If she’d gone downstairs just five minutes later, she’d have missed the entrance to the underworld, which would have trundled on its way, offering its open hole to someone else instead; or if she’d taken that step with her right foot instead of her left, she wouldn’t have lost her footing; or if she’d been thinking not about this and that but about that and this, she’d have seen the steps instead of not seeing them. Even so, some death or other will eventually be her death. If not sooner, then later. Some entrance will have to be for her. Every last person, every he and every she, has an entrance meant for him, for her. So does this underworld consist only of holes? Is there nothing more to it? A different wind is blowing here. Is there nothing that could prevent a person from – sooner or later, here or there – stumbling right into it, flailing, falling, plummeting, sinking?
In the fall of ’89, the partition between the Eastern and Western parts of Germany collapses: it gets flattened, breached and scorned, and the mob that’s been working itself into a frenzy stampedes out of its own country and flings itself into the arms of its capitalist brothers and sisters – joy, rapture and sweet oblivion – an entire body politic is emptied out, thrown up (why is it throwing when you throw up?), surrendering all power, all sovereignty, then collapsing, spent. Now another wind is blowing, something that used to be called a life is now called forty years of waiting that have only now proved worthwhile. What’s a five-year plan? Everything is being called by different names, new ‘shores’ on the horizon. Words, which long ago stopped being as real as a bag of flour or a pair of shoes, have failed, becoming economically unsustainable. Twenty sorts of butter, whereas before there was just one, rents are now being multiplied by ten, different plays are being put on at the theatre, the Russians are closing their barracks and selling their forefathers’ fur hats, uniform jackets, and medals from the Great Patriotic War at the Strasse des 17. Juni flea market. On June 17, 1953, workers in East Berlin staged a revolt against the excessive quotas being imposed on them, but they were unsuccessful, while the miner and early activist Adolf Hennecke (pioneer of the quota) was now living in a villa in Pankow. Down with privileges! In 1990, former government ministers, currently unemployed, lean on their garden fences, chatting with retirees out walking their dogs. Whether they will be allowed to hold on to these properties is being looked into. The Easterners head to the West to collect their welcome payments, and return home Westerners. East is no longer anything more than a point on the compass. The publishing house that printed the books of the estimable author goes bankrupt. The readers have other things to do than read these days, first they want a trip to the Canaries. It is not enough to be eighteen years old. The century that used to be so young is now terribly old. His mother, too, is old.
Her son comes to visit her on Sunday at four.
She says she’s realised that she’s been hiding things and she no longer remembers where. She says she’s no longer herself.
The housekeeper brings coffee and cake on a tray, then she goes back out again.
Mother to son: Should I kill myself?
Her son says: Of course not, Mother.
He says: Oh, Mother.
He says: How can you ask such a thing?
The son visits his mother on Sunday at four, his mother has a forearm that is completely black and blue. He asks: Did you fall?
No, his mother says. She says that her skin just turns black and blue like that in certain spots all by itself.
In the kitchen, the housekeeper tells the son that she doesn’t think that’s true, but his mother never tells her anything.
The son comes to visit his mother on Sunday at four. As the housekeeper is taking his coat, she says that his mother has only been awake for half an hour since when she arrived in the morning to start work, she’d found his mother sitting fully dressed on the edge of the bed, where she’d apparently been since the evening before. So she put her to bed for the day.
Thank you, the son says. Thank you so much for all your trouble.
Then the housekeeper calls the son at 7:30 in the morning, saying his mother is not at home. Is she with him? The son says: No. He says: I’ll be right over.
The son cancels a meeting, tells his older child that he’ll have to take the bus to school and that he should get a move on since it is already late, asks his wife to take their younger child to school, and his wife says: Are you out of your mind? I’ve got make-up at 8:30, oh right, the father says, and calls his daughter’s school to say she’s ill, when he hangs up, his daughter says: It’s bad to tell lies, and her father says: Get a book, read, and wait until I get home.
Then the son drives to his mother’s house.
The housekeeper says: What am I supposed to do?
The son: It’s not your fault.
The son goes searching for his mother in all the surrounding streets.
Somewhere or other, she is sitting on the curb in her nightshirt, crying.
That night, when the children are in bed, the son says to his wife:
Things can’t go on like this with my mother.
His wife says: I don’t know what you mean.
My mother owns a large house.
His wife says: Forget it.
The man says: I know it wouldn’t be easy for you.
The woman: She kept trying to turn the children against me. If you’re in the mood for a war, sure, let’s go move in with her.
The man: But she can’t look after herself anymore.
She didn’t help me with the children even once that entire year you were in Leningrad.
It’s just that she can’t take it when the boy plays his music so loud.
And the girl?
It was just too much responsibility for her.
You see, now I’m the one who can’t take it, and it’s just too much responsibility for me.
We’re all going to be old some day.
I’ll be damned if I’ll go blackmailing my children when the time comes.
She’s not blackmailing me.
She doesn’t know what she’s doing any longer.
Serves her right for playing the know-it-all for so many years.
What an ugly thing to say.
Now she’s even going to drive us apart.
By Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated by Susan Bernofsky
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin. A highly successful German author, her works have been translated into twenty-six languages. Her novel The End of Days was awarded the Hans Fallada Prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which was shared with her translator Susan Bernofsky.
Susan Bernofsky is an author and translator. She is currently working on a biography of Robert Walser, whom she has been translating for over twenty-five years. Her translation of The Old Child and Other Stories was awarded the 2006 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize.