But let’s go back, my uncle is still young, there isn’t yet a Messeturm, Frankfurt is still close to the ground and the planning phase for the B3A only ten years old (by the end it will be forty), and my uncle has just finished his working day in Frankfurt and is setting off from the Hauptbahnhof towards Theaterplatz, between the rows of old buildings he has no interest in. His longing was never backwards-looking, or only insofar as, by all accounts, the past was greater than the present. He stood in front of the window displays of electronics shops in the same way he stood in front of pictures of women—the same attentive gaze, the same close study. After all, none of the Wetterau people could see him here. And now he’s being spoken to by a woman who is standing on some steps, and behind her is a door, beyond which—as my uncle suspects or already knows—paradise lies. She calls my uncle my boy, probably hitting the nail on the head, because that’s what he looks like at this moment. What to do? If he gets home late, he’ll have to lie. He’ll have to say that he had a particularly hard and heavy load of packages, or that the train was delayed. But he’s not good at lying—everyone knows straight away when he’s doing it, so he always gets angry when he tells a lie, because even in the very moment when he tries to do it, everyone already knows it’s a lie. And so the dear Lord took even the burden of lying from his shoulders. A human being who didn’t succeed in telling one single lie; perhaps he never lied even when he was a child and lacked the practice as a result. He was always so proud and happy whenever his mother was proud and happy on his account; there were no chasms of any kind in his mind, apart from the beatings his father gave him, and even on the three kilometre walk that he had to walk every day when his father was still alive, from Bad Nauheim to the family business in Friedberg and back, because his father wouldn’t take him along in the car, he still felt like the son of the big company boss, even though he was on the countryside paths amongst the balsam and geraniums and chicory and not amongst the stones and the machines. It was easy to lash out at him, and as a result it took him a long time to lose his belief in the order of things. His secrets started only later, the same ones that probably led him through the Kaiserstrasse district towards Theaterplatz. How to choose? Here, paradise. There, at home, the law. The woman on the steps is around forty-five years old and J knows her, any time you pass by she’s sure to be standing there; the window panes are painted red so no one can see in, and in the doorway there’s a yellowed poster with a woman on it—you can see everything, everything you are supposed to see and want to see. The yellowed tinge of the poster is very similar to that of Silberwald hunting films with their belling stags. In the sixties, even the present had a yellowed tinge. As did the territories of his longing, Heimat and nature films and the Kaiserstrasse district. Nowadays, my uncle would spend the whole night watching porn ads, which are nature programmes too, in their own way, but they didn’t exist back then; back then there were only the old newsreel theatres at the train stations, which had become seedy and run-down, a whole world just for him (and the Wetterauers). The woman on the step is looking at him keenly now. Her gaze moves up and down (Does she know J?). They’re almost business partners now. She’s taking him seriously. This is the kind of customer to be taken seriously, says her expression (which she intends for him to see). He wants to be served properly, and has a right to be. The customer has the say because the customer pays. My uncle stands there and stares down at the ground, but perhaps the switch has already been flipped, automatic processes are underway. Go in now and do everything at once, he’s hardly able to wait a moment longer, in there and on top and out of him, he can picture it clearly, his eyes bulging again as if they want to get out of him too, and the woman says, There you go, my boy, as my uncle J heads for the steps where the woman is and to the door behind her, behind which a labyrinth of stairs and floors and rooms will open up, the pre-war walk-up, the Frankfurt architecture of happiness from a bygone era. (Today, they’re refurbished apartments for families and lawyers.) Now he has lost track of time, forgotten about the train he needs to catch back to the Wetterau, he didn’t even make it to Theaterplatz, and he’s already taking his next step over to the building, it’s probably obvious that he’s heading towards there, maybe the woman too has noticed that a deal is being closed, almost; just one more gesture, one more signal and he’ll be a customer, and then the rest of the pleasure will come of its own accord. Maybe she just said there you go, my boy to be on the safe side, as a last act of persuasion, presenting him with the facts as if the closure of the deal was already a reality, as if he were already inside. An empty expression lingers on my uncle’s face, perhaps the very last recollection of home and the law before the great Nothingness turns into paradise for a brief moment and fifty marks. Then my uncle sees that there’s another doorway five metres further on. Another woman is standing in it and looking; she hasn’t yet seen him, but he could just as easily go in there. He knows this woman too, for she also stands there most of the time. She’s a little younger, with a husky voice. Smiles and looks him up and down just like the other woman did. It’s likely that no one noticed he was about to walk over to the steps, so that means he can go another five metres further on, another five metres without breaking any laws, everything is still fine, a world which is completely normal, presentable, in order. But now he is almost right in front of the other woman. She raises her eyebrows and laughs, for my uncle is running along the pavement like a little boy, hands in his pockets, not even daring to look up. Don’t turn around now; just go in quickly, even if the sixty-year-old mother is waiting at home with the meatballs which he has forgotten for the moment. Is he inside now? J? No, he stands around and sees yet another house fifteen metres further on. Lots of men are filing in and out. The place is well-known—J often hears about it at work. Fifteen metres is almost a world, a life. Behind him, on the roof of the immense train station, the big clock hangs there, watching him. He still has time to go back, to the Wetterau, without any problems. It’s almost as though the clock is calling him. He is torn, back and forth, between two worlds. On the one hand, I can’t imagine my uncle walking even a hundred metres into the neighbourhood around the station without immediately being drawn to his destiny, but on the other, I can’t imagine him casting off the obedience to the law that the forceps and the dear Lord—or rather the attending doctor—gave him, for that would require imagining my uncle as someone who consists of two contradictory parts. But that was probably precisely how it was. And even if his life only ever consisted of one part at any one time, in actual fact it still consisted of two—for one was always there to suppress the other. In my uncle, therefore, you could alternately see either the triumph of nature over the law or the triumph of the law over nature. In reality, though, he was positioned between the two, and presumably at the complete mercy of both, and that’s why the former Frankfurt Kaiserstrasse district offered the best opportunity to get to the heart of the matter. Germany, the land of secrets. My uncle, the man of secrets.
ANDREAS MAIER was born in Bad Nauheim in 1967. In addition to winning the Ernst Willner Prize at the Ingeborg Bachmann Literary Competition in 2000, he received the Jürgen Ponto Foundation’s Literary Support Prize and the Aspekte Literary Prize for his first novel Wäldchestag.
About the Translator:
JAMIE LEE SEARLE is a freelance literary translator from German. Her recent translations include Ursula Poznanski’s Five and a co-translation (with Shaun Whiteside) of Florian Illies’ 1913. Other translation works include extracts and short stories by contemporary authors such as Anna Kim, Vladimir Vertlib, Ralf Rothmann, Feridun Zaimoglu and Andi Rogenhagen. Together with fellow translators Rosalind Harvey and Anna Holmwood, she co-founded the Emerging Translators Network in late 2010.
Read more about Andreas Maier:
An article on the Goethe Institute’s website