On the Death of Siegfried Lenz ? ?You have to justify your life?

Siegfried Lenz, one of the great writers of German post-war literature is dead. He died on 7 October 2014, surrounded by his family. He was 88 years old.... more more

GoetheInstitute

16/03/2005

We’re coming to bring you on home

A short story by Georg Klein

ONE!

Who knows, really, what goes on inside American guys? I had no clear feelings about my particular Yank. That’s why I turned the radio on outside the hotel, when our Transatlantic client got into the car, and kept it tuned to the Brandenburg Classic Rock station; so I could see which songs, at least, this man would react to, for whom we’d sought and found the other man. We had a two hour drive ahead of us. Already on the city motorway he asked me to call him Quentin. And while the morning sun fought its way with an ass’s perseverance through the haze of the Brandenburg marshes, we listened together, one by one, in my firm’s big brand-new executive BMW, to thirty-three oldies, all three minutes long. I don’t know much about music, but I do believe in figures. Had Quentin already rocked his left knee during the first song or started to growl along at song number five, then to me that would have meant, maybe even betrayed something. But my Yank just sat there as if he were cast in plaster. Yet these were the hits of his boyhood, his teenage years, whose bass-lines were throbbing out of those top-class door-and-rear loudspeakers.

He did ask questions during the ads, nevertheless, relating to my dossier. And I repeated what I had written in my best English and which, after a good check by our US chap in the office, had been sent on to Los Angeles: the man we had traced, and whom Quentin now wanted to engage as witness in a high-powered Californian indemnity insurance case, had been living illegally in Germany for two decades. At the beginning of spring, with a couple of other drug freaks, he’d rented some barrack-type buildings on the edge of a one-time military airbase. Within a few months, one toker after another had fled back to Berlin. The American, though, had held out at the godforsaken lot, and for a little while now had lived alone with a horse and a dog.

– What kind of dog? asked Quentin, switching my radio off as we turned into the approach road. Now, instead of rock music, we listened to the concrete slabs we were rolling over. They seemed to me to be damaged with strict regularity, as if by some malice of decay. Exactly every fifth section of roadway gave us a jolt. But also between these, on the third joint each time, there lay a lighter but clearly perceptible accent. We crept along the last bit before the corrugated iron sheds in first gear. And now, with the motor quite inaudible, the rhythmic thump of the tyres really pierced the eardrums.

The dog lay sleeping in front of the entrance. Quentin should have known, from my report, that it was an aged poodle, deaf as a stone and nearly blind. I hadn’t been able to report any more about the horse, than that it was grey-brown, with noticeably large ears, and was definitely a stallion. We climbed out, leaving the car doors open. The dog noticed the vibration of our steps rather late. I held the back of my hand to his nose, and he greeted me with a guttural panting. In the previous week I had four times crept up to the house to secretly feed him. I had a last bite for him this time as well.


TWO!

Of course it was a black dog. Although I wouldn’t have been surprised if our Justin hadn’t fallen, in his exile, for a blonde Alsatian. Justin has a leaning to the German. His lyrics are crawling with names from Grimms' Fairy Tales, Germanic Hero Sagas, or out of his beloved picture books on World War II. After following the wearily trotting poodle’s advance around the corrugated iron shack, the first thing I saw was a large, unusually well-proportioned mule – and then my old guitar side-kick, my brother in arms long and dearly missed. Justin, who's always had something of a bear about him, had become incredibly fat. His back to us, squatting legs apart on a primitive bench, he was working at getting a bare foot into his second riding boot. They were black and calf-high, the seam on the heel trimmed with silver rivets, nearly the same shoe as he used to wear in our performances.

He didn’t notice our coming, as he had his walkman on, turned up amazingly loud. He was listening to our live LP, Tokyo On Fire. And as neat German coincidence would have it, precisely the first encore of our single Japanese concert was playing. Out of Justin’s ear plugs squealed my solo: just the guitar solo, that against our fixed agreement I’d started in on, anyhow, that time in Tokyo, and which – Japanese schoolgirls covering me with underwear – I’d so drastically extended, driving Justin to white heat, while he had to go on supporting my licks with chords.

Now, more than twenty years later, my fingers were really itching again. But while my hands obeyed and left out the air-guitar, my right foot suddenly did that stage side-step back – not very far, not into the semi-splits of the old days, when Justin and I used to leap at each other in exactly that pose, crunching our ringing guitar necks together, but it was far enough to tread on the poodle's paw. And he hopped, three-legged and whimpering as loudly and shrill as only a deaf animal can, over to his master's pointed boot toes.


THREE!

– You’re coming to get me! called out the sought and found one, when he had jerked around, half booted, half barefoot, to see me and his compatriot there. And then he added a laugh so horribly hoarse, as if its purpose were to purify the throat from a long silence. For me, who still suffer the last residues of a deep-felt weakness for weighty, staggering Rock, this wonderfully fierce and furious, "They’re coming to take me away, ha-haa," baying out of that great fat Anglo-American sot, went straight to the heart. And he even opened his arms wide in such a moving gesture, as though he were ready to abandon himself to his fate.

He fooled us. I, at least, failed to notice in the gesture any quality of gathering momentum. Neither should I have ever credited him, whose weary ponderousness I’d amply studied over the last few days through binoculars, with that gorilla-graceful pirouette and spring, with which he threw himself onto the unsaddled back of his mount. The knife, however, the gleaming long stiletto in my American companion‘s hand, in the pale fist of this purported indemnity insurance agent, I understood at a glance.


FOUR!

The Germans have lost two wars against us. They were the worst, even in front of the Japs and the Cong, they were the best enemies we ever had. But as I was about to charge at Justin with drawn blade twitching, I didn’t consider who had managed, after all, to discover his hideout. How could I have been so stupid as to hold this Berlin snoop to be harmless? He’d innocently whistled along, out of tune, on purpose, while that Peace Train, that shuffling purring of a degenerate lash-blinking Britisher, a subsequent Mohammedan, ran on the radio. Justin had once drawn my attention to the fact, he who willingly read biographies of famous Germans, that over there in Germany the finest, most beautiful and definitive melodies had been written, simultaneously with the foremost, authoritative works on the theory of war.

Blitzkrieg Mule isn’t really a great song. But the fans loved it, loved the stalling repetition, the memorably awkward riff, which more or less makes up the whole thing. And wherever we appeared, the audience sang that venomous, really nazi-nasty chorus rapturously along. We played Blitzkrieg Mule all around the world, always as the first encore. And when at the Open Air in Stockholm, in the middle of the solo that I’d presumed to insert a second time, when on the public stage Justin ran his knife past the narrow body of my guitar right up to the hilt into my liver, all the obediently inebriated Vikings thought our tussle, our mighty crashing collapse and the flapping struggle of our boots, belonged to the show.

Now, I was prone on my belly, the knees of the German between my shoulder blades. He’d used my forward movement to throw me over with a swing of his leg, and then twisted my fingers – the thumb and middle finger of my playing hand – so meanly, that I didn’t dare move. There was no longer any danger to Justin from myself. But God must know what suddenly got into that poodle. A lightning-flash snarl was all he gave us, before he began, ceaselessly howling, to leap in zigzag saltos around the mule, on whose naked back Justin clung. Today I have the suspicion, that the stallion and the hound were in it together. You can’t be too careful, with uncastrated, ephebic sophomore mules, wherever you go in the world. Maybe these brutes are inevitably malign, because, sooner or later, they get to realise that they’re infertile. Justin was holding on at first quite well. The animal kept applying the same stubborn simple four-step technique to throw him off: high rearing, drawing back, small vault and side-step. But Justin knew how to effortlessly distribute the fat of his years over this rhythm. The rodeo could have gone on two or three minutes, could have gone on a little eternity. But then the poodle shot forward and snapped at Justin’s single naked heel.

They say there is a kind of music which is as beautiful as flying – or at least as beautiful as a weightless drifting. We never played that sort, so I’m not qualified to judge. The highest Justin and I achieved was sustaining our yowling notes – for two, three, or four bars and longer. Poodles can also howl in two part harmony. A hundred and fifty miles from Berlin I was obliged to hear it. It certainly wasn't a tune. It was torture. It was as if this German beast were parodying us. I bit into the sand as its teeth took the heel of the rider. And then I was granted the sight – for one long moment and nearly free, in an admirably high curve! – of Justin flying in front of a foreign sky.

*

The article was originally published in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 12 March, 2005.

Georg Klein was born in Augsburg in 1953, and lives with his family in Berlin and East Friesland. His novel "Libidissi" was celebrated as one of the best books of 1998 and widely translated. In 1999 his book of short stories "Anrufung des Blinden Fisches" was published, and he won the Brüder Grimm Prize. In 2000 he won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for an excerpt from his novel "Barbar Rosa".

Translation: Ruskin Watts
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