How the Trash Gets Sorted,
by Iris Hanika

AT THIS WEEK'S FESTIVAL NEUE LITERATUR, A CRASH COURSE IN CONTEMPORARY GERMAN LITERATURE

February 24, 2016  By Iris Hanika
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Iris Hanika will be appearing as a featured writer at the Festival Neue Literatur. The following excerpt is translated by David Dollenmayer.

How the Trash Gets Sorted

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* * * *

Part One

Confusion (The Present)

Intending to live a genuine, honest, and therefore fulfilling life, Antonius had made the following resolutions:

  • Visit shopping centers to reinforce misanthropy; however, be prepared for detours to avoid sight of the Alexa Mall. Walk through town with eyes open. Keep list of city’s ugliest buildings (purpose still unclear).
  • Never take arms off table while eating. Always hold fork with three fingers, immediately aft of the tines; do not raise fork to mouth but bend mouth down to fork. Hold spoon in same way, knife by the blade. Slurp soup (only in company).
  • Chew gum with mouth open (ditto in company).
  • Keep home trash cans emptied; also clean up all public spaces (model: neatly dressed older man in the streetcar who took barbeque tongs and a plastic bag out of his briefcase, picked up a plastic cup, and put it into the plastic bag. A child had been playing soccer with the cup and the man went into action only after the child had exited the streetcar).
  • No hypocritical embarrassment at being so self-centered; instead, flaunt it by insisting on more talk about yourself (model: joke about the actor who says, “But I’ve been talking about myself the whole time; now let’s hear what you think of me!”).
  • Talk about others only when direct connection can be established with yourself: “my friend,” “my teacher,” etc. When necessary to talk about complete strangers, then “Soandso whom I really respect” or “the adorable Blablabla,” etc. Refer to support staff as “my barber,” “my dentist,” etc. However, “my mother” only with a dismissive, apologetic smile to make clear that “my mother” is an utterly impossible figure whose steadfast love makes her inherently ridiculous and impossible to take seriously. In response to anything people tell you, say you learned about that long ago and it has been, and will continue to be, of enormous importance in your life.
  • Laugh only at your own jokes. Permit mirth only on your own terms. Allow others to laugh only at your jokes. However, if they try to tell one of their own, do not laugh at all but respond with something serious, something that will sound like a rebuke. In this way, protect yourself against others being impertinent enough to think they’re funny or have the right to spread mirth.

At the very time he was absorbed in formulating these resolutions, he happened to reach the end of Turm Strasse in the Moabit neighborhood—not the end where the courthouse is, but the other end—while looking for the Lebanese bakery. There, within the space of five minutes, he saw three people wearing t-shirts with the following messages:

  • Fuck you / I have enough friends (across the chest)
  • Get lost (across the back)
  • Police (also across the back, but of a real policeman and part of his uniform) (Policemen in t-shirts!)

He realized that he was following a general trend and found himself in the midst of social discourse. This gave him a cozy feeling of satisfaction.

The idea for these resolutions had come to him once when he was visiting his sister and accidentally spilled half a cup of coffee with milk on her new carpet. She rushed cursing into the kitchen and he followed. And while she was wetting a rag under the faucet, he said he’d like a cup of tea after all, and would she make him one when she was done cleaning the carpet? He’d said it quite spontaneously and later realized that he’d already begun to behave according to his resolutions and what he’d done was thus right. Even before he’d formulated them, this way of acting had become the lodestar of his life. He felt at peace with himself. It went something like this:

The mother is lying on the couch reading the paper. The child is playing in the kitchen, where the father is cooking. The grandmother is sitting in the tavern playing cards, while the grandfather is making the living room into a dining room.

But that’s not really the way Antonius wanted to be. He’d only drawn up these resolutions out of loathing for the world, after having discovered that that was the way everybody else acted, and since he didn’t understand how they could, he had to make a special effort to do it too. He thought perhaps he could protect himself from other people’s intrusive demands by mirroring them, by simply turning them around. His good intentions were an act of self-defense and in the end, shared the fate of all good intentions, namely, to be strictly not followed, but only sometimes to give rise to a melancholy smile (but at least not a bad conscience).

Both to accelerate the process of getting to know each other and to make their friendship a profound one, he told Antonina about his good resolutions. Antonina found them very interesting and very good. She said she wanted to adopt them herself, and already they felt that much closer to each other. But it didn’t bother them, for neither of them had problems with distance and closeness.

Background information

His good intentions were only part of a much larger resolution to do nothing but pointless things.

 

Further background information

He was very familiar with the Russian genius Daniil Kharms—that is, with his work, of course. But you can’t exactly say that either, so let’s try this: at some point in his life, Antonius had certainly made the acquaintance with a part of the part of Kharms’s work that had been translated into German and was / has been / had been published. But that had no direct influence on the important decisions about his life, for when he made them, he didn’t do it in the consciousness that he was familiar with Daniil Kharms’s work. He was not particularly conscious of this familiarity when he gave up working (and thus his job, making it available to a person who didn’t mind being remunerated for obeying someone else’s orders). Having decided not to do anything meaningful from then on, however, Antonius had clearly realized that if he was really serious about it, the first thing he had to do was stop earning money, because in the social circumstances in which he lived, that was considered the most meaningful activity of all.

For money one could have everything one needed to live.
Everything one needed to live, one could have for money.
Whatever one needed to live, it could all be had for money.
For money was to be had everything one needed to live.
For money and only for money?
What did one need to live? Everything?
Everything or money.
Antonius, however, wanted everything except money. For he really had enough of that already.

Homage to Daniil Kharms

Antonius would have liked to be able to raise his right leg—stretched straight out to the very tips of his toes and simultaneously rotated sideways as far as possible—to the height of his forehead, while his left foot was also rotated sideways but his left leg was anchored as firmly as an old birch tree and his arms were gracefully spread. But he never succeeded, no matter how many times he tried. The fact that it didn’t work the first time he could accept. “Practice makes perfect,” he thought. But he still couldn’t do it after five tries; no, every time he tried, he swayed like a young birch tree in a storm and almost fell over. And his right leg barely made it above his waist.

Furious, he traveled to the sea to try it there, but discovered that the exercise was even less successful on the beach sand than on the sprung floor of the ballet school, which is why he returned home even more furious (if possible!).

He told Antonina, who didn’t want to believe it, that the beach resort of Heringsdorf was a shithole.

To console him on the one hand and reproach him on the other, she pointed out that, after all, very few people were able to raise their right leg—stretched straight out to the very tips of their toes and simultaneously rotated sideways as far as possible—to the height of their forehead, to say nothing of what the rest of their body was supposed to be doing at the same time. She told him he shouldn’t watch the other students in the ballet school so much,

End of the homage to Daniil Kharms

and instead, enjoy how his muscles vibrated and hurt during the exercises at the bar. It was a good piece of advice, but this reproachful consolation, this consoling reproach

naturally did
NOT
please Antonius,
and he put his leg in a cast.
And now that it’s in plaster,
it can’t go any faster.
“And that’ll teach it!” said he.

Assignment:

  1. What will that teach it? And what is “that” anyway?
  2. Why does anyone talk about a part of their own body as “it”? To what extent does such talk follow the rules of grammar and life experience?
  3. Given the weight of the right leg of an adult male of average height and weight, how many rolls of plaster bandage do you need to immobilize / decommission the leg? How much force is necessary to raise the leg in its plaster cast so that its foot reaches the height of the average male’s forehead, in this case approx. 6 feet above the ground?

as we get older and stop making sense

Antonius wasn’t his real name; ditto for Antonina. (Moreover, it must be said that in reality there was no Antonina; Antonius had thought her up once when—strangely enough—he was suffering acutely from being completely alone, although that’s exactly what he’d chosen for himself after a long stretch of never being alone and suffering acutely from it.) (Until her early death, there hadn’t been a Magelone either.) They had given themselves these names because they didn’t like the names their parents gave them. They thought they weren’t up-to-date enough; they didn’t like it that people could tell immediately how old the names—and thus the bearers of those names—were. With their new names, however, not only didn’t they feel as old as they were (which wouldn’t have been unusual, since nobody over thirty does), they felt timeless. And there was something else, too.

Antonius’s real name was Manfred and Antonina’s was Renate. (In real reality, his name was and always had been Antonius, since that’s the name his parents gave him, but he imagined that he had been embarrassed by it in his childhood and youth and had wished to be called Manfred; he imagined that back then, he had imagined that it would make his life easier.) When Manfred decided to be Antonius from then on, Renate said that in that case, she wanted to change her name too. They both thought it was a good idea and what they especially liked was giving themselves names that showed they belonged together. Manfred said he thought “Antonius” sounded better than “Anton.” It had a fuller sound and in addition was both funnier and more serious – funnier and more serious than “Anton,” that is. It was an unusual effect he had never noticed with any other name. As he thought about it, however, other, similar names occurred to him: first the classic “Otto,” then “Hans” (Arrivederci, Hans. / Thanks for the lovely dance), then (oh please can’t we dance another dance or two), but then he couldn’t (there’s no one who can dance as well as you), but then he couldn’t think of any more names like that. Anyway, it didn’t matter a bit because the only name that was important was the one he had chosen and that had occurred to him all by itself, without his ever having heard of someone named Antonius (because he was the only one he knew). And so he was the only one (i.e., also in real reality).

“Antonina,” on the other hand, was a name Renate had very definitely heard before, namely, at a time when she was interested in Isaac Babel. It was a Russian name. Babel’s widow, Antonina Pirozhkova, had published a volume of memoirs about her husband with the title At His Side: The Last Years of Isaac Babel. Renate thought the name went perfectly with “Antonius.” “Antonia” would have gone with “Anton” and Renate actually liked it better than the Russian variation because it was easier to pronounce, but since now it was very important to emphasize her commonality with Manfred alias Antonius (or Antonius alias Manfred), “Antonina”—which not only had the same number of syllables but was also almost more clearly syllabified than “Antonius”—was better than “Antonia.” Although “Antonina” was a bit cumbersome to pronounce, there was something exotic about it, which added to its value. The exotic thing about Manfred’s new (old) (actual) name was—depending on how you looked at it—its elegant erudition or its erudite elegance.

“I mean, we always wear the same anoraks,” Renate had said. “The sizes are just different and one’s styled for women and one for men, but they’re from the same company and almost the same color. Why not have such practically identical names too?” Yes, why not?

“Seems really logical to me,” Renate had said.

“Me too,” Antonius had answered.

And so it was that they both changed their names.

To be sure, they didn’t tell their friends or the county clerk’s office about it, since the names were meant only for them and nobody else. Because they belonged together and neither of them wanted to be with anyone else as much as with each other. And when they called each other by name, it was never as if they were calling each other, but themselves, and they liked that. (It must be said, however, that neither one actually had any friends they would have been able to or obliged to or would have wanted to tell.)

Background Information

Since this nonsense was no homage to Daniil Kharms but more like an insult to his memory, such a fuss and bother was only briefly able to serve Antonius as a lodestar, very very briefly, actually only as long as an idea lasts, thus only as long as it takes for an idea to collide with reality and be destroyed in the process. In other words, he immediately abandoned this fuss and bother the second it had flashed through his brain during the endless hours he spent on the Internet. And he did the same with Antonina.

* * * *

Antonius ∞ Gabriele

The telephone rang again.

Then a third time.

Before it could ring a fourth time, however, he had already gotten there, picked up the receiver, and pressed it to his ear the right way around, so that the party on the other end of the connection could hear him shout “Hello?!” It was a female party, namely “It’s me,” whereupon he continued to shout, “Sorry I knew you were calling but I was just distracted that’s why I didn’t right away because I was in the other room I was on the sofa I was just distracted.” “No problem,” said Gabriele. “Don’t shout so loud. I can hear you fine,” and so the appropriate tone for this conversation had been struck. It was always the same.

Gabriele began the conversation by pointing out that his father’s seventy-fifth birthday was coming up soon.

“Oh jeez,” said Adrian.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Gabriele.

“I dunno, just what it says. It means ‘oh jeez.'”

“There’s going to be a big party,” said Gabriele.

“Of course,” said Adrian. Then he repeated, “Oh jeez.”

“Yeah, OK, got it,” his wife answered, not in a friendly voice. Then came a pause, because in reality, they didn’t have a thing to say to each other. It’s true that Adrian hadn’t left Gabriele, he’d left the life he had lived with—no, not with, but next to—her. But seen from the outside, it made no difference. For since that was exactly the life she was a part of, of course he had left her too.

Oh jeez.

Then he said “Hey . . .” and right away, paused.

“Yes?” she asked.”What?”

“Hey,” he made a fresh start, “how’re you doing anyway?”

“How am I doing?”

“Yeah.”

“You want to know how I’m doing.”

“Yeah. What’re you up to? What’re you interested in?”

“Wow” was all she said. She’s probably thinking it over, Antonius thought, and waited patiently for the answer. Long pauses didn’t bother him, they never had. He didn’t care if nobody said anything. After all, who knew better than he how hard it was to say something when you actually don’t want to say anything at all. Finally—and as expected—she started talking again.

“You know what,” she said, “that’s no way to talk to a friend. Quizzing them. That’s not a conversation, it’s an interrogation. It’s no way to talk.”

Adrian thought it was an unusual answer, and saw immediately that it was totally justified. He didn’t apologize, however, because he’d never apologized for anything in his life; he a) had no idea how to do it, and b) hadn’t the foggiest notion on which occasions or for what you were supposed to apologize. Or even were obliged to apologize. Instead, although it sounded like he was lecturing her, he asked:

“If that’s no way to talk, then how are we supposed to find out anything about each other?”

It was a very good question! How can we find out about each other? Is it really only by cracking open someone’s cranium and pulling the thoughts out of their brain cells? Isn’t there a more pleasant alternative for communication and commerce?

“Adrian,” she said at last, sounding a little shaky—that is, her voice sounded a little shaky—”You don’t really give a damn.”

“True,” he agreed.

“So why are you asking?”

“Just because.”

Pause.

“Have you got a boyfriend?”

Pause.

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” she answered, not sounding shaky anymore, but a little annoyed. “I have a friend, someone who understands me and talks to me and is on my side.”

“I see,” he said. “That’s a different story.”

“Exactly, it’s a different story.”

“Yes, it’s a different story all right.”

Pause.

“How about you?” she asked. “Do you have a friend? Or a girlfriend?”

Antonius didn’t have to think that one over at all, because he had his friend Antonina whose real name was Renate, and besides, he was a widower whose wife’s name had been Magelone. But he didn’t say any of that, since here he wasn’t being addressed as Antonius, who once would have preferred to be named Manfred. Here he was speaking as Adrian, which was what he’d been called in his childhood and as a young man, as well as in the undissolved marital state, which at this very moment was being actively experienced and therefore cultivated. So it was Adrian who answered:

“No, I don’t have anybody. I’m alone, just as I always wanted to be.”

Gabriele was silent. Thus arose one more of the many pauses in their conversation. This time it offered an opportunity to ponder the ways of fate and how someone finds happiness. When the silence had lasted long enough, Gabriele said:

“I just wanted to remind you that your father’s birthday is coming up and that there’s going to be a big party at which your presence is desired.”

“Sure, right. Got it. Right.”

Oh jeez. (Another party. The whole family there. Other people too. And all that money. A catered affair with waiters in black. Well brought up, well fed, carefree people with law offices on the Kurfürstendamm and villas in Grunewald. The Grunewald rabble. Everybody from Grunewald. At least his parents’ house wasn’t there, but on the Kleiner Wannsee. That was a little better, at any rate. Much prettier. No rabble. But still. All those people. The whole family. At least he’d see his kids again, nothing wrong with that. So there was an upside to it. But still.)

“What about you?” Gabriele asked wearily (already tired out by this brief conversation, tired of the long years of this peculiar marriage that despite everything still existed), then snippily: “What’re you up to? Still monitoring the trash?”

So he’d told her about that, darn it. And why was she bringing it up today of all days, on the first day of his trash withdrawal?

“No,” he said. “I don’t do that anymore.” Period.




Iris Hanika
Iris Hanika
Iris Hanika (born 1962) is a German writer and journalist. She was born in Würzburg, grew up in Bad Königshofen, and has lived in Berlin since 1979. She is a regular contributor to German periodicals like Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Merkur. She won the LiteraTour Nord prize and the EU Prize for Literature for her novel Das Eigentliche (The Bottom Line).









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