Silence at Last


Pages 113-122


I said to myself again and again that I should have refrained from answering his very first question at the Strasbourg railway station and simply gone on my way, but with every further hour we spent together it would become a more delicate matter to make a clean break and flatly announce, “That’s enough!” The right moment had long since been missed, had flown, was forever past. If Friedrich did not go off to his prostitute or to Mount Athos or somewhere else tomorrow or the next day or at least in the coming week, I would have no choice but to put my foot down, but I was constantly puzzling over how such an act could be realized decisively and yet in as uncomplicated a manner as possible without encountering new resistance. I imagined ever-changing variants of situations in which this could be accomplished: before going to bed, at breakfast, as a sort of aside in a bar; in one case resolutely, in another considerately; sometimes ruthlessly, sometimes with an appeal for understanding; with composure or seething with rage; but in any case with such determination that Friedrich would be left with absolutely no room to maneuver. Whether I was lying awake in bed or sitting with him in my kitchen or driving around the region with him or spending the evening in the Crooked Tower, my thoughts circled with increasing nervousness around this coming performance, which increased my sense of powerlessness with each new delay. I wanted to be armed against every possible objection and take into consideration every conceivable form of resistance before I experienced a new defeat. But precisely this fearful pondering, this constant delay, and the empty hope that tomorrow the decisive moment would arrive as if automatically paralyzed me that much more.

Sometimes late at night in the Crooked Tower Friedrich still started talking about Schubert’s music, about its restlessness and its peace, its euphoria and ruin, its folk-song elements and disruptions, which in it lay so close together that they could hardly be distinguished from each other. Almost every time he indulged himself in these constantly identical evocations, he interrupted himself with the sentence, “In Cameroon no one cares about this music, and when I am down there, I will in time forget it as though it had never existed!” Friedrich needed no foil to deliver cue words, to follow up or dissent. When he was drunk, he circled around in conversations with himself which proceeded independently of those sitting at the table but nevertheless required listeners. Sometimes he swung himself up via far-fetched images and comparisons to aphoristic personal interpretations for which, as was suggested by his self-congratulatory smirk and expectant look, he wished to be admired. “I have long lived in an empty church whose side exits lead to a bordello,” he once maintained, but I never knew how I was to react to such pronouncements. The many hours in the Crooked Tower always made me at once tired and restless, so that sometimes long before midnight I would already just be sitting with my head in my hands as though mentally absent. I could have stood up and left at any time, but each time I wanted first to gather myself for an attack and make clear to him that he should pack his bags and clear out. When, lost in thought, I looked through and past him, Friedrich awakened me by calling me changing names that were supposed to sound comradely. I was then called Joe, Charlie, Jack, or Bobby, and this lordly desire to rename one according to his whim seemed to have as its goal the testing of boundaries with regard to how far one might go. Rather than revolting, I then retreated into a rigidity like that of animals who find nowhere to run and play dead while waiting for the situation to become less dangerous.

For the first time in my life I was confronted with a being that knew no instinctive distance. While I had often felt blindsided, harassed, or pressured into things that I allowed to happen to me, even if it might have been only that guests had sat in my kitchen until dawn despite the fact that for hours I had hardly done anything but yawn or that I had been damned to take on certain seminar or lecture themes, all of that could easily be lived with. It got on one’s nerves but passed. It was an aspect of daily business because one must get along with others, is subject to a system of rules, and does not wish to be considered antisocial but also, and particularly, because one feels a quiet fear that one could be dependent on help one day and could then have maneuvered oneself into a hopeless solitude through excessive isolation. Nothing could have prepared me for an experience like the one that came my way with Friedrich, although there had been enough situations in which I had hastily withdrawn and banked on everything taking care of itself.

In order to delay the beginning of the day as long as possible, I clung to scraps of dreams and rolled the interrupted films from the beginning again until the last remnant of artificially sustained tiredness was exhausted. I tossed and turned until after noon even though the heat was trapped under the roof and I would have liked to flee into my room, in which the barred shutters absorbed the heat. It was intolerable to have to admit to myself upon seeing the cloudless sky that I am no longer even able to defend my own bed. At this time, the intruder who had unnoticeably transformed himself into my roommate was already sitting in the kitchen, where he slouched on the corner bench in his undershirt and underpants with his hairy legs stretched out, slurped coffee, flipped through my newspaper, smoked with the door open, filling half the apartment with smoke, and every time I finally appeared in the hall remarked, with a mocking undertone and without looking up, as though he were speaking with himself alone, “He slept for a long time again!” Every day we were hung over, I more than he, probably because such a way of life had long since become a habit for him, while I woke early in the morning with a buzzing head and tried to go on sleeping simply because of the pain, only to be confronted by a bulging face in which–as had earlier been the case only rarely–watery eyes radiated a dejection that I would have preferred to wipe away when I looked in the mirror for the first time at midday. I was ashamed of myself without wanting to admit it, and when I tried to feel sorry for myself, then what was behind this emotion was only the anger at having given myself up to such a great extent in such a short time that I no longer appeared to possess a will of my own or to rule myself within the confines of my own four walls. That, too, was a reason to flee with Friedrich to an Asian lunchroom at midday and to the Crooked Tower in the evening. Since I had started spending the days with him, or, as one might more appropriately put it, since this person had wedged himself into my life, I had not wanted to look in the eye anyone who knows me as the man as whom I usually appear. I did not want people to see how little I had become next to this monster from one day to the next, and I also did not want people to see in my face, etched as it was by far too much alcohol, the traces of a shame that–as the mirror reminded me daily–could no longer be denied and covered over with joviality.

When we sat in Mister Wong, which was located just a few hundred meters away, to have our late breakfast, which coincided with lunch, the sweat poured down us after the first bites as if we were in a sauna. Anyone could see that it was less the temperatures or the spicy food than alcoholic evaporation that transformed our hair into wet strands and our shirts into sticky rags. I was disgusted by the stink of my own breath and sweat, and I would have preferred to drink the day’s first beer with my lunch already, as Friedrich usually did, in order to be able to tolerate this state of affairs. But at least at this midday hour I still forced myself to remain sober with the intention of finally breaking the fatal circle today. I constantly felt as if my chest were being crushed from within and as if I had been petrified, as if I were having difficulty breathing, and as if there were a constant danger that I would start crying. All this could only be alleviated by alcohol, although I would not feel much better in the Crooked Tower in the evening. In contrast to earlier, when I had occasionally felt affected by such pressures, these depressive moods now no longer ebbed away but rather concentrated themselves into feelings of oppression which might not even have been apparent but which already on the way to Mister Wong generated the wish to lie in bed again and sleep through so many days that everything would have worked out as if by itself. Because this dull, foggy, self-accusing sick feeling would not end and I could no longer stand myself, I even began to entertain thoughts of the most extreme options.

Usually while we were eating, Friedrich, with the newspaper opened out and held between us like a wall, read horrific items from the “Around the World” section, such as the report regarding a Belgian priest who had dismembered a dozen women and buried them behind his house, or the one regarding an old man who had gone on living with his dead friend for days in the belief that the other was not speaking with him because he was sulking, or the story of a young Japanese woman who had appeared at her own funeral after her parents had identified an accident victim as their daughter. He presented such curiosities to me daily, and he once told me that he had hung in his kitchen death notices from which it was possible to deduce the cause of death as suicide. He said that the absence of Bible quotes and tiny, insignificant items indicated this, for example the formulation “We still cannot comprehend it.” Usually the words of farewell were particularly lovingly formulated, as though the guilt feelings of the survivors could be detected in them. For years he had clipped such notices in order to have the feeling of having survived already while he was eating his breakfast. When I remarked that he had already mentioned his suicidal fantasies in Strasbourg, he responded by saying, “They are the best protection against actual suicide. If one surrenders to them daily, nothing can happen to one anymore.”

Why don’t I just leave him sitting in Mister Wong, I asked myself every time he was declaiming drastic little notices through the newspaper and might not even have noticed had I already been gone. But this would have helped me little, since his suitcases were standing in my hallway and he could have rung my doorbell at any time. He had received the new, unlisted number over the telephone himself and had later teased me by saying that I probably liked to change every few weeks. Because sneaking out would have been hopeless, I waited in Mister Wong every time until he said, “What should we do now?” In leaving the restaurant, he put his hat on, stood on the stairs with hands on hips, looking left and right, as though hoping to catch something in the street life, and in doing so blocked people’s passage through the doorway without wanting to notice. Then we trotted back to the apartment while I constantly feared we would encounter someone I knew–a student or in the worst case Grandstetter or Hiroshi. I was glad that Marie was in Sumatra, and I had to bring it about that Friedrich was gone from Basel the day before her return at the latest. “Let us go to Zürich; I would like to meet your African girlfriend,” I pressed him more than once in the hope of finally getting rid of him and his suitcases. But one time he claimed that she was usually in Cameroon in the summer; another time that she had moved and he did not have her new address; and a third time he declared, “After all, I don’t know if she would even know me anymore.”

About fourteen days after the supper in the Bodega, the Grandstetters approached us on the Rhine bridge at night while we were taking our usual route home from the Crooked Tower. I did not notice the pair until it would have been much too noticeable to cross to the other side of the street, and I therefore whispered to Friedrich that they were the colleague I had mentioned previously and his spouse, at which point Friedrich, without my being able to prevent this, walked purposefully over to the two, stood himself up in front of them, made a sweeping gesture and executed a curtsey, playing the obedient servant, and addressed the consternated pair with “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Pepe!” “Please excuse him, he is completely drunk,” I said, and introduced my companion as a pianist–God knows why, no doubt out of sheer helplessness, or in order to prevent an utter disaster. “We see that,” Mrs. Grandstetter mocked, and her husband punished me with a destroying glance as he jeered, “Have you surrendered yourself to affect today, esteemed colleague? We all suffer under its power. But of course Spinoza can serve you as a remedy again tomorrow!” “Do you know how we came to know each other?” Friedrich interrupted him, and rounded his mouth to a kiss and struck me on the shoulder and whispered to the two: “We recently became acquainted in a bordello in Strasbourg.” I tried to grin and, excusing myself, wished the two a good night, yanked Friedrich away by his arm, ordered him to keep his mouth shut, confronted him after we had gone twenty paces, would have preferred to strike him in the face, and knew at this moment that the time had finally come to put his suitcases outside the door and eject him without a final greeting. “Come on, we’ll piss in the big runnel!” he bellowed, and, as so often occurred, his laughter became a coughing fit during which I wished he would choke to death.

He shoved me with his elbow and jabbed me in the side as if we were students who had really needled their teachers on the street at night. “Do you know what the best thing about you is?” he joked, but I did not want to know. “That’s enough!” I snapped, after which he stroked me with the words “Don’t get into a bad mood all of a sudden!” Since he had arrived in Basel, the inwardly torn musician he had played in Strasbourg had been little in evidence. It was not just since this evening that I had constantly feared wild actions that could not only damage my reputation but could also have more serious consequences. Although most of the time it seemed that nothing was left of him but a phlegmatic who was occupying an apartment and letting himself go and in the process ruining my life with astonishing effectiveness, he remained unpredictable.


Karl-Heinz Ott

Karl-Heinz Ott was born in Ehingen an der Donau in 1957. He has an academic background in philosophy, German studies, and musicology, and has worked as a director of incidental music at theaters in Germany and as a dramaturg at theaters in Germany and Switzerland.

His debut novel Ins Offene ("Into the Open") was published in 1998 and won the Förderpreis of the Friedrich-Hölderlin-Preis der Stadt Bad Homburg (1999) and the Thäddaus-Troll-Preis (1999). Endlich Stille ("Silence at Last"), his second novel, was published in 2005 and won three literary prizes: Alemannischer Literaturpreis (2005), Candide Preis (2006), and Preis der LiteraTour Nord (2006). Italian and French translations of the novel have been published. Ott is the author of two additional novels, Ob wir wollen oder nicht ("Whether We Want to or Not," 2008) and Wintzenried (2011), as well as a monograph on Georg Friedrich Händel, Tumult und Grazie ("Tumult and Grace," 2008). He is the author or co-author of several plays and stage adaptations. He has been honored with a number of literary prizes in addition to those he received for Ins Offene and Endlich Stille, most recently the Wolfgang-Koeppen-Preis (2014). Ott lives in Freiburg im Breisgau.

Peter Sean Woltemade

Peter Sean Woltemade is an American-born literary and commercial translator based in Copenhagen. After earning a Bachelor of Arts at Ohio Wesleyan University, he studied modern and medieval German literature at the University of Freiburg and Nordic languages and literature at Uppsala University. He is the recipient of a Fulbright-Hays Graduate Fellowship (Berlin, 2003-2004) and a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship (Copenhagen, 2004-2005). He holds a PhD in medieval German literature from the University of California at Berkeley. He has worked with translators Shaun Whiteside, Maureen Freely, and Sasha Dugdale, and is currently translating Maja Elverkilde's volume of short stories Det dør man af ("This Will Kill You") (Forlaget Republik, 2014) in consultation with the author. He may be reached at [email protected].

Endlich Stille. Copyright (c) Hoffmann und Campe Verlag, Hamburg, 2005. Third print run 2005. English translation copyright (c) Peter Sean Woltemade, 2014.