Image credit: Cheryl Jacobsen - "In the Jaws"

During my great-grandmother's funeral I was at one point standing behind a bush with my girl cousin; we were pressed close to each other, watching my boy cousin while he stood behind the church and pissed on the whitewashed wall.

 

Now he is exhibiting himself in a cage, surrounded by drunk people who are acting like animals: eating, drinking, making noise.

 

"Receptions are terribly embarrassing," I say.

 

My cousin laughs inside the cage; someone shouts that people from television are coming.

 

Shortly after this, I see it: The cameraman makes his way through the celebrities, and the journalist follows him with a fuzzy microphone, which he thrusts through the bars of the cage to reach my cousin.

 

"Tell us, why are you sitting in there?" the journalist wants to know.

 

My cousin starts talking about the castle in Prague, and I have no idea how this is related to what is going on; I walk away a little and gulp down the glass of red wine I have in my hand.

 

The air in the gallery is so hot it makes me dizzy.

 

A drunken Swede with a crooked pink necktie approaches me.

 

"Har inte jag sett dig förut?" he asks.

 

I shake my head.

 

"Du liknar någon jag känner," he says.

 

He winks, then belches.

 

"Unfortunately, you don't look like someone I know," I say.

 

The Swede laughs.

 

He laughs so much that wine sloshes out of his glass, and while he is staggering around somewhere among people's feet trying to repair the damage spreading across the polished floor I disappear into the ladies' restroom.

 

This is not because I need to pee; I just drink some cold water from the tap. That was my old homeroom teacher Jens Bentsen's motto: Try drinking a little cold water; sometimes it helps.

 

Perhaps he was right; when, at any rate, I emerge from the restroom the Swede is gone.

 

My cousin is still talking to the emissaries from the television network. He has gotten to the point: It was in Franz Kafka's little blue house in Die Goldene Gasse in Prague that my cousin was once flipping through one of Kafka's books and found a short story called "Ein Hungerkünstler."

 

This was how he got the idea for his artwork.

 

"What does a starving artist live on?" asks the journalist.

 

"Love and spring water," says my cousin.

 

 

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When Franz Kafka was eating with his family as a child, he was not permitted to crunch the bones if there were bones, but it was all right for his father to do so.

 

Kafka was not permitted to slurp vinegar, but it was all right for his father to do so.

 

Kafka was supposed to cut the bread completely straight without fail, while his father always cut the bread crookedly and with a knife dripping with brown sauce.

 

Kafka was required to be fastidious, to eat without dropping a single crumb, but under his father's chair there were always crumbs and clumps and spills.

 

Kafka was permitted only to eat while at dinner, while his father often trimmed his nails or sharpened pencils or cleaned his ears with toothpicks.

 

My father's father was just like Kafka's.

 

 

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The bones sticking out under my cousin's skin appear particularly pronounced because of the lighting in the gallery; the sight makes me think of the skeleton in the biology room's black cupboard, back at my childhood school.

 

Back then, Jens Bentsen was in the habit of telling us that the human brain consists of a mushy mass.

 

"But in your case," he said.

 

There was a lengthy pause for effect while he glowered around the classroom and struck his open palm with his pointer before he continued.

 

"In your case it is the other way around," he said.

 

He leaned forward a little and under his bushy brows his dark gaze slid from one face to the next.

 

"Your brains consist of a mass of mush," he said.

 

This was Jens Bentsen's attempt to be funny, but no one laughed.

 

Everyone feared Jens Bentsen, not least because he used punishment.

 

Corporal punishment.

 

Despite the fact that it had been abolished in the sixties, twenty years before we started school.

 

Thirty years before that, my father went to school in Germany.

 

His teacher's favorite book was Schwarze Pädagogik.

 

Pupils in his class who had not learned their grammar had to stand in front of the lectern on one leg until the period was over.

 

When school was over, they had to pull down their own pants before they were whipped.

 

 

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Jens Bentsen ripped a fifth-grade boy's ear halfway off when I was in third grade. This boy had called one of the boys in my class Lars Diarrhea because he had once shit in his pants when asked to go up to the board and write out the three first lines of one of Steen Steensen Blicher's short stories without any spelling errors.

 

And Lars was dyslexic.

 

I believe the name of the fifth-grade boy who had his ear maimed was Tue, but Jens Bentsen did not use his name when he spoke to him. He showed no mercy to Tue despite the fact that Tue sobbed wretchedly for his disfigured, bloody ear.

 

"That's all for now, Van Gogh," said Jens Bentsen.

 

Blood was gushing down Tue's neck as he was pushed toward the door and out.Tue never again called people by anything but their real names, yet the nickname Jens Bentsen had given Tue stayed with him the rest of his time in school.

 

 

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My father got the nickname Horse Teeth during his school days as well: Back then his big front teeth protruded from his mouth. Almost horizontally.

 

 

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There is a period in the life of every young man during which he feels that Die Leiden des jungen Werther was written just for him.

 

It was Goethe who said this.

 

In my father's case there was not just a single period of being unhappily in love. There were many.

 

It was in his youth that he suffered; as he got older he became more hardened.

 

Unfortunately for him, the first period occurred already before he learned to read; he was six years old and completely crushed, and he didn't even have Werther to turn to in his Weltschmerz.

 

The girl's name was Elise.

 

She was eight.

 

She lived in the house across from the apartment complex in which my father's family lived.

 

Elise had long blond braids and could play Mozart on the piano; my father had stood out on the street in the dark and listened to her playing countless times while he imagined her slender fingers moving lightly across the keys.

 

When Elise was nearby, my father didn't dare open his mouth for fear she would see his teeth and run away screaming.

 

Because his heart would start racing when his beloved was in view, and because he was breathing only through his nose, his cheeks would often take on a deep red color while small drops of sweat broke out on his forehead.

 

"Warum schwitzt du?" she asked.

 

This was on a cold day, a windy day, when my father was walking home from school and Elise suddenly appeared at his side.

 

What my father had dreamed of for so long had suddenly happened, but my he had not been prepared for it, and the occurrence that had become the most fantastic possibility in his imagination turned out to be the most terrible because he didn't know how he could answer her question without revealing his overbite.

 

He felt his face flush, he felt the sweat trickling down his forehead, he felt his bangs beginning to stick to his skin.

 

Elise's words churned around in his brain.

 

If he had been able to open his mouth without worrying, he would have said he had a fever.

 

"Bist du schwerhörig?" she asked.

 

It hadn't occurred to him at all that she could wonder about this, and in a way it was almost worse than having her see his teeth. He wanted to tell her how beautifully she played, and if he said nothing she might never speak to him again.

 

It was now or never.

 

He took a deep breath and dived into it.

 

"Du spielst wie die Engel singen," he said.

 

He should never have said this, he realized this as he said it, but it was too late.

 

Elise had not heard a word of what he had said, but she had seen his teeth.

 

She stopped and looked at my father as though he were an onion whose layers she would peel off with her penetrating gaze until there was nothing left.

 

She walked over and stood directly in front of him.

 

"Deine Zähne sind hässlich," she said.

 

In that moment a bubble burst in my father.

 

A sob filled his throat like thick porridge, and he felt he was about to choke.

 

Elise laughed.

 

My father would have liked to surrender to the urge to cry, but he caught himself and decided to end his life.

 

Elise’s words remained in his consciousness as an echo after she had left.

 

He went home with his heart in his throat, and when he got to the apartment complex where he lived he threw up in the yard.

 

The next day he tried to hang himself in the bicycle shed; he had heard that one of the men in his building had hanged himself in the attic because his wife had left him for another man, so my father thought hanging must be the answer to his anguish.

 

He had found a rope in a trashcan, but when he was standing there with the rope in his hand he was suddenly in doubt as to how he should hang himself; the easiest thing would be to hang himself by the arm, he thought, and he decided to do that while he was standing on a ladder tying the rope to a ceiling beam.

 

A little later, while he was hanging in the air with the rope tied to his wrist, he wondered how long it would take him to die.

 

His arm ached, and he hoped it wouldn’t take more than an hour.

 

Ten minutes later the rope broke, and he fell and broke his collarbone.

 

 

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In the evening my cousin climbs out of the cage in the gallery; he walks off to the restrooms to get dressed.

 

When he comes back, he looks most of all like one of the handsome, rail-thin models from the fashion catwalks of Milan in his tight-fitting suit.

 

He comes over to me with a bottle of wine and two glasses, hands me one and fills it.

 

He smiles.

 

Says he's glad I came.

 

We drink to each other's health, and my cousin tells me that he had just arrived on the train from Germany when he spotted me at the Central Station the other day.

 

"You said Opa was a Nazi," I say.

 

"Well, yes, he was one of the bad ones," my cousin replies.

 

"Why?" I ask.

 

My cousin shrugs.

 

"Why didn't he get denazified?" he asks.

 

"Denazified?" I ask.

 

My cousin explains that after the war all Germans over the age of eighteen were supposed to answer a questionnaire for the Military Government of Germany; the questionnaire was a form eighty-six centimeters long, printed on both sides, comprising one hundred thirty-one questions concerning each individual citizen's National Socialist past.

 

"A kind of absolution," my cousin says.

 

He rolls his eyes.

 

"Perverse," he says.

 

He says most Germans saw the process as an endpoint that marked the beginning of a collective silence with regard to the country's Nazi past.

 

"But Opa didn't get himself denazified?" I ask.

 

My cousin shakes his head and says, "If one didn't have anything to hide, wouldn't one try to get cleared?"

 

 

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"How did Opa flee?" I ask.

 

My cousin asks whether my father has never told me.

 

I shake my head.

 

My cousin drinks the rest of his red wine and says that it was Oma who told him about this and that she asked him to treat it confidentially.

 

I nod and refill my cousin's glass.

 

My cousin says that Opa had no idea of the extent of the destruction taking place above him during the hours he spent as a captive below the earth in Berlin.

 

The fall of gigantic buildings.

 

Mountains of bricks and burned beams and bodies.

 

Dust everywhere in the ravaged streets.

 

The fire and the smoke and the stench of sulphur.

 

Nevertheless he had a strong feeling that the war had already been lost.

 

He no longer knew what time of day it was, he feared that he was losing his sanity, and fear kept him awake constantly, so he had to dream and re-experience his nightmare with his eyes open.

 

Some of the horrible pictures that haunted him were pictures of naked, starved, mistreated bodies, caged like beasts; these were the bodies of those he had previously not seen as human beings at all but as animals, pests, vermin, insects, as dirt, as filth, as despicable, which must be exterminated at any price so that everything good and beautiful and strong in the Third Reich could become even better, even more beautiful, and even stronger.

 

The problem now was that he had begun to see the faces in his mind.

 

All the hollow-cheeked, emptily staring faces now suddenly turned toward him; perhaps they had arisen from their mass graves as staring ghosts, or perhaps they were really in the cellar together with him. He no longer knew what to think, but he knew they were watching him constantly, day and night. He knew that they saw everything and that nothing he said or did, nothing he tried to convince them of or order them to do could get them to stop looking.

 

He felt weak, powerless; he no longer felt superhumanly strong but at most just human.

 

He no longer felt hate, but he felt something else he had never felt before, something that to him was much more frightening and terrible than hate.

 

For the first and last time in his life, Opa experienced what it meant to feel empathy.

 

He experienced the feeling as an inner crack, almost a wound, that slowly, painfully, and mercilessly opened in him, a crack he never would have thought possible, a crack in what for the entirety of his adult life had appeared to be an impenetrably true ideology: Nazism.

 

Opa sat and looked into the pitch black of the cellar and was forced to remain seated.

 

He drew quick, rasping breaths.

 

His nostrils flared.

 

Was he crying?

 

Or was it just the cellar's stink of shit and piss and old blood that made his nostrils quiver?

 

It was at this point that it occurred to him that he would have to attempt to flee. This thought had not occurred to him previously; his only wish had been to die a quick, painless death now that he had fallen into the hands of the enemy.

 

But now it was clear to him that he had to get out, had to get home, had to find Oma again, regardless of whether she was dead or alive.

 

He had to find out whether she had stayed in Berlin, and above all he had to find out whether she had given birth.

 

 

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After he had rappelled down from the restroom window, Opa stood for a few moments and felt the firm ground under his feet while he stared out over the bombed-out city.

 

He was overwhelmed by his newly-won freedom and felt an urge to thank someone for it.

 

Opa turned his face upward and for some moments considered the possibility that the old man up there somewhere behind the clouds, the man in whom he had otherwise never believed, perhaps really existed and wanted the best for Opa.

 

In his most desperate and sentimental moment, Opa promised himself that he would find his family and make them the happiest family in all of Germany.

 

If Opa had been able to hold on to this feeling, my father and his siblings would have had a much less traumatic childhood.

 

 

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When Opa heard the bloodhounds barking and instinctively wanted to begin his flight, his legs would not move at first.

 

They trembled every time Opa took a step, and he nearly fell over.

 

It was early in the morning, and the street was quiet apart from the sounds coming from inside the hotel.

 

Through the open window the soldier's pounding could be heard.

 

Opa clenched his teeth.

 

He forced his legs to start moving, clenched his teeth against the pain, and began to run.

 

At the end of the street lay an U-Bahn shaft into which he ran. The shaft had been transformed into a hospital and stank of feces and coagulated blood; Opa could not see where he was.

 

The sign that would have shown which underground station was located there had been bombed away.

 

On the stairs leading down into the shaft lay a body dressed in civilian clothing. Hastily, Opa tore the clothes off the body; he barely managed to put the clothes on before he heard the dogs barking up on the street.

 

For hours Opa ran along the tracks in the underground tunnel system; he ran for his life until he felt convinced that he had shaken his pursuers off.

 

He slowed down and started walking while he gasped for breath and cursed the war.

 

He thought of Oma, of the last letter he had received from her, in which she had written that it would not be long before she gave birth.

 

He had received it in the mail at his office in the town of Łęczyca just before he fled; he had not had time to answer.

 

He had no idea where Oma was now.

 

 

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"Łęczyca?" I ask.

 

My cousin lights a cigarette and says that it was the town in Poland in which Opa's office was located.

 

He was the commander-in-chief.

 

"Opa was an Obersturmbannführer," he says.

 

"What does that mean?" I ask.

 

My cousin says it corresponds to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Danish armed forces.

 

He says Opa was assigned this rank because he was such a good organizer.

 

"What did he do?" I ask.

 

"He replaced human beings."

 

"What do you mean?"

 

"Jews with Germans."

 

"How?" I ask.

 

"Opa sent the Jews to Chelmno," says my cousin.

 

He blows smoke across the table.

 

"Mhm," I mumble.

 

I'm suddenly not sure I want to hear more.



View Original Work ↓

Under min oldemors begravelse befandt jeg mig på et tidspunkt bag en busk sammen med min kusine, vi trykkede os ind mod hinanden og betragtede min fætter, mens han stod bag kirken og pissede op ad den hvidkalkede mur.

 

Nu udstiller han sig selv i et bur, omgivet af fulde mennesker, der ter sig som dyr: æder, drikker, larmer.

 

– Receptioner er frygtelig pinlige, siger jeg.

 

Min fætter griner inde i buret, der er nogen, der råber, at fjernsynet kommer.

 

Lidt efter ser jeg det: kameramanden baner sig vej mellem kendisserne, og journalisten følger trop med en lodden mikrofon, som bliver stukket ind i buret til min fætter.

 

– Hvorfor sidder du her? vil journalisten vide.

 

Min fætter begynder at fortælle et eller andet om slottet i Prag, og hvad det har med sagen at gøre, aner jeg ikke, jeg går lidt væk og bunder det glas rødvin, jeg står med i hånden.

 

Luften i galleriet er svimlende varm.

 

En beruset svensker med skævt, lyserødt slips nærmer sig.

 

– Har inte jag sett dig förut? spørger han.

 

Jeg ryster på hovedet.

 

– Du liknar någon jag känner, siger han.

 

Han blinker med det ene øje, bagefter bøvser han.

 

– Du ligner desværre ikke en, jeg kender, siger jeg.

 

Svenskeren griner.

 

Han griner så meget, at hans glas skvulper over, og mens han raver rundt et sted nede mellem folks fødder og forsøger at udbedre skaden, der breder sig ud over de bonede gulve, forsvinder jeg ud på dametoilettet.

 

Det er ikke, fordi jeg skal tisse, jeg drikker bare vand af den kolde hane; det var min gamle klasselærer Jens Bentsens motto:

 

Prøv at tage en tår koldt vand, det er sommetider, det hjælper.

 

Måske var der noget om snakken, da jeg kommer ud fra toilettet er svenskeren i hvert fald væk.

 

Min fætter taler stadig med fjernsynets udsendte, han er nået frem til sin pointe; det var inde i Franz Kafkas lille blå hus i Die Goldene Gasse i Prag, at min fætter på et tidspunktstod og bladrede i en af Kafkas bøger, hvori han opdagede en novelle, der hed Ein Hungerkünstler.

 

Det var på den måde, han fik ideen til sit værk.

 

– Hvad lever en sultekunstner af? spørger journalisten.

 

– Kærlighed og kildevand, siger min fætter.

 

 

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Når Franz Kafka som barn sad og spiste med sin familie, måtte han ikke knase ben, hvis de fik serveret ben, men hans far måtte godt.

 

Kafka måtte ikke slubre eddike, men hans far måtte godt.

 

Kafka skulle altid skære brødet fuldstændig lige, mens hans far altid skar brødet skævt og med en kniv dryppende af brun sovs.

 

Kafka måtte altid passe på, at der ikke faldt madrester på gulvet, men under hans fars stol lå der altid krummer og klumper og klatter.

 

Kafka måtte altid kun være optaget af at spise ved bordet; hans far klippede ofte negle eller spidsede blyanter eller rensede sine ører med tandstikkere.

 

Min fars far var præcis ligesom Kafkas.

 

 

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Knoglerne, der rager frem under min fætters hud, er særligt markerede på grund af lyset i galleriet, synet får mig til at tænke på skelettet i biologilokalets sorte skab, dengang jeg gik i skole.

 

Dengang havde Jens Bentsen for vane at fortælle os, at menneskets hjerne består af en grødet masse.

 

– Men i jeres tilfælde, sagde han.

 

Han holdt en lang kunstpause, mens han skulede ud over klasselokalet og slog pegepinden ned i sin ene, åbne håndflade, før han fortsatte.

 

– I jeres tilfælde er det omvendt, sagde han.

 

Han bøjede sig lidt fremover og hans mørke blik under de buskede bryn gled fra ansigt til ansigt.

 

– Jeres hjerner består af en masse grød, sagde han.

 

Det var Jens Bentsens forsøg på at være morsom, der var bare ingen, der grinede.

 

Alle frygtede Jens Bentsen, ikke mindst fordi han brugte straf.

 

Korporlig afstraffelse.

 

Selvom det blev afskaffet i tresserne, tyve år før vi begyndte i skole.

 

Tredive år før det gik min far i skole i Tyskland.

 

Hans lærers yndlingsværk var Schwarze Pädagogik.

 

Hvis nogen i hans klasse ikke kunne deres grammatik, skulle de stå på ét ben foran kateteret, indtil timen var slut.

 

Efter skoletid skulle de selv trække bukserne ned, før de fik prygl.


 

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Jens Bentsen hev engang det ene øre halvvejs af en dreng fra femte klasse, dengang vi gik i tredje.

 

Drengen havde kaldt en af drengene fra vores klasse for Lars Tyndskid, fordi han en dag var kommet til at skide i bukserne, da han blev bedt om at gå op til tavlen og skrive de tre første linjer af en af Steen Steensen Blichers noveller på tavlen, uden stavefejl.

 

Og Lars var ordblind.

 

Drengen fra femte, der fik lemlæstet sit øre, hed vistnok Tue, men Jens Bentsen brugte ikke hans navn, da han tiltalte ham, der var ingen kære mor, selvom Tue stortudede efter at have haft ørerne i maskinen.

 

– Det var alt for nu, Van Gogh, sagde Jens Bentsen.

 

Blodet fossede ned langs Tues hals, da han blev skubbet hen mod døren og ud.

 

Han kaldte aldrig igen nogen noget, som de ikke hed, men tilnavnet som Jens Bentsen havde tildelt ham, blev hængende ved ham resten af hans skoletid.

 

 

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Min far fik også øgenavnet Pferdgebiss i sin skoletid: dengang strittede de store fortænder næsten vandret ud af hans mund.

 

 

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Der findes en periode i enhver ung mands liv, hvor han føler, at Den unge Werthers lidelser er skrevet netop for ham.

 

Det er Goethe, der har sagt det.

 

For min fars vedkommende var der bare ikke tale om en enkelt periode med ulykkelig forelskelse, men om mange.

 

Det var i sine yngre dage, at han led; da han blev ældre var han mere hærdet.

 

Uheldigvis for ham faldt hans første periode, allerede inden han havde lært at læse, han var seks år og fuldstændig knust, og han havde ikke engang Werther at ty til i sin Weltschmerz.

 

Pigen hed Elise.

 

Hun var otte.

 

Hun boede i huset over for det lejlighedskompleks, min fars familie boede i.

 

Elise havde lange lyse fletninger og kunne spille Mozart på klaver, min far havde stået ude på gaden i mørke og hørt hende spille utallige gange, mens han havde forestillet sig hendes fine fingre løbe let hen over tangenterne.

 

Når Elise var i nærheden, turde han ikke åbne munden af frygt for, at hun skulle se hans tænder og løbe skrigende bort.

 

Fordi hans hjerte galopperede, når hans udkårne var inden for hans synsfelt, og fordi han kun trak vejret via næsen, fik han ofte knaldrøde kinder, samtidig med at små svedperler piblede frem på hans pande.

 

– Warum schwitzt du? spurgte hun.

 

Det var en kold dag, en blæsende, hvor min far var på vej hjem fra skole, og Elise pludselig gik ved hans side.

 

Det, som han så længe havde drømt om, var pludselig sket, men uden at han havde været forberedt på det, og det, der i hans fantasi var blevet til det mest fantastiske, viste sig nu at være det værst tænkelige, fordi han ikke vidste, hvordan han skulle besvare hendes spørgsmål uden at afsløre sit overbid.

 

Han mærkede varmen skylle op i ansigtet, han mærkede sveden springe frem på panden, han mærkede, hvordan pandehåret begyndte at klæbe mod huden.

 

Elises ord kværnede rundt i hans hjerne.

 

Hvis han havde kunnet åbne munden uden bekymring, ville han have sagt, at han havde feber.

 

– Bist du schwerhörig? spurgte hun.

 

Det havde han slet ikke tænkt på, at hun kunne komme til at tænke, og det var på en måde næsten værre, end at hun så hans tænder, han ville jo fortælle hende, hvor smukt hun spillede, og hvis han ingenting sagde, ville hun måske aldrig tale til ham igen.

 

Det var nu eller aldrig.

 

Han tog en dyb indånding og sprang ud i det.

 

– Du spielst wie die Engel singen, sagde han.

 

Det skulle han aldrig have sagt, det gik op for ham, idet han sagde det, men da var det for sent.

 

Elise havde ikke hørt et ord af, hvad han havde sagt, til gengæld havde hun set hans tænder.

 

Hun standsede og stod og så på min far, som om han var et løg, hun med sit borende blik ville skrælle alle lag af, indtil der ikke var mere tilbage.

 

Hun gik helt hen til ham.

 

– Deine Zähne sind hässlich, sagde hun.

 

I det øjeblik var der en boble, der brast i min far.

 

Gråden sad som tyk grød i hans hals, og han følte, han var ved at blive kvalt.

 

Elise grinede.

 

Min far havde mest lyst til at give efter for gråden, men han tog sig selv i det og besluttede sig for at tage sig af dage. 

 

Elises ord blev tilbage som et ekko i hans bevidsthed, efter hun var gået.

 

Han gik hjem med hjertet oppe i halsen og da han nåede lejlighedskomplekset, hvor han boede, kastede han op i haven.

 

Dagen efter forsøgte han at hænge sig i cykelskuret, han havde hørt, at en af mændene i opgangen havde hængt sig oppe på loftet, fordi hans kone fandt en anden mand, så min far tænkte, at hængning måtte være løsningen på hans sjælekvaler.

 

Han havde fundet et reb i en skraldespand, men da han stod med det i hånden, blev han pludselig i tvivl om, hvordan han skulle hænge sig, det nemmeste måtte være at hænge sig i armen, tænkte han, og besluttede sig for at gøre det, mens han stod på en stige og fastgjorde rebet til en bjælke i loftet.

 

Da han lidt efter hang i luften, med rebet gjort fast til sit håndled, spekulerede han på, hvor lang tid det ville tage ham at dø.

 

Det værkede i armen, og han håbede, at det ikke ville vare mere end en time.

 

Ti minutter efter knækkede rebet, og han faldt ned og brækkede sit kraveben.

 

 

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Ud på aftenen kravler min fætter ud af buret i galleriet, han går ud på toiletterne for at klæde om.

 

Da han kommer tilbage, ligner han mest af alt en af de smukke, radmagre modeller fra modepodierne i Milano, i sit stramtsiddende jakkesæt.

 

Han kommer hen til mig med en flaske vin og to glas, rækker mig det ene og fylder det op.

 

Han smiler.

 

Siger, at han er glad for, at jeg kom.

 

Vi skåler og drikker, og min fætter fortæller, at han netop var kommet med toget fra Tyskland, da han spottede mig på Hovedbanen, forleden.

 

– Du sagde, at Opa var nazist, siger jeg.

 

– Han var jo en af de slemme, siger min fætter.

 

– Hvorfor? spørger jeg.

 

Min fætter trækker på skuldrene.

 

– Hvorfor lod han sig ikke afnazificere? siger han.

 

– Afnazificere? spørger jeg.

 

Min fætter forklarer, at alle tyskere over atten skulle besvare et spørgeskema til Military Government of Germany efter krigen, skemaet var en seksogfirs centimeter lang formular, trykt på begge sider, med hundrede enogtredive spørgsmål om hver enkelt borgers nationalsocialistiske fortid.

 

– En slags syndsforladelse, siger min fætter.

 

Han himler med øjnene.

 

– Perverst, siger han.

 

Han siger, at de fleste tyskere så processen som et slutpunkt, der samtidig markerede begyndelsen på en kollektiv tavshed om landets nazistiske fortid.

 

– Men Opa lod sig ikke afnazificere? spørger jeg.

 

Min fætter ryster på hovedet og siger:

 

– Hvis man ikke har noget at skjule, prøver man så ikke at blive renset?

 


 

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– Hvordan flygtede Opa? spørger jeg.

 

Min fætter spørger, om min far aldrig har sagt det.

 

Jeg ryster på hovedet.

 

Min fætter drikker resten af sin rødvin og siger, at det er Oma, der har fortalt ham det, hun har bedt ham om at holde det fortroligt.

 

Jeg nikker og hælder mere rødvin i min fætters glas.

 

Min fætter siger, at Opa ikke havde nogen idé om omfanget af den ødelæggelse, der fandt sted over ham i de timer, han sad fanget under jorden i Berlin.

 

Gigantiske bygningers fald.

 

Bjerge af mursten og brændte bjælker og lig.

 

Støvet overalt i de hærgede gader.

 

Ilden og røgen og lugten af svovl.

 

Alligevel havde han en stærk fornemmelse af, at krigen allerede var tabt.

 

Han vidste ikke længere, hvilken tid på døgnet det var, han frygtede, at han var ved at blive skør, og angsten holdt ham vågen konstant, så han måtte drømme og gennemleve sine mareridt med åbne øjne.

 

Nogle af de rædselsbilleder, der hjemsøgte ham, var billeder af nøgne, udsultede, mishandlede kroppe, hegnet ind som kreaturer, det var dem, han før i tiden slet ikke havde betragtet som mennesker, men som dyr, som udyr, utøj, kryb, som snavs, som skidt, som afskyeligt afskum, der forenhver pris måtte udryddes, så alt, hvad der var godt og smukt og stærkt i Det Tredje Rige, kunne blive endnu bedre, endnu smukkere og endnu mere stærkt.

 

Nu var problemet, at han pludselig var begyndt at se ansigterne for sig.

 

Alle de hulkindede, tomt stirrende ansigter vendte sig nu pludselig mod ham, måske rejste de sig fra deres massegrave og genopstod som glanende spøgelser, eller måske var de virkelig i kælderen, sammen med ham, han vidste ikke længere, hvad han skulle tro, men han vidste, at de overvågede ham konstant, nat og dag, han vidste, at de så alt, og at intet, han sagde eller gjorde, intet, han forsøgte at overbevise dem om eller beordre dem til, kunne få dem til at lade være med at se.

 

Han følte sig svag, magtesløs, ikke længere overmenneskeligt stærk, højst bare menneskelig.

 

Han følte heller ikke længere had, men han følte noget andet, som han aldrig havde følt før, noget for ham langt mere skræmmende og forfærdeligt end had.

 

For både første og sidste gang i sit liv, oplevede Opa, hvad det vil sige at have medfølelse.

 

Han oplevede følelsen som en indvendig sprække, et sår nærmest, der langsomt, smertefuldt og ubønhørligt åbnede sig i ham, en sprække, han aldrig havde troet mulig, en sprække i dét, der i hele hans voksenliv havde stået for ham som en uigennemtrængeligt sand ideologi: nazismen.

 

Opa sad og så ud i kælderens buldrende mørke og var tvunget til at blive siddende.

 

Han trak vejret hurtigt og tungt.

 

Hans næsebor vibrerede.

 

Græd han?

 

Eller var det bare kælderens stank af lort og pis og gammelt blod, der fik hans næsebor til at vibrere?

 

Det var på det tidspunkt, det slog ham, at han måtte forsøge at flygte, tanken havde ikke strejfet ham før, hans eneste ønske havde været at dø en hurtig, smertefri død, nu hvor han var faldet i hænderne på fjenden.

 

Men nu stod det pludselig klart for ham, at han måtte ud, måtte hjem, måtte finde Oma igen, uanset om hun var levende eller død.

 

Han måtte vide, om hun var blevet i Berlin og frem for alt måtte han finde ud af, om hun havde født.

 

 

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Efter at have firet sig ned fra toiletvinduet, stod Opa i nogle øjeblikke og mærkede den faste grund under fødderne, mens han stirrede ud over den sønderbombede by.

 

Han var overvældet over sin genvundne frihed og følte trang til at takke nogen for den.

 

Opa vendte ansigtet opad og overvejede i nogle øjeblikke muligheden af, at ham den gamle mand med det hvide skæg deroppe, bag skyerne et sted, ham, som han ellers aldrig havde troet på, måske virkelig fandtes og ville Opa det bedste.

 

Opa lovede sig selv i sit livs mest desperate og sentimentale øjeblik, at han ville finde sin familie og sørge for, at de blev den lykkeligste familie i hele Tyskland.

 

Hvis Opa havde formået at holde fast i følelsen, var min fars og hans søskendes barndom blevet langt mindre traumatisk.

 

 

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Da Opa hørte blodhundene gø og instinktivt skulle til at begynde sin flugt, ville hans ben først ikke røre sig ud af stedet.

 

De vaklede, hver gang Opa tog et skridt, og han var ved at vælte.

 

Det var tidligt på morgenen, og der var stille i gaden, bortset fra lyden inde fra hotellet.

 

Ud af det åbne vindue hørtes soldatens buldren på døren.

 

Opa bed tænderne sammen.

 

Han tvang sine ben i gang, bed smerten i sig og begyndte at løbe.

 

For enden af gaden lå en U-bahn-skakt, som han løb ned i, den var indrettet som lazaret og stank af afføring og koaguleret blod, Opa kunne ikke se, hvor han var.

 

Skiltet, der plejede at vise, hvilken undergrundsstation der lå under jorden, var blevet bombet væk.

 

På trappen, der førte ned i skakten, lå et civilt klædt lig, som Opa i al hast flåede tøjet af, han nåede akkurat at tage tøjet på, før han hørte hundene gø, oppe på gaden.

 

I flere timer løb Opa langs skinnerne i det underjordiske tunnelsystem, han løb for livet, indtil han følte sig overbevist om at have rystet sine forfølgere af sig.

 

Han sagtnede farten og begyndte at gå, mens han hev efter vejret og bandede krigen langt væk.

 

Han tænkte på Oma, på det sidste brev, han havde modtaget fra hende, hvor hun skrev, at det ikke ville vare længe, før hun skulle føde.

 

Han havde modtaget det med posten på sit kontor i landsbyen Leczyca, lige før han flygtede, han havde ikke nået at svare.

 

Han havde ingen anelse om, hvor Oma befandt sig nu.

 

 

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– Leczyca? spørger jeg.

 

Min fætter tænder en cigaret og siger, at det var den by i Polen, hvor Opa havde sit kontor.

 

Han var den øverstkommanderende.

 

– Opa var Obersturmbannführer, siger han.

 

– Hvad betyder det? spørger jeg.

 

Min fætter siger, at det svarer til det, der på dansk kaldes oberstløjtnant.

 

Han siger, at Opa fik tildelt titlen, fordi han var så god en organisator.

 

– Hvad lavede han? spørger jeg.

 

– Han udskiftede mennesker.

 

– Hvad mener du?

 

– Jøder og tyskere.

 

– Hvordan? spørger jeg.

 

– Opa sendte jøderne til Chelmno, siger min fætter.

 

Han puster røg hen over bordet.

 

– Mhm, mumler jeg.

 

Jeg er pludselig ikke sikker på, at jeg har lyst til at høre mere.

Translator Notes

Synopsis

The narrator, a young Danish woman, has been pursuing university studies but has largely abandoned these studies due to depression and anxiety attacks. The narrator's German paternal grandfather, Opa, has recently passed away.

Over the course of the novel, the narrator looks back at her own life and at key moments in those of her parents and grandparents, particularly those of her father and paternal grandfather.

The narrator has been working in a clockmaker's shop at the central Copenhagen railway station; this job appeals to her because it requires her to do very little.

The narrator's male cousin has come to Denmark as a performance artist with the intention of exhibiting his own naked and emaciated body in a cage in a gallery in central Copenhagen.

At the time of the narrator's encounter with her cousin, Opa’s health is poor—his life since the war has been characterized by heavy drinking—and a short time after the narrator's first adult encounter with her cousin the narrator's father tells the narrator that he will travel to Germany to visit Opa, despite his negative feelings not only about Opa's role during the war but also about his own childhood under Opa's authoritarian rule; it is understood that Opa's life is drawing to a close and that this is the last opportunity for any kind of reconciliation or final accounting.

The narrator's father emigrated from Germany to Denmark during the sixties in an attempt to escape feelings of guilt associated with his own father’s actions during the war. In the context of this situation, the narrator for the first time asks her father for detailed information about what Opa did during the war. Opa had been an archaeologist but had also written a philosophical dissertation implicitly defending the pursuit of racial purity. The narrator must now attempt to come to grips with her own feelings about Opa, whom she has met only rarely, and also about her father, with whom she in fact also had only sporadic contact until she was nearly an adult.

Translator's Note

This excerpt describes the flight of the narrator's German paternal grandfather, Opa, from Russian captivity during the last days of the Second World War. Opa, a former SS officer, has escaped execution by taking off his clothes and using them to make a rope with which he has let himself down to the ground from a restroom window. When Opa had failed to emerge from the restroom promptly, the soldier guarding him had begun pounding on the door and shouting Opa's last name.

At the time of the novel's action, the narrator's father has had his teeth straightened; as a boy and as a young man, he had had a pronounced overbite due to having sucked his thumb early in life "to compensate for a lack of physical contact."

Comment on the process of translation

In the original Danish version of this novel, the narrator never uses her male cousin's name; throughout she refers to him as "min fætter," "my (male) cousin." The Danish term kusine, "female cousin," which occurs in the first sentence of this excerpt, requires a specification of sex in the translation to clarify which of two characters is meant. I have chosen the translation "girl cousin" because "female cousin" appears too formal for the novel's overall tone. In English, there is a fairly strong tendency for instances of the noun phrase "girl cousin" to occur in contexts involving more or less transgressive sexual attraction; I find the evoking of such provocative associations to be appropriate here, as the narrator's apparent chance reunification with her male cousin will eventually culminate in a sex act. While marriages between cousins have of course been common during much of human history and in various parts of the world, sexual relations between cousins are now widely controversial in the West, not least in the United States and the United Kingdom. In the original version of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein published in 1818, Victor Frankenstein marries his cousin; in the version published in 1831, which was heavily revised to suit conservative tastes on the threshold of the Victorian era, Frankenstein's bride is no longer a blood relation. The narrator of Apropos Opa is not obviously bisexual, and there is thus no evidence that she is attracted to her female cousin (while evidence of her attraction to her male cousin is abundant). However, the narrator's mother became a committed lesbian a few years after the narrator was born, and bisexuality is a theme in a number of Butschkow's other texts. Readers familiar with Butschkow's work, then, might well consider the possibility that there is sexual tension between the narrator and her female cousin as well as between the narrator and her male cousin. The main benefit—aside, of course, from avoiding the confusion of the two cousins with each other—of using "girl cousin" here, however, is that the overall arc of the narrator's relationship with her male cousin can be foreshadowed.

The original version of this excerpt contains words in English, German, and Swedish. German and Swedish words have been left in German and Swedish respectively. The original excerpt has the Danish version of the title of Goethe's novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther, which has generally been rendered into English as The Sorrows of Young Werther. In the English translation presented here I have replaced the translated Danish title with the original German title rather than an English translation. In doing so, I have aligned the treatment of this title with that of the above-mentioned German and Swedish terms that are untranslated in the original excerpt. To be sure, the words that comprise the two lines of Swedish dialogue are either very similar in form to their Danish cognates or so common that they are well known to most Danes, so that understanding these two lines would not be a challenge to most Danish readers. Readers of my translation who are not familiar with Swedish will find it fairly easy to deduce, based on the narrator's answer, that the Swede has said she looks like someone he knows. In the original version of this scene, of course, the narrator has obviously very nearly simply rephrased the Swede's own second Swedish statement as a negative in Danish and added desværre, "unfortunately."

The original version of Apropos Opa has the idiosyncrasy that there is a paragraph break or section break after every sentence. In cases in which rendering one of Butschkow's Danish sentences as a single English sentence would be at odds with maintaining acceptable English syntax and punctuation, I have respectively translated Danish sentences with two or three English sentences and kept these together in a single paragraph. In some cases Butschkow has inserted a paragraph break immediately after a colon that immediately precedes direct speech; in such cases I have conflated two paragraphs into a single paragraph.


Peter Sean Woltemade

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