Kafka with Wings
by Daniela Emminger
At the Festival Neue Literatur, A Crash Course in Contemporary German Literature
Daniela Emminger will take part in this year’s Festival Neue Literatur, March 28–31. To reserve your seat, click here. The following was translated by Alta L. Price.
To the wild and magical land of Kyrgyzstan and its inhabitants.
This book is puzzling from the very start,
many lines’ meanings now lost to the dark.
Its signs and symbols have long intertwined:
with animals, birds, and oaks here enshrined.
—from a prophecy in the “Book of Change,” the Epic of Manas
Final Countdown, One.
It just had to be a Kyrgyz, of all people, or half Kyrgyz. And then he’d up and disappeared, too, just like that. And now, twenty-six years later, here she was, hot on his heels in the middle of the Kyrgyz Steppe, 3,400 miles from her old self. She looked out over Song-Kul Lake, as if it belonged to her, and whispered his name: “Samat.” Elizabeth Bishop really had no idea what she was talking about—The art of losing isn’t hard to master—yeah, right. It was unbelievably hard, hard to bear losing a person, a continent, a country, a name, everything one once was, and just leave it all behind. It was like something from the beyond, since it certainly wasn’t anything from the here-and-now.
In midsummer 2015 Sezim sat on the other side of the world, at 1,800 feet above sea level, on the shore of the mountain lake, freezing despite her wool hat and heavy down jacket. On the distant horizon behind her lay the vast, snow-capped peaks of the Moldo-Too Mountains. Here and there ephedra cones popped out from the greenery like red dots. The air carried the scent of wormwood and juniper. The sky above was blue. The sheer beauty of it all was almost unbearable.
For a moment she wished Siri were there, or some other virtual assistant that could help her sort out, decipher, and interpret sound bites and signals. She’d have liked some kind of sign or hint that the search for her childhood friend Samat was moving forward, but there was only silence. And what help would it have been anyway, what use would it be, to let some soulless software identify and process naturally spoken languages or sounds? It might be able to access a world of wisdom, but even so, it was so often wrong, and how could it help anyway, since she herself neither spoke nor understood a word of Kyrgyz or Russian? She was pretty much lost in translation.
Then again, what did she have to lose now, and what did she have to lose then, back when her name was still Sybille and she hadn’t come looking for a needle of a man in a country of haystacks, a country still ruled by fathers and sons, where even in the twenty-first century women are still kidnapped and Karakurt spiders still wreak havoc. Where democracy was having a hard time gaining ground, and poverty was everywhere in the form of holey socks and mouths missing teeth, the Russian past left fissures and furrows on landscapes, faces, and hearts, a country in which love was a luxury and luxury was nonexistent, the only vegetables were meat, where ancestral worship and superstition permeated every nook and cranny, looking for people like her. Where in many cases one would have to climb seven generations back up the family tree to escape the long shadow cast by incest, and keep their wits about them if they didn’t want to metamorphose, as if by the wave of a magic wand, into a fish, a bird, or a butterfly—and why not, really, since fish have no brain and birds no bags and butterflies no sorrows—but maybe one would want more, would want to raise dust like Ghenghis Khan once did, or like Manas the Great or, like her, find a long-lost friend.
“Where are you hiding, Samat?” she wondered, and “I hope it’s not too late.” And then she lit up one of those thick papirosi cigarettes, whose filters have to be pinched flat at both ends before one goes ahead to ruin their lungs. She puffed little clouds of smoke into the air, they thin out as they rise before her and shroud the Kyrgyz landscape in a nebulous grey that weaves the eons together.
She’d already come so far. She’d been tracking him for weeks, had worked her way across the entire country, following a few false leads, suffering some setbacks, and even given up. She’d cast the net, and eventually she’d have to draw it in, closer and closer, at least that’s what she’d hoped. He’d fall into her net, maybe even tomorrow.
Sybille met Samat back when she had just turned nine. It was early in the summer of 1984 and her mother had sent her to pick herbs along the edge of the nearby woods, where wild chives and dill grew. She hadn’t even seen him at first, since he was crouched down amid the pasture’s high grass, gnawing on a straw, absorbed in a thick tome. She knew him by sight, he was a couple of grades above her and the only foreigner in town. There were rumors that he was half Chinese and that his mother, Erna Bergen—a resolute, musically super-talented, and outwardly quite striking person—had gone off to Moscow in the early seventies and, after a significant stay, had then brought him back as if he were her main piece of luggage: tiny, fatherless, uprooted.
She said not a single word about her time away nor anything, especially, about Samat’s father, leaving the local gossips say all sorts of things, again, with not a word from her in response. Due to financial circumstances upon her return she could no longer afford to enroll at the Bruckner Conservatory in Linz to study violin and piano, so instead she took a half-day teaching position at the local elementary and secondary school, and spent the rest of her time helping her father, Samat’s grandfather, run the old family farm, where they also lived.
Samat had also spotted Sybille out of the corner of his eye.
“What are you up to over there?” he asked, smiling at her.
“Picking dill,” she replied a bit shyly.
“Then I’ll call you Dillgirl from now on, if that’s okay with you.”
“My name is Sybille.”
“Even better, that rhymes with dill.”
They laughed. Sybille ventured closer.
“And what’s your name?”
“I’m Samat,” he said, sticking his hand out to shake hers. “It’s Kyrgyz, and means ‘desire and longing’. My dad named me.”
He slammed the book shut with a thud. The colorful cover depicted a bunch of butterflies.
“And I’m not Chinese, by the way, like everybody in town seems to think—I’m really half Russian, or actually half Kyrgyz, to be precise.”
Sybille thought it over for a second; it made no difference to her.
“What are you reading?” she asked, curious.
“A book on native plants and animals. I want to be a butterfly catcher when I grow up.”
Sybille was astonished, “And when will you be a grown-up?”
“Soon,” Samat said with a grin, “I’m already fifteen. You?”
Samat stood up, took her by the hand, and said, “C’mon, I’ll show you something.” They walked along the edge of the woods, until Samat suddenly stopped and picked a couple of white flowers shaped like upside-down umbrellas that gave off a delightfully spicy scent.
“This is fresh chervil, my favorite herb.” He held it up to her nose. “My mom uses it to make an outstanding soup, following the recipe of a famous French chef. It’s called Paul Bocuse’s Chervil Soup. You’ll have to come over to try it sometime.”
“Know what I’m going to call you from now on?”
He looked curious.
That’s how they first met. They got along right off the bat, bound to one another by wound ribbon like Persennick and Ploetz in the story by Artur Knoff. At first Sybille’s parents disapproved of their friendship, not least because of their age difference, and also because they didn’t trust their daughter’s half Kyrgyz friend, and viewed him with thinly veiled suspicion. But Samat was always friendly and polite when he visited, was an outstanding student, and wanted to go to university, where he planned to study Russian and biology. He was bright and diligent, and in his free time he lent his mother and grandfather a hand on the farm, so at some point Sybille’s parents finally gave up giving her a hard time about their friendship, admitting that they didn’t stand a chance against the close bond between the two. Whatever it was, it seemed strong as steel.
During vacations they were virtually inseparable—they milked the cows together, brought in the hay, ran through field and forest side by side, and told one another their tiniest worries and greatest dreams. They laughed a lot, and sometimes just spent time together without saying a word; they never got bored, and their mutual love of nature brought them even closer together. When Samat moved to Vienna three years later to study, Sybille missed him a lot. He’d become the big brother she’d never had.
They wrote one another often and their friendship lived on, surviving their first long-distance winter, then spring, until his first year of university was over, summer break finally came, and they once again stood face to face. It was like they’d never been apart. Perhaps their uncommonly deep connection remained strong because Samat had been there for all of his younger friend’s most formative moments: he’d buried Sybille’s goldfish and, later, her hamster as well; toasted her with red currant juice each time she passed an exam; and given her a camera on her tenth birthday (with well-deserved pride, since he’d painstakingly saved every penny for months), because he wanted to try and capture their friendship in photos, portray their feelings in pictures, freeze their memories in fixitive. Samat took the first two snapshots himself on the virgin film: they looked like two old illustrative tables of dill and chervil, shots secretly snapped in the supply cabinet of the biology lab.
He didn’t want to forget her, and didn’t want her to forget him. Especially since even as a kid Sybille, who’d grown up in a home where there was no room for feelings, had a hard time remembering happy occasions and lighthearted moments; in keeping with the example set by her father and mother, she was much quicker to recall negative, problematic, seemingly hopeless situations. But she wasn’t alone there, many people were raised from infancy on to believe, as Susan Jeffers once said, “that negative equals realistic and positive equals unrealistic.” Such people were always prepared for the worst, and instead of training their binoculars on life’s bigger picture they focused on pessimistic societal conventions, their parents’ tarnished ideals and moral notions, which were often permeated by sadness and self-doubt.
Maybe another reason she liked Samat so much was because he was so refreshingly different, he saw the world in vivid, happy color, and when he was there she could laugh, dream, and fly. The camera was the absolute best gift Sybille could ever have received—it was a lifesaving, magical machine, a bewitching storage bin that let her record and cherish all her most pleasant, uplifting, and meaningful moments. She kept up the habit for years, and almost never left home without her camera, snapping her way through life until one fine, far-off day—no one knew exactly when or why— her enthusiasm flagged, or maybe it was simply that her discipline and interest waned, and her “shuttermania” dissipated in tired routines, adult lassitude and the everyday grind. (It wasn’t until years later that she discovered a similarly effective memory-boosting tool, in the form of a packet of coffee beans received as a gift from another friend.)
What Samat himself never found a picture of, however, over all these years, was his lack of a father and homeland. The older he got, the more his Kyrgyz half rumbled and grumbled within, expanding, driven by a desire for the truth, which made him increasingly restless and dissatisfied. He’d have liked to find answers to all his questions, both spoken and unspoken, but his mother was unwavering. His persistent prying—first childish, later pubescent—yielded nothing. She never spoke of the past or of the chapter in her life where his father and homeland had played a role, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t remember a thing.
Samat and Sybille’s fervent summers and letter-filled winters went on for two more years, until a gray shroud swept onto the scene in 1989, clouding their togetherness and casting a long shadow over the terrain of their friendship. Their summer break was less harmonious than usual, Samat was silent and absent-minded, Sybille inconsolable and helpless—and when her friend finally disappeared at the beginning of August, much earlier than planned and without even saying goodbye, she didn’t understand it at all. Weeks went by with nary a letter nor any news. Samat seemed to have disappeared without a trace: she combed across all of Vienna without finding him, he wasn’t in any of the hospitals, and even the missing-person report his mother had filed with the police turned up nothing. It was as if the earth had swallowed him whole. Sybille could barely concentrate on the approaching school year, and summer break was rapidly drawing to a close.
Now, although dill and chervil are two relatively straightforward, resilient plants that take root all over the world—growing upright and sturdy, sometimes even shooting up to over a meter,—even they require regular water, a suitable spot to call their own, and the right plant-kingdom companions by their side to survive in the long run.
When a letter from him finally arrived the following February, thoroughly tattered and stamped from a Germany undergoing great change, Sybille’s parents decided not to give it to her. Surely they had their reasons—Samat had always been a thorn in their side, an unwelcome distraction, a troublemaker, a foreign entity that had shaken the family belief system. Or maybe they were glad to finally get rid of him because for months they’d had to witness how crushed Sybille had been by her friend’s unexplained disappearance. And it had taken quite some time, but finally a little smile had begun gracing her face again, albeit ever so seldom. Maybe they had the best of intentions, and really just wanted to spare their only daughter any additional grief—whatever their motive, they kept this first letter, and the ones that followed, hidden from her. Parents don’t always know any better, and make mistakes.
The years passed, the photos faded, one after the other they abandoned their frames and albums to settle into the crates and cabinets of the past. And by the time Sybille turned eighteen and began her studies—she, too, had remained faithful to her love of nature, opting for veterinary medicine, not least because of parental pressure (“Study something sensible, respectable, something that’ll earn you money and a future”); her second, more unreasonable choice would have been to go to art school—she’d finally forgotten Samat.
Dillgirl and Chervilboy withered away, and if they were to be found at all, it’d be in a thirsty and shriveled state, deep in the tangled jungle of memory. Her once-so-beloved camera had also long since disappeared into a dank corner of her parents’ cellar, covered in rust and dust down in the dark. And although all of that languished, life (hers) went on. Sybille moved to Vienna, buried her nose in hundreds of books, calmed her heart, filled her head with all sorts of facts and scientific foundations—from anatomy to zoology—and dutifully, in the record minimum of six years, struggled through every subject and every internship required to earn her degree.
Amid all that she also met and fell in love with her future husband, Martin Specht, an amusing psychologist and passionate amateur cook who, slowly but surely, once again brought order and life back to the field of feelings her former childhood friend had left so wild, weedy, furrowed and fallow. Shortly before graduation the couple married and moved to an apartment just outside the city. They had a few chickens—left over from a previous experiment and who had dutifully provided eggs for breakfast ever since—but no children.
The relationship between Sybille and her parents remained strained and as rife with mutual incomprehension and guilt as before. Unable to imagine a future for herself in small animal, ruminant, poultry, swine, or equine medicine, Sybille specialized in behavioral science, reproductive biology, and genetics. With a heavy heart, she temporarily left Martin and their home to spend several months in an insemination center run by the EU in Den Hout, the Netherlands, followed by a stint in a pharmaceutical research center in Vilnius, Lithuania. Once back in Vienna, she landed a position in the Department of Integrative Biology and Evolution at the renowned Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research. From then on ethology was her professional home, and over the years she garnered a reputation and professional success reaching far beyond the Austrian border.
Sybille had grown up, her private and professional life was largely fulfilling, the Dillgirl of yore existed no more. And if fate hadn’t struck so cruelly in her late thirties, hadn’t whirled through her life like a hurricane, had future circumstances not forced her to grapple with the art of losing, Dill and Chervil would certainly have remained forgotten forever. Sometimes that’s just how it is with pieces of the past and long-lost friendships, but sometimes not: they look like they’re over. But they aren’t.
At long last, the small country of Kyrgyzstan had once again made international headlines—luckily not with the usual negative, bizarre announcements about presidential overthrow, horse-penis-sausage scandals, or lost constitutional documents, no—“Hollywood’s New Dream Destination,” “Brangelina Spotted in Bishkek,” and “Secret Summit of the Global Political Elite?” was how they read now. And indeed, in early August 2015 the number of famous faces was on par with the Academy Awards, major EU summits, and historic government visits. The causes of this phenomenon, much like those of the explosions, were never identified, and after a short while the investigations ground to a halt. Whatever had caused this unexpected yet welcome miracle, no one really seemed to care anymore. The little word psukhḗ also disappeared again, lost to the annals of historiography, all its theories and visions degenerating into a footnote, bound in books and left on the shelves to gather dust for the coming centuries. Once again this ingeniously insane knowledge would be left unused, swept from the scene, perhaps only to reappear in the distant future, falling into the hands of someone else who’d rediscover it and conjure something else out of it, something better, maybe, or maybe not.
The dead couldn’t say a word, anyway. And the survivors, too, closed ranks and returned to their normal activities after the rude shock had vanished from their veins: Patshkin mapped out the Kyrgyz plant kingdom in the rebuilt Zoological Museum; Nikitin weaned his patients off their drugs; after his family (like Samat’s) was released from prison, Tynschtyk switched his name back to Talant and led oddball tour groups across the country. After some heated arguments, mutual threats of violence, and angry curses, his silent partner had come to terms with their failed DNA experiment, and at least he still had the gold—there are worse currencies for buying forgiveness. Beshkempir, who had seriously considered following in his father’s lepidopterological footsteps, went back to Ak-Sai with his mother and, years later, became the country’s first male women’s-rights advocate. Bernhard, Sezim’s second-favorite butterfly expert, had returned to Europe unscathed, but somewhat disappointed with the rest of the group—their net hadn’t caught the hoped-for loot, but despite it all he still liked thinking back to his Kyrgyz summer.
Elaine, who, as spy-assistant (in every respect) had lost her innocence, solemnly received the gift of Sezim’s revolver (which, remarkably, through it all, had never been fired). Medina returned to Café rup:rup with yet another good story to tell: she adopted the two butterfly twins, who (maybe because of the explosions) had miraculously metamorphosed into two intelligent boys. They liked living with her (they certainly didn’t want to go back to Germany or their parents) and so Medina finally had her yearned-for children. Wolf holed up in his lonely little house on Issyk-kul. Elouise Chevallier lay the CRISPR-Cas tool down for good and became an astronaut. And in the end there was Dillgirl and Chervilboy.
Samat woke up one mid-August morning in Cave-Sector 5a, the only relic that, aside from he himself, could still attest to the existence of the psukhḗ realm. He’d lain peacefully in a coma the entire time and hadn’t experienced any of it. The machines began excitedly beeping and blinking. When he opened his eyes, he saw the smiling face of Dillgirl sitting at his bedside, holding his hand.
“Welcome back,” she said, gently stroking his cheek. As if to reassure himself it wasn’t a dream, he pinched his girlfriend’s arm.
“So, once again, everything turned out alright,” he whispered.
“A happy ending, who’d ever have thought?” she whispered back.
The rescue helicopter was already waiting by the meadow left behind by Merzbacher Lake when Samat, pale and weak, came staggering out of the cave toward Sezim. He pressed the last red button and, as the explosion shook the earth beneath them, sank down with exhaustion.
So he fell over and was caught by her.
She wrapped him in her wings and they looked upward
The night was bright, they saw a thousand stars
And suddenly understood, even from afar
They knew how it went, the ultimate proof
From above earth flies an elliptical route.
When it was all over, everything was as it always had been. The helicopter took Samat and Sezim back to their apartment in Bishkek. Samat’s recovery progressed well—while still bedridden, he completed the twelfth volume of the former classic Flora and Fauna of the Kyrgyz SSR which, of course, had long since been retitled. In just one place he allowed the memory of psukhḗ to surface, and on page 1005 added the Tien-Shan-flutterer Colias hyale sybillis, which didn’t actually exist. Sezim, meanwhile, had decided to leave her monkey heads and white lab coat behind for good and finally do what she’d always wanted: study art. The countdown timer had stopped ticking. The last butterfly frame on the wall remained empty.
When it was all over, everything was as it always had been. Dust reigned supreme in their apartment, you could hear Medina clattering around with plates in Café rup:rup next door, the rooster acted crazy, traffic rushed by on the streets, children laughed, men hawked loogies on the sidewalk, a Manas police escort chauffeuring President Atambayev turned onto Chuy Prospect punctually each morning at half past seven, old women streamed out of Charms by the dozens, the struggle between good and evil resumed its course, the earth continued its Keplerian, heliocentric orbit, dill and chervil sprouted in countless gardens, Paul Bocuse’s trademark chervil soup sat simmering on some (French) stove (maybe even with a pinch of dill), and certainly someone, somewhere, was reading Bishop’s One Art and trying to cope with life.
Of course, the possibility that the whole puskh thing was just some old Kyrgyz fairytale, yet another legend, a fever dream, couldn’t be ruled out for sure. But what difference did it make? Things often don’t go as planned: an adventure becomes a romance, a real-life story becomes a utopian epic, an episode about loss and mourning becomes a fairytale with a happily-ever-after ending. (The world was one big delivery room.) Sure, maybe it was all made up. In the end all the important, beautiful, rich people sat (once again) in their rightful places, and it could be argued whether they’d changed in any way whatsoever. Only those who looked closely might recognize telltale traces of one sort or another—not-yet-fully-developed antennae, a vaguely wing-shaped hint of a pterygoid process, a small scar. But honestly, who even notices or cares about things like that nowadays? Even the most obviously (behaviorally) troubled ghosts, mutants, and illuminati, with their soulless wisdom and immature fantasies, have more than once managed to become idols, made it onto various chart-topper lists, or even ascended to the presidency. So it goes, and there it went, in a flash, as if nothing at all had happened. And nothing had. Time to go home.
About the author
Daniela Emminger was born in 1975 in Upper Austria, Daniela Emminger lives and works since 2008 as a writer and freelance journalist in Vienna. Before that, she was a copywriter in Hamburg and Berlin and worked as an editor in Lithuania and Latvia. She received various scholarships and awards, and is the author of several books. She was on the longlist of the Austrian Book Prize 2016 with her book Gemischter Satz. Her most recent book, Kafka mit Flügeln, was published in 2018.