Robert Walser

Photograph by Sherman Ong

So many times, as I rode through the streets of Berlin and Berlin life in the quaint, lumbering and yet buoyantly plodding horse-drawn omnibus, which never failed to invigorate and charm me anew, I would hear the aging, good-natured conductor humbly and humorously uttering a single insignificant and yet also at that moment quite significant word, which in addition, by the way, was written for the sake of correctness and order upon a panel that could be either concealed or displayed. When the inscription


was hanging tidily and properly in its place, people knew that for the time being no one else would be allowed to climb and clamber aboard because the gondola or pleasure palace rolling along on its wheels was already packed suffocatingly full, a regrettable circumstance that was announced in no uncertain terms by the warning placard: "Stop! Whosoever they may be, this line they shall not cross!" At times however, despite the rejecting, dismissive plaque, there would be a crowd pressing forward, expressing the impetuous desire to climb up and be carried off. And then someone, such as the chamberlain on duty, would say in a courteous voice: "Folks, we're full up," or he would say: "No shoving, please. It won't do any good," or perhaps it would occur to him to say: "With the greatest pleasure, ladies and gentlemen, would I invite you to climb aboard and take your seats, but it is my harsh duty to draw your attention to the fact that the car is already stuffed to the cracks with passengers. I do beg your pardon for having to deny you access and entry." Sallies and attacks on one side, rebuffs and refusals on the other, the vessel continues to sail calmly and gaily through all the metropolitan traffic, which almost resembles an ocean. Once again some hasty hothead is about to leap aboard, and once again an imperturbable "Full!" resounds in the daredevil's ears, whereupon he is obliged to remove his foot cautiously from the footboard once more.

Once when the omnibus was cruising full steam ahead, everything proceeding smoothly and properly, and with no one even remotely plotting an ambush or violent coup, someone slipped aboard—a person who apparently had been accustomed from an early age to go through thick and thin and strike down anyone and anything that got in his way.

"Full up, sir," the official remarked.

"Stupid, ridiculous nonsense" replied Monsieur Dreadnought. He was without a doubt the sort who thought it advisable to engage in the most ruthless power politics. "I beg your pardon, did you not hear what I said?" the good carman inquired. But now a veritable downpour of invectives was unleashed upon his unfortunate head. This powerful flood of unforeseen unpleasantnesses was so overwhelming that the good man was forced to give in. All the same he complained, saying:

"It's just not right, not right at all, and it's a good thing not all people are like this gentleman who's cursing me even though all I did was tell him we were full. It was my duty to tell him so, but certain people insist on trampling and flattening everything once they've made up their minds to do something. I don't go around saying 'full' for my own amusement, or because I want to antagonize people, or out of Schadenfreude. Every person has his tasks to perform and his duties to fulfill, and it just happens to be my duty to tell people 'full' when the car is full up. It isn't fair for a person to take offense like that. It's downright preposterous how quick some people are to fly into a rage. Well then! I'll stick with the ones who have some sense; thanks and praises be to God, there's still some of them left."

This is what the conductor said as the omnibus unhurriedly trundled on its way.

translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

"Full" is taken from Berlin Stories by Robert Walser, forthcoming in late 2011, translated and with an introduction by Susan Bernofsky, New York Review Books Classics.

The German original is used by permission of Suhrkamp Verlag.