This week’s Translation Tuesday sees Jeff Clingenpeel’s rendering of a bemusing and sensual tale by Lorenz Just. A short and striking stream of consciousness set at the eponymous Drunken Farmer, this story merges head spinning, confusing abstractions and speculation with pungent, visceral sensory imagery to mesmerising effect.
It’s like I’m sitting on a highway of ants, a dark chasm running through my ass. For the past several minutes, my conversation partner has, as near as I can understand, been talking about nasal spray dependency. I can hardly follow him, so intense is the itch between my butt cheeks. My conversation partner, a man, sniffs whenever he pauses for even just a moment to put his words in order. He raises his index finger, wipes his knuckles across his nostrils and down to his mouth, and then, like a gecko snatching insects, sends his tongue darting out from between his lips to the mucus clinging there, which he fishes into his mouth; finally, he audibly scratches his unshaven cheek and talks and talks. I don’t want to see it or hear it. But he forces me to stare at him—he won’t let me out of his sight for even a second, not even when he labors to blow his nose into his hanky.
Something made me rush off when I was squatting to take a shit, and I was in a little too much of a hurry wiping my backside. Now I’m sitting here, shifting back and forth on my chair, and I can’t listen, can’t nod in agreement, can’t smile at what he’s saying, and I don’t want to either. But he still won’t leave me alone. What did he say? What does he want from me? I’d long since finished my beer and just wanted to wait a little bit before moving on. But waiting is what exposed me, and the guy seized the opportunity: holding a cup of hot tea he sat down with me, as if I were the one in need of support. Pretty soon he’s going to offer me his nose spray. Because it helps him, he thinks, it will help me too, it will help everyone on earth. Give it to me, give me your nose spray, I’ll scratch my hole with it. Why doesn’t he care that I’m cursing him in my mind? It’s time to go, to the train station or to the river to wash myself, my stinking backside, and everything else too while I’m at it.
Out on the street, walking, my cheeks rub against each other and the itch subsides. Nose Spray is walking next to me—when I went to part ways, he happily noted that he was heading in the same direction too. He’s talking about addiction—addiction, addiction everywhere he says, everybody’s got one, what are you gonna do? Nothing, just better addictions, healthy ones, ones that aren’t dangerous. He asks me about my addictions, but all he wants is a prompt, any word that will throw him a line so that he can keep talking and talking. I’m focused on my behind and don’t say anything. He thinks I’m thinking it over, so he waits, says nothing, stares at me, waits some more—which is even worse than his incessant chatter. I answer: Movies, bad movies where everything goes wrong at first, but then it all works out. He starts talking, leaving me to myself again. I wonder if I’ve met him before at some point. He sniffs, looks at me, waits. I didn’t hear his question, now what am I supposed to do? I’ll run away from him, that’s it. I start running.
It’s been a long time since I’ve run, really run at full speed like that, you could have knocked me over with a proverbial feather after less than half a minute, half an eternity. I was faster than him, but he’s fast too, his steps smacking the ground like an open hand slapping soft, fat skin. He gawks at me with wide-open eyes, panting, stammering: Why? What was that about? Everything OK? What happened? I walk up to him, pass him, and head back. Then you’re not drinking tea this time, then we’re going to drink properly, and you’re paying for all of it, I whisper. Right away he asks, What? What?—Nosy bastard. He stays behind me, a good step, out of servile deference or, I think, because he doesn’t want to let me out of his sight. I’d been sitting alone, my beer glass empty—no use in false pride. If he’s going to go to all this effort, then he can have me, take me, carry me, basta. Give me the nose spray! I don’t think it, I say it. He rummages around in his jacket pockets, rattling like he’s got a whole collection with him. And then I shove the white cylinder in as far as it will go, first in my right nostril, then in my left, each time pumping it so hard it shoots all the way up to my sinuses.
We sit on bar stools, our backs leaning up against the bar, legs dangling. My respiratory tract is utterly clear, clearer than ever before, admitting the smoke, the alcoholic haze, and all of the other nuances of this mineshaft air into my inner kingdom, a kingdom built upon a nest of ants that are now coming back to life. Karl-Heinz, as my new friend introduces himself, tells me his life story as I follow the trail of the six-legged creatures beneath me.
The stench of fermented, semi-digested breast milk, Karl-Heinz says, was his introduction to the world. He swears he remembers in full sensory detail how he lay there in infantile vomit, in lukewarm puddles, on a sheet that was hard as cardboard from all the dried-on, regurgitated breast milk. The only respite, Karl-Heinz says, came from the stink of the armpits his face was pressed into when his parents carried him, and the foul breath accompanying the blabbering baby talk of the adults. Numbed as his nose was after that first year of his infant life, even the worst stench was, from then on, just a dull scent. Later, when he learned to walk and was afforded the chance to leave his parents’ overheated, garbage-strewn quarters and the mustiness that emanated from every corner and crevice, when he could go outside, his respiratory tract had long been sealed off by chronic nasal congestion, so that for years he didn’t have to smell anything—nor could he—and the difference between fragrant and foul remained a mystery to him for some time.
At any rate—and here I’m abridging his metastasizing report—nasal spray came over him like an epiphany. He sprayed open his nose and discovered his fifth sense like an uncharted continent. “Everything was one dimension richer,” Karl-Heinz rhapsodizes, “public spaces, old office buildings—suddenly even I had a smell: a biting, sour funk that just went away once I treated myself to a nice, warm bath.”
He becomes more and more rapturous, his eyes sparkle with excitement. In between sentences, which he spits at me in rapid succession, he breathes deeply in and out, jamming his spray into his nose almost casually.
I grab my beer from the bar and take swig after swig without setting it down. Through the bottom of the glass I make out his distorted face, his mouth flapping open and closed, pumping like an agitated heart. In the corners of his mouth are the stubborn vestiges of frothy spittle—a vital bodily fluid holding everything together and postponing decay until Karl-Heinz is ready for the end, I think and put down my glass. I reach out my hand and wipe the tip of my index finger along his lower lip. He doesn’t move, holds his breath, lets me do it. Before even one single little bubble of that foamy head can burst on my fingertip, I spread it on my tongue. I don’t taste anything, but I immediately detect a prickling sensation that revives even the last of the endless number of my dying cells. Karl-Heinz is quiet and stares, as if I were the one who had asked an incomprehensible question this time.
I smile and close my eyes.
Finally quiet, we’re still sitting at the bar, which was wiped down some time ago. The chairs are on top of the tables. The filth has been swept out through the doors. A window is cracked open, allowing alcoholic, spent air, air that has been exhaled a thousand times, to force its way outside. The bartender has vanished into the basement. All we have left is one final sip at the bottom of our glasses and an uncertain way home. Karl-Heinz’s body is somehow remaining upright. Karl-Heinz himself seems to have lost all of his will—he’d be OK with being swept away, wiped up or blown out, but he’s alive and squirting nose spray into the air. Pale, soaring fountains that nebulize and drift slowly back to earth. I suddenly keel over head first.
Karl-Heinz calls my name. He calls it and calls it again. I don’t know what he’s calling out. Maybe he’s praying to his dear god or calling the bartender. Kah-Lines, I whisper in a panic and try to hang on by clawing at the floor, but there’s nothing for my nails to hang onto, nothing for my teeth to bite into. The hot breath of a faltering voice touches my ear: “There, there now, you just sleep. You just sleep.”
Translated from the German by Jeff Clingenpeel
Lorenz Just was born in 1983. After graduating from Islamic Studies at the Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and spending extended periods both in Egypt and at the Orient-Institut Beirut, Just studied at the German Institute for Literature in Leipzig. He published Mohammed: Das unbekannte Leben des Propheten (Mohammed: The Unknown Life of the Prophet) in 2015 and Der böse Mensch (Evil People) in 2017. In 2018, he participated in the Brecht-Haus writing workshop and in 2019, he will be a scholar at the LCB in Berlin. His novel Die neuen Häuser (New Houses) will be out with DuMont Buchverlag in late 2020.
Jeff Clingenpeel is a freelance German-to-English translator based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a graduate of the Kent State Institute for Applied Linguistics, and a former translation instructor at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz in Germersheim, Germany.
Read more translations from the Asymptote blog:
- Translation Tuesday: Petri in Tunisia by George Gömöri
- Translation Tuesday: Wanich Jarungkitanand’s “We Both Live Here . . . in the Same Soi”
- Translation Tuesday: Subimal Misra’s Anti-Fiction