Read In Times of Fading Light Online
Authors: Eugen Ruge
Translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Originally published under the title
In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts
Copyright © 2011 by Rowohlt Verlag GmbH, Reinbek bei Hamburg
Translation © 2013 by Anthea Bell
This publication is made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, and through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Significant support has also been provided by Target, the McKnight Foundation, Amazon.com, and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.
A Lannan Translation Selection
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With special thanks to Edwin C. Cohen.
The translation of this work was supported by a grant from the Goethe-Institut, which is funded by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Published by Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States of America
Print ISBN 978-1-55597-643-9
First Graywolf Printing, 2013
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013931482
Cover design: Kyle G. Hunter
for all of you
Wilhelm and Charlotte Powileit
(Charlotte Umnitzer by her first marriage)
Werner and Kurt Umnitzer,
Irina Umnitzer, née Petrovna,
son of Kurt and Irina
He had spent two days lying like the dead on his buffalo leather sofa. Then he stood up, took a long shower to wash away the last traces of hospital atmosphere, and drove to Neuendorf.
As usual, he took the A115. Gazed out at the world, wanted to see if it had changed. Had it?
The cars looked to him cleaner. Cleaner? Kind of more colorful. More idiotic.
The sky was blue, what else?
Fall had insidiously crept up on him behind his back, sprinkling the trees with little dabs of yellow. It was September now. So if they had discharged him on Saturday, this must be Tuesday. He’d lost track of the date over these last few days.
Neuendorf had recently acquired its own expressway exit road—by “recently,” Alexander still meant since the fall of the Wall. The exit road took you straight to Thälmannstrasse (which still bore the Communist leader’s name). The street was smoothly paved, with bicycle lanes on both sides. Renovated apartment blocks, insulated to conform to some EU norm or other. New buildings that looked like indoor swimming pools, called townhouses.
But you had only to turn off to the left and follow the winding Steinweg for a few hundred meters, then turn left again—and you were in a road where time seemed to stand still: narrow, lined with linden trees, sidewalks paved with cobblestones, with bumps and dents where tree roots had risen. Rotting fences swarming with firebugs. Far back in the gardens, behind tall grass, were the uncurtained windows of villas that at present, in attorneys’ offices far away, were the subject of legal dispute over the return of such properties to their original owners.
One of the few buildings still inhabited here was number 7 Am Fuchsbau. Moss on the roof. Cracks in the facade. Elder bushes already crowding in on the veranda. And the apple tree that Kurt always used to prune with his own hands now rose to the sky at its own sweet will, its branches tangled in wild confusion.
Today’s Meals on Wheels offering stood in its insulated packaging on the fencepost. He checked the date on it; yes, Tuesday. Alexander picked it up and went on.
Although he had a key, he rang the bell to see whether Kurt would answer the door. Pointless—anyway, he knew that Kurt would
answer the door. But then he heard the familiar squeal of the door into the corridor, and when he looked through the little window Kurt appeared, ghostlike, in the dim light of the small front room just inside the entrance.
“Open the door,” called Alexander.
Kurt came closer, gawping.
“Open the door!”
But Kurt didn’t move.
Alexander unlocked the door and hugged his father, although hugging him had been less than pleasant for some time. Kurt was smelly. It was the smell of old age, and it had sunk deep into his pores. Kurt was still smelly even when he had been washed and his teeth were brushed.
“Do you know who I am?” asked Alexander.
“Yes,” said Kurt.
His mouth was smeared with plum jam; the morning home health aide had been in a hurry again. His cardigan was buttoned the wrong way, and he was wearing only one slipper.
Alexander heated up Kurt’s meal. Microwave, safety catch switched on. Kurt stood there, watching with interest.
“Hungry?” asked Alexander.
“Yes,” said Kurt.
“You’re always hungry.”
“Yes,” said Kurt.
There was goulash with red cabbage (since the time when Kurt nearly choked to death on a piece of beef, the Meals on Wheels service had been asked to send meat only cut up small). Alexander made himself coffee. Then he took Kurt’s goulash out of the microwave, put it on the plastic tablecloth.
“Yes,” said Kurt.
He began to eat. For a while there was no sound apart from Kurt snuffling as he concentrated. Alexander sipped his coffee, which was still far too hot. Watched Kurt eating.
“You’re holding your fork upside down,” he said after a while.
Kurt stopped eating for a moment, seemed to be thinking. But then he went on; tried to push a piece of meat from the goulash on to the end of his knife with the fork handle.
“You’re holding your fork upside down,” Alexander repeated.
He spoke without emphasis, without any undertone of reproof, to test the effect of the mere statement on Kurt. None at all. Zero. What was going on inside that head? A space separated from the world by a skull, and still containing some kind of ego. What was Kurt feeling, what was he thinking when he picked his way around the room? When he sat at his desk in the morning and, so the women home health aides said, stared at the newspaper for hours on end? What was he thinking? Did he think at all? How did you think without words?
Kurt had finally shoved the piece of meat from the goulash onto the tip of his knife and, quivering with greed, was raising it to his mouth. A balancing act. It fell off. Second try.
What a joke, come to think of it, reflected Alexander. To think that Kurt’s decline had began, of all things, with language. Kurt the orator. The great storyteller. How he used to sit there in his famous armchair—Kurt’s armchair! How all and sundry would hang on his lips as Kurt the professor told his little stories. His anecdotes. And another funny thing: in Kurt’s mouth everything became an anecdote. Never mind what Kurt was talking about—even if he was telling you how he nearly died in the camp—it always had a punch line, it was always witty. Well, used to be witty. In the distant past. The last consecutive sentence that Kurt had managed to utter was: I’ve lost my powers of speech. Not bad. Brilliant, compared with his present repertory. But that was two years ago. I’ve lost my powers of speech. And people had genuinely thought, well, he’s lost his powers of speech, but otherwise ... Otherwise he still seemed to be, at least to a certain extent, all there. Smiled, nodded. Made faces that somehow fitted the context. Put up a clever pretense. But just occasionally he did something odd, poured red wine into his coffee cup. Or stood around holding a cork, suddenly at a loss—and then put the cork away on a bookshelf.
Today’s quota so far was pathetic; Kurt had managed only one piece of meat from the goulash. Now he was using his fingers as he wolfed it down. Looked surreptitiously up at Alexander, like a child testing his parents’ reaction. Shoved goulash into his mouth. And more goulash. And chewed.
As he chewed, he held up his fingers, covered with the sauce, as if taking an oath.
“If you only knew,” said Alexander.
Kurt did not react. He had finally found a method: the solution to the goulash problem. Stuffed it in, chewed it. The sauce ran down his chin in a narrow trail.
Kurt couldn’t do
these days. Couldn’t talk, couldn’t brush his own teeth. Couldn’t even wipe his bottom; you were lucky if he sat on the toilet to shit. The one thing that Kurt could still do, thought Alexander, the one thing he still did of his own accord, the one thing that really interested him, and to which he put the very last of his clever mind, was eating. Taking in nourishment. Kurt didn’t eat with relish. Kurt didn’t even eat because he liked the taste of his food (his taste buds, Alexander felt sure, had been ruined by decades of pipe smoking). Kurt ate to live. Eating = Life, it was an equation, thought Alexander, that he had learned in the labor camp, and he had learned it thoroughly. Once and for all. The greed with which Kurt ate, stuffing goulash into his mouth, was nothing but the will to survive. All that was left of Kurt. It was what kept his head above water, made his body go on functioning, a heart and circulation machine that had slipped out of gear but still kept working—and would probably, it was to be feared, keep working for some time yet. Kurt had survived them all. He had survived Irina, and now there was a very real chance that he would also survive him, Alexander.
A large drop of sauce formed on Kurt’s chin. Alexander felt a strong urge to hurt his father, to tear off a piece of paper towel and wipe the sauce roughly away from his face.
The drop quivered and fell.
Had it been yesterday? Or today? At some point in the last two days, when he was lying on the buffalo leather sofa (motionless, for some reason or other taking care not to touch the leather with his bare skin), at some point during that time the idea of killing Kurt had occurred to him. He had played out variants of the scene in his head: smothering Kurt with his pillow, or maybe—the perfect murder—serving him a tough steak. Like the steak on which he had nearly choked. And if Alexander, when Kurt went blue in the face, staggered about in the road and fell unconscious to the ground, if Alexander hadn’t instinctively turned him over to the stable position on his side, so that as a result the almost globular lump of meat, chewed to a gooey consistency, hadn’t rolled out of Kurt’s mouth along with his dentures, then Kurt would presumably be dead now, and Alexander would have been spared (at least) this last setback.
“Did you notice that I haven’t been to see you for a while?”
Kurt had started on the red cabbage now—some time ago he had reverted to the infantile habit of eating his meal in separate parts, first meat, then vegetables, then potatoes. Surprisingly, he had his fork back in his hand, and it was even the right way up. He went on shoveling red cabbage into his mouth.
Alexander repeated his question. “Did you notice that I haven’t been here to see you for a while?”
“Yes,” said Kurt.
“So you did notice, then. How long was it? A week, a month, a year?”
“Yes,” said Kurt.
“A year, then?” asked Alexander.
“Yes,” said Kurt.
Alexander laughed. And to him it really did feel like a year. Like another life, when the life that preceded it had been ended by a single banal sentence. “I’m sending you to Fröbelstrasse.”
That was all.
“The hospital there.”
Only once he was outside did he think of asking the nurse whether that meant he ought to take pajamas and a toothbrush with him. And the nurse had gone back into the consulting room and asked if that meant
ought to take pajamas and a toothbrush with him. And the doctor had said yes, it did indeed mean
ought to take pajamas and a toothbrush to the hospital with him. And that was it.
Four weeks. Twenty-seven doctors (he’d been counting). Modern medicine.
The assistant doctor who looked like a high school kid in his last year, who had examined him in a crazy reception area where people severely sick with something or other were groaning behind screens, and who had explained the principles of diagnostics. The doctor with the ponytail (very nice man) who claimed that marathon runners don’t get sick. The woman radiologist who had asked whether, at his age, he was thinking of having more children. The surgeon with a name like a butcher, Fleischhauer. And of course the pockmarked Karajan look-alike, Dr. Koch the medical director.
Plus twenty-two more of them.
And probably another two dozen lab assistants who put the blood they’d taken from him into test tubes, investigated his urine, examined his tissues under microscopes, or put them in centrifugal devices of some kind. And all with the pitiful, the positively outrageous result, that Dr. Koch had summed up in a single word.
So Dr. Koch had said. In his grating voice. With his pockmarked face. His Karajan hairstyle. Inoperable, he had said, rocking back and forth in his swivel chair, and the lenses of his glasses had flashed in time with his movements.
Kurt had finished the red cabbage. Was starting in on the potatoes: too dry. Alexander knew what would happen now if he didn’t put a glass of water in front of Kurt at once. The dry potatoes would stick in Kurt’s throat, he would have a noisy attack of hiccups, suggesting that he was about to bring up his entire stomach. Kurt could probably be choked to death on dry potatoes, too.
Kurt, funnily enough, was
Kurt had had three-quarters of his stomach removed. And with what stomach was left he ate as if he had been given an extra three-quarters of a stomach instead. Never mind what meal arrived, Kurt always cleared his plate. He had always cleared his plate in the past, too, thought Alexander. Whatever Irina put in front of him. He had eaten it up and praised it—excellent! Always the same praise, always the same “Thanks!” and “Excellent!” Only years later, after Irina’s death, when Alexander happened to cook for him now and then—only then did Alexander realize how humiliating that eternal “Thanks!” and “Excellent!” must have been for his mother, how it must have worn her down. You couldn’t accuse Kurt of anything. Indeed, he had never made demands, not even on Irina. If no one cooked for him, he would go to a restaurant or have a sandwich. And if someone did cook for him, he said thank you nicely. Then he took his afternoon nap. Then he went for his walk. Then he looked at his mail. Who could object to that? No one at all. That was exactly the point.
Kurt was dabbing up the last of the potato with his fingertips. Alexander handed him a napkin. Kurt actually wiped his mouth with it, folded the napkin again neatly, and put it beside his plate.
“Listen, Father,” said Alexander. “I’ve been in the hospital.”
Kurt shook his head. Alexander took his forearm and tried again, speaking with emphasis.
“I,” he said, pointing to himself, “have been in the hos-pi-tal! Understand?”
“Yes,” said Kurt, standing up.
“I’m not through yet,” said Alexander.
But Kurt did not react. Shuffled into the bedroom, still with only one slipper on, and took his pants down. Looked expectantly at Alexander.
“Your afternoon nap?”
“Yes,” said Kurt.
“Well, let’s change that diaper, then.”
Kurt shuffled into the bathroom. Alexander was just thinking that he had understood, but in the bathroom Kurt took his padded undershorts down a little way and pissed on the floor, his urine rising in a high arc.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Kurt looked up in alarm, but he couldn’t stop pissing.
By the time Alexander had showered his father, put him to bed, and mopped the bathroom floor, his coffee was cold. He looked at the time: around two o’clock. The evening home health aide wouldn’t come until seven at the earliest. He wondered briefly whether to take the twenty-seven thousand marks from the wall safe and simply walk out with it. But he decided to wait. He wanted to do it in front of Kurt’s eyes. Wanted to explain to him, even if that was pointless. Wanted Kurt to say yes to what he was doing—even if “yes” was the only word he ever uttered now.