God’s Busted Knee

(From Chapter 6: God’s Busted Knee, pp. 65-75 of the original text)

The man explained that he was interested in buying a sculpture and so would like to take a look at Dennis’ work. Dennis gave the man his address and they agreed to meet later that afternoon. As soon as he hung up, Dennis called me and asked me to come over straight away. The situation struck him as strange somehow.

I had just gotten in from a book hunting foray in the city and still had my coat on. I’d spent at least two hours browsing through countless crates of books in the Ubu secondhand bookstore–it was a waste of time, the books were all either tattered or much too expensive… Anyhow, I left right away for Wattenscheid. Not long after I’d gotten to Dennis’ place, his doorbell rang.

Dennis had warned me. Still, despite his colorful description, I expected an eccentric but perfectly dressed blue-blooded gentleman in a three-piece suit with a pocket handkerchief, mother-of-pearl buttons, and panache. Instead, a short, stocky, balding man stomped into the room wearing mouse-gray overalls, drenched in sweat and with beer on his breath.

“Hey, sorry ’bout the dirt,” he greeted us, “but I came from the construction site. Over that way, on Herna Street. An old fixer-upper. Where can I do my business?”

Lucky and Dog, who had welcomed me with snarls and bared teeth, were hiding behind God’s knee, not making a sound. As rigid as a little playmobil man, Dennis pointed at the toilet door, behind which the man disappeared. We looked at each other in horror as an extremely long drawn-out groan without a single vowel came from behind the door.


The toilet door opened again. The man hurried over to the window, settled himself with a little hop onto the window seat, and lit a cigarette.

“Would you perhaps care for something to drink?” Dennis asked. “I could make some tea? Black or green?”

“Thanks. Got my own,” the man answered. He pulled a hip flask from his back pocket and took a long swig.

“Boy, that does some good! So what’s with you?” he asked Dennis. “It’s all red around your nose.”

“I caught a cold,” Dennis explained. “You know, with the weather here you get the sniffles year-round.”

“You should lick some twat,” the man replied. “Always helps.”

Although my grandmother had given me all sorts of home cures over the years, this one was new to me.

“I’m Jupp,” the man said.

“Oh, hello Jupp. My name’s Dennis. And this here is my friend Mark. He, uhh, is a writer.”

I put my hand out, but Jupp ignored it.

“You two fairies?” Jupp asked.

“Not me,” I answered without missing a beat.

“I’m not either,” Dennis added. Jupp didn’t look like he bought our answers.

“Don’t give a shit,” he declared. “And that there’s supposed to be art?” One of his dangling legs bumped God’s knee.

“Exactly,” Dennis said. “Please don’t mind the cans.”

There were two sculptures in Dennis’ apartment at the time: one was “God’s Busted Knee” and the other his newly completed work, “Back with Birthmark.” In the second, Dennis was working through our failed theater production and his break-up with Lily. Dennis had explained that the word “birthmark” originated in the Middle Ages when they believed that birthmarks were caused by unsatisfied desires of the mother during pregnancy. Dennis didn’t read much, but he still amazed me now and again with obscure facts. He claimed he just watched the right television shows.

From the start, Jupp seemed to be interested only in “God’s Busted Knee.”

“Boys, I like that piece. Looks great, really does,” Jupp praised the work. “You know that sculpture is the king of the art forms.  With all the others you can cheat, but not with sculpture. Just one look and you know right away if it’s bullshit or not.”

Dennis and I nodded.

“Right now I’m building myself a man cave,” Jupp explained. “And I want to put a statue in it. None of those abstract things.  Anyone can do that. I want something really great, realistic! But none of them Hanson wax figures either.”

“Really?” Dennis smiled. “Then this piece will do,” he said. “By the way, it alludes to Thomas of Aquinas.”

“Naw, his teleological argument?” Jupp answered. “I get it. I’m Protestant, actually, but that Tommy’s one savvy guy.”

Dennis gradually warmed up and the two started in on an excited conversation. Most people you try to talk to about sculpture only know the Statue of Liberty in New York. Jupp, however, seemed to have grown up with all the most important sculptures from antiquity to the present day. His aesthetic sensibility and his judgment impressed me. I had completely underestimated him.

“You know, Duchamp made a mess of everything,” he explained. “Any idiot who could hold a chisel started banging on stone.  And all that garbage is sitting in the museums. Me, I think art should reflect nature. I like shapes I can grab hold of. If my kids are scrambling on this here knee, I don’t want it falling over. I like that thing, you can’t say anything against it. If you’re gonna carve a knee, it’s gotta look like one. And this does.”

“Thanks very much,” Dennis said, embarrassed. “I worked on it a long time.”

“I can tell,” Jupp said. “Most of what you get today is crap. Claudel was the last ace of her profession. If she hadn’t spent so much time sucking Rodin’s dick, she’d have been really great. Rilke was supposed to deal with all that. You read anything by Claudel’s brother?”

Jupp pointed his finger at me.

“No, unfortunately not,” I said, shaking my head.

“Really! Well you should jump right in,” he said. “‘The Silken Shoe’ is crazy good.”

Then Jupp turned back to Dennis.

“So tell me, how much is that piece supposed to cost?”

I could read it in his face: Dennis was about to give the knee to Jupp. He had never thought about prices–there wouldn’t have been any point whatsoever up to now.

“Tell you what,” Jupp said, “I’ll give you two thousand smackers and we’ll be set.”

TWO THOUSAND SMACKERS… All at once, the blood seemed to drain from Dennis’ head. TWO THOUSAND SMACKERS!  For that amount, Dennis would have carved him a true to scale copy of the Hermann Monument.

Speechless, Dennis agreed.

“Understanding art means buying it,” Jupp laughed and winked at me.

He pulled a wad of bills from his pocket, counted out the sum and pressed the bills into Dennis’ hand. Then he showed us pictures of his family and his man cave. Jupp had originally wanted to be a sculptor, but in middle age he opted for real construction.

Once he had gone through his hip flask, Jupp left. He wanted to stop by the next day with a coworker to pick up the sculpture.  They showed up at Dennis’ as punctual as springtime. Jupp’s coworker was Polish and had a passion for Ottoman art and culture–he bought Dennis’ “Back with Birthmark” anyway.

We effortlessly loaded the sculptures onto the trailer. Jupp and his friend got in the car and drove away. The money really was legit. We gazed after them for a while. It all seemed like a dream.


Marc Degens

Marc Degens is a publisher, musician, and author of novels, short stories, essays, poems, and columns. Born in 1971 in Essen and based now in Bonn, he is publisher and literary editor of the online feuilleton, satt.org, which features essays on and reviews of German-language literature of the 20th and 21st centuries, comics, and pop culture. He is also editorial director of the SuKuLTuR publishing house and publisher of its Schöner Lesen series of 111 works by young German authors that are sold through vending machines in the Berlin subway system. After living in Armenia for three years, where he curated the 2009 exhibit "New German Newspaper Comics," Degens was writer-in-residence in Novi Sad, Serbia as part of the "Little Global Cities" project, before returning to Germany to co-conceive and moderate "The Enthusiasm Show," a "feuilleton for the stage." Degen's collection of columns first published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, titled Unsere Popmoderne (2005), presents excerpts from 28 fictional works of contemporary literature with commentary on their fictional authors. His latest works are a new edition of Unsere Popmoderne (2010) and the novel Das kaputte Knie Gottes (2011).

Tess Lewis

Tess Lewis is a translator from German and French and an Advisory Editor of The Hudson Review. In 2009, she was awarded a PEN Translation Fund Grant for her translation of Alois Hotschnig's stories and an NEA Translation Fellowship. Her translations include works by Peter Handke, Lukas Bärfuss, Julya Rabinowich, Jean-Luc Benoziglio, and Pascale Brückner. Tess Lewis also writes essays on literature for numerous literary journals including Bookforum, The Hudson Review, World Literature Today, The American Scholar, and The New Criterion.

Das kaputte Knie Gotte. Copyright (c) Knaus, 2011. English translation copyright (c) Tess Lewis, 2012.