Excerpt from The Research Report (Part 2 in a series)

Chapter 2

Tuesday, February 5th, 1980

A blindingly clear morning.

The palm trees gleaming like a billboard.

Groups of black boys out walking on the beach.

A fisherman rowing out to sea.

Another fisherman dragging a dugout canoe though the sand, the sail an irregular assembly of scraps of canvas.

Children, boats, a fat woman, a bum in sagging pants stiffened with filth: all of them heading leftward, away from town, out toward the mangrove swamps.

Jäcki thought the hotel lobby looked like an empty garage.

Oil paintings nailed the walls.

Gray, oddly oversized portraits–razor stubble and gray wens–along with scenes from the everyday life of the Caribs: brightly colored fishing boats, women grinding cassavas, priests with calabash rattles, drummers, a woman undulating on the ground.

–Why don’t we go see the painter first? Jäcki said to Irma.

–Painters make a good introduction to the religion. Remember Bahia and Haiti.

–In a small town like Dangriga everything’s generally predetermined from the beginning.

–Not necessarily. The artist is both inside and outside. Master to the monarch who needs his portrait.

–Painters are sanctimonious.


–I’m not shooting a sermon.

–Lies are better than silence in fieldwork.

A young man doing the books behind a wire-mesh grille.

In the lobby–neon signs, embroidered straw hats, tortoise shells–they were greeted by a woman who pointed them toward the dining room.

The tables had all been pushed close together, barely a foot apart, all to accommodate the missing hordes of tourists.

Irma sat with Jäcki next to the window.

One of the waitresses came over, made a face, and muttered something through clenched teeth.

Sit where the tables have been set, Irma understood.

The tables had been set, they now saw, in a gloomy dim alcove next to the kitchen.

–An auspicious beginning, Irma said.

–Never mind! Now the fieldwork starts! Didn’t I tell you I could work even when I’m eating breakfast? From this moment on everything acquires significance. The methodological parameters have been established. We find ourselves facing a closed system with a finite number of ways in which we can react. The more mistakes we make, the more instructive the situation. The more glaring our faux pas, the more fundamental the revelation.

Jäcki turned to the waitress.

–We’d rather sit here. I’ll go get the table-settings.

–You want to describe that girl’s world–you’re going to make it collapse.

Jäcki looked at Irma, and then through the window screen at the Black Caribs trudging across the beach, out toward the swamps.

–In Schneider’s standard work he describes taking a thirty-minute walk and coming across two young men choking–

Jäcki paused. The waitress returned with three pitchers.

First she poured Jäcki some tea. And then, distracted by an order from the cook or some gym teacher from Tampa, she served Irma her coffee with too much milk, and filled Jäcki’s teacup to the brim.

–Each other’s chickens.


–Right. Objection sustained. They’re not holding chickens. So a little bit further he comes upon two older men doing the same thing. There are very few accounts of onanism and mutual masturbation on the Yucatán. Still, what Schneider got depressed me.

The waitress returned with an assistant and served them scrambled eggs, toast, butter, and jam.

–He writes that the reception he gets is open and friendly. So now what’s the point of me going out and doing the same thing? Did I write my fingers down to the knuckles doing radio programs so that in the end I could prove that it’s not on the first day that the priestess shakes her rattle to the right three times, but on the third day, and she shakes it twice, and to the left?

–Why do these girls keep taking the pitchers with them?

–Out of spite!

–Spite. I’m so thirsty. I want some more coffee.

A long time passed before one of the waitresses bestirred herself to make the trek down the well-trod path all the way to the window screen a second time.

–My only hope is that Schneider got most of it wrong. Maybe he got all of it wrong. Maybe the Black Caribs don’t even jerk off. Maybe the men don’t lie in bed and pretend to be women in childbirth. Maybe they’re not open and friendly. Who knows if there even is a ritual called dugu? You’ve got it good. All you have to do is push a button.

–If I ever get some more coffee, I’m going to lie out on the beach first.

–I’m going to go out and do some research on self-gratification.



When they left the dining room, the woman from the front desk was waiting for them.

–Of course you want to learn all about the Black Caribs and the dugu. No problem. Our assistant manager always takes our guests to the shamans’ temple. They’re very hospitable. The maid comes at eleven. I’ll send her right up to see you. She knows everything about it.

She sat down behind her embroidered straw hats.

–Shamans! Did you hear that? Professor Schneider probably stayed here with his assistants, Jäcki said.

He headed leftward, toward the swamps.

Tar began to stick to the soles of his sandals. Soon he was tottering as though on platforms.



Mangroves and cashews out to the horizon.

Ponds of rain and sea water.

Fish darting in the brackish water.

Gnats skittering across the surface.

In the distance Jäcki could see some men cutting wood.

Soundlessly they hacked at the branches. By the time the noise reached Jäcki, their axes were above their heads again.

Jäcki decided to walk out to the woodcutters.

Without the sound to help him gauge the distance, Jäcki might never have reached the horizon: the sticky tar beach gave way to inlet after inlet of swampy scrubland. It might have taken him fifteen minutes to reach them or forty-five, or he might have wandered off completely, out among the overgrown ruins, never to be seen again.

By the time Jäcki reached the woodcutters, they were taking a break.

They lay in the sand, drinking from coconuts, blinking their eyes, and murmuring to one another, remarks that Jäcki couldn’t understand and wasn’t supposed to understand.

As Schneider had described them.

Jäcki greeted them gruffly.

He didn’t want to be taken for some German tourist.

They grunted back, abruptly reaching down between their legs.

Penis presentation, Jäcki thought. It’s on now! They haven’t touched their hatchets or their axes since they saw me.

Jäcki proceeded cautiously.

Would they drop their pants, as Professor Schneider had written, or would he get a hatchet in his back?

A few paces on Jäcki looked back.

They had curled up to sleep in the sand.

Now the forest stretched out to the tide.

Sharp, pale roots studded the sand.

Branches down to Jäcki’s shoulders.

Stopped over and stumbling he made his way.

The passage grew narrower.

Jäcki sat on a branch.

The mosquitoes already had begun to alight upon him.

He turned around.

He hoped he’d see the young men lying naked, childlike navels and monstrous erections across their thighs, covered with wiry hair; that he’d see them licking and nipping at one another, pushing black penises beneath black testicles, giggling, and bringing their unspeakable acts to a close with a shower of semen to rain down upon the Black Caribs, so that Jäcki, back in Bremen, might confirm for his students that the mutual masturbation and other sexual practices attested by Schneider were prevalent among adult males.

They had gotten up.

They were cutting wood again.

They were stacking logs in a pile.

Jäcki realized he must play the vamp: discreetly, so that his behavior might be taken for a sort of fit–he had no interest in becoming fodder for gossip around town–but unambiguously, so that everything repressed within the woodcutters might be released by the signals his body sent forth. He swanned and batted his eyelashes at them.

He fanned himself.

He pulled up his shirt and then pulled it down again.

He pulled at his hair.

He swiveled his hips as if spinning a hula-hoop.

They continued to hack away at the undergrowth.

Jäcki, a gaunt, sharp-featured, and bearded man in his mid-forties, had transformed himself into Mae West, and not one of them would look at him.

Dejected, Jäcki left.

Where was it, the Other, the Foreign, the Primal, the Uncorrupted, the Untamed?

The bum emerged from the bushes a couple of yards ahead of Jäcki.

His pants stiff with filth.

But even he carried a neat bundle of wood on his head as he marched assiduously back into town, heading for his lunchtime tipple.

Nary a whisper or a wink from him.

What was Schneider talking about?



Irma in a deck chair reading Agatha Christie.

–I couldn’t find anything else. Just Harold Robbins and Konsalik. I’ve already read the Henry James.

Jäcki picked up Washington Square and put it to one side.

–Don’t you like it?

–I do. But I can’t relax. I don’t want to miss that maid. I need to get some dates in Black Carib history from Schneider and Chiswick. I wish the numbers matched up. You can’t rely on a survey. You have to look in the archives yourself. So, of course, now I need to get funds to cover six months at the Naval Ministry, in a London that’s been bought up by oil sheikhs. Thatcher demanding 100 pounds a night from the tourists.

He hoped the maid wouldn’t catch him before he had a change to consult Schneider on the potion used to break trances in the dugu.

–There it is.

–There’s what?

–If the trance is too deep–there are three other stages to it–then the priest, the buyei, gives them this drink, lihigu, to bring them back to the everyday world.

–What’s so interesting about that?

–You can never get enough information. I’ve been making notes on trance states for twelve years now: asphyxiation ceremonies, neurolepsis–I know all about the mystery intoxicants of the Adja, I know all about the brainwashing and the evening devotions. And then there are the antidotes. Not a word of it is definitive.

–So why do you take notes for yourself?

–Occasionally the information is accurate even if the starting point is incorrect. Ethnomedicine’s kind of a labyrinth.

–Remember when I brought you the first ten index cards on initiation potions in Bahia.

–Now I’ve got more than ten thousand. But more than half of it is shit. The ones who actually know something won’t tell you anything, and the ones who will tell you don’t know what they’re talking about, or they’re putting you on, and calling things by the wrong name. Each plant has five names. Sometimes one name can refer to five different plants. So you’ve got your herbarium, you’ve snatched the last plant from some priest on his death-bed, but you don’t have any flora from Belize, and the specimens you need are rotting away in some agricultural technical college in Sweden.

–Pedro de Batafolha was murdered after he named the first plant for you.

–I give up. Shifting. It’s just shifting. Brainwashing. Trance states, we call it. It’s really something totally different.


–What kind of religion makes you have seizures and even initiates them for you? Just so you can ostentatiously start convulsing, just like Tante Hilde and her Oh my sweet baby Jesus. You’re a god? Foaming at the mouth?  Apollo! And woe to the wily Chinaman come to pray to you, or the head torturer. I’m your god–ta-da!

–When it gets too dangerous they give you some water, and the god leaves you.

–I haven’t taken enough notes on that yet. Yeah, most of the time they give you water. Now I remember: they stick a finger in your ear to bring you out of the trance. They give you water or rum. Throw water in your face. I should have paid closer attention. Twelve years ago I should have known what it meant. Not just brain-washing or brain-bleaching, but some kind of detergent that could undo the devastation of Tide or Ariel or Persil.

The maid opened the door and gathered up the bedding. She started talking even before Jäcki asked her:

–Oh, yes! The dugu is very mysterious, she said.

–She’s a Black Carib, I can tell, Jäcki said to himself.

Her face reminded him of pictures on the covers of children’s books during the Nazi era. Lively eyes. Pursed, narrow mouth.

–The exaggerated gestures of an African when she talks. If she’s talking about magic she doesn’t know anything about it. I can see some kind of agenda in her face, but what is it?

She looked like a witch to Jäcki.

–But a witch expelled from the coven. Her spells don’t work.

–Or a thief.

–It’s important to have an informant like that, a foot in either world. The initiates won’t tell you anything.

It bothered Jäcki that he’d already forgotten the name of the potion again.

He considered it gauche to leaf through his notes in front of an informant.

She wouldn’t stop talking.

Her eyes kept tracking in the same direction–it was easy for Jäcki to glance down and adjust Schneider with his foot, look up again, and find the chapter on antidotes, all without interrupting her monologue.

–Do you know the drink lihigu? he said abruptly.

Unsure whether he had pronounced the foreign word in the English text correctly.

Sweat beaded on his neck.

–To ask an insufficiently researched question was a mistake. It could screw up an entire project. Now she’ll feign ignorance, tell everyone she knows, and by noon the whole town will know that the gringos are poking around looking into the sacred potion, and they’ll all close up like field of sea anemones.

He’d barely finished speaking, and she cried out:

Lihu! Yes, lihu!

As if she wanted the word itself to make him dance and convulse.

–The sacred beer. We make it out of cassava bread, and we drink it in the heat of the night. We dance and dance and dance–

–No, lihigu.

Lihu! Oh, yes! We dance and we dance and there’s drumming, and the ground shakes and the gods are angry and the sick woman drops dead.

–Yes, that’s what I meant. The sick woman?

The maid stopped talking.

Then: —Lihu! Oh, yes! she squawked. –When the worshippers go into a trance.

Trance. She said trance.

Fifty students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on a Fulbright spent three full days conducting surveys on incest, trance states, and initiation rites. The maid had accompanied them everywhere. She had hung a copy of the questionnaire, along with the Mater Dei, above her double bed, in a picture frame.

–I’m talking about lihigu.

Lihu, lihu–the sacred beer for soothing the possessed, she cried.

Jäcki knew he would have to get to the point.

–I thought, Jäcki said, –that there’s an herbal drink called lihigu.

Lihu! Lihu!

–And the priest, the buyei

Should he even bother trotting out this sort of religious intimacy? Something from Schneider’s work might have been falsified.

–The priests give them the potion to put them in the trance again.

One of Schneider’s assistants could have asked the same question.

She shook her head with the same expression of deception and avarice that Jäcki had noticed earlier.

–I’ll take your laundry, she said. –I do the laundry here.

She left the room.



Irma had returned from her walk with tar stuck to her shoes and feet too. Back in the room she began her own ritual ablutions: hair, lotions, towel, glasses. Jäcki watched it all, trying not to look too much like an ethnologist.

A half-hour later they went down to the garage.

Irma said: –Maybe they’ll be serving lunch.

They were taking the boats out. In one were the young men Jäcki had encountered in the swamp.

The boats filled with boys and branches.

The men had landed to the right of the hotel and were unloading the wood.

Lunch: sandwiches, cheese, and eggs.

The bartender served them lunch.

Strapping, slab-like, brutally white teeth.

–Not even my grandfather could pull off a stiff-necked pose like that. Yours?

–My grandfather lived to one hundred drinking a bottle of Kreuznach brandy every day, Irma said. –Do you get the feeling that the bartender is trying really hard to play the fauve because that’s what he thinks we expect of him?

–It’s like something out of Kafka.

The bartender showed them all his teeth. He said: –Do you want to learn about dugu? No problem. Mister Borggrave takes our guests to the temple regularly.

–Who is Mister Borggrave?

–You’re in luck. The dugu starts on Friday.

–Today’s Tuesday. So that works out well, Jäcki said. –Do you know where the painter who did those realistic portraits in the garage lives?

–The garage?

–My English…I mean, in the lobby.

–The painter is Nicholas. Benjamin Nicholas. He lives near the bus station. You go left, then right, then left again, and you’ll see the sign.

–So, Jäcki said quickly. –Do you know any of the priests or priestesses?

The bartender planted his thigh next to Jäcki’s face. –There’s just one. There’s always just one. Now it’s Mistress Sarah. She lives behind the bus stop. On the right.

The bartender left.



–I want to see the town by day, Irma said.

–The sun’s too strong. We walk around for an hour until we’re exhausted, and go back. You still haven’t taken any pictures. We’ll work on Greek first.

–I can’t study Greek on a full stomach.

Irma’s protest was in vain.

Since Jäcki had started teaching, he’d been studying Greek. Irma had been studying it too.

Jäcki had arrived at the university circuitously: no degree, no Abitur, with a need to be strict. The truth: he was a high school dropout. No money for tuition.

He’d always made a point of avoiding bureaucratic obligations, signing as little as possible, refusing to accept honoraria from left-leaning academics that he considered bribes to convert him into the equivalent of independent examining physician.

Jäcki decided he must explore, on his own, all of the human sciences from the beginning, and this for him meant not Johann Gottlob Fichte but Herodotus.

Jäcki couldn’t abide translations.

–They always get something wrong.

–Our education is founded on translation errors.

–The father of history–he wasn’t the father.

–History is a bastard.

Historiä means ‘research,’ from histämi ‘to establish.’

–Herodotus wouldn’t have written for Die Zeit. He was the first tabloid journalist.

–No, that wasn’t it either.

–He might have written for The New Yorker.

–Like Peter Handke?

–Like Borges.

Thirty years before Jäcki had the chance to study Greek.

He’d had to leave the conservatory–too soon or not soon enough, he said–when he met Dulu.

Dulu hadn’t been able to go to university either; she’d bought her Aristotle with her first paycheck as a porcelain maker’s apprentice.

Dulu loved teaching Greek.

Two times it took Jäcki, first among the Romanesque churches of Provence, and then during his agronomy practicum, to relearn the uncial, which he called “worm-writing.”

In Sweden, surrounded by emotionally disturbed boys, he struggled through two verses from Oedipus in the original.

He realized he’d have to spend eight hours a day at it, the way he’d learned French, and he quit: after Freud, anthroposophical fertilization, and behavioral problems, he was too tired for the strong aorist.

The year before, after the bank calculated his research debts (a four, followed by four terrible zeros), while he was lecturing on Haitian painting in Bremen and Daniel von Lohenstein in Klagenfurt, while he was shepherding two books on Afro-American culture into print, while he was sucking down antacid pills wasting away his time with sleek and distracted potential underwriters (expensive raw oysters, the shells casually tossed to the side following a side of bacon), he decided to return to ancient Greek.

Like a sleepwalker, he crawled out from beneath newspaper clippings and stacks of photocopies, shoving scripts, solicitations, manuscripts, and initiation rites aside, devoting himself to the linguistic universe of Herodotus, an hour or two or three a night, saving his Saturdays, the phone turned off, for the Ionian, for Dulu.

With the assistance of magazines, publishers, radio stations, he was finally able to finance a journey to the feather-adorned Gumbay of Bermuda, to revolutionary Nicaragua, to the Black Caribs, to San Pedro Claver, trekking across the entire Third World–and in open revolt against all of this he’d force himself to spend five or six or seven hours at a time in the world of Greek letters.

He’d begun dreaming of Herodotus’ idioms.

In Hamburg Irma had been happy to study with him.

Jäcki found her reaction to his doggedness in proceeding in the face of beaches, misgivings, blood, and ceremonies amazingly unscientific.

He’d previously complained to Dulu how she refused to learn her vocabulary.

Even now she invented excuses.

The coffee was too weak. Her stomach too full.

She refused to review her imperatives.

–I don’t like imperatives.

–Neither do I. Look, either you decide to learn a foreign language or you don’t. Otherwise we’re going to be like a couple of old yentas who sit around for twenty years complaining that they never learned French.

She said that after an hour of paideuo she got all mixed up.

Jäcki thought that the only way anything could be imprinted upon his malaria- and antibiotic-ravaged memory was if he devoted hour after hour to rote memorization, immersing his entire being in Greek–it was not he who would master the language but the language that would master him. His bile ducts cramped up on the stones of Elephantine Island.

Gossip-hound, he wrote, angry and exhausted, in the margins of this archaic Fodor’s Guide.

Such a waste of time. He’d planned out his day all wrong. Wasting it on newspapers–war had just broken out or was about to, the generals in Chile had announced. Jäcki had wasted too much time hanging around the slums of Panama City at night.

But for the prose of Herodotus Jäcki felt an affinity: brief chapters, sometimes just a note, concetti, all very much like Jäcki’s work for radio: Völkerwanderungen reduced to a topic sentence.

Jäcki’s own stylistic imperatives, mediating reality through shards of misdirection and evasion, began to assert themselves anew on the Ionian and the Carian of Herodotus the Turk.

Jäcki thought the avidity he brought to his study was a hunger to survive through language.

Irma lacked this avidity.

–I won’t survive through words. I’ll live through my pictures.

–Silver nitrate.

–Right, and these assholes trying to corner the silver market–it’s not just a pocketbook issue for me, it’s life and death.

–They print my books in ink, and when the price of oil goes up my books sell worse.

–I learn things more efficiently than you, Irma said. –I can learn things a little at a time, the outlines–

–Thank you.

–But I retain them forever.

–How much Latin from the Girls’ Secondary School in Leipzig do you remember? When I learn a little at a time, I forget it all again. I prefer to learn a lot, so I retain more.

–Well, I need to go out and see it! This might be our only trip to Dangriga. Maybe no one else will ever do any research in Dangriga.

–I’d rather sleep in and then study my vocabulary. If only we’d brought a dictionary with us.

Jäcki had convinced himself he couldn’t write in German while he was learning Greek. But now, while studying Greek, he wanted to prove to himself that he didn’t have to rule out the possibility of putting together this research report, that all the words in the world were at his command once more.

–You have to see it, Irma said. –How else are you supposed to write about it? The beaches. The people. The dugu. The Black Caribs.

–We’ve gotten all of that down and sometimes we haven’t done anything with it. I’ll write you a dugu better than anything they could put on for you. I don’t need much–no camera, no darkroom, no Stern. A smudge of ink and something to put it on paper. Even the walk this morning was too much. Just a gesture is enough. You just have to be able to read.

–I think you’re contradicting yourself.

–I’d like to apply myself.

He remembered with horror how many roles he’d played on stage, and that most of his performances had been forgotten.

–For ten years I was up on the last word in agronomy and now I can’t even calculate a pH count.

But paideuo I know fluently, he thought.

He said: –Maybe it’s because Greek is a tremendously butch language.

–What about Sappho? What about Dulu? Irma said.

Jäcki had it all wrong, but he had his way.

He rattled off the optative of paideuo with Irma.

–My pedagogical Eros hangs in the balance. How am I going to get lazy students to learn von Lohenstein by heart or compare Yoruba rituals with Sophocles if I can’t get you to learn these enclitics?

He’d overpacked, spending weeks dickering with British Airways over first-class tickets.

They’d taken an entire suitcase of books on this trip. Three monographs on the slave trade in Cartagena de Indias, two biographies of San Pedro Claver, Henry James’ Washington Square, Irma’s photography books, two of each, to be distributed as gifts, photocopies of everything on the Black Caribs, two editions of Herodotus in Greek and two in German, an etymological dictionary, and Kaegi’s Greek grammar.

It was in the Panama Hotel (Afghanistan invaded, every Friday the Shah of Iran sitting unguarded in the lobby, the dispute over the tourist island of Sant’Andres serving as a pretext for the next world war) that Jäcki realized, between histämi and tithämi, what sort of Nicaragua they had fled to.

–Look at these notes on Herodotus, all the underlined entries in our dictionary. I’m sure that along with every middle-aged gay pornographer in the world the Hotel Interconti has the crème de la crème of international espionage. It’s so easy to assume a writer or pornographer is a spy. They shot a journalist in Nicaragua. On camera. His colleague snapping away with his Arriflex while his partner lay dying. If it came down to that, would anyone believe us if we claimed our translations weren’t coded messages?

–I’ve thought about that for a long time, Irma said.

–You should have let me know. I can’t imagine anyone misreading Herodotus so deliberately. I could have run with that.

They started sorting through all the Ancient Greek in their suitcases.

–Just the Kaegi. I’ll take that with me. A student grammar’s plausible.

–That’s absurd.

If he was willing to take a student grammar then he could take the Menge-Gütling: anyone who found Herodotus suspicious wasn’t going to be reassured by the Kaegi.

Irma and Jäcki had always hated school and schoolbooks.

While the Socialist Revolution was carrying out its literacy campaign, led by a Jesuit priest with the blessing of the archbishop, Irma and Jäcki had applied themselves to their Kaegi as few students of Greek ever had.  Throughout the grammar flickered the specter of Herodotus, while his body, all nine books of ethnography and history, the world in a suitcase, lay moldering in the baggage room of the Hotel El Panama.

Writing out lengthy lists of paideuo, just like Herodotus writing out his lengthy lists of Egyptian, of mortals and their fathers and forefathers descended from the gods, in lodging houses.

Then Jäcki and Irma tore up the lists, and Jäcki went to the bathroom and hurriedly tried to flush the scraps down the toilet, before he realized that under interrogation he could explain away a note card with paideuo on it in the trash can, but that scraps of paper covered with the uncial script clogging the toilet would be the end of him.

Jäcki trembled amidst graying gay pornographers mingling with the occasional ambassador: he had internalized a state of affairs in which he must worry about being taken for a spy, for he belonged to a guild that pretended to operate under the banner of the Enlightenment, of freedom of the press, but which tolerated this abuse, and continued to collaborate, snapping pictures of anyone going out to the pool.

Jäcki gathered up the cards with hithämi and tithämi, tore them up, stuffed them in suspicious places, and shoved them under the door for the ambassador.

The wet scraps he left in the toilet.

–Such a hard worker! he said, taking his quinine.



The maid came back with their laundry.

–My shift is over. I’m going home now. Time to see my family. See you tomorrow!

Irma sorted the laundry.

–I’m missing a pair of underwear, she said. One pair disappeared in Nicaragua, and another in Belize City. This is the third. If this keeps up I won’t have any left.

–That maid looks like a typical thieving magpie to me.



The hound, the wolf, and the jackal followed Irma and Jäcki all the way back to the hotel property line.

The dogs next door planted themselves in the flower beds and yapped.

The three big dogs hung back.

Jäcki called to them again.

They cautiously approached, moving up the narrow path.

–A giant’s corridor through dwarves’ territory. Scavengers’ politesse.

They would go no further. Jäcki called to them. He slapped his thigh and motioned to them–a gesture he hated–but the three dogs headed back to the Pelican Beach Hotel.

Irma weighed down with her two Leicaflex cameras.

Two wide-angle, three telephoto, and one standard lens, extra brushes, filters, film, f-stops, and silicon paper.

Jäcki gladly would have carried all of it for her. He would have handed her the equipment when she needed it.

He felt it was intrusive.

She didn’t want to be disturbed while she was working.

Jäcki was more easily distracted from his book, taking time to mull over some question about onions or Teltow turnips. Once upon a time he would take out the garbage between his Gyges and his Proust.

–Irma would drop everything for a photo. Would I drop everything for a book? Irma’s more indulgent.

Jäcki could see the eyes of his companion behind the sunglasses.

–The eyes of an uncertain vulture.

–The first step into the light of the snapshot.

–How will people respond?

–How will she respond?

–How will she respond to Dangriga when she starts taking pictures?

The wooden houses on stilts, indifferent to Marx and Shah.

–I’ll just take the camera out of the bag and wear it around my neck, Irma said.

–Just that.

Jäcki knew what that gesture meant.

–The doctor whipping out his scalpel, the magician his rabbit, the gigolo his cock.

Any danger in Dangriga of someone snatching her equipment, like in Guyana, Bahia, Abidjan?

She’d screamed so loud she scared herself, and she ran after the lanky Dogon who had choked her with her unbreakable camera strap. When she caught up with him a policeman appeared and grabbed him. The policeman took her camera. An old woman pulled on Irma’s skirt and pointed. Irma snatched her camera back from the policeman, jumped into a taxi, and started to cry.

–The Chinese shopkeepers here never heard of Leica. The thief would just fence it for half the price of an Instamatic.

–I could write with a disposable ballpoint pen on toilet paper. In Sweden I wrote on the elegant toilet paper they had at the home for emotionally disturbed boys:

“The painting of the houses in Dangriga differs from every other Afro-American culture. A milky, shimmering quality. Lots of yellow. Gall-green and gray. The color of the city seems to be Bordeaux red. The cloak on the Christ statue Bordeaux red, the schoolgirls’ uniforms Bordeaux red. You don’t see colors like that in Haiti, Brazil, Trinidad, or Grenada, and you don’t see those shades of brown.”

–Irma could never work with a piece of toilet paper. Do Black Caribs see her as some sort of sorceress, putting their faces in a flashing box, blowing them up in a dark room until they pop, cutting them up, squeezing the oil out of them, drilling holes in them, making gunpowder out of them, an evil fetish?

Irma advanced on a house.

Still some distance away.

She took out her biggest telephoto lens. When she focused it, it stuck out like something from a porno film.

No one covered their faces.

The woman on the balcony a hundred yards away smoothed her hair.

No one chased Irma away with pitch forks.

–In daylight the houses look shabbier, Jäcki thought.

–Scrap lying around among the stilts.

–Honestly, I can’t tell these people from Trinis or Haitians. Some have sharper features, but even in Haiti I saw people who reminded me of the Indians who met Columbus.

–Hey man! the standard greeting.

–Even the four-year-olds calling out -Hey man!

–There must have been some cowboy serial in the movies here with a lot of Hey mans!

–I could write:

“Five in the afternoon seems to be the hour for old women. They sit in groups underneath their houses. In groups they emerge from their yards, slowly walking out into the street.”

–Talking more about it later.

–Irma has a five-hundredth of a second, and she’s a failure or the most famous photographer in the world.

–What if those old women started to hobble over here, shrieking, lifting up their skirts, showing us their wrinkled asses? Not much of a friendly gesture, but what a photo!

The children said:

–Take my picture.

–Because they love witches. Thinking sorcerers don’t harm children: Eurocentric kitsch. A child was sacrificed at every dugu.

Between the stilts of her house an old woman was singing shrilly.

She saw Irma coming.

She went up the steps.

She disappeared in an instant, while the photographer was setting everything up for the shot.

Haughty young men let her photograph them.

–Paleface woman taking pictures of us in our tight pants! Jäcki said.

They came to the first bridge.

Jäcki recognized the skeleton of a boat in the structure, a wharf of palm fronds surrounding a lone hull.

He loved wharves like this, but wouldn’t dream of suggesting anything to Irma.

–In this light? she’d say, and she’d be right.

“No Black Man Killed Like Him” playing at the movies.

–How nice of the Americans to send the Black Caribs movies like this, Irma said.

–They eat it up.

Now she let him carry her camera bag, the previous hour’s insanity past.

–Have we gone far enough? Irma asked.

–I thought we could walk to the end of town–that way you could have the whole thing at once: same light, same material, a cross-section.

He said: –Your eyes haven’t gotten used to it yet. You’ll be taking a totally different set of pictures next time, and after that I assume you won’t be taking any more pictures of this town at all.

–What comes after this?

–I haven’t seen any more than you. Record shops, the Church of God, the photomat, the drug store. There’s a sign you should take a picture of: Licensed to Sell Poison.

He’d talked something else out.

You can damage a negative without looking at it.

Irma followed him.

–Look at that parrot walking on the fence!

–A parrot portrait!

In front of the green and red painted house a woman was standing, waiting for the parrot to strut over to her.

She put it on her arm and danced with it through the white laundry blowing in the yard.

–Did you see that woman’s eyes? Irma said.

–Like a raccoon.

There were three girls in disco outfits leaning against the second bridge.

–Working girls. Or are they transvestites?

–I’ve looked at so many books on transvestites I can’t tell the difference between them and women anymore.

–Their manly fingers, Jäcki said.

They had reached the end of town: the monument, the playground they had passed while Jäcki had been talking about the snake restaurant and the extinction of the Black Indians of Bahia.

Irma and Jäcki sat down on the modern concrete bench and tried to rest for a while.



Irma lingered in front of a junkyard.

–I wish I could just go around the world just taking pictures of junkyards.

–What’s stopping you?

–The cost. Who would publish it?

–Oh man. We worked our asses off in Hamburg just so you could save a couple rolls of color film?

–I’ll just take a picture of this. It looks good in this light.

The young men chopping wood that morning finishing up at sundown: at the mouth of the creek by the Pelican Beach Hotel they were fixing up a berth and a lean-to of palm fronds.

–That way they can beach their boats and sort their fish protected from the sun and rain.




That night dinner was available in the hotel.

The bartender walked past Irma and Jäcki. They said hello; he didn’t answer. He bared his teeth.

A threat, or just a piece of meat?

The waitresses presented a different face to the darkness than the daylight: different gestures, different moods.  Almost coquettish.

They brought out tray after tray of plain, unpretentious English colonial cuisine.

Once again Irma and Jäcki got up from the table unsatisfied.

As Jäcki was unlocking the door to their room, two men from the room next door said hello.

–Are they American?

–What else? You can hear it in their voices: it’s the plastic casing around the maxilla.

–There’s no such thing.

–A distinct physical innovation.

–They’re cute. Beautiful long curly hair.

–Beware secret agents with long curly hair.

The Americans stopped talking.

They stumbled around without speaking for a few more minutes. Setting up some sort of transmitter, maybe.

The previous night’s musty silence seemed cozier than these lumbering neighbors and their secrets.


Hubert Fichte

Self-identified as half-Jewish, illegitimate, and bisexual, the German writer Hubert Fichte (1935-1986) lived in Hamburg for most of his life. After spending part of the war in a Catholic orphanage, he later worked as a child actor on the Hamburg stage, an apprentice agronomist, a shepherd in Provence, and a counselor at a home for juvenile delinquents in Sweden. He turned to writing full time in his late twenties. His first novel, Das Waisenhaus (1965) (translated as The Orphanage by Martin Chalmers), was a critical success; his second, Die Palette (1968) was a succès de scandale and a bestseller. While continuing to publish novels, plays, essays, and journalism, Fichte spent the remainder of his life exploring syncretic religious practices among peoples of African descent in the New World (e.g., santería, voudun, candomblé, etc.). This "poetic ethnography," as he called it, resulted in more than a half dozen volumes (none translated into English): Xango, Petersilie, Lazarus und die Waschmaschine, Explosion, Das Haus der Mina in São Luiz de Maranhão, and the novel from which this excerpt is taken, Forschungsbericht, which is also one of the high points of his posthumously published projected nineteen-volume roman-fleuve, Die Geschichte der Empfindlichkeit (A History of Sensitivity).

Adam Siegel

Adam Siegel is Languages and Linguistics Librarian at the University of California, Davis. His translations from the German, Russian, Czech, and Polish have appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Context, InTranslation, and elsewhere.

Forschungsbericht. Copyright (c) S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 1989. English translation copyright (c) Adam Siegel, 2013.