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Hein, Jakob (Sample Translation)

Vor mir den Tag, hinter mir die Nacht
(The Day Ahead, the Night Behind)

Abstand
Piper Verlag, September 2008, 192 pp.
ISBN: 978-3-492-05207-8
 

Chapter 1
 
Discarded Ideas
 
The old computer company sign was still hanging outside the shop. And every evening Boris continued to switch on the five little halogen lamps on the long metal rods that were bolted to the wall above the shop. They lit up the black-and-white weatherproof sign like a film star. The computer company called Pixelbrain had moved to another, much bigger and more beautiful shop some time ago, but Boris felt that the illuminated sign was proof that this shop was a place where successful firms could have their beginnings. Pixelbrain, a company that was now operating all over the world, had started here, as was plain for all to see, and the magic of the shop had by no means evaporated yet. So, Boris thought, there was reason to assume that the next business that set up here would also have a meteoric rise, taking it on to the front pages of the business magazines. But quite apart from all this, he could not have afforded a new sign anyway.
 
Moreover Boris would not have been able to tell anyone what his firm was to be called. He had been planning this shop for years before he opened it, and it was so familiar in his thoughts that he had quite simply forgotten to give it a name. The only reason for thinking of a snappy name, he thought, would have been to commission a shop sign. He had got an estimate, but it was far too expensive, so Boris decided to keep the Pixelbrain sign. This had the added attraction that he didn’t need to do anything. Fortunately the people from the computer firm didn’t want to take their sign with them; they wanted to hang a much bigger and more beautiful sign over their new bigger, more beautiful shop, of course. When it comes to replacing the old with the new, computer people are very dependable.
 
The telephone rang. Boris answered in his friendly telephone voice: “Discarded Ideas Agency, Boris Moser speaking.” He also possessed an irritated, a tired and a vague telephone voice, but he couldn’t use them in his business.
 
“Isn’t that the computer shop?” croaked a husky voice. Probably it was a man’s voice, but it could have been a woman’s if she was suffering a severe case of early morningitis.
 
“No, this is the Agency for Discarded Ideas. Boris Moser.”
 
“But just a moment ago I wrote down the number of the computer shop very carefully,” the voice said, puzzled.  
 
“That could be. You must mean Pixelbrain.”
 
“No, I mean the computer shop.”
 
“But Pixelbrain is a computer shop,” Boris retorted, slightly annoyed. “But they moved to another shop two months ago.”
 
“I see,” said the voice and fell silent. Boris wondered if he should hang up.
 
“And who did you say you are? The agency for disregarded ideas?” the voice asked at last.
 
Discarded ideas.”
 
“You don’t know anything about computers, by any chance?”
 
“No,” Boris confirmed. “Nothing at all.”
 
More silence. “And what sort of thing do you do?” The voice sounded less husky now, and more feminine.
 
“What do you mean?”
 
“Well, if you are running an agency, what do you do all day?”
 
“Well, I open the shop in the morning, make coffee, then I listen to the telephone messages, check my appointments and go through the mail.”
 
“And does that take a long time?”
 
“No, actually I just open up and make coffee. We’ve only just started up and it’s still quiet.”
 
Why he was telling the voice all this Boris could not quite understand. He assumed that he would have secretly liked to ask these questions himself, or should have asked them anyway, but had never done so because they touched on problems in his present life that were much too fundamental. It was easier to bare his soul to this anonymous voice that was actually only trying to ring the computer shop. He would never see this woman, and above all he didn’t have to look at her at this moment. Boris could hang up any time he liked and end the conversation, he was not divulging any state secrets, and in the best-case scenario his answers would reveal something interesting about himself.
 
“And what’s your aim?”
 
“We, that is to say, I’m the only one here, so I want to collect discarded ideas and find people who want them. Lots of ideas are discarded because they are considered useless, out of date, unsuitable or immoral. Normally these ideas just disappear. Their authors don’t bother to think of them any more and the idea fades away day by day. It can survive till the author dies, and then it is irretrievably lost. But perhaps, a few years later, this is the very idea that is desperately needed. But then it needs to be found again, and it is possible that all that you get is a distinctly inferior version of the original. I support the theory,” – Boris’s tone switched to something that could be called, without risk of exaggeration, a murmur – “that every idea in this world is thought only once. Certainly there are comparable ideas from time to time, but no two ideas are ever identical. Like snowflakes, if you understand what I mean.”
 
At the other end he could at least make out a “Hmm.”
 
“No, really. Talking pictures, the Special Theory of Relativity, even the crossbow. These are unique ideas. Nobody could ever have thought them in exactly the same way, not even the same people. If Einstein had had too much to do that day and was in a hurry and had to decide whether to put on a checked or a striped shirt instead of jotting his idea down straight away – who knows what might have happened! Certainly he would have developed a similar theory, but not the same one. He would have sat at his desk a few days later and racked his brain to recall the idea he had had the Sunday before, when he met that woman in the park.”
 
Boris took the silence at the other end as agreement. “And that’s where we come into it. I mean, where I come into it. I collect this kind of idea before it is discarded or lost.”
 
“Not everybody is an Einstein, you know,” said the woman.
 
It seemed unbelievable to Boris that she was still listening to him. “Of course not. And it’s better that way. Einstein did something with a lot of his ideas, though I would rather not know how many ideas he discarded over his lifetime. For someone like Einstein you really would have to employ someone specially to run after him all day and collect discarded ideas. But at the moment we don’t have enough staff – I mean I don’t.”
 
“And who are your suppliers?” asked the voice with a slight undertone that Boris didn’t like.
 
“Anyone. I always say that there is nobody who doesn’t have one idea in his lifetime. And we like getting those. People with few ideas, particularly, have no concept of how interesting this one brainwave could be, because they have no way of comparing it with others. And I offer to pass on this idea for a fee to somebody who can do something with it. The ideal case would of course be Plato’s sphere. Are you familiar with it?”
 
“No.”
 
“Plato says that humans used to have four arms and four legs and looked like a sphere. But they got on the wrong side of Zeus and he cut the sphere in two. Since then humans have been trying to reunite themselves with the other half of the sphere.”
 
“A nice concept.”
 
“But for me it’s quite concrete. For instance if I am given an idea for a five-stroke engine that doesn’t work, and another one for running a motor on air but can’t unfortunately be applied to four-stroke engines, then that would be marvellous, wouldn’t it?”
 
“But that’s an illusion, isn’t it.”
 
“Not quite,” Boris enthused. “A few of the best inventions were discovered that way. Do you know the little yellow bits of paper that you can stick on to anything?”
 
“Of course.”
 
“That’s a typical example of what I mean. The inventor had developed an adhesive that didn’t stick well and had already discarded the idea. A few months later he was struck by the fact that people constantly write notes to each other that fall off, get blown away or lie around in a spot where you can’t see them. And he wanted to put this observation aside too, when fortunately he thought of his old adhesive and so he invented the yellow stickers that made him a multi-millionaire. Plato’s spheres!”
 
“But where do you find people like that?”
 
“That’s the point of my agency. Now it’s no longer necessary for one person to have two ideas. The agency brings the ideas together.”
 
“You’re weird,” said the voice on the telephone. “I like that.”
 
Boris did not know if he should take this as a compliment or an insult. He had noticed that most compliments or insults had this quality and something had to be done about this ambiguity so as to make communication easier. He quickly jotted a few key words on his blotter. Boris had got into the habit of never discarding any idea, and had note-taking down to a fine art.
 
 “Why weird?” he asked to be safe.
 
“Has anyone ever applied any of the ideas from your agency?”
 
“Yes,” said Boris with a little too much hesitation.
 
“Who?”
 
“Well, me. This agency was my idea and originally I wanted to throw it away.”
 
“I understand,” said the woman. Then they were both silent.
 
“Listen, it was very interesting talking to you,” said the woman at last. “But my computer is still not working and I have to ring the shop urgently. Can you give me the new number?”
 
“Of course,” said Boris and gave her the number that he had written on the telephone itself. Actually, everybody that rang wanted the computer shop.
 
 “Funny they didn’t take their old number with them,” the woman said.
“They wanted to instal a new switchboard, and that wasn’t possible with the old number.”
 
“Well, thanks a lot and I hope you have a lot of success with your business.”
 
Boris thanked her and hung up. He felt somehow different from before but he could not say exactly how. Instead of pondering over it, he took out a system card and noted the idea about compliments and insults before he forgot it.
 
(pages 5-15 of the German edition)
 
 
Chapter 4
 
Sophia’s Fall
 
That June morning the sun seemed to be shining almost too brightly. Through the warm air the birds were warbling and flitting about furiously and in a strangely random way, as if this light were forcing them to move particularly quickly so as to avoid permanent damage to their circuits through overload. The asphalt had not even managed to radiate off the heat it had absorbed the day before. The city was smelling of summer.
 
On this very June morning Sophia Roganski fell over. One moment earlier she had been walking along the street fully conscious, a beautiful woman with long black hair, and now she was lying on the footpath.
 
On a grey December morning real panic can spread – or maybe on a late March evening, but on this morning it was simply too warm and too sunny for anything like that. The world smelt and tasted too good for anyone to believe that something really terrible had happened. A few people in a nearby street café did finally grasp that they had just been witnesses to a young woman falling over. They feigned something like leaping to their feet, but you could also have described it as forcing themselves into an upright position if you had observed them critically and didn’t know about the sun-drenched June morning. Then they trotted over to Sophia Roganski.
 
Unfortunately we have to expect that she might have remained lying there quite a while if she had not been such an exceptionally beautiful woman. In the case of less attractive people we tend to leave attempts at resuscitation to those who are paid for this kind of thing. Yet actually an attractive person is in less need of help, as her attractive appearance springs from her youth, health and vitality, and it doesn’t matter if professional help takes a while arriving – but there is no justice in this world.
 
Everybody was pleased to help a woman like Sophia Roganski. Men hoped to be able to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on her; “mouth-to-mouth” was the first word that occurred to them as they got up from their comfortable café chairs. Really it was this word alone that had got them out of their seats, although they had no idea what mouth-to-mouth entailed. Even as they were getting up they wondered when they would need to breathe in and out. In actual fact they merely wanted to put their lips on Sophia Roganski’s lips, in the hope that the outcome would be good, like on television, or at least not much worse. Men hoped to be allowed to touch her body and feel its welcoming warmth through her clothes. They hoped to be able to smell this beautiful woman.
 
There was at least one man building up his hopes that Sophia Roganski would wake up within a few seconds. He hoped that a smile would light up her face and she would entrust herself unconditionally to her rescuer, just as a newly-hatched grey goose chick entrusts itself to the first mother its eyes light upon. Great indeed were the hopes of this one man that the fall of this angel would change his life at last, that finally he could give up that preposterous job at that peculiar agency. Hadn’t he been quite a different person, a normal human being, before he started there? But all that suit- and laptop-wearing and inconsequential chatter consisting of at least 50% English and 49% polyester, the cigarette-puffing and licking the sludge from the bottom of the much-too-small espresso cup, as casually as possible – all this had changed him. He did not even know what he liked any more, or what he would like his flat to look like. Even worse, he would have had to ask his colleagues if it was chic. His name was Mark.
 
Oh, that ridiculous competition in the office to see who arrived last and left last! The winner in the morning would get in at midday at the earliest, bring into the office a suntanned face that looked as if he had been on holidays, throw his obscenely expensive jacket over a chair and wait for his colleagues’ enquiries, so that he could tell them about an adventure he had just had, though it would be incredible in every detail. Late in the evening they would all sit forever in front of their computers and act as if they were working. When anyone left, he would be farewelled with a face that expressed on the one hand a longing to go home at this early hour, but on the other a crushing sense of responsibility for the welfare of the firm. As Mark knew, they were actually surfing the net to the point of exhaustion. And the last to leave would win.
 
Mark didn’t admit it, not to himself and certainly not to the others, but he hated this game. He had always liked getting up early. His parents had told him that as a child he would stand in the doorway of their bedroom at six and ask to be allowed to get up early.
 
In the evening Mark seldom stayed up late and liked to be in bed at eleven at the latest. If he could have had it his way, he would have worked from seven in the morning till two in the afternoon. In that time he would have achieved at least as much as now, and of course more than the three winners of last year’s stupid “come later, go later” contest put together. Work was fun for him, but if he had indeed worked between seven and two, then his days with the firm would have been numbered; in a mysterious way the employees were assessed only to a small extent on the work they did. It seemed far more important to know the fifteen trendiest places in town, the right kind of clothes to wear and the right lifestyle to live.
 
So Mark got up in the morning, wasted the early part of it at home and set off when the street cafés finally opened, so that he could waste a little more time before he could allow himself to be seen at the office.
 
And now Sophia Roganski had fallen over before his very eyes. He would throw in his job and open a bakery with her. Not just a little shop full of hot air where a frozen bread-like substance was thawed in the electric oven; no, a real bakery where dough would be kneaded early in the morning and bread baked in a stone oven. Mark would get up early and bake everything himself. Then he would wake Sophia gently and together they would sell crisp fresh rolls and fill china cups to the brim with real coffee. And they would buy furniture together. Chairs you could sit comfortably in, and cupboards you could fit a lot into. Mark would know whether he liked the furniture by looking into Sophia’s eyes – the eyes of this woman who had just fallen on to the footpath.
 
But it was not just Mark, and men like Mark, who got up and ran over to Sophia. There were women who wanted to help too, who wanted to touch Sophia Roganski to find the secret of her beauty, and perhaps even understand it. Each had hopes of finding in her a real best friend – you never can tell; the hope that her life could finally change through the fall of this angel; the hope that she would no longer have to do the rounds of dozens of shoe shops and boutiques as part of the search for a life partner, a search as indirect as it was hopeless. With this beautiful friend she could sit in the least fashionable pub in town, with no make-up, on her worst hair day, drink beer and eat a hamburger – and despite all this she might meet her husband in just this dump, for Sophia’s light would shine upon her, and every man would recognise her beauty and the many joys that a life with her would bring. Her name was Iris.
 
She could see it exactly: finally she wouldn’t need to go into these terrible trendy shops that were always too noisy, too expensive and mostly too dark. You had to stand impassively in the corner and look as though you were bored – for Iris, this was mostly not a pretence. To her the whole business of looking for a husband seemed like a fight for survival in quicksand. The more she struggled, the greater her efforts, the faster she seemed to sink. But she couldn’t bear standing still; if the process she called “active waiting” brought no results, what could she possibly expect from “passive waiting”?
 
It was not as if Iris couldn’t find any men – there were men everywhere. And it was certainly not as if Iris could not get sex. She was after all not completely daft, and getting a man into bed was really quite simple. You sat lightly clad in some place where they serve alcohol, you waited till somebody chatted you up and then you answered with an inane laugh.
 
Iris’s problem was that she couldn’t find a husband that way.
 
She was completely happy with her job as the manager of a little hotel where several times a week she could watch scenes of that kind. During her training, she had to clean rooms and serve coffee to guests at breakfast, and she would have been glad to chuck it all in. To make matters worse, the hotel where she worked as a trainee was situated in delightful countryside, as the hotel brochure stated. Delightful countryside was the euphemistic term for the dreariest boondocks. Iris would rather have worked in a “pulsating city” or at least “on the fringes of the metropolis”, even, at a pinch “in a picturesque small town”, but she had been stuck in the delightful countryside. But she kept at it and got a very good grade in her diploma, which helped placate her parents, as she had not gone for the profession they wanted for her. And because she liked doing the work, the elderly owners were glad to put her in charge.
 
She was also envied for her flat where she had been living for a while. It was just a husband she still needed. With Vincent, the first man who had been earmarked for this task, she had tried everything. Iris had to organise everything for Vincent and was always ready to do what he wanted, although she reached her limits again and again. After three years of this, Vincent met some Colombian woman and left Iris without ceremony.
 
Iris was struck by the fact that the men that came after Vincent also wanted her to organise their lives for them. When Iris had achieved this, they took their tidy lives and went on, deeply grateful, to the next woman and they would let her mess up their lives again. Or Iris drove the men away by stating her own wishes and longings for downright embarrassing things like emotional support and security.
 
Over the years, instead of gradually giving up, she had put the bar higher and higher. She had been working on this most difficult project for such a long time now and decided that she would either get a perfect result or fail completely. A spunky tradesman would be too little compensation for these years of effort. There surely must be nice good-looking millionaires. She had had abysmal experiences with average nobodies. One of them – his name was Marco or Mario and he was doing some sort of university course, having moved straight out of home into a shared house where two women did everything for him – actually told her straight to her face after three weeks that he could not visualise continuing the relationship with her, only the regular sex.
 
And so Iris put on the right clothes and went to the right bars frequented by the rich and beautiful. But there was always something wrong with the men who might be have been possibilities, otherwise they would not have been in the places where Iris went to find a husband. The only positive thing about her unproductive search was the constant improvement in her ability to recognise more and more quickly the flaws in the seemingly flawless men. Iris could almost tell by smelling them whether they were married, drug-dependent, emotionally disturbed, gay or all of these things.
 
At school Iris had done an experiment in biology that she took as an important lesson for her life. They tried to put a frog in water heated to sixty degrees, but the frog jumped away the moment the water became too hot for it. Then they put the same frog in a beaker of lukewarm water, lit a Bunsen burner under it and the creature made no attempt to resist being boiled. Sometimes Iris thought she was like this frog; under her beaker, life was burning vigorously.
 
Iris held the arm of the miraculously beautiful woman on the pavement and thought she would confide all these worries and ideas to Sophia Roganski during her daily visits to the hospital. Sophia would listen to her as she gradually recovered. They would become best friends and soon Iris’s problems would no longer exist. Later, wearing a colourful pinafore, she would cook dinner at home with her husband and Sophia, she would splash brown sauce on herself, explode in loud laughter and simply be silly. And whenever she went out, either with him or with her, or perhaps just alone, she would only go where she wanted and certainly not to hunting-grounds full of dubious stags. Iris would stay as long as she liked, and not one second longer. After all she would be going home to her husband and nothing else mattered.
 
But Sophia Roganski lay on the footpath and didn’t move. She didn’t look as if she was suffering or sick, she didn’t seem to be in pain. Actually she looked as if she was asleep.
 
About forty centimetres above her collarbone Mark and Iris bumped into each other and glanced into each other’s eyes.
 
“Give me some room!” ordered the emergency medic as he hurried up to them. They leaped aside in surprise and watched a little embarrassed as the medic tended to Sophia who had immediately become his patient.
 
“Can we do anything?” Mark finally asked.
 
“No,” said the doctor curtly.
 
“Where are you going to take her?”
 
The doctor glanced up. “Are you a relative?”
 
“No, not exactly.”
 
“Then I can’t give you any information. If you like, you can give me your telephone number and I can give it to the patient when she is better.”
 
Mark and Iris handed the man their cards and looked at each other. “Do you want to go for a coffee?” asked Mark.
 
“Love to!” said Iris with a very cautious smile.
 
Of course it was a lot more pleasant for the emergency medic, too, to encounter a woman like Sophia Roganski on this footpath. All aesthetic considerations aside, her relatively young age made almost everything easier. She was vigorous, had a young heart, she was physically stable and she had functioning veins which were not yet hardened by calcification, so you could inject medication into them, she had an elastic throat which in case of necessity would admit a respiratory tube and you didn’t have to look out for loose dentures or a slack tongue. And as a final consideration, how did he personally feel about carrying nothing but old, seriously ill and frail patients around, who despite his best efforts would not live to see the next day? Was his dream not more like jumping out of the car, rushing up to a beautiful woman like this one, puffing frantically with his heavy bags, waving the bystanders away with professional assurance, putting the heavy metal case with the red cross down on the pavement with a bit more noise than absolutely necessary, kneeling down by the patient with a serious face and showing the skills he had learnt?
 
If he could save this woman here, then this might be a sign that everything would be better in the future. He felt the possibility that his life might finally be changed by the fall of this angel.
 
The doctor was relieved to find that all the circulation was perfectly stable, the respiratory passages were clear, the pupils were normal, and in fact everything that could be measured seemed fine. The thought ran through his mind that if the situation were reversed, if he himself were lying on the footpath and this woman was bending over him with a stethoscope, then the signs would be considerably less favourable. With all his shifts he got too little sleep, his meals were too irregular and he had no time to work on his fitness. It was bad enough that he didn’t go to the swimming pool regularly any more, but the truth was that he hardly ever walked more than a few paces.
 
His name was Sebastian.
 
(Pages 49-64 of the German edition)
 
 

Translation by Tomas Drevikovsky
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