Excerpt from Tropics: The Myth of Travel

Chapter XVI

Zana was going to dance!

And Zana danced, before Moki the idol and the lecherous savages!

Luluac’s courtiers sat on mats of rice straw in the big hut in the middle of the village. They clapped hands, sang monotonous songs, and watched from besotted eyes the motions of a slender body whose limbs in the stitching flares of the flickering campfire shortened, contorted and coiled like fantastical cats at play. The body was Zana. She flew like a whirlwind all about the wide space, approached close to the fire, bent her legs, jumped suddenly, you could see: it was a cat playing with fire. She shook herself like an animal, bent her body over–it was long and bendy as a man’s arm–uttered shrill cries and stamped on the hard-tamped dirt floor, causing dull vibrations. Her lively feet summoned a hollow rousing rhythm. They were set loose in the joints, with metal anklets and strong, finely articulated toes. The right ankle was rubbed raw on the inside, showing an open wound. Zana worked the dirt floor like a tambourine, the metal bands jingled on the narrowest part of her legs, from this foundation she used the balls of her feet and her heels to draw from the substratum the music’s characteristic runs, thudding ragged tones, a scale that kept to a low register. It would take insanely acute hearing to make sense of these eardrum-stimuli. I yielded intently to these impressions, the darting figure in its wild grace, the unsteady flames, the refrain of primitive-sounding male voices. Then I twigged, I understood the melody that feet, hands, voices and instruments–wooden clappers–composed all together. The mysterious rhythm mimicked the pulsebeat of our blood, and not the complex processes of our ornamental brain. Here, what was called music still corresponded to primitive physiological laws, everything functional, everything happening at regular intervals was experienced as musical. An element of aural gratification was found in a simple repeated sequence of actions and sounds, a rhythmic value in the mere noise produced by an action. Music dwelled in every activity, every passivity, every bodily transformation. In these healthy bodies, music was as direct as the transition from necessity to enjoyment, proceeded no more systematically than the passion in which all the world’s business comes to a head, that passion which among the advanced races becomes an event only when clothed as culture. Physical coupling was the given primal musical act, duality unified or unity made dual was revealed as a high-grade musical beat. This was the coming and going, the approach and retreat of Zana’s body. And the musicians here were halfbreeds; the collision of two races gives birth to music. One two, one two, hark to the march of Nature! Whatever you do, she sets her own meter. Beat, beat is all in all in the world, the why and wherefore of music, primal music, the primal event!

It plays out in front of my eyes, in my ears. Zana’s feet kick up a riot, the drumming of her lovely heels on hard earth parches my mouth and makes my dry head turn feverish. I hear the howls of the possessed, and see how their movements follow the movements of the little doll. The beat grabs me, I’m caught up in the beat, I take part shivering in the primal dance. The beat, the beat, it occurs to me we no longer have a beat, Europe has lost its beat, what a big irremediable loss! Now Zana lets fly at us again, bends and leaps like a panther, takes a stick from the piled logs and swings it madly in her teeth to make a fiery ring around her in which her slender figure stands illuminated down to every little cranny. Her small wild face glows, it’s avid and ecstatic like heated bronze. The choir of hard men in the shadows, lurking between splayed knees, respond to her shrill gum-cries with a kind of animal harmony, a very physical motif of desire, a bestial melancholy calling forth trembling and hope. Up! my panthers in the forests, cry out to the starry heavens your store of yearning if the soft-furred eager bride should be missing from your side! Ha, how my male cats snarl, hey, how my panthers moan when the lovely feline Zana, flattened body pressing onto bent paws, creeps around the crackling flames! What are the men singing, Slim you old crazy loudmouth, if you’re not completely mad already, what are they singing, tell us!

Zana, they sing:

Zana, little puma woman
Smaller are you
Than Moki’s heart!

Smaller are you than Moki’s heart! You are small, I think, and who is Moki? Then the fire collapses. Zana ends her dance emerging from a spin. Some men fan the embers, they glow brighter, flames spread rapidly, at once the spacious hut is filled with a steady yellow light. Zana stands by the wall opposite. She’s stark naked, she’s even taken off the little skirt that the women always wear for hygienic purposes; a single string of red berries hangs at her waist and encircles the belly, which her exertions have thrust to the fore in muscular bands. The belly falls quickly to the sharp bushy angle between her thighs. Around her navel is a yellow crescent tattoo, and coloured curves run across the stomach. I follow entranced the welts that have been made in the smooth skin, and fancy that the crescent represents the opened jaws of a slavering feline. The longer I look, the more certain I become, and now it occurs to me that the muscles of the girlish belly correspond to a cat’s body in relief. It could be a rutting panther, driven to tormented cries by hungry desire. Circles and rays surround the flat breasts: green moon and red sun. When Zana turns around, her back shows wonderful lacework down to the hips. Her neck could easily be encircled by a man’s hand, her legs are strong, thin, so thin at the joints and bulging at the calves, but with not a trace of fat. Most beguiling are her knees. Oh, Zana is entrancing and true, when with her acrobatic limbs she imitates a bandy-legged panther cat; but when she stands there without exertion, the lines converge on the knees as the narrowest point, almost as narrow as her neck, and the legs point outwards like components of a very, very blunt cross. And see how it makes her hips wide, and she’s just a young girl after all. And the skin at the backs of her knees is pulled taut as if over little drums. In the hollows of Zana’s knees, all artlessness, all modesty and sweetness are at home. And yet the brown waxen eyes in her little face look out like dog-eyes, and boar’s teeth jut horribly from piercings in her upper lip like the points of a little yellow bony beard. Zana looks like a young warrior and yet is all meekness, all woman. Did the priestess, the dancer, the courtesan in the primal state wear the artificial teeth-insignia of her pubescence like her successor thousands of years later? It’s always the same old art, whether practised by the savage or the daughter of the bourgeoisie. Zana’s cheekbones flaunt bright red blotches, and I have to think of makeup. But the head is disconcertingly concave around the eyeline, and seems kindhearted. Don’t be fooled, this is no fiery young warrior, but a gentle maiden acting out her sensuous and enthralling part.

Mighty hunters sat in a semicircle, backs to the doorway. These were Luluac’s best men; if you combined their strength you could demolish a small mountain. Their muscles swelled in ecstasy, came alive in the flickering firelight like a condensed tumult of many kinds of curve. Flesh on the figures leaning forward arched and sank in remarkable knots and volutes like a strangely seething mystical mass. Dreadful forces were stored in bulges and outgrowths big as fists. The assembly was one big savage fleshy organism. Metal piercings graced the brown indentations of the faces, upper lips bristled with sharp animal teeth. Splendid downy feathers erupted from nasal cartilage, and heads sported a lavish crown of plumes. At the level of these adornments a curious birdlike bustle dominated the semicircle, an impression of power and ceremonial pathos magnified every slight movement into the gigantic. But the heads beneath behaved like boisterous schoolboys, spoiling the effect of the pompous bushy play of plumes. And it was all watched over by the idol Moki, and his stupid curling lips.

For there was someone else in the room, a personage filled with a vulgar intent to make an impact whom I, finding it boring, would gladly have overlooked; a power that left my good nerves and unspoiled taste cold, but slowly and insistently began to weave before my eyes a veil that sapped the will; a puzzling Existence whose challenging presence began ever more strongly to push aside my mental indisposition and drag me down into a whirling defeat filled with blood and shame. Or how else to interpret this visage, this double-edition of a head, this cram of faces coming chinless together in a vertically yawning maw? Each of the idol’s two skulls aligned side by side had a thousand-eye in its forehead, a huge brambleberry, but the divine body below consisted of a thick shaft taller than a man, a plain tree trunk stripped of bark that carried the swaying neckless heads like an endless collar. Six pairs of clawlike knobs grew out of the trunk, arranged like two rows of teats. They suggested horribly stunted grasping organs. Even more stunted, truly pitiful–so pitifully botched you could almost feel sorry for the poor fellow, as if for something that didn’t deserve such tackiness–were his two arms. These two carpet-beater shapes, jutting stiffly from the sides like a pair of tennis racquets, could only have been intended as short arms and hypertrophied paws. The tawdriness was enough to drive me into a rage, into blind senseless fury at this imposition on my senses that thirsted for beauty; and for sure I could have allowed myself to be dragged into barbarity and loss of temper of the basest sort, had not the utterly dubious head lulled and captivated me. Imperceptibly it compelled me to acknowledge its power, stabbed me with crazy details, winked stiffly at me out of hooded eye-caverns, sucked me into the rigid all-knowing earlobes, took shots at me from mystical orifices with fuse-cord glow and chattering shadows, and broke from my wildly pounding heart visions of a rigid flexibility never before experienced. The mouth gaped so that only a vertical slit remained, and the half-heads were set all around with a profusion of horns, brackets and prickles of every description. A levitatory gaze flashed from the green eyes; he was able to seize the momentum; he, the zombie, was able to arouse light elfin feelings, to conjure a dancing gracefulness in the heart of an assembly, embody an inexpressibly floating beauty, bestow tangible corporeal blessings from repulsive eyes, and veil in pretty lies the law of the earth’s ponderous gravity. Stolidly emplaced, he could free himself at will from his resting point; impassively abrupt, he boosted the feeble art of any human being who surrendered to him sincere and believing. Indecipherable, to be grasped with humility only in his effects, his pensively bloodsucking expression raised the assembly up, drew the heaviness from their bodies.

And Zana began to dance.

God lifted her. She balanced on one leg. Her torso was bent back and her thick shoulder-length hair brushed the ground. The other leg was raised and bent at the knee. A band of little metal pieces tinkled at each ankle. The soles of her feet were pink and the toes were like little fingers, but were ever so slightly thickened at the tips. The torso formed a slender delicate arc, a titillating curve that drove you mad. You really had to stand up and take this human ornament in your arms. It dug deep, deep into the heart, it aroused the vision’s yearning and a stabbing sorrow in the heart. Such discipline of the limbs tightened the breasts of the watching savages, and they uttered rhythmic laments and searing cries. Ah Zana! Off she went, little stark-naked thing, a sling of nerves, muscles, vertebrae and tame bones, seemingly across the whole space, dashing like a whipcrack from corner to corner, lay like a piece of thread on the ground before Moki, the warty idol, circled with outspread arms, one foot before the other, airily as a gnat around the fire. And God stayed still and was mighty. His calm engendered rhythm, it was the ground-tone from which movement rose. He loved Zana, and for that he let her dance. Slight glistening traces of sweat showed on her body, and a herbal aroma streamed from her. Into the fire’s light fell something bushy, dark, one, two, then a whole shower of flowers, twigs, colourful blooms, thrown by the wild men; and the orchids that now lay on the ground and became caught up in the thatch of the roof and clung to Zana’s shoulders seemed as defunct as an opened seashell refracting the stare of a pearly eye. And what did this magic mean?–Slim explained in a whisper as Zana fluttered past, body slanting forward. Her arms hung the length of her sides with raised elbows stiffly reversed, her hands shook from the wrist with gentle fleeting beats, a rhythm flared in them, spread up arms supple as satin to flood over the undulating shoulders. The body ran like a screw made of the most precious of materials: human flesh. The men all around hummed from clenched teeth like a swarm of gnats, the woody music from the tuned clappers wove a rattling melody. The male figures hummed louder. So Zana was a little tiny gnat dancing before her lord, the god Moki, the bloodsucker, the vampire of human beings, the Dance-in-the-Air Demon who drinks red human blood and likes to dance in the happy evening hour.

Zana, they sang,

Little gnat-woman,
No bigger are you
Than Moki’s heart.

But now I realised I’d been wrong about Moki’s hands. They were in fact not hands, but wings. Zana was dancing them, so now I understood them. I understood everything about Zana’s dance, I could clearly read the god’s face as she described it, I followed compelled the thrill of her senses and felt the meaning and power of the almighty god unmistakably take shape before me. There, what was that? Proclaiming his satisfaction, his supreme satisfaction, he began to roar from his body like a monstrous trumpet, brought forth from his monumental spiritual calm an amplification, so to speak, of gnat-song. He beat time jokily with his little arms, raised himself two feet high over the shiny tamped earth on which Zana danced, swayed with a stately motion, and with a tremendous jolt disappeared through the roof into the starry night. As he made his way into the blue light I saw that his wings were prettily varnished, they grew larger, gained proportion, he beat about him with dazzling flames and carried himself with the magnificent glamour of a connoisseur of slaughters. His knobby bits grew to claws, each representing an elementary phenomenon, and the rudiments on his skull grew to the most dangerous ramming horns. His eyes goggled like a giant grape-cluster of green lanterns. Now I recognised him again. His whole history lay clear before me. So that’s where you are, old man, you ancient principle of spiritual calm, descendant of antiquarian terrors, garnering from these lively panther-children the usual tribute to your now harmless whims? You old divinity-mechanism, playing as ever with royal maidens, getting a rise out of dance moves and obtaining your effect from the hands of a wily panther-dam? Old stiff dragon-ox, bloodsucker-god grown beggarly, lignified monument to spiritual calm! Just now I brought you down with a pistol-shot, and here you stand again making a fool of me? But you don’t fool me. You cannot take away my recognition that God owes his life to blood, that miracles and revelations come speeding out of the rhythm of the stamping feet of real human beings; that you, Moki, owe your life to Zana’s slender bones. It’s in their play that your power of levitation resides. She suggests, and you fly. She looks askance from her eyes, and you hurl lightning. Your face is stupid without her; when she dances its power, it is the thrill of her primal dance, of her definitive body, that elevates you to a divine horror. Oh you god, you creature of this human dancing in her blood, you mockery of a dragon before the antics of the panther-son and his wife!

When I came to my senses from the miasma of burning flowers, greasy sweating bodies, wild precipitous motions of the girlish body, Moki was standing once again as calm, sated, and depraved as before in his usual place in the hexagonal hut, signifiying the last stoical offshoot of dragon’s blood. Not far from him an old Indian sat in ecstasy blowing into a long, long tube, a stiff tightly rolled mat of rice straw. Up in the roof, a hole that had suddenly appeared was closed by a furtive hand. I had to remind myself of Zana’s movements, had to note clearly what it was that her gestures, her horror, her jubilation, the beating of her wings and her lasciviously forward-bending torso demanded of my imagination. Gladly, my dear pretty gnat, shall you have my blood and my belief. Everyone had looked up as if possessed when Zana pointed to the roof, and it would have been indecent of me not to join in this communal action. I was really quite pleased with myself. Fear and scorn could be read in the faces of the Dumara people. And was it not a little malicious of them to let the big malevolent god rise up in the air whenever he liked on his paltry pair of wings; to make their humility and their most authentic awe dependent on their goodwill; to hone their presumption by truncating his top so crudely and praying to it? The human soul, savagely revealed in the soul of these savages!

That’s where things stood. Meaning, Moki was back there in his corner, a fragment, and Zana–but Zana was dead. The gnat had been struck down. Its goose was cooked. They had killed it, stoned it to death with orchid-stems. The gnat was dead.

Zana had danced the Puma Dance and the Gnat Dance. She had danced the bloodthirst in her soul. But Zana was also a yearning cricket and laid her arms, no, her long narrow wings tight against her back. She bent her head back against her neck, her chest projected, strong, stronger, in endless sorrow, and now in the mere play of her breasts and her stomach it was evident that she was sobbing.

The hunters sang:

Zana, little cricket-woman,
Is crying for her
Distant lover.

With every piece of metal they’d been able to collect, they set up a raucous clattering and rasping; and thus did our empty sardine tins reveal their ingenious musicality.

The consequence of crickets weeping for their lovers is that you can view the wonderful architecture of their innards. Zana had in her lumbar region a hint of feminine curves; a flat shell formed the lower abdomen. But it was so flat that it seemed more a dusky glaze on the downy skin than a three-dimensional shape. The tattoo artist had engaged in a superfluous reworking of nature’s sculpture. But now his art was totally ruined. For the cricket was suffering unspeakably, and the indrawn belly beneath the small outthrust breasts showed fibrous grooves, as on a boy. The entire monotony of her pain lay in the hopping steps that amid the clanging of the instruments took her countless times in ever the same circle. But then she collapsed, and was dead of sorrow. Once more on this day, Zana died.

And now on this unforgettable evening something decisive happened. Zana danced a fourth time. She was unassailable, elastic and inexhaustible like a true artist; the effort made her joyfully playful, deepened her concentration. Tomorrow, I feared, would be for her a real comedown. From her shape-shifting, softly yielding body she evoked a new meaning. When she came up again, Luluac was standing there, her brother. She reached only to his hips. He was tall, and his upper body was planted like a wedge onto hips and buttocks rooted in convex thighs that hoisted the powerful trunk. His chest was higher than it was wide, and projected hard from the muscular spine to which the ribs strained back. The ribcage itself, whose wings stood narrow and formed a deep manly groove between the nipples, was a truncated cone. Below it the belly fell away like a landslide. The head was small and round with a pronounced occiput, clean-shaven, and only above the brows was there a brush of sparse stiff hairs. Like the skull, other parts of his skeleton were formed on the same space-saving principle, a typical product of a long process of blood-selection. These bones were improved primordial instruments, forgoing mass in favour of resistive strength through bends, swellings and clubbed ends. They were set in motion by a visible system of muscles. Their main impetus came from the joints and the adjacent foci of power and nerves; and it was here too that the man had his strength. Everything else seemed denuded of mass, unprepossessing, he was not even excessively muscular. Skin stretched tight over his bones, but at his chest fell in folds like a napkin. The stomach was incorporated as a visible muscle in the grill of the waist. The calves were high, not balled but stretched out long. The face looked ugly, leering, sly, greedy as an animal’s. When under physical exertion his lips drew back from the teeth, you could see the white-edged trapeze of the jaws. The teeth had been filed to points. This lent the mouth something of a demanding expression, made his face childish. On his little indented skull sat the crown of all Indian feathered crowns. The wildest and most colourful jungle pinions had found their way to the savage gravity of this chieftain. In this way the slightest inclination of the head acquired ghoulish significance, a tiny forest nodded in bright colours, and human motives were introduced into an actually lifeless thing. Yes, yes, said the grove of plumes when it wobbled a little way to the right; and no, no! when it became a steeply inclined garden down the back. And it was woe, woe! when it travelled through the air on the heated head of the young chieftain.

This splendid contrivance of a feather-grove made tall Luluac superhuman, when he stepped out to dance with his sister Zana. Everyone watching relished the man’s grotesque superiority. Zana herself seemed moved to the last fibre of her womanly modesty. She bent down compliant beneath him. The family relationship seemed of an unusual kind. Suggestive memories came to mind. As the pair danced, indications of wild sexual arousal became noticeable on their bodies. They watched each other from slit eyes with bestial infatuation. The incest instinct, which emerges among primitive or over-refined races that are still healthy, asserted itself in their sympathies. Was it play, or in earnest? Though Zana was small, her body shared definite similarities with her brother’s. They were both slender, their faces had almost the same expression. They were enamoured in their own way, and as they danced they gave expression to all the concupiscence of their absolute and hot-blooded essence.

Did not narcissism, the principle of self-adoration, tend towards the improvement or preservation of beauty? Among sophisticated mammals, similarity has a repellent effect on the imagination. But beyond this, among developed races with equilibrium and mature tastes its effect is to attract, for it is the core of classical development. Within the noble races the longing for variation is satisfied by heightened gender differences, which separate into harder and more tender types.

Zana was absorbed and abandoned in her dance. It urged her towards the feathered arrow Luluac. Without thinking I glanced across at Slim. His face was twisted. Indian traits were mixed with his northern features, beneath his beard lurked the gloating beast I saw in every face here. He followed the couple with an unwholesome look. But Van den Dusen was bright red in the face and seemed scrunched up; he followed the proceedings mouth gaping, all his gums showing. Luluac, obviously a master of technique, moved in cool masculine curves; he remained hard, rhythmic, formal, but his eyes gleamed fire. You understood that he desired Zana, he turned about her, wooed her, but held himself back from her seductions; there was no knowing how dangerous the little female was, and whether it was permitted to touch her. She might be a princess, a priestess, and the mortal who took her might meet with disaster. Zana’s ankles wore fetters, and this enhanced her meek and harmless appearance; the anklets had become entangled. From her heels she made short springy leaps, like a ball. She circled around Luluac, sank to her knees, and crossed her arms behind her neck. Did her humble offering fail to move the chieftain? So much was clear: she was a woman, she was fettered, convention tinkled about her ankles, and she lacked the freedom of her choice and her desire for the man.

Luluac let her approach. Already he seizes her in a pose that blatantly reveals his nakedness, as he again pulls back. He defends himself against the reality of such an alluring other-worldly creature, he calls the whole lovely fact into question. It cannot be that so much desirability is real. She is a deception of the senses, presaging calamity. Maybe Zana is a panther-dam? She tears to pieces the human lover who falls for her. Oh how tame she is! He swings his arms and flourishes spear and shield, for it’s best to keep a puma at a distance. Suddenly he starts into the familiar war dance, lifts his legs with thighs horizontal and plays running-on-the-spot. Diabolical, phew! Zana wheedles in sublime motions. Her hobbled ankles follow with submissive tiny steps; it’s tragic how the cartilage behind her knees moves! It’s touching, and will break all our hearts! Now Luluac can no longer resist. A suggestively danced embrace indicates possession. He never touched her, the gesture remained aesthetic. And everyone understands the innuendo in the entwined arms! Interpreted as: Luluac accepts the panther-dam’s wooing! The sexual tension in both bodies has heightened, oh, oh, oh, both are in bliss, both almost at the point of surrender. Zana bucks like a young stud. Monotonous music swells the nerves and muscles and awakens the thrust and artlessness of manly feeling. The circular persecution mania of the music engenders a slight giddiness, there’s a hammering at the brows, and eyes and brain meld into a single yearning mass. The flesh on the men’s bodies begins to ferment, as it were, a steamy villainous masculine aroma makes itself perceptible in the hut. Luluac utters a raging cry and the men collapse triumphant and sated. The climax has passed. The lovely savage warrior has led Zana to his hut. She squats behind the fire. From now on he is her lord. He plants himself boastfully in the foreground. Who would take her from him? No one; it’s the custom. Enough with the dancing and play, bring on the manioc beer, so we who are hoarse and fired up can cool down and refresh ourselves!

Then something unexpected happens, that doesn’t belong in the programme: Slim rises to his feet and takes off his sooty white jacket. Then he pulls the thin string vest over his head and stands there naked from the waist up. Slim!


Robert Müller

Robert Müller (1887-1924) was a many-sided cultural activist in early 20th-century ViennaExpressionist writer, editor, critic, publisher, and promoter (he organised Karl May’s last public appearance in 1912). Forgotten for more than half a century after his suicide in 1924, his works are slowly gaining critical attention in German-speaking lands, especially his remarkable 1915 novel Tropics – the Myth of the Journey. Alfred Döblin praised him as a "dazzling wordsmith."

C D Godwin

C D Godwin’s translation of Alfred Döblin’s first great epic fiction The Three Leaps of Wang Lun is published by New York Review Books. He has translated four other Döblin novels, of which two (the futuristic dystopia Mountains Oceans Giants, and the verse-epic Manas) will be published in September 2020 by Galileo. The other two--Wallenstein and The Amazonas Trilogy--are available at his website https://beyond-alexanderplatz.com, along with much other material on Döblin and contemporaries he particularly admired. The translation of Müller’s novel Tropics is under consideration by a New York publisher.

English translation copyright (c) C D Godwin, 2020.