentacles of sea anemones. Perhaps the apparatus was defunct, thought Meno.

The visitors stated their business, opened their bags for inspection and were allowed through. Behind the porter's lodge was a wall of clocks showing different time-zones, the names of places printed on the clock faces in black script: Jakarta, New York, London, La Valetta, Moscow, Vladivostock, Lima, Peking and a host of others; little Philip listened to the whirr of the hands and asked who lived in those places. On the other side, opposite the wall of clocks, the paternoster lifts creaked into motion.

'This is where we go our separate ways.' Richard pointed to the clocks.

'Shall we meet here at twelve?'

'There is always the phone system,' said Meno. 'If there's any hold up, we can call through on that. Good luck.' Regine and Richard nodded. Meno jumped into a paternoster.

'Right, second floor, Wing F,' Regine double-checked.

'Come on, Philip.' She took the boy's hand; he strode purposefully towards one of the paternosters. On the second floor, they looked down from the rotunda into an airwell. Employees in grey overalls scurried back and forth, some pushing trolleys of files, the worn carpet swallowing their footsteps and the trundle of wheels; throats were cleared behind doors and there was a distant murmur of voices. Corridors radiated out from the rotunda with its dominating feature of a glass chandelier in the icicle style favoured by the Kremlin. 'I want to touch the knight,' said Philip, and Richard held him aloft so he could reach the stone figures on the rotunda's balustrade: men with shields and raised swords; on most of the finely chiselled features were expressions of surprise, bafflement even, which the sculptor had laced, as though with the wipe of a muslin cloth, with the deeper waters of clear conscience, the wisdom of hindsight and traces of a humorous love of haggling; the weathered armour had curious spikes on the shoulder and breastplates, reminding Richard of a rare disease in which the poor sufferer's skin came up in hard prickles; he mulled over the name of it but could only recall the first part, Ichthyo-something. Philip couldn't snap them off and gave a cautious laugh and exclamation of 'Ouch' when he pressed the tip of a finger against one of the spikes. It must have been painstaking work for the sculptor, sharpening the stone to such pencil-lead proportions. A ticking was audible now, like the swing of a large metronome at a slow setting. Richard looked out of the window, it must be coming from outside, from the production towers beyond the offices, in the prohibited area of the island of coal.

Second floor, Wing F. Corridors with fraying red carpets and a musty smell. The distant drone of a vacuum cleaner, the clacking of typewriters behind closed doors, queues in front of open ones. The thud of stamps, whispering, the crunching of thick stacks of paper being hole-punched, the humming of sewing machines. Certain files were sewn into folders, a custom from the Soviet Union, first adopted by the Ochrana, the Tsarist secret police, as Richard had learned from a patient who worked on the island of coal.

'Are you sure we can go straight to the office?' Richard asked doubtfully.

'You normally have to register at the central desk, I thought?'

'The invitation is a direct one and I know my way, so there's no reason to going to the central office,' Regine replied.

The official at the table in front of Wing F was of another opinion, however. 'You haven't got a certificate from the Central Desk. You can't just walk in, Citizen Neubert.'

Regine protested that this registering business was a sheer waste of time, why should she sign in down there, when her meeting was up here… The official pointed out that there were regulations that the citizen would abide by!

Regine shrugged. Richard followed in her wake as she raced off, keeping her bearings in spite of recurring sets of identical corridors. Even the green plants on the windowsills were hard to tell apart: well-nourished and exotic with meticulously dusted fleshy round leaves. For every corridor a miniature copper watering can with a spout the shape of an ibis's beak.


Translation:Rebecca K. Morrison
Copyright Surhrkamp Verlag
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