AN EXTREME CASE
For half-a-year I shared a dorm room with Hendrik. The dormitory stood in the middle of a dreary, windswept housing development. The street, if I remember correctly, bore the name Michurin, after the great Soviet breeder of animals and plants. Michurin’s name has disappeared from the map by now, the wind has swept it away just as it has the majority of the names of the city’s streets, even the country has disappeared, proving that neither streets nor countries possess that trait which, according to Michurin, is found in even the simplest living things: they are unable to adapt to changing conditions.
The conditions at the time were quite clear, and if a person was not sufficiently conscious of them, there were methods in place to bring them most emphatically to their attention. In the corridor where my classes were held, the windows of the university opened onto the courtyard of the Ministry of State Security’s detention center. Looking out the window was enough even for a restless spirit like Hendrik to reflect on the past and future, on the course of the world, or simply on all that a young person sees worthy of reflection. Hendrik had done his reflecting, and as he looked out the window and saw the prisoners walking in circles around the tiny courtyard of the detention center, he came to the conclusion that even if the communist states collapsed in all directions from Kamchatka to the Oder in the name of perestroika and glasnost, there, in the place where he was born and raised, and where I had come for the primary purpose of studying the language, nothing would change. I could not convince him, I could not make him see that while the German Democratic Republic, this historical absurdity, remained in the middle of Europe, we could not say that the second world war was over, when in fact what was then taking place in Europe was the real end of the second world war; I could do nothing but subject him to the heavy torrent of hopes and beliefs of my then-nineteen-year-old self; Hendrik clung to the idea that the GDR would remain a closed off territory, a country-sized Kaliningrad for a very long time still, and if the communist states all over disappeared from the map it only meant that soon the sort of map would be made from which the German Democratic Republic would be forgotten, just as Kaliningrad had been forgotten from the school maps of the Soviet Union. Its place would be filled in with an inland sea or a great forest. At long last, this would be a perfect mask. For this was always the dream of the founding fathers, who had imagined the country as a military base from the start, and it was also the dream of those who believed in the existence of the truly nonexistent country, in their Olympic victories, in their paper cars, in their astronaut’s wave. If a country is officially nothing other than an inland sea, its inhabitants the last of a kind of fish believed to be extinct living out their lives in its depths, or an enchanted fairytale forest, a communist Hundred-Acre Wood enclosed by a wall, then it will not occur to anyone to try to flee to any of the map’s very real countries, because it will not be a border but rather an entire period of time, the endlessness of a shameful fairytale idea, that will separate them from reality.
I did not suspect of course that in a few short months the young republic founded on October 7, 1949 would collapse. The Socialist Unity Party had won the most recently fixed elections with ninety-seven percent, and the blue-shirted Free German Youths traveled in uniform from the furthest cities to the fragmented capital to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the country’s existence together with the general secretary of the party.
During these weeks Hendrik went around the city with an eight-millimeter Kodak camera. He inherited the pre-war model from his father, who filmed from 1937 all the way through the Third Reich’s most horrific eight years. It was there with him in Poland and on the Russian front, it was there with him in the hospital, where they freed him of one of his legs; the camera even survived the house inspections of the next decades together with the film. Hendrik continued his father’s work. He filmed everyday life in one of the northern, seaside cities of that country soon to disappear from the map, the faces on the street, the Ministry of State Security’s tiny courtyard, the parades, the identity checks, the meetings of the free-church groups. For the most part, however, he made films for the State Security Office, since every two or three weeks he was taken in for questioning and his films were confiscated. When I asked him why he did all this, he answered, if there weren’t something for them to confiscate, they wouldn’t let him work, but twenty percent of the film still remained, and that was enough if one day someone wanted to know how people lived here in this northern city of this forgotten country before it had slipped into the sea and a terrible fairytale forest had covered up everything once and for all.
“You mean you still think there will be someone who survives all this and watches your films?” I asked him.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said.
Chance arranged it such that Hendrik and I became roommates in the dormitory, but it was no matter of chance that during the half-year spent together we became good friends. If two strangers have to see the other dress, undress, listen to each other fumbling in the dark, watch as the other eats, reads, picks at his toes, his ears, combs his hair, if two strangers have to breath in the other’s smell day and night, they will either make friends, a kind of alliance, or a fanatical indifference will be forged between them, filling them with just enough hatred for each other so that each day needed to be spent in the other’s company will seem an endless suffering awaiting them.
I spent a lot of time with Hendrik, who was four years older than I, we spoke about many things. He gave me books to read. As a result I have him to thank that I really did learn German. If he needed the room, he did not see my face until morning. On a slushy weekend in February he took me with him to Potsdam, introduced me to his mother; we walked a good deal around the area where he was raised. I remember a gray, cheerless city, which occupied the same spot on the map as the Potsdam in which I spent several days fifteen years later, only as though, along with its houses and residents, it had been plucked from time: there before me was the nineteenth-century city, and there was the end-of-the-twentieth, but of the city which Hendrik had shown me I did not see a trace.
After the Potsdam weekend I set out for a few weeks on my own. The destination was West-Berlin, to which Hendrik could not have traveled with me. He prepared for my trip with greater excitement than I did myself. He made it his duty to tell me what to see, where to go in that city in which he had never been and to which, he was convinced, he would never go. He put together a list of things to do which would have taken at least ten days to get through; I, however, was only going for a weekend. On the evening before the trip he took out a letter. He lowered his voice, he was practically whispering. The letter was addressed to an émigré East-German writer, whose books he placed in my hands with great significance. He did not say what he had written, and I did not ask. He requested that I take the letter across the border and post it in West-Berlin. Somehow he had already gotten a West-German stamp for it. He warned me that by no means should I put the letter in my bag, since at the border they make you take out every last little thing, the best would be to hide it in my underwear, during a simple search they wouldn’t find it there.
I took it as an honor that he trusted me and was glad to be able to have a part in this sort of adventure. The train’s last stop was the Friedrichstrasse Station. The underpass led to a freestanding pavilion, which the locals called the Palace of Tears. Everything happened as Hendrik predicted. The border guard, who himself had never crossed the border he guarded, had me unpack everything from my bag onto the table. He lifted the folded shirt and tossed it back. He did the same with the underwear and the sweater. He leafed through the book; he was looking for money, I thought. My things lay in a messy pile on the table. The border guard signaled to step to the side. The search continued. Until then it had always struck me as a dictatorship’s crazy game, this sort of thing, but now I was seized with fear. What would happen if they found the letter on me? Questioning, the test of resoluteness of whether to expose Hendrik and expose my complicity, days, maybe weeks in the State Security Office’s detention, interrogations, surely beatings, I don’t know, a barred window, maybe not all that, expulsion from the university. My imagination ran wild. Meanwhile the guard was proceeding with the search from the top on down. I had even tucked my sweater into my underwear so that it would be less likely to discover the firmness of the paper. He was by my waist, my hips.
“Now!” I thought.
The border guard’s hand slipped lower. I narrowed my eyes into slits. The breath within me stopped. I was sure that my fear had already given me away; the only reason the border guard had not told me to take out the letter was because he took pleasure in my fear. Then the hand slipped further. I did not know that everyone gets just as scared at this point, even those who have nothing to hide, in fact they might even be more so. I had made it through. The border guard signaled to pack up quickly, get my things and go.
As soon as I crossed over into West-Berlin, I dropped the letter into the first mailbox I saw. I did in two days what I could, I breathed in the free air, I reveled in it, and all but fled back to the known world.
In June of 1989, I returned home to Hungary. By way of a parting gift, Hendrik gave me a picture. “Der Zyniker,” this was the title. It was of a black figure from the waist down, with an enormous boot, as it crushes a small, similarly black, human-like figure. That year in Budapest, on October 23, they announced the reestablishment of the republic; in Berlin, on November 9, the wall came down. Hendrik and I still exchanged a few letters, in December we sent each other New Year’s cards, but after that the relationship broke off. Although over the last twenty years I have returned to Germany many times, spending more than a month at a stretch in Stuttgart or Berlin, it was not until last year that it occurred to me to look Hendrik up. My only reminder of him was the “Der Zyniker” picture, which had a place for a while on my bookshelf.
Then last year, again in Berlin, guided by a sudden idea, I searched for his name on the internet. It turned out that Hendrik lived in Potsdam again; he directed a literary institute. On the internet I also found the address of his workplace. I wrote to him, and by the next day he had answered. We arranged a meeting for the weekend. Twenty years was too long a time to be able to resume anything, the half-year we had spent together no longer had a place in time, I thought, we would not be able to make our way back, we could not understand our past selves, but perhaps it was still possible to pull something out nevertheless that would be enough for the present and the past to end up a little bit closer to each other, I thought, after receiving the short reply, even though I knew clearly that everything around us since then had changed. Yet everything is one of the most opaque concepts, and we should know quite precisely what had changed in twenty years and what had not, how much change he had accounted for and how much had I, how many misunderstandings, how much unfounded hope, foolishness, and cynicism, for if two Eastern-European men meet who have not seen each other in a long time then this becomes the most important question.
After Wannsee the train arrives in Potsdam in matter of minutes. The institute that Hendrik now directed was half-an-hour’s walk from the station. I didn’t take public transport in order to arrive at the agreed upon time. Right away I recognized Hendrik, his face had not changed much. The joy of meeting again, however, was not to be found on this face. In his office he had me take a seat and had his secretary bring us each a coffee. As the secretary placed the tray on the table and left, closing the door behind her, I braced myself for an unpleasant visit, and now did not understand what I had expected from the meeting to begin with. In response to Hendrik’s question, I told him what had been going on since we had stopped exchanging letters. I did not linger on any one part, he received a brief account of modest undertakings. Nevertheless I saw impatience in his face, he drummed against the side of the coffee cup with his finger. I cut my sentences short, quiet followed. I took a sip of my coffee. When I put down the cup, it was he who spoke.
“Here, anyone can ask for their files from the State Security Archives.”
“I know,” I said. “The Gauck Bureau.”
“Yes, the Gauck Bureau.”
Hendrik stopped drumming on the side of the cup and leaned back in his chair, drawing his face away from glow of the lamp.
“I asked for my dossier.”
I did not reply, I simply signaled with my eyes that I was waiting for him to continue. He tipped his head to the side, pulled on his lower lip, surely he was thinking over everything again to himself; and again convinced in the nature of truth, namely that time brings it unfailingly to light, he then turned to me with a look of pure calm.
“I found the letter I sent with you to West-Berlin in there. It was there in the dossier. You were reporting on me the whole time, that’s why you had such a big mouth.”
My hand was shaking, my throat suddenly dried up, I could hardly put down the coffee cup.
“That’s ridiculous!” I said, but I could barely even hear my own voice.
“And why is that?”
Hendrik looked at me like a fisherman might a little fish after reeling it to shore.
“You found reports from me?”
“No. But the letter was there. That’s enough.”
I closed my eyes. I felt there was nothing I could do to defend myself.
“They put you next to me in the room. Who would suspect a nineteen-year-old Hungarian kid? You very conveniently turned the letter over to State Security.”
I left the office staggering. The secretary watched me go, not understanding what could have happened inside. What Hendrik had said was logical. It very well could have happened that way. Since then I have become suspicious of myself, of whether it had not in fact happened the way he said. After all, there is no one to testify on my behalf; my memory stands alone. And we know well that memory stands in service of a person’s recovery. In service of life. It conceals those pieces of the past which summon discontent and confusion resident in the mind; in extreme cases it has the ability to sicken, to engulf an entire life like a vacuum. It is always the accuser, not the witness, who is right.
GÁBOR SCHEIN is the author of nine collections of poetry and three novels, including Lazarus! (Triton, 2010), translated by Ottilie Mulzet. He was born in 1969 and lives in Budapest, where he is a professor at the Hungarian Literary History Institute of Eötvös Loránd University. His story “An Extreme Case” appeared in the collection To Kill the Ones We Love (Kalligram, 2013).
ADAM Z. LEVY is a writer and translator. His essays and criticism have appeared in Music & Literature, The American Reader, The Millions, the L.A. Review of Books and World Literature Today. He lives in New York.
Read more work by Gábor Schein:
Excerpts from Lazarus!
An excerpt from Autobiographies of an Angel
“The Day After Christmas, 2011” – a poem