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02/10/2011

Eugen Ruge's novel "In Times of Fading Light" - an excerpt

Excerpt:

1958 (Extract)

Infinity.
Achim Schliepner said that one can't count up to infinity.
Alexander lay on his cot dreaming of counting to infinity.  He dreamed he would be the first to count to infinity.  He already knew how to count.  He counted and counted.  Counted himself to dizzying heights.  Millions, trillions, a trillion billion, a thousand million trillion billion… And suddenly he was there: infinity!  A wave of applause.  Now he was famous.  He was standing in an open black "Chaika", the legendary Soviet State Limousine with its massive chrome and fins like a rocket.  The vehicle was moving slowly down the street.  To the left and right throngs of people were lined up like on May Day, waving at him with little black, red and gold flags …
Then a book struck his head.  It was Mrs. Remschel.  She made sure they slept.  Non-sleepers got a book on the head.
His mom came to pick him up.  It was already getting dark. 
-Mom, when are we going to Baba Nadja, anyway?
-Oh, Saschenka, it'll be awhile.
-Why does everything take awhile?
-Just be glad it will take awhile, Saschenka.  When you're grown up, all of a sudden everything goes very quickly.
-Why?
-That's just the way it is: when we get older, time passes more quickly.
Baffling news.
By then they were already at the co-op.  The co-op was about half-way.  It was a long way, especially mornings.  The way back always seemed shorter to him.  He wondered whether the reason was that afternoons he was already a tiny bit older.
At the co-op you got milk for coupons.  The store lady filled the jug with a big ladle.  Mrs. Blumert always did it before.  But they'd arrested Mrs. Blumert.  He knew why, too: she'd sold milk without coupons.  Achim Schliepner had said so.  Milk without coupons was strictly verboten.  That's why Alexander was horrified to hear the new store lady say:
-That's OK, Mrs. Umnitzer.  Just bring me the coupons tomorrow.
His mother was still searching through her pocketbook.
-But I don't want any milk, Alexander said.
-Pardon?
The horror had settled in his voice.  He could barely speak.
They left the store, his legs barely carrying him.  His mother knelt beside him.
-What is it, Saschenka?
In single syllables he shared his fears.  His mother laughed.
-But Saschenka, there's no way I'm getting arrested!
He began to cry.  His mother lifted him up and kissed him.
Lapotschka, she called him.  Little paw.
At the bakery he got a piece of Bee Sting Cake.  The honey's sweetness mingled with the salt of the tears on his lips.  Gradually the world came into order again.
-But Mrs. Blumert got arrested, he said.
-Oh, nonsense!  Mom rolled her eyes.  We're not in the Soviet Union, you know!
-Why?
Oh, I'm just babbling on, Mom said.  But don't you even think of telling Granny that people get arrested in the Soviet Union.

They lived on Stein Way.  Granny and Wilhelm lived on the first floor.  They lived upstairs: Mom and Dad and he.
Dad was a doctor.  Not a real doctor, but a doctor of typewriter writing.  Dad was very tall and very strong and knew everything.  Mom didn't know everything.  Mom didn't even know proper German.
-So, what's “krysa” in German?
This knocked Mom right out. 
Then again, Mom had fought in the war: against the Germans.
-Did you kill some?
-No, Saschenka, I didn't shoot anybody.  I was a medic.
All the same it filled him with pride.  His Mom had won the war.  The Germans had lost.  Strangely enough, Dad was a German too.
-Did you fight against Mom?
-No, I was already in the Soviet Union when the war started.
-But why?
-Because I fled from Germany.
-And then?
I cut down trees.
-And then?
-I met Mom.
-And then?
-You were born.
Born; he imagined it as boring a hole into the earth.  Something like with Granny's lawn sprinkler.  It had a long stake with a point that bored into the lawn.  The rest was still unclear.  Something to do with earth.

Sundays he crawled in bed with his parents.  He stuck a finger in his butt and said:
-Smell.
-Eeek! His father shouted, and sprang from the bed.
Baffling news: even your own shit stinks.
Then they did morning exercises with hula-hoops.
-Now this is cool, Mom said.
Because Mom was cool.  Dad wasn't so cool.  He was always wanted to keep old things.
-My shoes are still quite good, he said.
But Mom said:
-They're not cool anymore.

Striking: the odor when Mom singed the feathers off the chicken over the gas.
Lucky: that Dad liked the white meat better.
Incomprehensible: that his parents napped without being told.

Later, chess.  Dad spotted him two castles, but he always lost anyway.
-Morphy beat his father when he was six years old, his father said.
But not to worry.  He was only four.  He still had time.  A lot of time to beat his father at chess.

Days of the week: Monday through Friday.  And he knew this too: there was Firstfriday and Secondfriday.  Because Secondfridays he went to Granny's.

First, into the tub.  Comb your hair.  And then—he could feel it coming—Mom picked up the scissors.
-Now sit still.
-But it prickles!
This was it—the typical Going-to-Granny Feeling: just washed, bathrobe, and little hair-ends prickling his neck.

Granny-world.  Everything was a little different here.  And he even talked differently, a little complicatedly:
-Granny, do we do our secret again today?
-Of course, my dear.
First the table was set.  Alexander dashed diligently back and forth between the kitchen and the salon, as Granny called the big room.
The table setting rules (valid just on the lower level of the house): napkins, in silver rings, furthest out.  Then the knife, then the fork.  And then the bread-board.  The spoon was laid across the bread-board.  They needed the spoon for Granny's famous lemon-mousse.
Lemon-mousse was Alexander's favorite food.  He didn't really know how that had happened.  Actually he didn't like lemon mousse at all.  But it so happened that it was his favorite food—at Granny's.
The butter was to be where Wilhelm could easily get it.
That's it.
In the process, they did their secret.
Their secret consisted in the fact that they ate toast in the kitchen.  They called it a bread-munchie.  The problem was this: bread-munchies made Wilhelm sick.  It also made him sick when others ate bread munchies.  It gave him goose-bumps, Granny said.  So they had to eat their bread munchies secretly in the kitchen.  With jam.
Until Wilhelm appeared.
-Well, hombre?
Wilhelm clapped a hand roughly over his face.
Wilhelm had a small head but large hands.  That was because Wilhelm had been a laborer at one time.  Today Wilhelm was a bigwig.  But he still had laborer hands.  One of these alone would cover Alexander's face.  Alexander swallowed and choked; the toast was still in his mouth.
-So, let's see what kind of monkey-feed you rustled up, Wilhelm said, and strutted off into the salon.
-Wilhelm's joking, Granny whispered to Alexander.
Alexander assumed Wilhelm's funniness was because he was not his real grandfather.  This was also why he was simply called Wilhelm.  If he were called “Grandpa” Wilhelm by mistake, Wilhelm would pop his teeth out.  It gave Alexander the creeps.

There was music at dinner: from the phonograph.  A dark cabinet with a dome-like cover that opened up.
Wilhelm was against music.
But he was the only one who knew how to use the phonograph.  So Granny pleaded with him:
- Wilhelm, dear, put a record on for us, Alexander so much enjoys listening to Jorge Negrete.
Eventually Wilhelm took a record out of the cabinet, let it slip from its sheath, took a brush and, holding the record so that he was only touching the edge and the middle, ran it over the grooves in slightly exaggerated circular motions, again and again holding the record to the light.  Then he searched a while for the nub that goes through the hole in the middle of the record, which one can't see while fumbling around above the turntable—a difficult procedure.  Once it was accomplished Wilhelm set the speed, bent down, turned his neck until Alexander could see the top of his bald head, and lowered the needle carefully until there was that mysterious crackling sound…then the music started.
Jorgenegrete. Alexander imagined a town in Palestine.  Because his parents didn't have a phonograph, Jorgenegrete was basically the only music he knew.  But he really knew it:
Mexico lindo y querido
si muero lejos de ti
que digan que estoy dormido
y que me traigan aqui

Even though he couldn't understand a word: he could have joined in the refrain.

So, do you know why Indians are called Indians, Wilhelm asked, slapping a slice of bread onto the board.
Alexander did know why Indians were called Indians.  Wilhelm had explained it to him twice already.  For just this reason he held back his answer.
-Aha, Wilhelm said, he doesn't know.  Young people don't have a clue!
He slapped some butter on his bread and spread it in a single stroke.
-Columbus called them Indians because he thought he was in India.  Comprende?  And we go on calling them that.  Isn't that a piece of nonsense?
He spread a thick layer of liverwurst on the bread.
-The Indians, Wilhelm said, are the original inhabitants of the American continent.  America belongs to them.  But instead…
He placed another sour pickle on his bread, or more precisely, he threw it on his bread, but the pickle fell off and rolled onto the tablecloth.
-Instead, he said, today they're the poorest of the poor.  Disenfranchised, exploited, suppressed.
Then he cut the pickle, pushed the halves deep into the liverwurst and began chewing noisily. 
-That, Wilhelm said, is capitalism.

After dinner Granny and Alexander went out into the conservatory.  In the conservatory it was warm and humid.  There was a sweet-salty smell, almost like the zoo.  The indoor fountain was humming softly.  Lying between cacti and rubber trees were things Granny brought back from Mexico: corals, shells, things made of pure silver, the skin of a rattle-snake Wilhelm had single-handedly killed with a machete.  On the wall hung a sawfish's saw, almost two meters long and as weird as a unicorn's horn; but best of all was the stuffed baby shark, whose coarse skin gave Alexander the creeps.
They sat down on the bed (Granny's bed was in the conservatory because it was the only place she could sleep in peace) and Granny began to tell stories.  She told of her journeys, horseback riding for days on end, canoe trips, piranhas that devoured entire cows, scorpions in her shoe, raindrops big as coconuts, and rainforests so dense that they had to use a machete to slash out a path which, when they returned, had already grown over again.
Today Granny told a story about the Aztecs.  Last time she had told how the Aztecs had roamed the desert.  Today they found the lost city, and because nobody lived there the Aztecs believed that it was the home of the gods and named the city Teotihuacan—the place where one becomes God.
-But Granny, there really isn't any God.
-There really isn't any God, Granny said and told how the gods created the fifth world.
-For the world had already ended four times, Granny said, and it was dark and cold, and there was no sun left in the sky; a single flame remained burning on the great pyramid of Teotihuacan and the gods assembled in counsel, and they reached a conclusion: only if one of them sacrifices himself would there be a new sun.
-Granny, what's sacrifice?
-It means that one of them had to cast himself into the fire, to rise into the sky again as a new sun.
-Why?
-Someone has to sacrifice himself so the rest may live.
Baffling news.

Mom put him to bed.
-Are you gonna snuggle with me?
-Not today, Mom said, I just did my hair.
Her garments whispered as she left.

Today he was feeling especially uneasy.  Images haunted the darkness.  He thought of the god that had to cast himself into the fire.  Cipitalism, the word popped up.  It smacked of heat: kipjatit, Russian for boiling.  Piranhas were swimming around in a bubbling soup.  Don't stick your finger in, his father said.  Barefoot Aztecs were dancing on desert sands, their faces twisted in pain.  Wilhelm, Wilhelm, cried Granny.  Wilhelm came and doused everything with pickle brine.  Mom, in a chic dress, was handing out shoes to the Aztecs.  They were out-of-style women's shoes.  The Aztecs scrutinized them, quite amazed, but put them on anyway.  Then they wandered on through the pickle-brine soaked desert.  Their heels sank into the yellow ooze.
Alexander woke up and puked: lemon mousse flavored.  After that, three days of fever.

In April: birthday.  He got a scooter (with air tires), a swimming ring and a Caterpillar bulldozer, electric.
Peter Hofmann, Matze Schöneberg, Katrin Mählich and the silent Renate came.  Peter Hofmann ate three pieces of cake.  They played Blind Man's Buff.

Now that he was five the question came up again:
-Mom, so when are we going to Baba Nadja?
-Beginning of September.
-When's September?
-First comes May, then June, July, August, then September.
Alexander was furious.
-You said when we get older time goes quicker.
-When you grow up, Saschenka.  Really grow up.
-When will I grow up?
-You really grow up when you're eighteen.
-How grown will I be then?  As big as Dad?
-Definitely bigger.
-Why?
-That's just the way it is.  Most children grow taller than their parents.  And parents get a bit smaller again as they age.
In German she said:
-A pound of ground meat, please.

Summer came.
First they had to haggle for permission to wear shorts.  But quite soon, after a few days, summer took hold and subtly spread out to occupy the farthest reaches of Neuendorf, banishing the cold from the moist earth; the grass was warm now, the air was buzzing with insects and no one remembered the goose-flesh of their first day in shorts; no one could imagine summer ever ending.
Roller-skating.  Steel wheels were cool.  A huge racket.  Wilhelm came out:
What absolutely outrageous monkeyshine!
Making bows.  Arrows made from some unidentified shrub, tips wound with copper wire.  Uwe Ewald shoots Frank Petzold in the eye.  Hospital, colossal bawling-out.
Gorging on green apples with Matze.  The runs.
Katrin Mählich got her fingers caught in the recliner.
In the sandbox over at Hoffmann's cities of Cardinal Beetles were built.  There are masses of them now.  The sun has warmed the rocks and they sit on them, motionless, in droves.
And just when summer grinds to a complete halt, when the days stop in their tracks, when time, despite all promises, stops passing and Alexander has almost forgotten, his mother says:
-Next week we're going to Baba Nadja.

-Next week, Alexander announced, I'm going to the Soviet Union.
Achim Schliepner didn't seem impressed.
-The Soviet Union is the biggest country in the world, Alexander said.
But Achim Schliepner said:
America is bigger.

The journey: a green coach.  Sleeping coach, cozy as a little house on wheels.  One could even order tea.  The Kremlin was on the tea-glasses.  Around the Kremlin a little Sputnik orbited.
Change wheels in Brest.  Wider tracks for the Soviet Union.
-It's true, Mom, the Soviet Union is the biggest country in the world.
-Yes, of course.
He didn't remember anything.  But he knew everything.  Even the stench of the Moscow taxis: part burnt rubber, part gasoline.  All Moscow seemed to smell a bit like a taxi.
Red Square: a queue in front of the Mausoleum.
-No, Saschenka, we don't have that much time.
The Metro: gigantic.  He was a little afraid of the escalator.  Even more of the doors.

Then another three days on the train.  Change trains at Sverdlovsk.  Then another half day.  And then, at last, Slava.

The house was small.  A kitchen, one room.  In the middle of the house, a stove.  Baba Nadja slept atop the stove.  Mom and Alexander slept in the bed.
The yard: a sauna, a barn.  The black and white dog on a chain was called Drushba.  Drushba meant friendship.  Friendship howled.  The chain rattled.  Baba Nadja scolded:
-Friendship, shut your trap.
In the barn lived the cow and pig.  The cow was brown and was called Marfa.  The pig was just called pig.  Just like Wilhelm, who was just called Wilhelm.
Very interesting: drawing water from the well.  Baba Nadja had a kind of yoke that she set over her shoulders, a bucket on the left and the right, and then they were off.  The well wasn't far away.  They hung a bucket on a hook.  It went down all by itself.  Alexander was allowed to help crank it up.
Once a week bread came.  Then a long queue formed at the store.  Each received three loaves of bread.  Even Alexander.  The three of them got nine.  Each cost eleven kopecks.  They ate three loaves themselves, the cow got six.  Softened in water.  The cow ate noisily.  She liked it.
There was electricity at Baba Nadja's.  But there was no gas.  Baba Nadja cooked everything in a corner of the stove.  For tea the samovar was heated.  There was black tea: morning, noon, and evening.  The samovar hummed.  Baba Nadja played Dummy with him, the card game.
Next day some old ladies came, wearing headscarves.  They sang into the night.  At first, cheerful songs.  They clapped their hands in accompaniment, some even danced.  Then they sang sad songs.  Then they wept.  At the end all embraced and wiped the tears from their cheeks.
-Too bad, Alexander said, that at home we don't all live in one room.

At home again.  Secondfriday to Granny, now he had some stories.
-We rode five days on the train!
-That's very interesting, Granny said, but don't you want to tell that later at dinner, that way Wilhelm can hear it, too.  It's all quite interesting to Wilhelm as well.
This seemed a little daunting.  Granny encouraged him:
-We'll do this: I'll give a cue and you jump in.
Cue?
-For instance "Soviet Union", Granny explained.  For instance, I say: I'd like to go on vacation in the So-vi-et Un-ion!  That's your cue.

Wilhelm slapped butter on his bread.
-Today the Indians, he explained, are the poorest of the poor.  Oppressed, exploited, robbed of their land.
Granny said:
- In the Soviet Union there's no exploitation and oppression.
-That's for sure, Wilhelm said.
Omi looked over at Alexander and again said:
-In the So-viet Un-ion there's no exploitation and oppression!
-Ah yes, said Wilhelm, you've just been to the Soviet Union.  Tell us about it!
Suddenly Alexander's mind went blank.
-What now, Wilhelm said, don't you talk to ordinary people?
-At Baba Nadja's, Alexander said, water comes from a well.
Wilhelm cleared his throat.
-OK, he said, might well be.  When we were in the Soviet Union, Lotti, you remember, even in Moscow there were still wells.  In Moscow, imagine that.  And nowadays?  You were in Moscow, weren't you?
Alexander nodded.
-There you go, Wilhelm said.  And when you're grown up, nobody anywhere in the Soviet Union will be drawing water from wells anymore.  When you're as big as your father, Communism will have long since emerged in the Soviet Union—and maybe all over the world.
Alexander found little joy in the elimination of all the wells, but he didn't want to disappoint Wilhelm once again.  So he said:
-The Soviet Union is the biggest country in the world.
Wilhelm nodded, satisfied.  Looked at him expectantly.  Even Granny was looking at him expectantly.  And Alexander added:
-But Achim Schliepner is stupid.  He says America is the biggest country in the world.
-Aha, Wilhelm said, interesting.  And turning to Granny:
-And they didn't vote this time either, those Schliepners.  But we're onto them.

Kindergarten.  Now he was with the big kids.  Achim Schliepner was gone.  Now Alexander was the smartest.  Proof:
-I've been to Moscow already.
Not even Mrs. Remschel's been there.
-And when I'm grown up, I'm going to Mexico.
For when he's grown up, Componism will be everywhere.
By then Indians won't be exploited and oppressed anymore, won't have to wander around in hot deserts anymore.  Nobody will have to sacrifice himself anymore.  But rattlesnakes—they'll still be around, of course.  And scorpions in shoes.  But he knows all about that: shake your shoes out mornings—a simple trick.  Granny told him that secret.

It's Sunday.  Alexander is walking down the street with his parents.  It is Thälmann Street.  The trees are in vibrant color.  It smells of smoke.  People are raking leaves into small piles and burning them.  One can throw chestnuts into the glowing embers that pop after a while.
They're walking in the middle of the street, hand in hand: Mom on the left, Dad on the right, and Alexander is explaining how he sees things.
-I get big then you get small again.  And then you get big and I get small again.  And so on.
-No, his father said, that's not quite right.  With time we do get somewhat smaller, but not younger.  We get older and eventually we die.
-Does everyone die?
-Yes, Sascha.
-Do I die too?
-Yes, even you die eventually, but it's a long, long, long time until that happens, so infinitely long you don't need to think about it yet.
Baffling news.
Infinity: back where everything was lost in smoke, where the trees gradually got smaller, it had to be back there.  They were going there, his parents and he.  The cool air brushed his cheek.  They walked and walked, with frightening ease yet barely moving at all.
If he smiled it was in embarrassment: because his ideas of growing big and small were so silly.


*

Translation: Jerome Samuelson
© Rowohlt Verlag
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