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02/10/2011

Angelika Klüssendorf's novel: "The Girl" - an excerpt

Excerpt:


1.
Lumps of shit are flying through the air, brushing the branches of a lime-tree, hitting the roof of a passing bus, landing on a young woman's straw hat, smacking against the pavement. Passers-by stop and look upwards. The hot sun glows with a sulphurous yellow, excrement is raining down but not from the sky. It's the postman who first realises what's happening. As he points to a third-floor window in a block of rented flats, everyone turns to look with a mixture of amazement and disgust. The building is no different from others in the street, its walls marked by patches of soot, war-time bullet-holes and flaking plasterwork.  At the open window a girl's head can be seen, and a skinny arm, poised to launch again. The next clump is already on its way down. People stand in doorways to watch the goings-on. The young woman holds the soiled straw hat at arm's length, there are increasingly loud calls for the sector police to come and the postman jumps sideways as a turd lands right at his feet. Then the window is slammed shut. It's a miracle it doesn't break. After a while, people move off and go about their business.

That was a real stink attack, she thinks to herself, as she stands there, shaded by the curtains. An engine roars in the distance. It's hot and muggy. Like a gas, boredom has rapidly permeated the room again, suffocating her. Head throbbing, she goes into the kitchen, washes her hands and drinks straight from the tap. The girl is twelve. She and her five-year-old brother, Alex, have been shut in the flat for days and, because the toilets in these blocks are always on the next level down, a load of shit has piled up in a bucket.

Alex is running his toy cars down the ironing board propped up against the wall and into a shoe-box. She wants to thump him. He has been sitting there like that for hours, just staring at his cars and making droning noises. She takes one of his cars and tosses it from one hand to the other. No reaction. She raises her arm to throw it and, at last, he gives a little start and looks up at her.

Come and play, she says.

He mumbles the usual rubbish. Don't want to. Leave me alone. He sits there, motionless.

Come on then, she says. He obeys her this time. It's the tone in her voice.

He follows her into the mother's bedroom. She pulls back the curtains. There is a small toolmaking factory opposite. Soon the men will be on a break. She undresses and hunts in the mother's cupboard for underwear. She wraps a bra round herself, over her flat chest, slips into some red, lace knickers and ties the elastic waistband so that they don't fall down over her bony hips. Taking the stump of a lipstick she paints her mouth. Taking the mother's high heels, she clambers up on to the table in front of the open window and climbs into the shoes. With one hand resting on her waist, she looks over at the factory. After a while she lets her hand drop and just stands there. As soon as the factory workers appear at the windows opposite, and with an earnest smile on her face, she starts to swivel her hips like she has seen on the television. She tells her brother to clap hard, she swivels faster but the men just gawk at her and remain silent. A couple of days before and in a similar get-up, she had stood before them at the window and been cheered on loudly and applauded. She stands still for a moment to tilt her bottom at them. ‘Shame on you, kid,' one man shouts out. Dazzled by the sun, she can't see who it is and has no idea whether he is old or young, or whether he really means it. One thing she's sure of. Shame is more exciting than boredom. She associates the word with a note of mild disgust in the mother's voice. With arms outstretched she moves her body still more and, even though the men started work again some time ago, carries on dancing as if for her own amusement. Hot and flushed, she clambers down from the table and throws the red patent shoes into a corner.

Alex is sitting on the floor, ripping up a newspaper into tiny pieces. She grins at him and says, now it's your go. Her brother doesn't want her to dress him up. She thinks about the times when her mother beats her with a grey leather belt and is completely out of breath afterwards. With her fingers she takes aim at her brother's forehead. Bang, she shouts out. And again, bang, bang, bang. Then she knocks on his forehead as you would a door. Come on, get up, she is saying, we've got to make you look nice. With the remainder of the lipstick she paints round spots on his cheeks and then smears it all over his lips. When he tries to stop her, she thumps him one. She sees the same fear in his eyes as in her own and that infuriates her. Just shut up, she snarls, even though he already has, like a clam. Meekly he lets her undress him, but when she tries to do the bra up behind his back, she can see for herself that it looks stupid. Alex is even thinner than she is. Her stomach is rumbling so she gets the last packet of rusks from the larder. She dips a rusk in mustard. Its comforting heat and sharpness seems to spread behind her forehead while she is munching on it.

She doesn't know what time it is. The hours drift by like wisps of cloud, vanishing on the horizon. She watches her brother. With his long blonde curls, Alex is mother's darling. But that doesn't mean much because even he can easily fall from favour and be called a naughty child, a wimpy little bastard who needs to be punished. He sits down again on the floor, wraps his arms round his legs and rocks back and forth. When they hear the key in the lock, they hold their breath.
               
Straight away she can see the flat through the mother's eyes. They have let it turn into a pig-sty, each room muckier than the last. The mother walks past them slowly and does not look at them.

Her heart is pounding in her chest, she shuts her eyes. All she wants is to get out. And sometimes she does.

2.                      
Her school report says that her intellect is good but untapped. She always has the same daydream about the post-war years, imagining that she's the black market queen and a master thief, supporting herself and her brother through the famine.  In the woods she builds a house of stones, or wood, with a fireplace or a stove, the images in her mind vary. She fits it all out, the larder is full of the most wonderful things to eat and in the garden are the vegetables she has planted. In the evenings she sits at table with her brother and they eat potatoes fresh from the earth.

At school break-times she keeps in with the whispering, giggling girls and makes out that she belongs. Over the last couple of days, they've been singing ‘The Day Conny Kramer Died', a song from the ‘other Germany'. They know the words by heart and keep repeating the verses, moved each time as if it were the first. She imitates the gestures made by the other girls and tries to get caught up in the song's pathos, tries to pull the same contorted facial expressions.

She seems to have been designated of sociological interest by overenthusiastic teachers and one of the brighter schoolgirls becomes her patron. So now she has to show this girl her homework, put up with all sorts of well-meaning comments and be insulted by her officious posing.

One of these schoolgirl patrons once invites her back home. As Katrin's mother welcomes her, she is transfixed by the sight of her enormous nostrils, reminiscent of those of a horse. In Katrin's bedroom she hides her envy with an embarrassed smile, examining closely the girlie nicknacks that are ranged so prettily on the shelves.
 
She agrees to play the prince and princess wedding game but only in return for a gift.  Katrin hands her a blue scarf embroidered with silver stars. That's for the prince, says Katrin and throws a golden cape around her own shoulders. Will you give it me for keeps? She runs a few steps with the starry blue scarf, letting it flutter behind her.
 
Why should I? asks Katrin, taken aback.

Just because, she replies.

My mother won't let me.

This brings a flicker of hope and she tries to sound conspiratorial. But your mother needn't know.

Katrin thinks about it for a while and then shakes her head.

She switches to begging mode. Give it me, give it me, I've got to have it. She's whirling around, jumping up on the bed, all over the carpet and shouting:

Give it me, give it me, please, please, go on, give it. She's waving the scarf like a flag. Then they chase each other around the room, screaming and shrieking with laughter. She's starting to accept that she'll be going home without the star-spangled scarf. When Katrin's mother opens the door, she finds them on the floor, looking flushed, overexcited and making animal noises. The girl is howling loudly, like a wolf. Katrin's mother gives her a disapproving look and makes it clear to her daughter that it is time for the visitor to go home. Katrin obediently does as she is told straight away and accompanies the girl to the front door.

When she picks up her brother from nursery, she still wants to squeeze more out of the day. She decides to play her favourite game, one she dreamed up herself. It tests drivers' reaction times. She stands on the curb and just as a car is drawing level with her, she darts out and dashes across the road like lightning. Alex has always refused to do it but he joins in today and is now racing across the street with her, brakes screeching all around them, their hearts pounding.
 
3
Their mother expects them to go to the doctors' surgery with her. She's wearing a strapless dress, royal-blue, like her eye-shadow. She has really got herself done up, even her toenails are painted and a silver chain gleams on her left ankle. While she and Alex are sitting in the waiting-room, the mother's voice can be heard through the wall.  Alex makes a violent hand movement and then just sits next to her, silent and still. When a nurse opens the door, a voice choked with tears can be heard, then pleading, ingratiating words. She is saying that the doctor should make an exception in her case, she already has two children, the fact that she is three or four months gone has nothing to do with it. Then the doctor's voice can be heard quite clearly and forcefully saying that this would be murder and not a solution. This phrase makes a great impression on her.

On the way home they can barely keep up with the mother. In spite of her high heels, she is always a few steps ahead of them.

Later, even though it's been dark for some time, she still can't get to sleep. Is the mother pregnant? She's barely able to remember their father. From mother's insinuations she had worked out for herself that he was in prison. But who has fathered the baby in the mother's belly?

For a long time, she had imagined sex to be like this. A man stands naked in a toilet cubicle. Next to him, separated by a paper-thin wall, is a naked woman. The seed is produced by the man, runs down his legs to the ground and then into the adjacent cubicle, up the woman's legs and inside her. The woman and the man neither move nor speak at all during this process. Now she thinks she knows what really happens: the man puts his thing inside the woman.

For the next few days the mother doesn't go to work. She smokes, drinks, drags her hands through her hair, launches herself forcefully down the block's main staircase and leaps back up them again. She sits for hours in the yellow plastic bath-tub, goes down to the pub herself and carts back home heavy string-bags full of beer bottles. She talks out loud to herself or to her daughter, as if the girl were her confidante. When the mother calls her ‘my good little filly', the girl tries to smile but inwardly can only let out a scornful whinny. When the mother sits weeping in the armchair, she stands next to her and whispers to her consolingly even though her heart hardened long ago. She knows how quickly the mother can suddenly change. And so she's ready for it.

That night a moaning sound wakes her. Tiptoeing across the hallway and peeking through the crack in the door, she sees the mother sitting on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. At first she doesn't understand what the mother is doing. She's poking around between her open thighs with a knitting needle. To block out this picture of her mother, she stares up at the coloured plates on the wall above her. She breathes out and feels as if she is shrinking. She doesn't want anything to do with the scene now fixed in her mind. She wishes she had a different mother. For a long time she had wondered whether she had been swapped for another baby at birth. But thoughts like this don't help at all. At night she dreams about a monster that wants to kill her and, when she is eventually able to open the window to shout for help, a thundering storm whips up and drowns out her cries.

The following morning the kitchen floor is clean once more. When she opens the mother's bedroom door, she notices a sour smell hanging in the air. The mother waves her in and goes on at her in a tearful voice, talking about paradise and about Jesus living in a golden palace, although born in a miserable stable. She tries to look sympathetic but all she can feel is loathing. But then the mother starts to tell her what she had dreamt that night. And the dream is the same as her own, ending with cries for help which nobody can hear.

She catches her breath. Can it really be that they even inhabit the same world of dreams, too? Will she never be able to get away?
                       
 
 
*

Translation:Deborah Langton
© Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch


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