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Bossong, Nora (Sample Translation)

Webers Protokoll (Weber’s Record)

Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, March 2009, 288 pp.
ISBN: 978-3-627-00159-9
Davon geht die Welt nicht unter, die wird doch noch gebraucht.
(That’s not the end of the world, after all. we still need it.)
Zarah Leander
I imagine what his eyes look like, that day when he thinks about going to see his doctor once more, to say to him, See, I was right. Can’t you tell by looking at them? My eyes are bloodless, they hardly move, the color has seeped out of the irises into the deeper lying capillaries.
It might be one o’clock in the afternoon, a cold but sunny day, when Weber sets out to cover his last remaining traces. Wearing a jacket, a carefully knotted tie, Weber steps out the front door, an almost invisible man in his gray suit, black leather briefcase in hand.
Weber, you don’t want people to think badly of you.
He looks up at the house façade, white-painted bricks that reflect the sunlight. It might have already looked like that yesterday; it could have looked the same last year. Weber doesn’t remember. He has trouble remembering.
He hears the voice of his doctor: “My dear Mr. Weber, I’m really sorry, but I can’t find anything wrong.”
The light strikes the houses; he rubs his eyes, rubs them in response to the burning sensation that he is convinced is destroying their inner vitreous humor. And he is sure that a disease at the center of his optic nerve has been determining his perceptions and restricting his actions for years.
Weber has to wait at a traffic light. Next to him, there’s a display of fruit and vegetables; he picks up a ginger root without knowing what it is, looks at it, an expert presented with an object belonging to another field of specialization. He is familiar only with peeled and grated ginger as an ingredient to improve the flavor of orange marmalade. Perhaps it makes him think of something related to old trees or the smell of printer’s ink, but that’s not certain. He puts back the ginger. Then walks on.
As he crosses the street the driver of a passing taxi blows his horn. Weber is startled, but no more so than you would be, watching a scene in some film. He passes his hand over his curly hair which he has combed back with hair tonic; there are curls on his forehead, slightly wavy hair brushed back, waves rolling over one another that keep surging forward. Waves upon waves. A roaring in Weber’s head: “I’m really sorry, but I can’t find anything wrong, I won’t find anything tomorrow either, or next week” – the doctor wipes the desktop with the sleeve of his lab coat – “I don’t think next week either.”
Once on the other side of the street, Weber sets his briefcase down on a wall, looks around him, the sidewalk is empty. An airplane has left jet traces in the sky, white hachures on gray. A plane from Rome, Weber thinks. Definitely from Rome.
He takes a small key from his purse, tries to insert it into the tiny lock of his briefcase. The key slips out of his hand, its clink on the sidewalk is barely audible. He bends down, a slight dizziness flows through his head; he feels around on the ground, picks up the key, fiddles with it in the lock, unsnaps the clasps. He remembers nothing.
In his head, a ballroom; all around him a thousand voices were talking, but no one spoke to him; outside it was raining; it might have been late September; and girls in high heels were balancing trays full of glasses through the room. “Will you have another glass of champagne?”
Weber, standing on a Frankfurt sidewalk surrounded by a wall of traffic noise, looks into his briefcase. But it isn’t true that memory exists; you only imagine it, Weber is certain of that. He looks into his briefcase and I look up, look at the ancient diplomat sitting across from me in the side room of a hotel restaurant to which we have retired. He is holding an empty champagne glass. Behind him, a window wall, and he and the window don’t fit together. It all looks like a rear projection, a film trick where black lines are drawn around the figures and they never quite become part of the surroundings. Those are tricks of the sixties, I think.
The ancient diplomat laughs and raises his glass. “To your health, young lady! And is that how you imagine Weber? Oh well, you can’t help it. You, who have never met Weber. How could he be anything more than mere rhetoric to you? But perhaps you’re deceiving me, maybe he isn’t even that much to you, only a fragment, and I am supposed to prompt you with the missing words?
One thing I can tell you: If you can’t stand contradictions, if you’d rather hide behind a condemnation, then you probably won’t be able to face it all. Not today, not tomorrow, and certainly not yesterday.”
I shrug, then leave the ancient man tapping his fingers on the arms of his chair. And I imagine a pair of shoes.
In the mirrored doors stood a pair of patent leather shoes, too far apart. Legs akimbo, Weber thought; and then as they tramped across the parquet floor toward the buffet, he thought: the gait of army boots. He turned around, looked at the original of the reflected scene: heads, manicured fingers snapping in the air, Mehring, Kobus, Miss Schnoop. But he couldn’t find Palmer.
Weber looked up at the chandeliers that began to move slowly above his head, turning in front of his eyes, or was it the floor waltzing around its own axis? “Would you like another glass of champagne?” The ballroom turned and the chandeliers turned, grinning down at him, at Weber who couldn’t stand on his own feet, and tried to support himself on a chair and stumbled, hearing Kobus’s voice: “Weber, what’s the matter?” The chandeliers laughed or the people laughed or two glasses clinked against each other. In his head the ballroom got narrower and dark, a point that had no meaning.
On the sidewalk Weber passes his fingers over the bills, counting the money. The briefcase lock quietly clicks shut again. He pulls his calendar from an inside pocket; opens it, looks at the entry for that day. Or is he looking at an empty line, the inkblot he had made on the page before he changed his mind and decided not to enter anything?
It is almost spring; though still cold, I imagine it to be a day in early spring in the early sixties. Sunlight falls on the first green, a child in short pants walks past Weber; a man hangs a flower box from a balcony railing, and Weber closes his calendar, returns it to his inside pocket, continues on his way, carefully, almost as though he were searching for something. He is not that familiar with these streets; in the past he always had someone drive him through this district; it was too far from his apartment for him to have easily walked here. But today he makes an exception, walking because he doesn’t want to talk to anyone, doesn’t want to give addresses to a driver. The streets stare at him as if they had been moved here from a strange city, as if he were encountering them today for the first time.
Footsteps behind him. Weber walks faster even though he shouldn’t be walking fast; the cold air he frantically sucks in as he walks does not agree with him. Behind him the gait of military boots. Weber is sure of it. His mouth is dry; his eyes burn. He turns into another street; the steps follow him; he stops, turns around. A girl passes him.
He glances up into the sky hanging over him, blue and cold. Why from Rome, he wonders. Why from Rome of all places?
It was the Feast of the Holy Rosary, 9 o’clock Sunday morning; it was October 5, 1958, and the Pope appeared on the balcony of Castel Gandolfo, a sick figure of death.
Weber would like to look like that, but unfortunately Weber looks quite different. Weber looks healthy, much too healthy for his age, and why can’t anyone looking at his eyes see the needles that are poking at his retinas? The remnants of a war injury, at least an injury incurred during the war, not at the front it’s true, but what does that matter, Weber thinks, the inflammation has not yet healed, is worse than ever, this pricking sensation –
The clear, high-pitched voice of the Pope echoes through the courtyard, it might have been poignant, this emaciated man speaking to the people down below with the last remnant of his strength, but then:
The Pope, that ascetic old man, sounds like a drunk. He is delivering his sermon to a group of plastic surgeons, and he hiccups as if he had gotten drunk on champagne at breakfast.
Weber is on the way to his last appointment. His expression reveals nothing, nor does his walk; he is an inconspicuous man walking past the Milan cemetery, toward the Platzspitz in Zurich, through Berlin’s Rauchstrasse in the direction of the Tierpark, toward the screaming in the enclosures –
But what screaming? No, the animals are absolutely, totally quiet, only the traffic hums along next to him. Weber isn’t in Milan at all, nor in Zurich, and not in Berlin either; he is walking through downtown Frankfurt; he can see the railroad station at the end of the street. It could be just an ordinary weekday, going to work, his documents all in order, the entire day already readable in the index on the first page. Weber, it must be said, has left his position; he is now Embassy Counselor Ret., that’s what it says in his file.
Weber outside the hotel; the steps leading to the front door are covered with carpeting; a bellhop rubs his white-gloved hands together. When he sees Weber, he stands up straight, ready to take the bags. But Weber has only his briefcase; moreover he is not a hotel guest, does not intend to stay long. The man nods to him, his white-gloved hands pointing to the steps going up.
Weber hesitates a moment before stepping on the carpet. Then he puts down his left foot, and following the man’s gesture, he drags himself up the stairs; his eyes are burning, he thrusts himself into the revolving door, and is swept into the lobby.
The shininess of the lobby, shining faces everywhere, shiny, disciplined blond hair, black suits, badges. “May I bring you something to drink, sir?” With a start Weber turned around, a tottering waiter was looking at him, closing and opening his eyelids lethargically.
Weber ordered Ceylon tea, and the waiter shuffled off incredibly slowly. Weber dropped into a leather armchair, wishing he could go to sleep; he was really tired.
Adesso non posso più.
But then, “Doctor Weber?”
The young man bowed, getting down on his knees to put himself at eyelevel with the seated Weber; he had fine features, as pretty as a girl, Weber thought. No, actually prettier.
“I’m very glad you came, Doctor Weber.”
Weber rubs his eyes, strokes his hair back. How absurd, what was he imagining there! – as pretty as a girl. What was he thinking! He is facing a woman, an ordinary-looking woman who is standing behind the Reception Desk and leafing through the guest register.
“No, Mr. Wendler is not staying with us,” she says to him.
Weber asks if she’s sure.
“I would be happy to check our reservations again.”
This morning he received a phone call from this hotel, he says.
“I’ll check.” The woman excuses herself and disappears behind a cherry-wood wall into which compartments for room keys have been built. Folded pieces of paper lie in some of them, and envelopes. Weber leans forward, trying to find an angle from which he can read the names on the envelopes. He starts back as the woman minces toward him with clicking steps.
“I’m sorry, no one by that name has made a reservation. May I take a message in case the gentleman registers with us?”
Weber pulls a silver case from an inside pocket of his jacket, takes out a card, he folds the right margin forward, as has been his habit since he became an attaché. On receiving such a card, whoever is to be visited must consider the visit as having taken place.
Of course, he, Weber, is no longer a diplomat, and this meeting, Weber knows, can’t in any way be categorized as diplomatic protocol. Nor is he here as the representative of a state; he is here on his own behalf. In his hand, a folded piece of cardboard, a little card giving his name and former position, Dr. Konrad Weber, Embassy Counselor 1st Class, that’s worth as much as an expired coupon.
“Would you like to leave a message?”
Weber shakes his head, no; he thinks that’s unnecessary. He takes a step backward, intending to leave the overheated lobby, to get away from the smile of the receptionist who tucks her yellow-blond hair behind her ears, an almost vulgar gesture, Weber thinks. He has done what he could; nobody can reproach him; if he can’t find Wendler, he can’t find him. That’s not Weber’s fault. He turns away and sees the white writing on the glass door. He puts down his briefcase, reaches into his inside pocket and gets out his calendar. Turning to the young woman behind the Reception Desk, he asks whether this hotel is the Frankfurter Hof.
“No, sir, this is the Kaiserhof.”
As Weber walks down the stairs to the street, the white-gloved bellhop nods to him. Weber ducks, turns away from the man who, Weber is sure, is smiling behind his back, laughing at him and rubbing his white hands.
Pius XII spreads his arms before the group of plastic surgeons; he intends to say something moving, interpreti dei dolori comuni or something of that sort. He raises one of his hands, spreads apart his index and middle finger for the blessing – and is rendered ridiculous by his own organism, the ceremony chopped up by his diaphragm; the blessing is reduced to a shambles of words by the sound of his hiccups; the last public Papal noises hiccupped into the microphone and transmitted to the loudspeakers.
During the night the temperature barely reached five degrees Centigrade; it could have been an ordinary weekday, going to work, the documents in order, the entire day already readable in the index on the first page.
Weber is nothing more than an Ambassadorial Counselor, Ret., something for which he no longer needs business cards; he has no assignment, and requires no protocol to make an entrance. An office without an office.
He is nothing.
That is to say, he is Weber.
People swarm past him, women with their hair combed high. With his head submerged among all these voices, how can he possibly go on breathing here.
Weber, I’m sorry, but I have to insist: You are healthy.
He hears the swaying of the balconies above his head, creaking like crow’s nests and the rigging creaks; a balcony door is slammed shut; someone whispers:
Adesso non posso più!
The emaciated man has left the balcony; the door has been closed behind him. To be frank – not just he but everyone suspects that he can’t keep it up much longer, this role of Pope, perhaps he has already begun not keeping it up – for a long time a cocoon of brocade and silken robes, he has been carried through the halls of the Castel, through the corridors of the Apostolic Palace and St. Peter’s, propped up on balconies, with not much more left of Pius than an infantile mystic who speaks with the birds and with no one else. It is obvious that he won’t be able to keep it up much longer.
But why can’t you see it in Weber’s face? Doesn’t anyone see that he too can’t go on any longer, that he too, perhaps for years already, hasn’t been able to go on anymore and wants only, like Pius, to speak to the birds, or, if need be, with Anna’s cat? He must go to a meeting; even now they expect him to go to a meeting. If at least his illness could be clearly read on his face, if only the others would think: Anyone else in his condition wouldn’t step outside his front door. But that Weber! To think that he should still be going out to keep an appointment!
Instead they left him alone with the illnesses that inhabit his inner being. Everything about Weber, his skin and hair, and the curls at the nape of his neck that always rebelled against the hair tonic, all that won’t be able to keep it up any longer, and four days ago Weber left his doctor’s office.
Mr. Weber, I am very sorry, but I cannot find anything wrong. And after all these years, please do not come to see me in the near future. I won’t find anything tomorrow either, and as for next week – I think next week I won’t either.”
Weber did not nod, did not reply, slammed the door as he left the room. Kicked out by his own doctor, he stepped into the cold of Bethmann Street.
The ancient man raises his hand in protest: “Miss, I do have some doubts about your story. Look, it just so happens that I know which doctor your Mr. Weber was going to see. His office was on the outskirts of the city, and I don’t quite know how, from there, he came to be on a downtown street.”
He’s sitting there in front of me, this ancient diplomat who claims he once met Weber; he sits next to the window citing a couple of faded facts that I can’t verify, and I sit facing him and tell him something that’s a lot more important than the mere address of a doctor. But he won’t admit that. He shakes his head, and I can’t cope with his dogged details.
“Miss, I don’t know; I’m beginning to have doubts. Look here, it was in Kirchgasse.” He sits there, smiles at me with his thin lips, has no more to tell me than the names of streets and claims he knows everything. But I imagine it this way:
Weber stands in front of a shop window displaying black suits. He looks at his eyes reflected in the plate glass window: two red dots, Weber thinks, and he can’t think of anything else; inflamed, burning, two gleaming red dots ought to be there, he thinks. But the window shows only the pale blue, almost colorless irises, and behind them, six dummies in black suits. Mourning wear, Weber thinks and turns away.
The air has a sweet smell, of the first buds bursting open. Four days earlier Weber had slammed the door of his doctor’s office. That was no ordinary day, of that he is sure, in any case insofar as a statement can be certain and not just a figment composed of air and reason, not a day like other days, you might say; for usually Weber is careful not to make any noise.
He takes pains to avoid being conspicuous. Wendler once put it like this: “No one remembers inconspicuous people, Weber. Whether they were there or not – it doesn’t matter. It’s all the same for the onlookers.”
Weber is on his way to see Wendler. It could be a coincidence that Weber and Wendler will meet again, a spontaneous idea of Weber’s in what, for him, has become an incomprehensible week, or in one of the weeks before.
“But that is most unlikely,” my ancient diplomat says. “You must remember, my dear young woman, Weber was not at all spontaneous; any surprise whatsoever caused him difficulties, made a hell of a lot of trouble for him, as they say.”
I lean back, remain very calm and say, “One has to consider that he’ll get into trouble as soon as he meets up with his acquaintance.”
Weber grips the handle of his briefcase more tightly. Before he crosses the street, he looks to see if there is a car, a light-colored VW, or a black Mercedes, wants to leave all that behind, his past and his present which is sprinkled with light-colored VWs. Dying would be a possibility, but the wrong one, because that’s not enough by far to make one disappear. Weber doesn’t want the world to stop for him, wishes only that he had never been there for the world; he wants simply to disappear from the record.
But unfortunately disappearing isn’t as easy as Weber wishes it were. It’s not enough to submerge oneself in the masses, not by a long shot. Besides, Weber hates the masses. All that isn’t enough: taking on a new role, learning a new language, getting used to strange customs, unlearning old habits.
For years the combination of Weber and World has not been functioning. Whether Weber dropped off the world or the world dropped him, or whether Weber himself is no longer sure that the story he remembers as his past actually belongs to him, no one can say, and it can probably not be said by Weber either. At the least there exists a discrepancy that must have its origin in an event or a series of events that occurred long ago. For there are causes, I say. There are explanations for things, especially for peculiarities.
The ancient diplomat raises his empty glass and shakes his head. “The things you imagine,” he says. “My dear, that’s too easy!”
I want to say something, to answer the old man, but I know I’m not important here. It’s Weber who has to find the right hotel; Weber, whom I have to worry about, and I swallow my anger at the old man.
Weber enters the hotel, looks around, recognizes the leather armchairs, recognizes the mirrored surfaces. It is hot; from somewhere comes enervating piano music, so enervating that Weber formulates the word ‘enervating’ in his mind. He sizes up the people in the lobby, who, legs crossed, are staring into thin air or at a newspaper.
Walking on the carpet is like walking on sand, soft, strenuous. Weber goes up to the reception desk, puts his folded hands on the marble counter. He says he believes that an acquaintance of his whom he has agreed to meet at noon today is staying the night in this hotel.
“And what is his name?”
The man is a doctor, a man of science, of natural science, you might say. And after a brief moment of hesitation, Weber adds: a truly extraordinary man.
He feels the marble under his hands warming up, hears the piano music. Now he says in a louder voice: However, he, Embassy Counselor Weber, was not at all sure that his acquaintance was really staying here, it could all be a mistake, for which he asks to be excused.
“Perhaps you’d like to tell me the name of your acquaintance?”
Weber says the name, adds quickly that he has little hope that the man he is looking for is really staying at this hotel, even though it is without doubt an excellent hotel and he sincerely hopes that his acquaintance is staying in this hotel, even though –
“The gentleman is in Room 203.”
Weber’s eyes burn; he wants to rub them with his hands but keeps them pressed against the marble slab, doesn’t want to call attention to himself.
Out of the corner of his eye Weber notices that they’re carrying a metallic, no, a transparent, no, no, some sort of thing through the lobby, a half of an oval made of shiny struts. A woman in a tulip-shaped suit, swaying on high heels, carries an empty cage across the quicksand carpet.
It occurs to Weber that he’s not at all sure that his acquaintance would want to be disturbed at this hour.
“Mr. Wendler is expecting you. Room 203. Second floor. The elevators are over there.” Somewhere, far away, a door creaks; it is so loud, Weber thinks, he can’t hear his own voice anymore, and he wants to say something in reply, wants again and again to say something in reply. He can’t hear the voice of the young woman behind the desk either. Weber’s head is filled with the screaming and croaking and hissing of innumerable things that appear before his eyes.
“The elevators,” the receptionist repeats, “are over there.”
He turns, the woman with the cage has disappeared. Maybe she was never there, he thinks. It might be just an ordinary day.
Part One. Zurich, Milan, and Other Places.
Chapter One. Bonn
So this is the new capital – its name short and lacking in resonance, a city that is nothing, stands for nothing, reminds you of nothing, that boasts of no particularly famous sons or daughters, if you exclude Beethoven. Schumann was here, but only in a mental hospital. A gray place into which they put the administrative apparatus and which they now call the capital – a somewhat euphemistic description, in my diplomat’s opinion, for a 30-story building not far from Cologne.
But the high-rise structure is not yet built when Weber gets off the night train from Zurich one Friday morning. Bonn – Weber is sure that the only one who breathed a sigh of relief at this choice, was Mehring, who had declared, “Any place except Frankfurt! Weimar was bad enough. It’s no wonder that a republic couldn’t make it there. Everything spoiled by that harmonizing classicist! Going off to his summer house every time there was a state visit.” It is 1951. On April 10th the Federal government decided to reappoint former civil servants, and Weber in his Zurich exile decides, for the first time, to travel north. He is tired. From the back of the taxi he gazes lethargically at the houses they pass. But before any of the details are imprinted on his memory, they turn into another street.
So this is Germany now. He had imagined it would be worse. Closer. He has the driver drop him off in front of a new building not far from the government complex. He walks into the garden of a house where plum-colored flowers are climbing up a wooden fence; he stops at some steps that lead up to the front door, turns around, and watches the taxi drive off. Not a sound, not even the cooing of a dove. He hesitates. He sees a woman in a tulipshaped suit come out of the house next door; she nods to him; he lowers his eyes, watches the swaying hem of her skirt. Then he climbs up the steps.
He rings the bell, but nothing happens. Weber looks at the plum-colored flowers, which seem familiar, but he can’t think of their name, nor can he recall where he might have seen them before.
When he turns around again, Rippler is standing in the open doorway, toying with a letter opener.
“Weber! You look good! The Swiss climate seems to agree with you.”
He steps aside and invites Weber in. For a moment they stand there, facing each other, Rippler, half a head shorter than Weber, enveloped in the smell of soap; Weber isn’t sure whether it was also like this before: the smell of a child, he thinks. Rippler’s face has become gray. Weber feels he is standing too close to him, inappropriate after all these years, and Rippler also steps back and into the interior of his home.
Weber asks him if he remembers Bauer. Back then he had worked at Wilhelmstrasse too, not with them, but rather, if he, Weber, wasn’t mistaken, in Section IV. He just happened to run into Bauer on the train today.
Bright light floods the space around him; it falls down on them from a skylight and is reflected from all sides; the walls, the closet to which Rippler has led him, are all solidly mirrored. “You can take off your coat here,” Rippler says. Weber sees himself standing there, looking at himself, holding a coat that’s too light in color. Yes, the coat is really too light – or is it the way the light is falling that’s deceiving?
Bauer wants to apply for a foreign posting, Weber says, and he was almost going to hang his coat on the reflection of the coat hook. He turns around to look at Rippler, but Rippler hadn’t noticed.
As for a foreign posting for Bauer, he sees no chance of that; surely Rippler agrees. Rippler nods and leads Weber through a white hallway, a large white parlor, and into a white room with a fireplace, touching the furniture in passing.
I say this not only for professional reasons, Weber goes on. No, there were some things that hadn’t been quite right. After all, Bauer had been in Poland from ‘41 on – Rippler would understand what he meant by that; he only wanted to say – He didn’t want to insinuate anything, wanted only to say –
“Of course, Weber, of course.” Rippler points to a wooden chair the arms of which have been carved into cats with arched backs,
“I had it specially made in Milan! Weber, let me tell you, it wasn’t cheap. But one has to know how to live.”
It’s elegant, Weber says, elegant. And quite modern.
All the furnishings seem to him as cold and ordinary as a doctor’s white lab coat, and this armchair is the badly matched tie.
“Do sit down,” Rippler says. “Cigar?”
No, he doesn’t smoke –
”Oh, of course. I forgot.”
Weber looks out the window, leaves are tumbling all over each other in the wind, waves of green and beyond that Weber hears voices; he sees someone coming toward him; he looks toward Palmer, the rigidly combed-back hair, the military-boot gait.
“May I offer you a cigar?” – He doesn’t smoke.
“Then won’t you have a sip of Champagne.” – He doesn’t drink either.
“Is there anything you do, Weber?”
He is a Protestant. They have their own rules.
“Aha, Protestant?” Palmer raises his eyebrows, hands Weber’s wife a glass of champagne and lifts his glass in a toast to her. Almost as if incidentally, he says, “And do you practice your religion, Weber?”
With Anna on his arm, Palmer facing him, Weber doesn’t know how to reply. He dances on a bubble of champagne that is rising and will burst any moment now.
“Weber, what’s the matter? Can I offer you something to drink? An aperitif? A glass of champagne? That will stimulate the circulation, trust me.”
No, no, no champagne, Weber mumbles. Water, please. He feels his hands tightening their grip on the arch-backed cats. He wants to get up, but in fact, his circulation is poor, and he falls back into that caricature of Hamurabi’s throne.
Rippler makes a clatter with carafes and glasses and with the spots of light cut into the glass, the sound is bright, celestial tones, a little Scriabin perhaps, Weber thinks. Just then, Rippler turns around, hands him a glass, and calls out “Cheers, Weber! To old times!”
Their glasses clink.
“What old times?” Weber asks.
Rippler doesn’t answer, downs his drink in one swallow.
On the telephone, interrupted by static, transmitted over a telephone line swinging somewhere between Bonn and Zurich, Rippler had assured him, “Weber, it’ll be a cinch. You have no idea how hard it is for them to find people who are even half as qualified as you.”
To which Weber replied, he hoped so, or he said he wished it were so, or – but he said it only once, whispering: It would be only fair – as he found himself in a strange Monday mood having just returned from the doctor’s office.
All this, only a few days ago, during their telephone conversation shortly before Weber’s departure.
Now Rippler is silent. Weber does not understand why Rippler doesn’t interrupt what he’s saying, why he doesn’t call out, “Weber, it’ll be a cinch!” Has all the whiteness around him swallowed his sentences? Does this city not allow people to speak out loud?
How many fully qualified lawyers are there still in Germany? Weber asks. And how many of these possess the necessary qualifications that would theoretically – and he emphasizes, only theoretically! – that would enable them to enter the Foreign Service? Languages, that was easy. But who had sufficient knowledge of the European economy? Who understood the duties of an ambassador? Who knew the necessary etiquette? How many might there be? Not many. And how many of those could they assign to a post, de facto? Ridiculous. Most of them had splashed around in the filth so much that you couldn’t even send them to Latin America, to some provincial consulate, even if it were in the deepest jungle! On the other hand, he, Weber, came right from Switzerland; there were people who had vouched for him; all this must be attached to his Milan personnel file.
“You never know exactly what it might say in a personnel file.”
No, he was sure; they had entered it in the record back then already. During those years it may have been used against him, but now it could speak in his favor.
“There’s one thing in fact that you mustn’t forget, my man,” Rippler finally breaks into Weber’s itemizations. “Back then there was an arrest warrant out for you.”
The wind creaking in the swaying telephone poles, the roaring of the swinging cable, a branch tapping against Rippler’s window. Weber rubs his forehead, asks that he not be reminded of that item. The fact that he was considered a criminal had been very disappointing to him, yes, you might say, humiliating.
“Weber, the people who called you that were gangsters!”
He had felt like a criminal.
“But there was this fellow, Heldt,” Rippler says. “Maybe we could get him as a witness for you.”
No, Rippler should forget about Heldt, Weber says and makes a dismissive gesture. That was all talk. Exaggerated. Rippler shouldn’t bother with Heldt.
He strokes his hair, smoothes down a curl sticking out at the back of his neck and adds more softly: It will have to be enough without Heldt. After all they wanted to set up a new office. It wasn’t merely that the Chancellor seemed to be quite unyielding on that point. It was just an accepted fact that one couldn’t send a former SS man to Paris. The entire Ribbentrop section had had little to do with the spirit of diplomacy, Weber points out. In truth there was no one in that section who was qualified for anything but rattling off the party program.
“You know, Weber, not all the envoys were blameless. There were some guilty ones among them, too.”
Yes, of course. He, Weber, had also had a man like that appointed as his superior. A staunch Party man. He was only there to check up on him. This man couldn’t do anything by himself, he had no legal education, and in everything else his abilities were less than insufficient. It hardly seems possible that a position could be filled so badly. “Weber, I’m including the old timers, too.”
But that’s like comparing apples and oranges! Feigned rapprochement, ah yes, possibly to keep from losing another position, or being pushed even further back. That was done for tactical reasons, not out of conviction.
“As you wish, Weber, as you wish. But I foresee difficulties with some of the old timers.” There were bunglers among them, yes, there were.
“By the way, which consulate were you thinking of?”
Actually, he had not been thinking of a consulate, Weber explained. He glances at the window, brushes back his hair, the curl sticking out in back. Rather, an embassy.
And then Weber says: Rome.
Weber says Rome with an assurance that surprises even himself. And Weber expands: Italy. Weber tells about his many years of experience, his excellent knowledge of the country, his perfect language skills, Weber says, It’s either me or no one. It was as if the position in Rome were made for him.
“Rome?” Rippler scratches his chin. “That’s quite ambitious. Before, you were – in what exactly? Salary group A14?”
What did that matter? Besides he was anything but convinced that he really wanted to go back into the diplomatic service. He had had to put up with a lot in those days. That leaves its mark. Rippler would not understand that. Weber glances out the window, smoothes down the lock of hair at the back of his neck.
Rippler clears his throat, rustles some papers. “Weber, I think Rome is a fabulous idea! This evening we’ll start asking around whether someone is already under consideration for that post. And you’ll talk with Blankenhorn. He makes the final personnel decisions. The Chancellor trusts him. Right now there’s not enough time for mistrust.”
Weber peers out at the city through the taxi window, thinking that lots of things don’t go well together anymore. He sees a prelate from the nunciature trying to take a walk in front of the new buildings. But it doesn’t work, Weber concludes. The prelate seems removed from the structures like a figure that has been copied into a film.
Weber fears that some things may have been bypassed. Things that he considers essential might have been passed over, he thinks.
But many things still function as they used to. Weber can still pay his driver. He has scarcely entered the lobby of the hotel, when a bellhop rushes up to offer his services: “May I take your bag? To what floor may I take the gentleman?”
No, he – Weber – has not yet dropped out of time. Before the elevator door closes, and Weber finds himself alone with the hotel employee whose sole task in life consists of pushing one of twelve buttons with white-gloved hands, Weber recognizes his own face on a mirrored wall dully illuminated by Tiffany lamps. He hears voices, Italian, German, and English phrases, laughter, giggling, coughing.
Weber looks at the reflection of his face: the wavy hair over his forehead, his wavy eyebrows, his chin, his neck composed of waves, small whorls that roll over one another, his tie knotted into the water. Beneath him the tiles of a pool, reflected squares, dark lines that slice up his face. The eyes a whirlpool. Weber gazes at his face going under in the waves. He hears voices around him, a flood of noises and obligations, and the old countess: “Consul, have you met Sir Richard? A fabulous man!” Somewhere a dog is barking or a car is braking, a bottle of champagne is popped open and Weber’s face dissolves in a sink that stinks of chlorine.
Chapter Two. Milanese Normality
“After many strenuous weeks the nicest thing for the Führer enjoys beomg able to ride again through the German countryside in his car. For me the nicest days are when I can sit at the steering wheel and – instead of driving through a land in dire need – be allowed to drive the Führer through a happy, proud country.”
Weber put aside the newspaper and decided that henceforth he would forego delivery of this particular publication. It was sunny, a summer day in Milan; in a few minutes he would set out on his stroll to the Consulate; on the Via Palestro he would buy a copy of La Repubblica; of course they also had it at the Consulate. The vendor would greet him happily with, “Il Consule,” and bow as much as that was possible in the tight space of the tiny room snowed under with newspapers. Weber would ponder whether he should sit down on one of the benches in the Giardini Pubblici and at least read the first page of the paper before he threw it into a garbage container. As on every other morning, he would decide against this since he preferred to arrive at work too early rather than too late.
“He always managed to arrive in such a way as to be least conspicuous,” my diplomat says. “Often he was already there, you know. A silent presence that you immediately forgot as soon as things started happening. At receptions he arrived at just the right time, not too early, and of course he knew that, as the guest of honor, he should arrive fifteen minutes after the appointed time, when everyone was immersed in conversation and had already forgotten they had been waiting. But I am certain, he never exceeded the fifteen minutes – being inconspicuous, you see, requires precision. It takes talent to be able to remain in the background, and your man Weber had this talent. Restraint, he was an expert at that. And just think – how determined can he be about canceling his newspaper subscription?”
”He was, is, and will never be a dictator. He is really only a Führer, and that is the best that can be said about a human being. Nowhere else in the world is there such a fanatical love by millions of people for a single figure, a love that comes from a great and profound, unquestioning belief and infinite trust, such as children sometimes feel for a very good father.”
Father, trust, fanatic love. The words rolled past Weber the way objects that are too large roll over openings that are too small. He pushed the newspaper aside and decided to continue his subscription after all. He would consider the monthly expenditure of two marks twenty as the price for his own security. Possibly, Weber reflected, the subscription might even be charged to the Consulate. The highest good, faith, an infinite trust. Where, by the way, was the orange marmalade?
Translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo
© 2009 by Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt