As everyone knows, it’s not easy to travel with an Or. Starting at Frankfurt Airport and later at the one in Oslo, all sorts of things attracted its attention, and I had some trouble keeping it by my side. In front of the large flight information display, it stopped and stared upward, tilting its head slightly. The loudspeaker announcements accompanied by a jingle made it wince. For a while I was able to keep the Or occupied with the strap looped around my suitcase. I explained to it that the strap served to facilitate identification when the suitcase circled on the luggage conveyor belt.
On the airplane I tried to read. The Or was asleep, and I put my book down on its forehead to save space. The flight attendant offered me headphones once again. I noticed a coin that seemed stuck to the outside of the cabin window, but a careful touch revealed it to be on the inside. It was a midday flight. Gradually, as we flew farther north, twilight fell. Looking out the window, you could see at an angle behind us a curtain of darkness falling shut, and below it, on the horizon, the last glow of daylight. On the airplane a bottle of water cost 25 kroner, but tea or coffee was free, the flight attendant explained. I held my hand up, and she understood the gesture. The Or growled softly in its sleep. After about half an hour, strange nocturnal tracts of land appeared below, small island-like shapes, their edges glittering like gold dust. Were they small settlements? Or streets leading in circles? I looked at my watch and made calculations about the remaining flight time. My hand lay on the Or.
At Tromsø Airport it took us a long time to get a taxi. I was freezing and searched in my suitcase for my gloves. The Or stood next to me, stiff as a board and alert. A grey-haired man with large nostrils was leaning against a column and unwrapping a bread roll from its paper. I couldn’t help explaining to the Or – at first in a whisper, then, since presumably no one here spoke German, at a normal volume – what the roll thing was all about. The old man bit into it, and the Or clutched my coat pocket in fright. Extensive systems of tunnels brought you from the airport down into the city. The streets in the tunnel seemed covered with ice. A folk song I’d never heard before was playing on the radio. Sixties, I thought. The Or listened and began to ask a question, but immediately broke off when we stopped at a barrier. The driver leaned far out the window to insert the ticket in a machine. The barrier rose. The Or imitated the movement with its fingers. At the hotel I had to fill out several forms. As I wrote in the blanks with the pen on a chain, the Or roamed around near the lobby piano. The piano lid was closed, and a clay vase stood on it, its handles akimbo. The lady at the reception desk had to call over a colleague, because the presence of the Or had confronted her with an unmanageable problem. Unless I was mistaken, she spoke with a Swedish accent. Her colleague listened to what she had to say and then fetched the forms; for him there was nothing about the whole situation that couldn’t be resolved.
Our room was bright and warm. A buzzing sound could be heard. I put the suitcase on the bed. The Or got tangled in the curtains. Then it understood and pulled them back and forth. In a fruit bowl next to the television was a bunch of spotlessly luminous bananas.
The first walk on the harbour proved difficult, since it had begun to snow and I had to wrap the Or in a scarf. It resisted and pleaded. You could see the yellow in its eyes. Pointing south across the water, I showed it the Arctic Cathedral, which was easy to make out even in the darkness of the polar night. Like a billowing sail, it rose among the houses. After a while, the Or, which had actually seemed to be viewing the cathedral closely, suddenly turned away and focused its attention on the snow on the street.
A woman with a dog stopped next to us. The animal kept its mouth closed, not panting as dogs usually do. The dog was also wearing a jacket. The woman was listening to someone speaking from her cell phone.
We continued slowly on our way, delayed by many trifles, until we reached a peculiar quarter, which was incapable of forming any real system of streets. The houses stood here as if they still had to discuss how they wished to some day be connected. Some had even given up and turned away from the others to face the water. A sign pointed us in the direction of the Polar Museum.
The Or’s eyes followed a gull that took off from a bench on a tiny traffic island and landed on a stoplight. The gull opened its bill, but there was no sound to be heard. I began to explain, but the Or seemed sad, so I left it alone and simply put my arm around its form.
by Clemens J. Setz
Translated by Ross Benjamin
The complete story is available online. ENGLISH TRANSLATION COPYRIGHT © 2019 ROSS BENJAMIN
English-language rights for Clemens J. Setz’s book Der Trost runder Dinger available from Suhrkamp Verlag
Clemens J. Setz’s new novel – his first after being awarded the Georg Büchner Prize – Monde vor der Landung, is published by Suhrkamp Verlag
Extract from KVALØYA, from the short story collection DER TROST RUNDER DINGER (‘The Solace of Round Things’)
by Clemens J.Setz
Translated by Ross Benjamin
Published by Suhrkamp Verlag (2019)
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Clemens J. Setz is an Austrian writer and translator. His novels have twice been shortlisted for the German Book Prize. He won the 2011 Leipzig Book Fair Prize with the short story collection Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes (‘Love in the Times of the Mahlstadt Child’). In 2020 he was awarded the Jakob-Wassermann-Literaturpreis and the Kleist Prize, and in 2021 he won the Georg Büchner Prize.
Ross Benjamin’s translations include Franz Kafka’s Diaries, Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hyperion, Joseph Roth’s Job, Clemens J. Setz’s Indigo, and Daniel Kehlmann’s You Should Have Left and Tyll. He has received the 2010 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship.