Fresh from releasing our massive quarterly edition gathering new work from 30 countries (a sixth of which make up our Special Feature on Literatures from Banned Countries), we’re thrilled to present one of the issue’s many amazing highlights: a new story by Hermann Burger, “one of the truly great authors of the German language: a writer of consummate control and range, with a singular and haunting worldview.” German critic Uwe Schütte goes on to lament: “Yet it is not surprising that he fell into obscurity after his death, from an overdose of barbiturates at age forty-six. He shares this fate with many of the most august names from the peripheries of German-language literature who, never managing to escape from the ghetto of Austrian or Swiss publishing, either gave up in exhaustion, or went on writing and were forgotten nonetheless.” When you’re finished with this brilliant story, don’t forget to check out Schütte’s accompanying critical introduction in our free portal for world literature.
I sit in the dining car in my customary place. On the table stands a plaque: Réservé. I have the table to myself, although at this hour, the dining car is always rather full. I’m free to invite someone over, as I often do, to have someone to talk to during the long journey. The express train left punctually from the station concourse with its frosted glass, brown platforms, hurried people, plastic voices in the loudspeakers, and races now through the industrial quarter past the roadworks, apartment blocks, refineries, and silos. As always, a certain comfortable feeling of movement; the rhythm of the track joints is soft. A park with bright yellow building machines, which always look to me like giant dinosaurs from a vanished era, stretches out in the blinding midday light. Backhoes, fangs raised skyward, heavy dump trucks with ribs on their laterals, graders and excavators, a tranquil family, all together. I love how the landscape whizzes past in the train, this fleeing joy from a picture book. A bridge, a brief, hollow sound—and already, the river with the birches returns.
Punctual as ever, the service has begun, the waiter takes the place settings from my table. “Monsieur?” he says, as I close the menu. I nod in agreement with the menu of the day, and order a bottle of Dôle to accompany it. “Monsieur,” the waiter says again, after bringing me the soup, a consommé finished with white wine, sloshing slightly from the shuddering of the train car. Bon appétit, I wish myself, breaking my bread and giving the server a sideways bow. He knows he has a good tip coming, and is right to give a conspicuous smile. Monsieur, Monsieur, one hears from the other tables. It is an elegant proceeding. The waiters in their khaki coats speak fluent French and broken German. This team in particular serves quickly and with grace. One simply must see with what precision my waiters lay the spinach on the plate, how they post on one leg and balance the meat platter with its perilously whipped-up sauce through a curve, or how they pour the wine without spilling a drop. That is service! The guests, business travelers in dark suits, mostly, take pains to spoon their soup as soundlessly as possible. The chef de service greets the newcomers with the question: “zum Essen, pour manger?” When they refuse, they are dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders. I understand the head waiter’s verdict. There are always travelers who think one can sit in the middle of the dining car and order a peppermint tea or a plate of terrine. In fact, we, the regulars and staff, have no desire for our established ceremony to be spoiled over a bit of terrine. I always say: after all, it’s called the dining car, not the picnic wagon. By the way the other guests pour, I see whether they have dining car experience or not. The neophytes let the glass stand on the table, so that, naturally, the beverage spills over and leaves spots behind on the blinding white tablecloth. The old hands hold the glass in front of the bottle’s neck, but without bracing their elbow. I, and I say this not without pride, am an old hand.
“Monsieur, a bit more soup?”
“No, thank you!”
I take this train twice a week, for business. I know the route, the landscape, the waiters, their strengths and weaknesses, I know the good spots in the dining car and the bad ones where a draft comes through, I know the cheap prints on the walls, the poor imitations of Hodler, I know the light-blue plateware of the dining car company, know, unlike the guests who have made it here by chance, the purpose of the many plates and chargers, I know the good and bad wines, I know where the vegetables are customarily served twice, when the cheese plate is due. I know the four theories concerning the food: the food is good and costly, the food is bad and costly, the food is bad and cheap, the food is good and cheap; I know the arguments for and against each theory, and in the end, am of the view that the food is no better nor worse than it should be and no costlier than in a restaurant where one would have to pay for each course individually. I am a well-received guest, properly clothed, clean-shaven, a faithful lover of Dôle. I am one of the many Monsieurs of the Swiss dining car society, content with the world so long as the service runs without a hitch, and I happily throw down an additional tip to reserve a table.
“Monsieur,” the waiter whispers. I didn’t even notice him, so soft was his approach. He holds out the meat plate. I point to that entrecote that still has a few drops of blood on the surface and the thinnest strip of fat along the edge. The baked potatoes are crispy and golden brown, the spinach is soft and isn’t running. Where else can you find such a thing!
My place is in the front, with my back to the split compartment that houses a kitchen and a table for the staff, where the head waiter sorts the checks or folds the menus. I scan the whole train car and, as I eat, I am amused at the guests who look perplexed at the plates and do not grasp that here, not everyone can have his own réchaud with its little candle. It is a joy to saw into the schnitzel while outside a cow stands gawking at the fence, and the red wine tastes more floral with the sight of an empty tennis court. I enjoy my cheese passing by a cement works.
Shortly before the second portion of spinach and potatoes, the express train plunges into a tunnel that passes beneath the castle hill of a dainty little town. The tunnel is not long, and yet long enough that one stops chewing, and in the lamplit car flitting past the stone walls, sees one’s own reflection in the mirror. There the waiters balance with their plates, the guests sit like ghosts at phantom tables. If one looks deep into the mirrored car, one sees the scoring, the nicks, and the protrusions on the rock walls. The tunnel seasons the bite skewered on one’s fork with a fleeting frisson. My chewing face, shadow-fleshed. The glasses give it a bit of distinction, despite the padding of fat. Strange that this tunnel should affect me. But every time I have passed through, I have stared at my reflection, as though it could disclose something to me about myself; and every time, the same question lures me to the windowpane: what would happen if you were to pull the emergency brake in the middle of the tunnel? Like an electric shock, this question shoots into my wrist, making it go slack. It is the same fascination as up on an observation tower or standing before an abyss: just jump! Try it for once! But before I can gather the resolution to stand, we are already out, and again the white tablecloth blinds me. The question that had electrified me in the tunnel becomes, in the certainty of the glaring midday light, as vague as my vanished reflection. I reach for my wine as we race past the sepia backdrop of a medieval town, the battlements, the copper spires, the gleaming clock dials and the shadowy alleys. A platform lingers behind, people with faces like question marks—no one likes trains that leave one in the lurch—and the waving officials too belong to that play world disbanded behind us.
“Monsieur, les fromages.”
The waiter (or should I call him a steward?) has paused at my table, very polite, very attentive, not caring to disturb Monsieur in the course of his thoughts. He impales the desired slice of cheese, recommends rye bread, and is not in the least stingy with the buttered rolls. Superlative, this Camembert, swished around with a sip of Dôle!
Chewing, I consider this and that: how is it, indeed, that the thought comes to you of pulling the emergency brake, in the middle of this anodyne tunnel, which wouldn’t even frighten a child? And as I set down the wine glass, he silently takes the place opposite me, the student with the narrow, bulblike head whom I must have been once, when I traveled this stretch twice a day, my books resting on my knees, my hands over my ears like safety flaps, to concentrate amid the racket. He surveys me critically, looks contemptuously at my plate. An awkward glance, an awkward encounter. Presumably he has no notion that he only belongs provisionally, like a tourist, to that society he would like at all costs to change, so long as he remains at university, on vacation from life, I think. I could show him a volume of Marcuse I have in my briefcase, at least he would raise his brows, astonished. Or strew a few sentences about Vietnam like salt on the blinding white tablecloth, proffer phrases from his memorized sociological flimflam, ask whether he’s already got his organized protest practicums behind him. I don’t want to anger him. I know he lives off a stipend. In our parts, the stipends are meager enough to bring the misery of mankind close to one’s heart.
“Good food makes you fat and sleepy,” I hear him blurt in a provocative tone, “and fat people are immobile and ill-suited to change. Your cheese plate matters more to you than the hunger of millions.”
Naturally: change! How often have I heard this word from the sort who have no reservation in the dining car. In essence, of course, he’s right. This Camembert does matter more to me than the sufferings of mankind, insofar as the two may inhabit the same sentence.
“Listen, young man: would the world’s misery be less were I to renounce my Camembert?”
“Everyone talks their way out with this question, instead of actually renouncing, and so the suffering grows greater by the day.”
His answer is sharp, and robs me of my words. Yes, back then I used to still hit on conclusions of this kind, when my thinking was more than the play of my tongue.
“Anyhow, forgive the expression ‘young man,’ I meant it as a compliment.”
“I need no compliments. We need nourishment for around two-thirds of mankind, who starve while you stuff your belly in the dining car. What do you do for this two-thirds?”
He really is discomfiting. Instead of Mao, who would have let me checkmate him in three phrases, he comes with the demand of starting with oneself. Slowly, I lose my appetite.
“One question in the meantime: do you belong to that two-thirds? There is enough cheese here.”
I feel the rage growing in him.
“I have enough to eat, but I’m also not eating for the remaining two-thirds.”
With a final sally, I reciprocate: “Perhaps you’re right. But what is the use of being right in a world where right is trampled underfoot? What is changed by your righteousness?”
“One must start with small actions. Everyone has a red handle over his head. All that’s required is the courage to pull down. Then everything comes to a halt. What pacifies us is the rhythm of the track joints, this measured tadumm, tadumm, tadumm. It sounds like a lullaby, like a lullaby. It rocks us softly to sleep, and we swallow the bitter reality that one life on this star is a damned despair unless one belongs to the privileged.”
He takes off his glasses, rubs his eyes. How helpless I used to look! Like a beetle lying on its back. And he serves me up the story I didn’t order, that I’ve long known and still I try to understand why it hasn’t hindered my belly. Because I am ashamed.
“I sat in the dining car,” the student says, “and drank my beer. The people were impatient. Across from me sat a glutton, a real tub of guts. He had a dung-colored moustache and gorged himself so greedily that he sweated. There were dark blotches visible in his armpits. His fleshy earlobes jiggled, his veiny cheeks swelled and sank. His eyelids had fallen as he smacked and chewed. Now and again a sliver of meat wound up in my place. He spread out his elbows and needed a whole booth for two for himself. Then an old man came into the dining car, one who really was hungry. I saw it in his twitching, unshaved chin. He wanted to order soup. The waiter shrugged and explained to him—the man was hard of hearing, the whole train car followed the scene—that during mealtimes, no soup was served. The old man didn’t understand, presumably he had never been in a dining car before. He insisted on his order. When the waiter emphatically threw him out (he actually grabbed him by the collar, but only a few could see it), the man said, or rather murmured, with his toothless mouth: ‘No shame, no shame at all, well I’ll just go to the next dining car!’ At that, resounding laughter. And this swinish laughter from the bursting bellies, this simpering injustice, so upset me that I longed to pull the emergency brake. The tub of guts across from me barked thunderously: ‘To hell with the poor devil, where is my second ham hock?’ The headwaiter hurried into the kitchen and shoved the old man to the side, while he swayed, shaking his head, between the tables.”
“What did you hope to accomplish with the emergency brake?”
“The incident occurred just before we entered the tunnel with the castle hill. In the tunnel, I saw the train car doubled, the faces smirking as in a funhouse mirror. I wanted to watch how their bites fell from their mouths. I wanted to see the repulsion on their chewing infant faces. I wanted to hear the screeching, understand? The waiters would tumble with their loaded silver platters over the tables, scalding the thighs of the gilded ladies with hot water for tea. I imagined how the man with the ham hock would lie on the back wall like a beetle squashed flat, goggle-eyed from the impact, spinach splashed on his shirt, blots of sweat like continents spreading under his armpits. In the end, they would wait for the catastrophe they had blathered about so blithely amid their table talk, washing it down with Dôle. This moment would be worth the fine if they were torn from their ingurgitating certainty and made suddenly to feel at one with the saps who lost their lives in plane crashes and train accidents. These ugly, round numbers people swallow so easily. Then, the reservations would be worthless, the waiters would have no time to gather their tips. I savored them, these seconds before the grating, spark-spitting stillness, watched them awaken from their dread, see the black stone all around, and sense how the eternity of the night that enveloped them sank into their limbs—these foppish gourmands whose appetite for their first course had not once been spoiled by the hunger of millions.”
“You didn’t do it, of course.”
“I didn’t pull the emergency brake, the tunnel was too short.”
Yes, I see you now quite clearly before me, within me, and there’s no corner I can stick you in, for the light is too shrill, this shrill midday light after the carbonaceous darkness of the tunnel; it falls on your hand, which hung on the red handle and was ready to pull; it falls on the emergency exit, of grimy, thin metal, on the milky glow of the light bulb, on the absurd injunction in red script. In the light, you looked at once like a pint-sized delinquent, like an inept fighter for the resistance. You thought too far ahead: the thorough interrogation, the penance, the money, which could buy books it was bitter to do without. You were no coward, you were simply too smart to do something dumb when the time was right. You stowed away in the bathroom, closed the door, and stayed kneeling the rest of the way inside, the cold train breeze blowing between your legs and the racket of the wheels in your ears. And there it fell out of you, like diarrhea: your militant courage plunked on the hurtling gravel, your hope and your rage at mankind, because you had been too proud to pull the handle. Your idealism, the way you swallowed the brew of undigested feelings, fell through, plunk, your spirit of resistance, your insurrection, plunk, plunk, your fervor for justice. Small and contemptible you became in the cabin behind the yellowed pane of milk glass, and the worst thing: you thought yourself terribly symbolic, and literary to boot. Possibly you’d just read Dürrenmatt’s The Tunnel. Why else would it simply have had to be in a tunnel? The victim of a world full of regulations: please, don’t lean out!
“Monsieur, les fruits!”
A train shoots past, makes the windowpanes shake. I have frightened off the student, rinsed out the toilet with the last glass of wine. The sun is blinding. A pale haze lies over the landscape. The roofs of the houses surrounding the cement works are dusted gray. The chimneys bellow smoke. A shunter bumps a row of silo cars over the hub. Poison yellow, the rape plants stand behind the huts. A junkyard.
“Monsieur, les fruits!”
I grasp absently in the basket. Coffee, yes, and a double kirsch. I am now no longer sure whether the younger me reproached the elder with this story or the elder reproached the younger. All that is certain is this electric jitter in my hand whenever we go through the tunnel. And every time, the tunnel is too short to stand up. The darkness would never reach the toilet.
The figs taste good, especially at the sight of an empty playground. I light a Brazilian, and as the waiter brings the tray, with coffee, kirsch, and folded check, I ask:
“Waiter, can you imagine, every time we go through that short tunnel, I think to myself: really, one ought to pull the emergency brake sometime, isn’t that so?”
The waiter hesitates a moment, unsure whether to take it as a joke. Then he finds the check is big enough, and he whispers to me, behind his hand held forth:
“Monsieur, we are always at your disposal. Service compris!”
Translated from the German by Adrian West
Hermann Burger (1942–1989) was a Swiss author, critic, and professor. Author of four novels and several volumes of essays, short fiction, and poetry, he won numerous awards for his work, among them the 1985 Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for his story Die Wasserfallfinsternis von Badgastein. He first achieved fame with his novel Schilten, the story of a mad village schoolteacher who teaches his students to prepare for death. At the end of his life, he was working on the autobiographical tetralogy Brenner, one of the high points of twentieth-century prose in German. He died by overdose days after the first volume’s publication.
Adrian Nathan West is the author of The Aesthetics of Degradation as well as translator of numerous works of contemporary European literature, including Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny, Josef Winkler’s Graveyard of Bitter Oranges, and Marianne Fritz’s The Weight of Things. His fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, The Times Literary Supplement, 3:AM, and Asymptote, where he is a contributing editor. He lives between Spain and the United States with the cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.
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