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Clemens Setz's novel "Frequencies" - an excerpt


In my father's room there were cabinets so old that the shallower drawers – the ones that could hold very little anyway – had slowly disintegrated, and were now fused together with the wood. There was absolutely no point in rattling or pulling at them; they remained as obdurately shut as the mouth of a child confronted with a spoonful of cod-liver oil.

For a long time, my mother had not ventured into his study. When at last she entered it with me one rainy forenoon, the first thing that caught our eye was the blackboard. There was no message waiting on it – on the contrary, it had been wiped off with a sponge, the smears dried into puffy white clouds.

My mother walked slowly through the abandoned room, her shoulders hunched as though she were expecting some trap, an arrow shot from a corner, or the sudden blare of a siren alarm.

Nothing happened, and she relaxed. Then her eyes glazed and she began to rummage with the urgency of digging out a child buried under sand. I helped her, but she soon despaired at the sheer purposelessness of this activity, as she found neither important papers nor anything of significance. Although that is what she expected, it still surprised her all over again to find only this dreadful emptiness. When had he taken everything away? Had he done it gradually, bit by bit, like a smuggler? Or had he simply created this emptiness suddenly, like a magician making a signed banana disappear? I didn't understand what she meant. Emptiness? – The disorder, all the books, the drawers full of old bills, calendars and magazines? Well, of course, all these things weren't particularly fascinating, but they would have to be gone through once, at least.

Behind a few books, my mother was surprised to discover a half-empty bottle without a label. She smelled it and blinked hard. Then she put it back.

A small cardboard box beside the waste-paper basket contained a yellowish packet of letters written in various illegible hands. I tried to decipher something, but it only made nonsense. Just as I had given up all hope of finding something interesting, a tin of tennis balls fell over, as if on cue. I opened it; the balls inside were pitch-black. Black tennis balls? I turned the tin upside-down and the balls bounced away across the parquet, then thudded over the carpet.

While we were in his room, I couldn't rid myself of the feeling that we were moving in some kind of stage-set. Perhaps it was all contrived, rehearsed, and my father was still somewhere in the house, in a secret closet behind all these drawers, boxes and fake books, in a room without doors or windows, taking part in our lives while he concentrated on some important work, perhaps a book, that took up all his time. He was watching us through peepholes, winking at us when we'd said or done something that pleased him. His was the face that mine changed into when I looked at it in the mirror for long enough. Perhaps he was writing a book about us, about the life we'd been leading since he left – a study on single mothers, a novel about a complicated mother-son relationship, a meditation on his own death and what the world would look like without him.

Sometimes I would even hear him as I fell asleep, as I turned my head back and forth on the pillow – I would hear his voice, just for an instant and as if muffled by walls. He was saying something soothing – good night, or take care, in a foreign language.

On other days, I would find the remote control lying in a different place in the living-room. Of course, he might have been watching television for a while during my absence. I experimented a bit, leaving the kitchen window open for a long time – far too long – which had always infuriated him, but he didn't fall into any of my traps. His hiding-place must be hermetically sealed to stop him breaking off his exile prematurely. Perhaps there was some kind of timer on the door of his closet which would not set him free until, let's say, I was eighteen years old.

One bright May morning I woke late. I had lain awake until three in the morning, listening to unintelligible programmes on short-wave radio. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik on a Russian station. A tennis match, somewhere far away, as though from a different planet, with the eerie double echo of the balls as they struck. BBC World. Another chapter from our series A Life in Jazz. Today we take a close look at the life of Thelonious Monk. An autistic. Asperger's syndrome. Deutsche Welle. The freckly man from Simply Red sang in my ears: And I LOVE the thought of coming HOME to youEVEN IF I know we can’t MAKE IT!

In the morning, I found myself lying beside the radio. The lead of the tiny earphones disappeared under the bedcover; it was wrapped round my wrist.

As I was going to the kitchen, I heard my mother talking to someone outside the front door. Her voice was raised in agitation. Gripped by a terrible certainty, I ran to the door and pressed my ear against the wood.

But it was the voice of a strange man that replied to my mother's agitated questions. She kept repeating the same question (which I recognised not by the content but by the intonation), to which the reply was either apologetic or evasive. I gradually realised that it was a question of letters, of a sender, about whom the male voice – probably that of the postman – could or would, or was permitted to give no information.
My mother's voice grew shrill, then pleading, then there was silence. The door-handle moved, and I fled to my room. I knew she'd seen me, because when I got to my room I bumped my shoulder against the door-frame. She said nothing. A little later I joined her in the kitchen. She had made no tea, no breakfast. There wasn't even the crumpled morning newspaper on the table. All there was this morning was a small sheet of paper, at which my mother was staring, her eyes alert and animated. She didn't tell me what was in the letter. But from that day on, she never again went without breakfast. And the newspaper, which no-one ever read but which was part of the daily routine, was always on the table. Her face was still the same as ever, yet it wasn't.

Not until several years later did I see her true face again.

In 1999, out of a clear sky, a total eclipse of the sun was announced. Suddenly, daily newspapers were offering special, almost opaque sunglasses as free gifts to subscribers. A 100-watt light bulb glowed blue when viewed through them. At school, we compared and swapped the various models like trading cards. Anyone who didn't have a pair was a pansy.

I watched the eclipse with my mother. We went to the main bridge that leads to the inner city.

The only thing that can be said about a total eclipse is that it feels like a gigantic mistake. Everything is falsified: the hands and faces of the bystanders, the shading in the folds of their clothes, the buildings close by, the water in the river above which we were watching the phenomenon in the sky. Your hearing is distorted, suddenly dulled as though under water or behind glass. You move in the darkness amongst other onlookers reminiscent of the dead in Homer's Odyssey – abject figures taking up as little space as possible, colourless and filled with longing for light.

For a minute, the ghostly ring of the sun hung in the darkened sky like a bullet-hole in a sheet of metal, frayed strands flickering round the rim. Shortly before, the bulky mass of the moon had rolled across the sun; only about two seconds, and you could hardly believe your eyes: like a sky-coloured coin, it had been advancing slowly and steadily for the past half-hour, biting deeper and deeper into the disc of the sun, and suddenly it became solid, like a black camera lens, and heaved itself over the sun – not elegant or enchanting, as one would expect the moon to be, but unwieldy and crude, like a drunk man rolling on to a sleeping woman. Quick as a blink, darkness fell. You had to take your glasses off, or you'd have been completely blind. It was pitch dark for an instant, then an inner emergency generator kicked in, and your eye wavered muzzily over buildings, trees, people, all in the wrong shades and the wrong places. The river was now flowing far more slowly, like someone driving past a road accident and craning his neck in slow motion. Its colour was the sickly greenish-bronze shade of bog bodies.

Most people cried out when the sun was swallowed up by that black sack. Some of them began to applaud, confusedly, with an eerie slowness, as though suddenly conscious of their clapping hands – and immediately stopped.

Just when their eyes had become accustomed, during those few seconds, to the new conditions, everything was bathed in an unnatural half-light, a light which in sheer terror had jumbled all the colours but made the lines and contours more prominent. Everything now looked hopeless and depressing. The whole thing must have been a terrible mistake. Something or other had gone wrong in the middle of the routine movement of the planets; perhaps Earth had skidded out of orbit and drifted off into outer space, or a huge solar explosion was burning up the other side of the moon and giving it that nightmarish background glow.

My mother, transformed into a great pendulum, bumped against me. Her shoes carried her a few paces forwards, then she turned round. I saw what she meant. Suddenly there no longer seemed any sense in going anywhere. The two halves of the town, on either side of the river, had turned into lifeless woodcuts. Shops, offices, houses, parks no longer existed. The birds were struck dumb. All the windows looked contaminated, façades frozen into hurriedly pasted transfers, as on a postage stamp. In this stark mediaeval light, otherwise found only in dances of death and gloomy passion plays, anything at all could happen. Your body became more alert, your eyes clear and restless.

The bleak, hostile wind, which seemed to come straight from outer space, could now be felt everywhere – a wind that penetrated everything, disregarding such inventions as clothes or hairstyles.

All this time, the traffic lights were still changing from red to green, although no-one was paying any attention to them because they no longer displayed the proper signal colours. The little red man was not red, but shone in a dreary coppery brown reminiscent of antique door-handles shaped like melancholy lions' heads. The proportions of the buildings kept changing, slipping; some parts were rounder, some seemed to be gradually collapsing like a balloon losing air. The world was a chess-board in a convex distorting mirror.

My mother walked another few paces, then stood still, took a handkerchief from her bag and blew her nose. Even this sound seemed slowed down. The only thing missing in this god-forsaken moment was the flickering, grainy effect of scratchy old silent films. And perhaps an army of masked liquidators rushing towards the contaminated sun, as to a massive, horrendous disaster site in outer space, carrying great unwieldy spades and swimming upwards with sweeping strokes towards the totally depleted scene of devastation.

Most people were now silent, overwhelmed, breathing quietly through the filter of their hands or clinging to one another. A child hid behind its mother and came straight out again, but that didn't help – the world was still out of joint, and the child disappeared once more behind its mother's legs. The curious idea that this distended, dented minute of darkness was simply a brief sojourn in the shadow of the moon, as it rushed across the country at hundreds of miles an hour, threw my sense of balance into total confusion. I needed something to hold on to. My hand felt its way forwards. The handrail of the bridge was as warm as by day. A few youths on the opposite side of the street were letting off rockets in a desperate effort to re-ignite the sun. The rockets whizzed off fearfully, suffered a heart attack half-way and fell into the river. A few steps away from them, I spied a policeman strutting over the bridge like a newly-awakened prince.

After a long, long time, a blazing hole appeared at the rim of the darkness, light gushing from it, like a red-hot needle stabbing into an eyeball. You couldn't look at the light without hearing a crunching noise in your head, a dull, familiar sound, as when weighty antique furniture is moved. The reawakened sun put forth its first rays, the feelers of a golden beetle lying on its back.

This was the moment when you could turn away from the sun again for a bit longer. Until then, I had only glanced away to check that the world hadn't suddenly disintegrated. Now we could see the mysterious glow on the horizon, a dreadful, demented light that could surely shine only in the mind of a serial killer. It was a mixture of blue and yellow, though nowhere approaching anything like green. However much it tried, the light remained suspended, like an unresolved dominant seventh.

Gradually, normal daylight returned; all the frozen movements thawed, and eyelids that had played dead the whole time began to flutter. Tears were running down my mother's cheeks; she was sobbing like a little girl, holding a hand under her nose as though her face were threatening to melt. She was crying for the first time since my father had left, and it got worse and worse – her hands were scrabbling around like little monkeys trying to find an "off" button somewhere on her own body.

"Come on" – I pulled at her sleeve. "Let's go."

She yielded to my insistence and allowed herself to be led away like one blinded. No-one took any notice of us, a strange couple staggering across the bridge; everyone was still looking at the sky, for of course every second of the spectacle was worth seeing. After sixty seconds it was over, and the curtain was slowly raised to allow Act II of the day to begin. The youths on the other side of the street were yelling in wild confusion.

"Assholes", I said, for the sake of saying something.

Back at home, my mother curled up on the sofa and continued to sob. Her shoulders heaved. She was hugging her knees, quite distraught.

"It's over. Finished. We've survived", I repeated helplessly, and held her hand until she had calmed down.

Outside, the sun was shining on the street again, as though nothing had happened. Meanwhile, the shadow of the moon was careering at breathtaking speed over the surface of the earth, swallowing up other cities, buildings and onlookers.


Translation: Gail Schamberger
Copyright 2009: Residenz Verlag

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