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

13/07/2006

You are here

The award-winning story by Katrin Passig

With her first prose piece, journalist Kathrin Passig won this year's Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, one of the most coveted awards in German letters. After its initial jubilant reception (more here), voices in the press soon started asking whether the text was meant simply as a joke, or if it was a "base coup", an "ingenious prank," or an "infiltration" on the part of Passig's "Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur" (more here). After Passig won the three-day competition in Klagenfurt at which authors read from unpublished works, the ZIA posted the words "mission accomplished" on its website. Here is the story.

If you find yourself in an awkward situation in winter, for example because it falls dark earlier than you expected, snow storms set in or you lose your way, there are two possibilities. If there's a chance of being discovered and saved in the foreseeable future, you bury yourself in the snow and wait. If you know the way to the nearest shelter and have no reason to expect the arrival of a rescue team, you should keep moving. The question of what to do when neither of the above apply is something that is politely omitted in literature. I've therefore opted for a compromise. My method of progression is similar to that of a mole or, I imagine, a person trying to turn the earth under their feet. Whether it is me that is moving or the ground which is moving relative to me – the result is the same: I am getting to my destination. After all, even the movement of the earth through space would suffice to transport the place where I am now back into a summery climate. But I can't wait that long.

My dot-shaped existence will not collide with a warm place of its own accord. I have to make the effort to change from dot to line, because every line crosses every other line sooner or later. For my purposes it's actually very useful that my various targets are so static in nature, because as I unsuccessfully tried to communicate to Anne, if you lose sight of one another, you should not both go looking at the same time. The mountain hut that will save me will not come to me, but it will also not walk away. That is its crucial characteristic, which I am now using to my advantage.

Huxley has much to say about how man is better advised is to sit quietly at home. All the useful things left undone are more than compensated for by the many pointless and detrimental ones that are avoided. Today I tend to think he was right. We obviously took a wrong turn but if that was jsut a few hours ago, half a day or half a lifetime, I cannot say. We could have continued driving to Berlin, and would have arrived yesterday afternoon. We could have satisfied ourselves with a brief look at the place without leaving the car. I could have objected to Anne's suggestion. A succession of tiny decisions led to my being here now, crawling through the snow.

Certainly no one in Berlin will notice our absence before New Year's, perhaps not until the second or third of January. And in a place like this, two strangers who read each other peculiar brand names in the supermarket and then buy a few chocolate bars and a bottle of Kofila will certainly leave as enduring an impression as falling snowflakes. And for the time being, there's no point holding out hope for rescue teams with torches, walkie-talkies and competent dogs. Which is probably just as well, because I know the embarrassing outcome of this sort of rescue situation. Instead of sympathy, the rescued person gets a sloppily written report in some members' magazine, dotted with words like frivolousness, lack of preparation and insufficient equipment.

Anyone who manages to get themselves back into the cradle of civilisation on their own steam is readily forgiven for having landed themselves in a situation that would have necessitated rescue action. It is he who pens the report of his exertions. He has free reign to chronicle his errors with humour and insight, and to paint his behaviour in the difficult situation in a flattering light. Until that time comes, I can give a less obvious metaphor without snowflakes in it to illustrate a state of affairs which has slipped my mind once again. I won't mention Anne. You should avoid blaming others for your own fate in that kind of report. Not even when in fact they caused the whole disaster with their lack of foresight.

Young children who get lost have better survival chances than adults, because they lack the imagination necessary to grasp the gravity of their situation. They make neither good nor bad plans, they don't walk for days in the wrong direction, and because they don't know they're already dead, they stay alive. For the same reasons they can be brought to life again hours after drowning or freezing to death. Their sparrow brains don't even notice the lack of oxygen. The danger is most acute between the ages of six and twelve. You are old enough to devise a plan but too young to know if it is well-considered or ill-advised. When I die, all this knowledge will turn into a useless, frozen lump of protein. In the spring some time in the future, my body will be seen emerging from a melting glacier down in the valley. But of course I won't die and there are no glaciers here anyway. Not knowing where you are in relation to other points is not a cause of death. Confusion is a cause of death. But I am oriented, if not physically then at least mentally, and a small red triangle marks my location: you are here.

Down at the car park our path was properly marked and clearly defined. Snow crystals spiralled in the wind, sparkling in spectral colours. The path disappeared an hour or two later, or perhaps it was we who lost the path. Nature laid it out for us like a sticky tongue and we walked straight in. But there's no point accusing Nature of perfidious intentions. Our survival could not be of less interest to Nature, which becomes painfully obvious in a situation like this. Like the indifference of someone you wished would love you, you have to stoically accept her disinterest. Time is on my side.

Lost persons often die on the first night in the open, although depending on their clothing and bodily constitution they should be able to survive a few days a least. Their fate is not sealed by cold or exhaustion, but by despair and bad planning. However I proved last night that I have no intention of dying from disappointment at the lack of Nature's sympathy. It was a long wait, sheltered by a big piece of rock, although I hardly remember it now, the way you only remember a terrible pain abstractly and vaguely. It's all a question of self-control, the right attitude. Of course it's important to keep a tight rein on your mind which prefers to stray hither and thither like a dog, and prevent it from chasing shadows. Adventure stories for gullible readers tell again and again of shadowy companions with whom hikers, confused by cold and loneliness, try to share their provisions.

Indeed I have found two mentions of this phenomenon in reliable sources: one in a famous biography of a mountain climber whose title I can't remember at the moment; and the other in one of Amundsen's reports about crossing the glaciers in Southern Georgia. Although it might have been Nansen. These smallish gaps in my memory notwithstanding, I am in full control of my senses and rather than the presence of a third person, I feel the absence of a second. Anne is no longer here. I'm doing fine without her, better in fact. I shouldn't have taken her along in the first place. That would have been the best decision. Without Anne, I would have been in Berlin long ago, in a well-heated place designed by people for people. My ancestors spent thousands of years working to put an end to crawling about in the cold, snow and fog – it's my good right to profit from what they accomplished. But I should have known, because Anne never did anything sensible in her entire life. Situations where a ratio of 1:500.000 is insufficient simply do not feature in her limited view of the world.

But I am benefiting from the achievements of others in that I'm wearing a highly professional winter jacket, a marvel of wind and water resistance. I might no longer recall what drove me to purchase what by Berlin winter standards is a desperately over-qualified item of clothing, but I am pleased with my long-forgotten decision. Who needs a house with a jacket like this? Who would complain that it is covered in ugly rust-coloured marks and coming apart at the seams? In fact I have now solved the question of why some snowflakes are shaped like little white feathers. It's because they are little white feathers.

It took me quite some time to arrive at this conclusion because my surroundings are unsettlingly monochromatic. But it is not the glistening white of the landscape that yesterday seemed so inviting. It has an insipid pasty cast which drains all contrast. Svaty Petr, or St. Peter, must be around here somewhere, but before I entertain thoughts about the subtleties of naming, I have to leave this nameless place. It is contrary to human nature to stay in a place without a name. Which is why explorers were always in such a hurry to name every new formation in the landscape after their wives or the German emperor. Eskimos, as the unimaginative would now interject, have all sorts of names for snow. This information is presumably intended to demonstrate the city dweller's blunted feel for nature. I have no sympathy for those who parrot this pedestrian theory. Eskimo languages are polysynthetic, which means that even seldom-used expressions like "snow that falls on a red T-shirt" are combined into one word. It's so tiresome to have to keep pointing this out.

Forming before my eyes right now is a new kind of snow, namely snow-through-which-a-scrawny-hare-struggles. I hope for the hare that it has a particular aim in mind, although I find it hard to imagine it being worth expending quite so much energy for a shrivelled patch of lichen. It is probably equally hard for the hare to comprehend what I am doing rummaging about in the snow. I say "hare" but it is entirely possible that what I am referring to is a rabbit. Very few people know that hares and rabbits are not difficult to tell apart; they are not even related. Rabbits are burrowing animals and and belong to the rodent family; hares are hare-like animals.

But today even I cannot say what this animal was, because it was as white as its surroundings and therefore more or less invisible. With the disappearance of the rabbit-hare a peculiar feeling comes over me that I know from my childhood. It is a little like the sensation of holding a heavy metal ball in your hand, only spread over the whole body. Primarily, however, it causes an unpleasant sensation to spread over your tongue and the roof of your mouth. It must have been a rabbit after all, because the Latin cuniculus refers not only to the animal but also its burrow. And that the very appearance of the rabbit indicates the existence of its burrow has not escaped my attention. Anyway the ears were far too short for a hare. When things look the same in every direction, one is as good as another, which is why I would be only too happy to follow the rabbit, even if if hadn't just run off in the direction laid out by my plan.

However I very much doubt that there are such things as rabbits that colour themselves white in winter in high mountain ranges. But the animal seemed so extremely real, and I would hope that I would hallucinate a better, less awkward and scrawny rabbit if I wanted it to save me. Due to the fact that aside from this animal no other plausible candidates for hallucinations have appeared, I can conclude that everything in my body is going to plan. We're doing alright, even without tricks of the eye. The main thing is to keep moving.

Which is why I am so patiently turning snow-that-lies-ahead-of-me into snow-that-lies-behind-me. It's all a question of time and commitment. With enough time I could transform all the snow in the world into snow-that-lies-behind-me, smoothing it flat and erasing all trace of my journey. But I'm in a bit of a hurry, and my hands, willing helpers only a few hours ago, are now showing some reluctance, as if I had overstretched their loyalty. And all contact has broken off with my feet, but I have no use for them anyway in my chosen mode of travel. Paralysis is an impediment for the leg, you can read that in Epictetus or Joe Simpson, but not for me. My legs will have to look after themselves, I can't take care of everything. You can't say we weren't properly prepared. Anne had a page from a free tourist booklet, which at least showed the beginning of what we thought was our path. And I still have a digital photo of the winter hiking map which was on display, which I could use for orientation purposes if it weren't for my camera's habit of refusing to work at low temperatures. Of course I would also have to be able to open the zip of my pocket and to operate the camera, and after all having a certain idea about where you are seems to be central to the concept of orientation.

It's like Anne always says: "If we had ham we could make scrambled eggs with ham, if we had eggs." And apart from that I am loath to take off my gloves, because although the process of removal is a simple one, its reverse is not, even with the cooperation of the hands. Strange how many irreversible processes there are in the world. On closer inspection it turns out that reversibility is generally the exception and not the rule, as one would perhaps expect from a sensibly designed universe. In any event, the fact that my fingers are no longer able to operate a simple zip gets me thinking. I know the facts about frostbite and it's more than possible that this ability will elude me, not only today but forever. Be closed off to me forever, I am tempted to say. I will take the precaution of preparing an answer to the question of missing fingers or bits of fingers, an answer which has nothing to do with Anne's habitual misjudgement of dangerous situations. If I had a hand warmer in my impenetrable pocket instead of a digital camera, at least one could discuss Catch 22 situations in everyday life at a later date. I think I will make up the hand warmer.

My grandfather spent weeks walking though the Czech Republic at the end of the war and ended up in an America POW camp. I doubt he had a better map than our freebie hiking map, and on top of that it was dark. He must have passed down to me the genes that enabled him to survive. No, on closer inspection I cannot rely on this thought, because my father had already been conceived by that time. Or are there no conclusions be drawn from this at all? I can clear up the question later, but first I have to get to the end of this walk, without recourse to my grandfather's genes.

Of course I am not dependent on the photo I took of the hiking map, because my brain has also saved an image of the panel in its triptych. And unlike a camera, it functions excellently at sub-zero temperatures. So I know that the mountain huts with their heart-warmingly old-fashioned names are standing around us in such numbers that even in a snow storm and without a map they are virtually impossible to miss. Alderbrook lodge, Whitewater lodge, Vultureview, Meadow Lodge. Somewhere to the right of the path is the beautiful but slightly disconcerting sounding Modr'y D°ul. As I don't understand Czech, this could just as well be a place name as a bit of advice to the hiker: Hic sunt leones. It's probably better not to rely on Modr'y D°ul and concentrate on the huts instead, which according to custom are helpfully built on up on the mountains where they are easy to find. This is a custom I will treasure, because in the greywhite nothing that surrounds me, the directions up and down are all I have to cling to.

And that's already two directions more than I had last night, when the snow swept past us horizontally in such a great hurry. Pressed tightly together by our bit of rock, we watched through squinted eyes as the snow raced past like the carriages of a freight train. All wagons were filled with snow and the train refused and refused to end. The gate refused to budge. Who'd have expected such excesses from this peaceful landscape? A drop of blood falls from my forehead and sinks a few centimetres into the snow. Scurvy, the scourge of the polar expedition, famously causes old wounds to break open again, but there's no need to worry now because it's just a fresh and harmless scratch. I observe the process closely, because of the unusual colour. The drop in the snow is the shape of Anne's T-shirt, or was it her anorak. Was she wearing red at all? It's hard to judge distances in this light, and if I look at the drop in a certain way, I can make out the whole of Anne from far away.

After watching her intently for a while, I feel obliged to ask myself, for the sake of intellectual honesty, whether I am stranded here through no fault of Anne's, indeed without Anne altogether. The suspicion has been sneaking up on me for some time. Would Anne not have to have shown some sign of life if she had an existence independent of mine? Her name is suspiciously similar to that of my sister Annette, at least it's just as uninspired, any old girl's name starting with A. If you ask people to name a colour, they say "red", a tool, they say "stone". No, not stone, I think they say "hammer". When asked to name a girl's name, ninety percent would probably answer "Anne". Of course this proves nothing.

But then it wasn't Anne who left her gloves in the car. It was me. I wanted to put my hands in my pockets and stroll for an hour or two to a Czech hut for a glass of mulled wine. And on the way back there would be no problem finding a chair lift in this well-developed area. This was how I'd pictured the afternoon, and let the person who has never entertained thoughts like these throw the first stone. In the land of mulled wine and chair lifts, thoughts like these are innocuous and even legitimate. But in many points this land touches on another one where very different rules apply. In the course of this walk I crossed that border and now I can't get back. This is less problematic that it sounds, because I don't actually want to go back. My plan is to march boldly onwards and upwards, and getting rid of Anne is only a part of the plan. My thoughts are revolving more and more around the essentials, just as my blood is only circulating round the centrally located organs in my body. I cannot afford unnecessary thoughts which sap my energy. I have to concentrate if I want to find an end to the woodworm-like trail that I am making through the landscape.

It seems to me that earlier on I used the term "stranded" to describe my situation and that this has summery connotations that are utterly inappropriate. This shows just how sensible earlier generations were, who might have suffered the odd ship wreck but never took it upon themselves to climb mountains if it wasn't entirely necessary, and certainly not in winter. And yet we're not even above tree level. When the light conditions improve I can make out little crooked fir trees. Though perhaps they are only dark patches. At this point I could mention that the beech was the only tree Anne could identify, but I won't. My poorly covered up trail in the snow is that of a solitary person. It could be that my memories are becoming jumbled, I certainly walked up a mountain in winter with Anne at some point in time, but it must be longer ago than one night or one afternoon. It fits in with the other senseless images.

What is someone in my situation to do with the exterior view of a Bavarian chemist, where I bought a toothbrush fifteen years ago? What does the little black and white cat that my primary school teacher kicked in front of the whole class want with me now? Does the memory of some illegibly signposted bit of motorway have some latent meaning I simply can no longer interpret? Perhaps my life has long been running by me in an orderly, cinematically-interesting form, but I'm no longer intellectually capable of following the film. It could have been worse. At least I haven't tried to share my provisions with the absent Anne. Something that wouldn't have been made easier by the fact that the four Czech chocolate bars are in her jacket, not mine. No, I'm confusing two thoughts here, which under the circumstances is probably quite normal and no grounds for concern. I just have to separate the right thoughts from the wrong ones like the snowflakes from the feathers. Anne's jacket pockets are now my jacket pockets. They might be inaccessible – I will have to share my thoughts on zips with the manufacturer later – but they are my jacket pockets and my chocolate bars. I don't have to share them with anyone.

I will try to stick my head in the neck of my jacket for a while, like an armadillo or a hedgehog. For one thing, the head is responsible for half the loss of body heat, and secondly I hope this will help me put some order into my thoughts. It would be good to go into hibernation like a hedgehog, to slow my heartbeat and breathing right down so I wouldn't wake up until spring, emaciated but intact. Nansen and Johansen didn't behave any differently in their hole in the ground on Franz Josef Land.

My interior world is only mildly warmer than my surroundings. It is black rather than white and under my jacket I'm wearing another jacket. There's probably a third jacket under that one, and so on. I curl myself into a ball and keep the area exposed to the cold as small as possible, physically and mentally. But now the dampness of my breath is condensing inside my shell. The white should not mix with the black, I must pay attention to that. And I have no time for introspection, I must come to an arrangement with the outside world and its white animals. It's the surfaces I have to concentrate on, untouched, resistant surfaces. There are outdoor jackets made of materials which even the most obnoxious liquids drip off without a trace, I've seen them with my own eyes. There are animals which spend the winter in Antarctica barefoot on the ice, there are Argentinian rugby players who have survived seventy days in the Andes after a plane crash. None of this is as difficult as it sometimes seems. As the night has progressed I have stopped shivering. Before my eyes I can see the afterimage of a falling snowflake moving upwards. Snow anti-matter cancels out all that has happened. If black animals were to appear against this background it would disqualify my white rabbit once and for all, unless it was like the mathematician's sheep and only white on one side. But I have to break up this fragile equilibrium, pull my head out of my downy feathers and get back to work. In a bit, when I'm ready. In a couple of minutes.

Behind me in the shelter of the rock, it might just be possible to make out Anne's bare arm and a bit of her red T-shirt. But this a purely hypothetical consideration, because there is no way I'm going to turn round. Anne has become a dot, I am a line. I'm making progress.

*

The original German version of this story was originally published on the site of the Ingeborg Bachmann Competition.

Kathrin Passig was born in 1970 in Deggendorf (Bavaria), and has lived in Berlin since 1991. After studying German and English, she worked as translator, author and web developer. She is co-founder and director of the Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur.

Translation: lp.

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles.
signandsight.com - let's talk european.

 
More articles

No one is indestructible

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TeaserPicA precision engineer of the emotions, Peter Nadas traces the European upheavals of the past century in his colossal and epic novel "Parallel Stories", which was published in English in December. The core and epicentre of the novel is the body, which bears the marks of history and trauma. In his seemingly chaotic intertwining of lives and stories, Nadas penetrates the depths of the human animal with unique insight. A review by Joachim Sartorius
read more

Road tripping across the ideological divide

Wednesday 1 February, 2012

TeaserPicThe USA and the USSR should not simply be thought of as arch enemies of the Cold War. Beyond ideology, the two nations were deeply interested in one another. Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov were thrilled by the American Way of Life in 1935/6, John Steinbeck and Robert Capa praised the sheer vitality of the Russian people in 1947. Historian Karl Schlögel reviews a perfect pair of travel journals. Photo by Ilf and Petrov.
read more

Language without a childhood

Monday 23 January 2012

TeaserPicTurkish-born author, actor and director Emine Sevgi Özdamar was recently awarded the Alice Salomon Prize for Poetics. Coming to West Berlin in 1965, Özdamar first learned German at the age of 19. After stage school she went on to become the directorial assistant to Benno Besson and Matthias Langhoff at the Volksbühne in East Berlin while still living in West Berlin. Harald Jähner warmly lauds the author's uniquely visual sense of her acquired language and her ability to overcome the seemingly insurmountable dividing line through the city.
read more

Friendship in the time of terror

Monday 9 January 2012

Nadezhda Mandelstam's personal memories of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, her intimate friend, offer a unique and moving testimony to friendship and resistance over decades of persecution. Published only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the text is still unavailable in English but has recently been translated into German. A unique historical document, celebrating an intellectual icon in an age of horror. Portrait of Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.
read more

Just one drop of forgetfulness

Thursday 8 December, 2011

TeaserPicThis year is the 200th anniversary of the death of German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The author Gertrud Leutenegger has a very Kleistian afternoon on Elba, when she encounters the Marquise von O in the waiting room of a very strange eye doctor.
read more

German Book Prize 2011 - the short list

Tuesday 4 October, 2011

TeaserPicEugen Ruge has won the German Book Prize with his novel "In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts" (In times of fading light), an autobiographical story of an East German family. The award is presented to the best German-language novel just before the start of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Here we present this year's six shortlisted authors and exclusive English translations of excerpts from their novels.

read more

Torment and blessing

Wednesday 28 September, 2011

Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu escaped into exile in Germany in July this year. His new book about his life in Chongqing prison has just been published in German as "Für Ein Lied und Hundert Lieder". Both book and author have a life-threatening odyssey behind them. I am overjoyed that Liao Yiwu is here with us and not at home in prison. By Herta Müller
read more

In the vortex of congealed time

Monday 12 September, 2011

No other European city suffered more in World War II than Leningrad under siege, when over a million people lost their lives. Russian literature delivers a rich testimony of the events which have been all but forgotten by the West. Only a few works, though, also do the disaster aesthetic justice. By Oleg Yuriev
read more

My unrelenting vice

Tuesday 6 September 2011

In this apology for the vice of reading, Bora Cosic describes the magnificent and fantastic discoveries of one of its practitioners – revealing how texts contain what we bring to them, how we sometimes read without reading and how books are not only found in books but many other places. 
read more

Potential market, no buyers

Monday 4 July, 2011

The most successful Croatian book of 2008 sold exactly 1,904 copies. Not what one could really call a market, although together the successor republics represent a single language community. A look at the situation of publishers and authors in the former Yugoslavia. By Norbert Mappes-Niediek.
read more

Head versus hand

Monday 27 June, 2011

TeaserPicThis year's German International Literature Award goes to "Venushaar", a Russian novel that starts out as a dialogue between an asylum seeker and an immigration officer, and opens into a vast choir of voices. A conversation with its author Mikhail Shishkin, a literary giant in his own country, and his German translator Andreas Tretner. By Ekkehard Knörer. (Image: Mikhail Shishkin © Yvonne Böhler)
read more

Cry for life

Monday 20 May, 2011

Algeria's youth: Frustrated, isolated and in the stranglehold of clandestine political structures. Young Algerians are rebelling against being locked in traditional political and social structures, but have no chance of a national uprising like that in Tunisia, says Algerian author Boualem Sansal. An interview with Reiner Wandler.
read more

Witness to intellectual suicide

Tuesday 3 May, 2011

TeaserPicOn what would have been Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran's 100th birthday, Suhrkamp has published a volume of his essays from the 1930s, "Über Deutschland". Effervescing with enthusiasm for Hitler and fascist ideas, they cast a dark shadow over his later writing. Fritz Raddatz wishes he'd never had to read such abominations and bids a former companion a bitter farewell. Photo: E.M. Cioran © Surhrkamp Verlag
read more

RIP Andre Müller

Wednesday 13 April, 2011

TeaserPicAndre Müller Germany's most insightful and most feared interviewer is dead. Elfriede Jelinek said of him in her obituary: "Andre Müller goes all the way into people and then he makes them into language, and only then do they become themselves." Read his interviews with Ingmar Bergman and Hitler's sculptor Arno Breker in English. Photo courtesy Bibliothek der Provinz
read more

A country on the edge of time

Monday 4 April, 2011

TeaserPicSerbia was the country in focus at this year's Leipzig Book Fair – its extensive literature seems to be bound up in the straitjacket of politics. Serbia is having a hard time with Europe, and Europe is having a hard time with Serbia. Although there are signs of a softening stance, the country is still locked up in the self-imposed nationalist isolation into which it manoeuvred itself as the aggressor in the Yugoslavian war of secession. A visit there inspires mixed feelings. By Jörg Plath
Photo: Sreten Ugricic
read more