This will be about a tragic event that occurred while I was abroad.
My story begins in a place called Ex und pop in Berlin. In the course of my travels, having completed the day’s tasks (room rental, telephone, bank, travel guide, shopping, work: preparing my first notes, finding maps, identifying routes), I was looking forward to some rest. So I headed off into the night. It looked to be a quick night out, one of quick decisions with immediate consequences. My friend from Berlin didn’t make it, so he sent his friend instead. I had never seen this friend of my friend before. We had agreed to meet in Kreuzberg, at the corner of Bergmannstrasse and Mehringdamm in a gay bar, where we could sit down for a quick drink and then decide where we felt like going next.
The friend of my friend: H.
H. is tall, blond, somewhere between thirty and forty years old (it is difficult to write more specifically about him), interesting – actually, I have no idea of how old he really is, there wasn’t time for us to talk about ourselves. Since that first meeting, however, everything has bound us together more and more. H. is striking, wears glasses, is slim and, you could say, attractive; at least I noted the evidence of this in the bar. That, however, is not the essential point, and not even what I want to discuss. What I do want to discuss is that at that point, I still didn’t know that even as I was thinking about that evening’s entertainment, I was still hard at work, and that all the work I had completed earlier in the day would become meaningless in the shadow of what was about to happen to us. Work is truly a German virtue and here, even having fun is hard labor. H. joked with me; an exhausting, hot, sweat-producing process: you have to get your hands on someone, make friends with them all the while presenting yourself as something, although you always end up regretting everyone you pick up in these bars. Work is of essential importance, yes, but as far as I am concerned it has nothing to do with freedom, or, for that matter, amusement, I answer. We were next to each other as we spoke. But I recall that here, already, the distance between us began to grow. For me, the real task – and it really is a difficult effort – is to see if I am able to put myself into someone else’s shoes. Will I be able to register this evening spent with H., to shape the events in written form in such a way that I can literally re-create what happened to us?
A few minutes after our meeting, H. became very amiable, and we started into a long discussion. We spoke of the city where we both were residing for only a few months. After a few shots – no, that’s not true, really an incredible amount of hard spirits, H. came up with a recommendation. He proposed, at around two a.m., to take me to another bar. He himself had never been there, but he’d read about it and even written the name of it into a song he’d composed without ever having seen it, without even the slightest idea of how it looked. H. made his living through music. Of course, the bar didn’t look at all the way it turned out to look, it was a kind of invisible place without anything to look at or observe. We, however, didn’t know that before we set out. I did not resist, I had no desire to play for time, events were beginning to spin, and so with the requisite liquid dose to sustain us, we set off on foot towards Yorckstrasse, in the shadows of the old bridges, wandering between the enormous antiquated iron structures and political slogans for more than three quarters of an hour, and when I was thinking we would never really get there, we finally arrived. But let’s not jump ahead!
The sidewalk along which we proceeded was a long strip into infinity. There was no point looking to the right or left, all you could see were tubes and barrels, iron girders and two high walls. No, this road doesn’t lead to infinity, for our glance always bumps into one wall or another. I had never seen a street so emblematic of solitude as that one. Most roads do resemble solitude; this, however, was not a simile but a real procession on foot. It reminded me of reality, and recalled the true state of aloneness in which we all live.
We continued along inert, harsh, monotonous iron roads. No wonder that H. is now talking about depression, about the symptoms he’s observed in his friends and has begun to notice in himself too, particularly now that he’s been living in this colossus of a city and is approaching forty (but never did he betray exactly how close he was). As if every morning he feels death creeping closer to his bed, reaching under his pillow, and he feels that from below someone is thrashing around, someone else; death is a pushy intruder. It lashes at my face, strikes me in the jowl, he says, almost every morning, and if I want to get up, it retreats back under the pillow. He can’t get up in the mornings, he complains as we pass under the bridges; he’s afraid of death, not seriously but tragically, because of chance, because he will die by accident – death whispers into his ear. This is just silliness, the result of all the substances he puts into himself every day; try to cut down smoking, I advise him like an idiot, don’t read so much, don’t travel all the time and don’t pay any attention to others; everything will be fine if he can just try not to panic so much; take up a hobby, get involved in a cause, get a significant other in your life. As if I didn’t want to reveal to him that death comes calling for me too every morning, only that I shall never die my final death, only others will die. He continues to speak, saying what he has to say, as we pass from Kreuzberg into Schöneberg. The bridges form the borders between the different districts, but there is no detour; the road only leads to here, not one single intersection where we could have turned off. We simply veered over to the right at the next corner, where we continued further along Potsdamerstrasse. We have arrived at our goal. We go in.
If you look at it from outside, you see the entrance to the bar: a bare steel door. If you enter into the bar’s inner layers – and there are many of us who have done so – and if you do not immediately turn around to go home, driven away by the smells, the darkness, the dazed frightening faces, the women’s lascivious smiles, then you could easily spend ten or twelve hours here without even noticing the passage of time; without noticing that the very gates of hell are opening up beneath your feet. We are standing here now.
We are at the edge of a precipice. We stand beside an imaginary river, the imaginary name of which is the Styx, and its waters are deadly.
In the hole – for in this long tunnel there is no furniture – we look around. There is only blackness, and no colours, no air to breathe, only a few velour-covered chairs and a stage on which no person has ever stepped, where there is no society, everyone is alone, no one came here to have a good time, in fact no one has come here even of their own accord. We can hardly see anything. Everyone sits by themselves, enumerating within their sins, their gaze is turned inwards and not outwards, and they don’t even notice if you have entered for the first time in your life into this hellish room. There is a strange scent in the air. A thick smell of ether spreading. The door opens. As you walk in, a few secrets are seen to move, perhaps startled by the unfamiliar passerby.
A place opens up before us, such as we have never seen: the kind of place that children fear in the forests in their dreams. There, below, the solitude is dense. The bleakness cannot be described, and yet I describe it: it encircles the seats at the bar, the people sitting on the benches stretching along the lengthy wall, it directs and moves the filaments. Dreariness like a strange category of air, an oxygen-deprivation, the lack of air within the air. No one willingly sucks it into his lungs, so cold is this bleakness. And then suddenly everyone becomes visible. We see who has strayed into here, we see from up close, the space is narrow. They have most likely come here because they are alone, and alone is what they wish to remain: alone, alone, alone.
Then at once, everyone dissolves out of the loneliness. At first, from the solitude of others, the solitude brought here by everyone merges together, its collective force becoming a solvent. I didn’t understand at first why people were looking at me strangely. Then I realized that people took H. and me to be a couple; when H. and I continue the evening, however, moving separately through the tunnel, sitting at the counter but drinking alone – H. vodka, I cocktails – sitting for a long time thoroughly oblivious of the other’s presence, everyone understands that we belong here. We are now in the innards, flattened out against the furnishings: at last we are in the hole, as it sucks us up immediately into the tunnel.
Describing what I see – the people around me – is boring in writing, much more exciting in life. There are only bodies and nothing between them, the mere gratification of solitary existence, no obligations, no expectations, love, longstanding connections. There are only embraces, sex, drugs in any possible form and quantity, shared with whatever gender you should happen to desire, with whatever creatures you manage to collect from the street. But it’s not exactly the same here as it is out there. There are intersections, passing lanes, but no detour: only naked candor in the hearts. You inhale, squeeze whatever you want, you can eat what your eyes desire, but not your body. Something is disturbing me, I’m still not sure what, as I go back towards the washroom. I sense a strange caustic odor. I tell H. about it afterwards, but he is clearly not interested, he has become too dissolved to talk to me. Later on, he asks me, what do you feel – because he feels nothing, and that’s the main point of being here, do you see. Just a moment ago, I was feeling something, but you won’t let me tell you what it was.
In the back, in the bathroom you can fuck someone behind the beaten-up, pockmarked doors. I only noticed this later, when an Arab guy took me back there, pushing me towards the row of pissoirs, no condom. I tell H. what happened with the Arab, how he took out the cocaine, first rolling up a paper banknote, but he couldn’t do it, so he took out another ten-euro note and tried again to roll it up, his hand shaking but not because of me, only because for so long he’d wanted to do it with everyone, anyone, he’d had such a hard-on all afternoon, he’d been waiting all day to stick it in somewhere. With one hand he tried to roll up a new cigarette, with the other he reached for my ass, while I quickly drew back, I’ve never seen you here before, he whispered and licked the inside of my ear, then tried again pushing me towards the wall, groping in my trousers, looking for a hole to shove it into, pushing me against the wall, this wasn’t the only way he knew how, believe me, he could do it right, I looked around and wondered how anyone in a battered, grimy, vomit-caked toilet could do anything right, but the Arab guy did it, he breathed deeply and I breathed too, I took that gift from him, I reached towards the bolt on the door because I wanted to leave him there as I caught my breath again, I would fly away, I thought, but he didn’t let me, he pulled the bolt shut again; you, in other words, just gave yourself away to some fucking creep, says H., and turns away from me, disillusioned, but I keep on talking as if there were someone to hear; we were tottering around, I say, he pressed against me, putting forward ever more pressingly cogent reasons, he just kept talking and talking, his mouth wouldn’t stop, and then I suddenly realized I didn’t want to escape, I tried to imagine what it would be like with him, but I couldn’t, because I kept thinking of somebody else, yes somebody I remembered, I was thinking about an old love of mine, and when he entered me from behind it was just as good as with the other one, the Arab was moist just like him, a little awkward and it took him a long time to get close, babbling about the soul, then he came quickly. I stripped off the last drops of loathing, yes I gave my virginity to that fucking creep, I say, but H. is no longer paying any attention to me; if I speak about sex he’s not interested, which is perhaps why he turned away from me.
There is one taboo in hell: that there are dead people there. Everyone speaks with everyone else, but you don’t find out anything in particular about anyone; there are no stories, the entire thing is nothing more than one great pandemonium, here all the details of the past have vanished, no one is interested in what you’ve gone through; here all are equal in sin, for everyone has at one point deceived, stolen, disrobed, betrayed, castrated and laughed at it all. There is no unpleasantness here; there are no feelings, and true, not even tears; there is non-committal love and indifferent friendship; if you come here, it is because you lack emotions. If anyone asks too many questions, they’re kicked out; if someone looks too important, no one talks to them; if someone tries to conduct business they won’t be allowed in. No one can manage anything in hell, there are no relations, no swaggering, no money, no vainglory; you cannot be greedy, as no one has anything, and you cannot lie, for in this place there is no distinction between fantasy and reality.
H. and I first stand about uncertainly in the street, wondering – are we at the entrance already? It is difficult to make out the door, at the very least to tell it apart from the wall of the building, as both are blindingly white. The entrance is set back into the wall, to make it less conspicuous. It looks exactly the way the gay men in the first bar described it to us, exactly as H. portrayed it in his song, and exactly as I imagined it, without ever having glimpsed it. We go in.
On July 7, 2000, the night lasted from the previous evening until July 8 at four o’clock in the afternoon. When we arrived, we didn’t realize how long it would be. We knew nothing, suspected nothing of what awaited us inside, and what would happen to us. We were just a few hours and minutes short of spending an entire day in the bar. In what is to follow, I will be putting down the notes I prepared the next day (properly speaking, the third day). I know full well this is a kind of self-mystification, because every recounting always follows after the events in question, and damaged memory always ends up playing the larger role than the events themselves; nevertheless I believe, as I believed then as well, that when something occurs that I have no other option than to write it down as quickly as possible. I feel that in this way I come closer to what I have seen; or at least certain details won’t fall into oblivion with such elemental speed, if only I can document, step by step, the narratives and the actors.
So let us begin from the entranceway, where we had just arrived: the door is surrounded by a colossal, bulky iron sheet; there is no handle, nothing at all visible on the iron plating, and the whole thing is like a garage entrance for cars and trucks, particularly service vehicles, something deliberately kept hidden from the street and the passersby. If, standing before it, we turn our heads a little to the right, then we can see a little plaque, about at eye level, and read this inscription: Private Club. Private, that means…, but no it doesn’t mean anything at all, because the people inside share, a priori, no common aims, I say to H. laughing. The plaque is a mask. Practically speaking, anyone can go inside. The route back to the outside, however, is to prove much more difficult than the one in, as we are doing now.
A broad-shouldered bald man lets us in. H. raps on the door three times with his fist, but then we notice there is a buzzer. After we ring, the bald man finally lets us in. He is Charon, the ferryman. And he almost seems a little ashamed that fate has handed him this task. But without any good reason. It’s easy enough to see the bell, and hardly necessary to thump on the door. With all the commotion, we are just disturbing the peace of those inside, we are harming the music and the slowly seeping material, as we shove our way to where he puts us, in the other world. We are crossing the river.
As we step in, we see another sign, also at eye level, which is impossible to miss or pass by without noticing. NO DRUGS, it reads. This place is a parody of itself as well, I say to H., but he just waves, shakes me off, alone, we are going to continue the evening by ourselves in that place; we separate.
We are inside the passageway.
There is only one direction to move – forward.
The bar is a long black tunnel.
At first, they seem pitiful to me. And we too seem pitiful. In my imagination, I nod to all the heads around me, I look around and see only grotesque creatures around myself: someone is missing teeth, another is sitting there in a tuxedo, some are in evening dress, the Arabs wear tracksuits and striped grey polo shirts, one youth is in a mixer outfit, and I can hardly guess with any accuracy who is male and who female. The pity only lasts as long as I observe the movements from without; then H. and I are inextricable among them, we suck in the air taking deep breaths, we too stand in the middle of things; the spirit of the place begins to dominate us; indeed, we too shall be complicit in what takes place here. I feel them to be as pitiful as anyone might find us; we yield ourselves up.
I feel sorry for no one: everyone who has come here deserves it, including us. Everyone who spends the night in a grimy dive like this is exactly the same; everyone who is solitary deserves it, because he or she is not a good person, something about the world disturbs them, but they don’t know how to describe it, to share it with others, so every evening they come to this hell so that their minds can be racked with torture, gazing unceasingly within, trying to work out the issues yet again and yet again, so that the next day they feel even more solitary. It happens to us, as to anyone else. Here there is equality; there are no differences. There is no leader, as there are no subordinates; there are no cults, as cultists do not come here. This equality is absolutely just, and at the same time absolutely murderous. The place inhales you into itself, and doesn’t let you get out the door. It’s true, later on I can’t even find the exit, which is located at the beginning of the long tunnel, but when I begin to search for it I’m standing at the other end already, and suddenly I can’t find the light; for some reason I would like to leave, but I shall not exit with impunity, for in the very next second I forget that I wanted to leave, and now I am amazed at the fact that it came into my head at all, that I hadn’t forgotten to forget. I had wanted to leave, but that was no longer possible.
I can hardly even recall the reason why (and I would suggest there wasn’t even one). I am the prisoner of the labyrinth of the tunnel. Everyone is pitiful, I think again, everyone who is a faggot, voyeur, actor, writer, TV star, transvestite, dark-skinned, foreign, strange, john or whore, former Nazi, harlot or lesbian, corporate manager, computer technician; everyone who spends their lives here, or at least the more significant half of those lives; perhaps over the age of forty or just about to turn forty; who after sleepless nights and recreational drug use, after workplace and romantic failures, come to anchor here in a tunnel.
I stand, try to hold my ground, remain integrated. I would like to keep things together, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult. My head droops to one side. I’m forgetting. When I came into this place, I thought I was an outsider, but now I’m so deep into it I can no longer recall exactly when and how I got embroiled into here. Past and present become indistinguishable. Who am I? I ask. Someone appears, we exchange a few words, but in the middle of my sentence they turn away and continue with someone else, breaking it off, and then pick up again with someone, anyone, again. It occurs to me that I’m being selfish, yet I’m broadcasting my selflessness. Everyone is my mirror image; although I think I’m better than they, there’s no one worse than me. I came here to rest, relax, let myself go a little, and I don’t want anything at all to happen to me; for that reason, I don’t finish any of my conversations with anyone.
Then, all the same, something happens.
It’s unbelievable, but something extraordinary occurred in that boring, drug-sodden, empty palce yesterday at midnight. And it is thanks only to sheer happenstance that I wasn’t the one who died at dawn, at 5 a.m. in the toilet. Of course, it’s all one and the same, for if I had been the one to die, someone else would be writing this report, someone else would be documenting the course of events, and someone else would be carrying the memories of a scrawny white body slumped against the toilet bowl at five a.m. (I have to note the exact time at least once.)
With its vacant eyes and head hanging over, the corpse was inclining into the emptiness of the toilet; the yellow-faced girl sat in front of the bowl, kneeling actually, she wasn’t sitting but kneeling, as if she wanted to pray. The head was exactly the size of the rim, and was embraced all around by it, as if it wanted to offer reassurance, to protect, to hold back the innocent face of the woman from the pipe’s stench. Later on it emerged: she wanted to throw up before she died.
"She wanted to get out of her own skin, she always wanted to be something different than what was given to her, that’s why”, Uwe the bartender is to say later, when the police finally arrive, and then begin to sob, "her life in the fast lane was what wrecked her"; and then says “one last piss into the bowl!" Uwe doesn’t know what he is saying, he loved Csilla, and he was the only one who really loved her, says Olaf. Did she go to heaven or hell? Most say she went to hell. According to Uwe, though, she went to heaven, he’s completely convinced that’s where she is now, and one day she will be an angel. Because even on earth Csilla was angelic.
When I left off, we had just arrived, and were mingling among the other people in the bar:
LEO is the first one I begin to speak with; he is a screenwriter;
SABRINA allows me to touch her bosom, more accurately her false breasts; she is a Polish-born transvestite;
OLAF is an alcoholic philosopher, who continually talks about Heidegger, and about the fact that his father had fought in the Waffen-SS, a boring weirdo, constantly repeating himself, a one-time West Berlin left-wing ideologue who never made it to the post of foreign minister;
CSILLA is the one who will be the corpse, her mouth simply never stops; her father is Hungarian but she doesn’t speak a word of the language;
HANS is fifty years old, his daughter forbade him ever to take drugs, there is no point to his stories but he shares his soul with everyone, and it is somehow touching;
JOEL is black, born in Paris, always snorting cocaine and always wins at table football; says he hates to lose, however in the course of the evening it will prove necessary to cut him down to size;
UWE, the bartender, pours vodka into the one-deciliter glasses; you don’t have to pay anything, it’s a gift, he says; he’s the most generous German I’ve ever met.
I spoke with Leo first. We are once again speaking alone, as Sabrina disappeared to play table football with Joel. Earlier, I had observed as Sabrina snorted up the powder, began gyrating conspicuously, became a luxuriating gentle steed, again and again taking one of the boys back to the toilets with her – not only the openly gay ones, but even those who haven’t yet come out. The fags know right away what’s up, get it? They know what kind of a woman this man is, and those who don’t, well it doesn’t matter, this way I kill two birds with one stone, Sabrina boasts when she comes back to us. After a while I get bored with her gabbing, so I’m glad when she finally heads to the back with Joel.
We continue with Leo.
While Sabrina was still sitting with us, I was entertaining the thought of what would happen if she fell in love with a woman, yes, that’d be her just desserts and she’d leave off this game forever; I say this only to Leo, but he is listening. There’s nothing more pathetic than seeing someone like me getting old, Sabrina says; speaking endearingly of herself to Leo and me, ingratiating herself in the self-love she feels after she emerges from the toilets, wandering towards me repeatedly. You’ve become instant friends, Leo says a little enviously, even though we’ve hardly even spoken, we’re chasing the men or the women tonight. That comes later, of its own accord.
I sit in the middle, between the writer and the whore. I’m with them for a few hours, the proposals come from the right or the left, H. at times turns to me to see if I’m still there, but when he sees I’m here, he grimaces and turns away. There is no equality here, not in the least, you’ll see, Leo says and does all he can to get Sabrina off my back. But it doesn’t work out for him. Then, all the same, it comes together, Leo drops hints about her age, the five-o’clock shadow on her chin, the artificial materials in her body, at which point Sabrina slaps him across the face and leaves. I don’t like whores, I say, of course betraying myself with that statement. Leo kisses me.
Sabrina is not choosy. She tries to lure Olaf and Hans, but almost everyone here knows her, they’ve tried her out already, and there’s no point in getting them worked up again. When Sabrina finally realizes the odds are against her, she switches sides and heads off to the Arabs, somewhat like a washed-up footballer when the first league ditches him. It turns out that everyone knows her, everyone has already been in her arms, in her mouth, in her ass. She usually racks up at least four or five customers before she comes to the bar. Here, she lets most of them slip it to her out of affection, more than anything else. Sabrina is Yorckstrasse’s best-known whore. Most of her clients don’t have the slightest idea that she’s not a woman, and she’s the proudest of that. Her beautiful surgery-formed bosom is a component of the evening, the cogwheel of her life. I remember that when she walked in, everyone turned towards her, everyone gaped at her, you could see her nipples standing out from her skin. Her breasts emit light: she puts them out like a greengrocer with melons when they are ripe. Sabrina is at the same time an idling vixen who would have to be invented if she didn’t exist. The bulge between her legs is fairly large, it never completely disappeared even though she presses it back every day; when I mention this, she is offended. Maybe that is why she went back over to the Arabs.
Something with that girl is not right, Uwe says at various points during the evening; bloody whore, he repeats, filling her glass with vodka again; he clearly doesn’t like Sabrina but I don’t inquire. Sabrina is angry at Uwe, I can see that in her eyes.
Then she goes off with Joel to the table football; they’re groping each other over it, I can still remember that as I wrote it down. Then I only see Sabrina’s battered dyed-blonde hair from up close, and her shining breasts through their low-cut black blouse, as we’re all standing in the bathroom. We see how Csilla’s mouth remains open when we too are standing next to her, our own mouths also gaping wide. We are wordless fish. The living are like the corpse; the living beside the dead are dead as well; suddenly the effects of all the drugs leave us, as if we’ve all been hit on the head, when we see she isn’t breathing, her lungs lying in repose. She’s sleeping, says Sabrina, I gave her some tranquilisers. All at once, her consonants are Polish again, her own language has burst out, she’s changed and continues to speak in her mother tongue, complaining about something. Her affectations have completely disappeared. Sabrina is a man once more, and not only that but a murderer from a crime novel.
The Polish whore killed the Hungarian girl out of jealousy.
Just at that point, I’d been speaking with Leo about how he writes his dialogues, and why he can never write descriptive prose; all his novels were failures. He came up with a film about the former GDR, someone in a pioneer camp was molesting young girls, at first just the music teacher and then his own daughter, it could have been a satire but no one wanted anything to do with it… Then suddenly the air grew cold, the music died away, the voices broke off, everyone remained motionless, no one swallowed and no one breathed, the conversations ceased, the drinks fell onto the tables, no one raised a glass, not a single sound came from anywhere, all of the exits were blocked, the doors closed, the power to the electric doorbell was cut, no one made a single move. Neither in nor out. Bodies remained motionless.
A murder had taken place.
Bodies can feel, and yet they turn to stone: the residents of the long tube froze into lifeless statues. Both ends of the labyrinth disappeared. The bar became silent, as if it had been sealed tight.
We heard whispering, and then an affected scream came from Sabrina’s mouth. Then a droning sound arose; everyone headed off in the direction of the sound, the barroom emptied, the main characters were all standing together in the bathroom, forming a quiet semicircle, like fish. Uwe remained alone behind the bar, calling the cops.
What’s the use of calling the police, everyone knows who the killer is, someone said – just to hold Uwe back, he’ll want revenge because it was his love who was murdered.
Sabrina began to cry, poor little crosstitute, I whisper to Leo, who visibly can’t decide if he should laugh or weep. We both burst out into tears of laughter. For the first time in her life, Sabrina actually seemed like a woman, the tears in her eyes the tears of a real woman. There she sat, crouching in Csilla’s last pee, and with her hand, her broad palm, she began to clear the debris away from the corpse. I love you, she said as she stroked my foot. I didn’t understand it then, and I still don’t understand when I think back on it, why she chose to have me next to her in that moment; I had seen her that day for the very first time, and I only pitied her like everyone else.
Then her bosom fell onto mine, so it is easy for me to describe her, so easy to write that I stood next to the bosom of a murderer.
She clearly didn’t know anything about herself; didn’t know her own name or where she was. When the police interrogated her, she didn’t have her ID card, as she was ashamed of the photograph of herself with a mustache. Later on, she requested to be placed in the women’s prison. No one even asked, understood or insisted on knowing why she had strangled the girl. Everyone knew it was from jealousy. Because of Uwe.
Uwe had been with Csilla for a few years now, had taken her back into his life, at least that’s what Leo told me, and Csilla stayed with him out of gratitude. A love triangle, nothing unusual. Sabrina loved Uwe.
We felt sorry for Sabrina and commiserated with her: she had to remain alive.
We never found out anything else about the dead woman, only that she would be buried later. The kind of injustice that always happens in a crime novel.
Csilla died, we let go of her.
Pity is even worse than letting someone go to heaven or hell.
And maybe Sabrina is still alive even today, if she hasn’t yet died on another evening, carried away by a bad impulse.
We are in hell. And now comes the intrigue. I try to rummage through the souls, I try my best, straining; I want to understand them but it doesn’t work. They are strangers. Already, everyone has disappeared, the stains are gone, the main actors are nowhere to be seen, and if I were to take a photograph of the crime scene, it would reveal nothing of what had happened there. Did anything actually happen?
When I came to Berlin, it was not to live through a night like this. I came to Kreuzberg with the intention of looking into some library collections (the American Library), museums (the Gropius-Bau, the Photography Museum), and some rivers (the Spree, the Landwehr, the Havel). To collect materials for publication, to put together an article for a Hungarian journal about German crime novels, and finally, to prepare for a conference. These kinds of tasks require completely different forms than the account I am now forced to produce. I seek out the position of the dispassionate observer, yet I am a participant; I pity others while I myself am pitiful; I cannot write anything because I am inside the events; I can do nothing else and have no other desire than for people to believe in what I saw for myself. I want to write about them as if my imagination were reality.
Murder is like something that happens in a movie. The embraces, the slaughter were like something out of a novel. I have no time to fabricate images, reality guides my pen; I would never have been capable of contriving such a ruthless and sentimental narrative on my own. At first, I could hardly sit down to write. Present or past tense, I had no idea of what I was using, I just wrote. I lay in bed for one entire day and erased, erased the slate of memory, thinking I might forget the stories. I shrunk away in repulsion from myself, showered several times in succession, even went for a doctor’s examination to make sure I hadn’t picked up some infection or another.
I believe that I discovered, two days ago, what a quotidian death looks like. If we think back on it later, it is surrounded by a churning yet pure artlessness; if the person who died was not someone we cared about, we forget it. A black nylon bag is pulled onto the corpse, phone calls are made, a place is found, someone comes from the morgue, the corpse-washer pushes it into a large hall, all simple routine. The crematoria are in operation both day and night.
Slowly they begin to stand around her, they approach, looking to see if she is really dead; her head is pulled with an elegant motion into the sack, silently, peacefully, then her entire body is covered; a label is attached to her foot, then she’s entirely inside; forms are filled out, eyewitnesses cross-examined, relatives summoned, the course of events reconstructed. At first everyone is quiet, no one wants to speak to them too audibly, then those who saw the death get into the rhythm of it, they tell everything, even exaggerating. At first everyone speaks only of himself or herself, only about their own lives; they don’t want to know anything about the dead woman.
Death is a mere secret, even as the living accompany the dead.
After a few minutes, there is nothing to be seen of Csilla anymore.
We really hate coming here, the paramedics say, we have to tidy up in this place a little too often, they reproach Uwe; then, threateningly: why do you all have such a weird smell?, they inquire apathetically. The policemen fulfill their obligation of informing the bartender that they will have to shut the place down if the trannies kick up a fuss again. We watch the process of cleaning, we do not move. Our consciences are clean. No, not at all. There’s not a soul in there now.
As the mop touches the floor, the entire story disappears; and as the pools of water slowly dry, the place itself and its characters disappear. Uwe ushers us out through the door with the bald guy; go home already and remember you didn’t see anything. Everything is as it was before. The faces grow sober, the wrinkles are smoothed out, everyone goes about their business, the scriptwriter listens in to the conversations and collects dialogue, there is a loud exchange between Sabrina and the paramedics. Olaf philosophises, bringing up Heidegger and mentioning that he’s pissed his pants. I take out my notebook to jot down a few things immediately. As if I were a detective and accomplice in one. A bad, incoherent detective, who later on will simply invent the entire thing.
H. calls his employer, he’s not coming to work today. Leo is also talking to someone, cancelling an appointment.
H. and I head homewards, saying goodbye to Leo, the one person who had befriended us during the whole evening. Joel hardly notices us as we take our leave, he’s starting to play table football with one of the Arabs, but Uwe at once calls out to them and kicks them out. Uwe’s eyes are a mirror in which everyone can see themselves, and they obey Uwe immediately. The inmates of the tube slowly trickle upwards, some heading this way and some that, everyone setting off for somewhere nearby, the sun lighting up the smudged jackets; there is dust on the polo and the Oxford shirts, trousers are stained, and a few drops of blood trickle down from the mop.
On the way back, H. keeps repeating that it was like something out of a film, so sudden and merciless, but at the same time so sterile and pre-determined. We simultaneously listened and watched as in a film, while the aged whore strangled the young woman out of jealousy. We just watched, sat, drank our beer, and observed. As the young woman gurgled into the toilet bowl, gasped for breath, spit out her insides. Yuck, it was all fairly disgusting, says H. He keeps repeating the scenes, playing them over and over again.
A woman murders another woman; in the outside world nothing particular, only in that down there it was something particular. Perhaps that’s why it all seemed to be occurring on a stage. There were the actors – the man was a woman, the woman a man, the drug addict was sober, the madman rational, the play was serious and the tragedy ironic, all the passions were manufactured out of silicon. The world beyond, where we’d just been, was a gritty artifice, a constructed world. And in this grimy artificial world I had really felt good about myself, maybe for the first time in my life I felt my own self at all. I don’t think it was a film, I say a few minutes later to H. I think instead that there is no difference between the real world and a film. But maybe the most appalling thing of all is how we wait for something to happen to us at last, and when it finally comes, we’re frightened of it. In comparison to the murderer and the victim, we’re tedious and fucked-up.
In a black place, in darkness, in hell, where everyone is ostensibly equal, violence lay in wait. The subordinate selves pass in and out of its gates, deriving pleasure from the labyrinth because they know that here they may meet with the unbelievable through simple happenstance; that they shall look brutality full in the face; and that a mere hair’s breadth shall separate brutality from love and that truly the desire for love brings them back into hell, again and again. We were there for the sake of love, enclosed by the mantle of darkness – what do I know, though, I’m really not sure.
We go into the nearest bakery, pressing ourselves through the door, we sit down, breakfasting on brioches and croissants, and we order coffee, watery German coffee. We are deformed, says H. No, the situation is much worse than that: we are the spectators for the world’s deformed.
Slowly evening descends again. Everything breaks up. We each smoke a cig, H. rolls a joint, pours out the ashtray and rolls again; it will be easier for him to sleep later. We pass a cinema on the corner of Yorckstrasse. H.’s idea is to watch a movie as a way of coming down from the whole thing. By the time it ends, we’re both asleep.
The next morning I get the daily paper (B.Z.), and there on the front page is the evidence: a girlhood photo of Csilla, beautiful, blonde, her innocent brown girlish eyes look out from the picture; the subject of the photograph (who as we know is no more) was murdered yesterday in the dawn hours by a transvestite, reports one eyewitness, a bartender who wishes to remain anonymous.
According to the proprietor, who served both the killer and the victim that midnight, the murderer was in a heavily intoxicated state. At the end of the article is a photo of Sabrina as a teenager: a tall, brown-haired boy with a powerful body looks yearningly at us from the photograph. The pictures awaken sympathy in the viewer, sympathy and easy forgiveness.
So who’s going to take care of the eight dogs, I ask H., and we laugh all the way home about how Sabrina constantly talked about her animals. I almost forgot, Sabrina is really Alexander. He was born in Warsaw, and worked as a prostitute for years now, a well-known figure in the nocturnal life of Berlin, familiar to many bar owners. I shed a few tears because I was afraid of what would happen to him. I think about how he had caressed us, issued invitations to everyone, and would give himself for free to all who desired. He wasn’t a whore, whores ask for money and simply aren’t capable of strangling a woman with their bare hands. Sabrina’s hands were those of a man, enormous, only awaiting their chance to take their revenge on the injustice of nature. Not dainty girlish hands, but murderous claws.
We are two days past it now.
Once again I’m in the present tense.
I move into Leo’s flat for a few days, because I can’t sleep alone after this story. I don’t know how long this insomnia of mine will last. I don’t know, because it is only beginning now, how long reality will oppress my dreams; certainly there will be sleep disturbances, but I’ll get over them. In the morning I can hardly get out of bed. When Leo has calmed me down, I’ll move back to Grossberenstrasse. But he doesn’t do so. Leo is not going to let me go home. He claims to have fallen in love with me. Even though, when we met, he said he hadn’t believed in love for a very long time. And now, if you please, he won’t let go, he plagues me with his emotional life night after night, he cries, he pleads and he wants me to give myself to him yet again, as if I were Sabrina; only that I give myself with no feeling. I want Leo to be a good man, because he is very selfish, and he takes all of my offerings. This is more than cynicism. This is the candor of cynicism.
I’m moving back to Grossbeerenstrasse. And this will be the end of the story.
H., the friend of my friend, will turn out to be my friend. Leo gives the story to the ARD series “Tatort”. Sabrina is now a character in a German TV crime series, even her name is the same, and she can show her breasts to anyone. I see, at least in my imagination, how she will wave to us from prison if we pay her a visit. She is happy to have become a famous murderer.
One winter evening, everyone does recognize her; the Berlin part of the story is broadcast on Das Erste. On every German television set, the transvestite murders her girlfriend in a bar in Schöneberg. H. and I too are there on TV, sitting behind the bar. In the film we are strange creatures of the underworld; the bar’s clientele are without exception portrayed as crazy idiots and potential killers. Only the police are normal, professional, clever. The viewers laugh, but not too loudly; only coming up with a few chuckles at the masculine woman in the main role; they watch the proclivities of Sabrina, despising the murderer; they smile at her clumsy movements. There are those who are repulsed by her, and those who fiercely desire Sabrina’s décolletage. The critic writing in the Saturday paper considers Leo’s work to be the weakest episode; the dialogue doesn’t come off, the evocation of events is far too drawn out; in his view, the series is just a shopworn, outdated thriller: sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, something no one can believe in any more.
Leo isn’t allowed into hell again after that. Ex und pop is an empty tube, where the consequences of every movement are equal. H. and I wave to him from inside when we see Leo standing out there, and Charon tells him to get the fuck out.
Inside, next to the counter, we all detest Leo’s fictions.