Nightmare in berlin, p.24
Nightmare in Berlin, p.24Hans Fallada
For quite a while there was a young girl walking ahead of Doll, who had none of the charm that youth confers on even the most unprepossessing; she walked with difficulty on bloody, festering, dirty legs, as if barely dragging herself along. Her dress appeared to have been made from a couple of flour sacks. When the wearer made it, she still retained a little bit of hope, despite her wretched circumstances; she had added some crudely embroidered decorative trims and a little white collar, as if to say: ‘I’m young, you can still look at me, even if I am only wearing a dress made from old sacking!’
But all these additions were now looking battered and crumpled, and so dirty that the white collar looked almost black, or at any rate no lighter than the sacking. In the course of her long travels she had lost all hope, given up on herself a long time ago. These people I see walking the streets with me can be divided into two groups, thought Doll: the ones who cannot hope, and the ones who dare not hope.
But all of them, whichever group they belonged to, were carting something around with them: a few wretched twigs snapped off the trees; burst suitcases, whose contents one would really rather not know; handbags stuffed full; and mysterious briefcases whose locks had long since broken because they had been overfilled too often, and which were now held together with a piece of string.
We’re all going to perish anyway, thinks one group. But first, let us eat our fill again! Eat until we are replete with good things, and contentment flows through our veins along with the bright blood, which has at last received some decent nutrients!
Meanwhile the expressions on the faces of the other group are saying: We have to gather our strength for our daily toil, so that we can survive these times in one piece. But all of them were scarred by the war, and all of them shared a tendency to caution, a lingering doubt: Maybe something terrible will suddenly happen to us, too — so it’s good to have had our hopes, at least! Doll himself was moderately pessimistic: he didn’t believe that he or his family would perish, but he thought it entirely possible that the future could get extremely unpleasant.
He now turned off from a main thoroughfare into a quiet, green side street lined with villas. But his access to this street was blocked by a red-and-white barrier pole, with a sentry box next to it painted in diagonal red-and-white stripes, where a Russian sentry and a German policeman were standing guard to ensure that no unauthorised persons entered this area, where only officers of the occupying power were allowed to live. Doll had the necessary identification papers on him, and was let through without difficulty, but he still didn’t like going through this barrier. Anything that reminded him too much of the war and the military was unwelcome. The sense of impatience he felt at the sight of this red-and-white sentry box could be more or less summed up thus: It’s time to be done with this kind of business — not just here, but across the whole world!
At the same time, he knew very well that such feelings were foolish. All of this was still necessary: the world, and his fellow countrymen in particular, were not yet ready for a life without constant supervision, without the threat of force. For too long had reason been cast down from its throne. Especially as his dear fellow countrymen would doubtless smash each other’s heads in if they were left unsupervised …
By now, Doll was only twenty paces away from a pretty, yellow-painted villa, which looked very well maintained, with its flowerbeds out front (though they had potatoes growing in them now), and its windows all intact and fitted with blinds. This villa was not his final destination today — that lay three or four minutes further on — but he had made up his mind to call in briefly while he was passing. In it lived a man who had helped him a great deal during the previous, difficult year, a man whom he had repeatedly disappointed, and yet who remained unfailingly kindly and helpful. A good, true friend, and quite selfless — one of life’s rare gifts even in normal times, and how much more so today!
Doll had neglected this man criminally in recent months, acting as if this man, who continued to worry about him, no longer existed. Doll had made absolutely no effort to contact him. Now it was high time to go and show his face again.
Even so, Doll was sorely tempted to walk on to the next street corner, and the one after that, to see if the truck and trailer had arrived yet from the small town. And if the truck was there, then he would have to help unload the things and set them up indoors. In which case, he would have to skip this visit.
He stood there hesitating for a moment, and then told himself to get a grip: Never mind the truck and trailer — you’ve put it off for long enough! He pressed the bell button, and a moment later the garden gate buzzed. He pushed it open, walked through the front garden, and said to the maid: ‘Is Mr. Granzow at home?’ And as it had been a long time since he was last there, he added by way of explanation: ‘Doll.’
‘Yes, I know!’ said the maid, sounding slightly offended, and disappeared inside the house.
Doll didn’t have to wait long. He didn’t have to follow the maid through into the writer’s study, feeling anxious as he crossed the threshold and trying to read his host’s expression. As so often, it was made easy for him, easier than he probably deserved …
Granzow appeared at the door of his house, dressed in dark trousers and a pristine white shirt, evidently having come straight from his desk, with a pen in one hand and a cigarette in the other. And just like before, he cried: ‘Doll! How wonderful to see you here again! Are you well again now? Are you living over there now? So you’re waiting for Alma, who’s coming with the truck that’s bringing your things? I say again: wonderful to see you! Now you’re starting to get somewhere, and it’s all happening for you! But come on in, don’t stand out there in the blazing heat. You do smoke, don’t you? Here, take one! And here’s a light. Now sit yourself down and tell me how you are! What are you all up to?’
And so the conversation began to flow — no word of reproach, not so much as a passing thought. Nothing but kindliness, interest, and an eagerness to help. And then, of course, the moment came when Granzow leaned forward and cautiously inquired in a soft voice (as though he didn’t want to damage something fragile): ‘And how’s the work going? Have you started to write again? Are you making good progress?’
‘Oh well, Granzow …’ replied Doll, slightly embarrassed. ‘Yes, I’ve started to write again. I’m doing my stint every day, but that’s just it: I’m just going through the motions. Like a schoolboy doing his homework. But I don’t have the spark or the drive, the inspiration that is really the best part of all. And as for my day job, writing short stories for newspapers just to bring some money in … Well, yes, sometimes I do actually enjoy it again. But I’m not really getting anywhere. We’re saddled with debt from the time when we were struggling. We can just get by each day, but there’s nothing left over. And now there’s the hire of the truck to fetch our things from the country, and that’s going to cost thousands!’ He looked quizzically at Granzow.
He had been listening to this litany of sorrows with his customary attentive concern. ‘Ah yes, your debts!’ he interjected. ‘I’ve heard about them. I’m also told that you’ve started to sell off your books. You shouldn’t do that, Doll! You’ve sold enough already. Far too much, in fact. It’s time to stop!’
‘But what am I supposed to do?’ cried Doll in despair. ‘It’s all very well to say “Stop selling off your things!” I’d like nothing more. You know how I love my books. It’s taken me fifteen years to amass my collection. Every spare mark I had went on buying more books. But now I simply have to sell them. These debts are starting to make life very difficult!’
‘I understand, I understand!’ said Granzow soothingly. ‘But I still wouldn’t sell the books. Why don’t you have a frank talk with a publisher?’
‘But I’m already in debt to Mertens!’
‘I’m sure that won’t matter, Doll’, said Granzow. ‘Mertens is a reasonable man. Talk to him — he can only say no, and even i
‘Absolutely not!’ cried Doll, appalled. ‘I can’t let you do all my dirty work for me, Granzow! If anyone is going to talk to Mertens, it’ll be me!’
‘So you will speak to Mertens?’
‘Probably. Very likely. Don’t give me that sceptical smile! I expect I’ll do it, really I will.’
‘And if you don’t do it, then I’ll do it for you. Anyway: no more selling off books and other things, Doll! Forgive me for interfering like this. But the other way really is better.’
‘Fine’, said Doll, his mind now made up. ‘I’ll speak to Mertens. You can’t imagine what it would be like, Granzow, to be free from all these worries at a stroke! I never had debts before — it’s just awful!’
‘And then you’ll be able to write freely again’, Granzow went on. ‘You’ll see, one day you’ll write the book that everyone is waiting for! I’m absolutely sure of it, and you’ll do a great job!’
And he wouldn’t be persuaded otherwise, despite Doll’s sceptical head-shaking. Then they talked about Granzow’s trip down to the south of Germany. They told each other stories, they chatted, they were still the same old new friends from before, even if there had been disappointments. They didn’t have a lot in common, but there was one thing that united them every time: the belief that they had to work, for themselves and for their nation. And they loved their work — for them, everything revolved around this work, which never became just a day job for them.
Doll found himself out on the street again, still smoking one of Granzow’s ‘proper’ cigarettes. He turned a couple of corners and stood at the entrance to the little street of villas where he now lived. There was no truck and trailer parked outside his house. So it was good that he had called in to see Granzow without checking first, good that he had made the effort — otherwise he would be feeling ashamed now that he had ducked out of it.
He walked slowly up to the house, unlocked the door, and went in. The children were living here alone now, looked after by an elderly housekeeper, but at the moment they were at school. The whole place was deserted and empty. Worse than that: it all looked untidy and squalid, covered in dirt and dust. Nobody was lavishing any care or attention on this house, which could have been a proper home. In the little girl’s room the bed had not yet been made, even though it was now getting on for midday. Items of laundry, some clean and some dirty, were draped over the furniture or lying on the floor. An outsize teddy bear, as big as a six-year-old child, was sitting in the corner and gazing blankly at the visitor with its brown eyes.
He stood in front of the gaping wardrobe, trying to decide whether he should try and tidy up a bit. But he abandoned the idea with a sigh even before he had begun. Tidying up involved more than just stuffing the scattered laundry into the tangled mess inside the wardrobe. Tidying up meant cleaning the wardrobe from top to bottom, inside and out, along with all the other furniture, and then scrubbing the entire room, cleaning the windows …
So he just shrugged his shoulders. What would have been the point of tidying up, since there was nobody in the house with an interest in keeping it tidy? He opened the windows, just for the sake of doing something … Then he went upstairs to the top floor. The boy’s room is locked — and quite right, too! The lad keeps it tidy himself — and he doesn’t want anybody poking about in there.
The parental bedroom looked just as it did a week before, when Alma left to go to the small town. The bed was just as it was when she got up, with a few newspapers scattered around on the floor and a dirty ashtray, from which all the butt ends had been removed, leaving just the paper behind; a used washstand; and here, too, underwear and items of clothing scattered about on the furniture and on the floor, and the wardrobe gaping wide open.
It would be easy to blame the old housekeeper for doing nothing. But the few hours she was here each day were almost entirely taken up with shopping for food, waiting in queues, and cooking the meals. No, it wasn’t the housekeeper’s fault, but somebody else’s …
Once again, just like downstairs in the children’s room, Doll shrugged his shoulders, but here he didn’t even bother to open the windows. He walked across to the other room, the one that he had planned to make into his study. Something had come up in the meantime; but the plan was still to turn this light, airy room into a study for himself.
He sat down at the desk and looked around the room. A few bookshelves had been hastily placed against the wall at random, only half-filled. The desk was still standing in the middle of the room, where the removal men had left it. The top section of a large bookcase was standing on the floor, like a second desk, and like the desk itself it was piled with books, the books that he hadn’t been able to sell. Doll’s gaze fell upon a large, lidded Chinese vase, a magnificent piece in purple, green, and blue, which stood on a tall, black pedestal in a corner of the room.
Doll greeted it with a wave of his hand. The vase was the only item of value they had managed to salvage from a catastrophic world war. It was the last of many precious things that remained in their possession, for no apparent reason — probably only because they were too feeble and lazy to carry it all the way out to an antique shop in the west end of Berlin. Otherwise they had lost practically everything that they cared about, he and Alma both, and what was left was more like a den than a house, a bolthole to eat and sleep in, but not a place to live, not a home.
And yet at one time it had very nearly been a home for them. Back then, after that first meeting with Granzow, when Doll received so much help from an entirely unexpected quarter, when they were able to move out of the half-wrecked room with its cellophane window constantly fluttering and twittering and into this house, leaving behind the dubious Mrs. Schulz, and Gwenda the actress, and all the doctors they had exploited; back then, when they had not wanted for encouragement, food, and fuel; back then, when Doll made contact with the publisher Mertens, and wrote articles for newspapers and started a novel — back then, they had thrown themselves enthusiastically into the business of making a home for themselves. Back then, this house had looked quite cosy and inviting …
So how come everything had started to fall apart again, and hard-won gains had quickly turned to losses? Sitting at his desk, in the dusty den, Doll pondered this as he gazed out onto the street, which lay shimmering in the heat …
Perhaps the first setback had occurred when Alma travelled to the small town to fetch the things they needed urgently; when they discovered that they had been robbed and plundered, that they had been reduced to poverty. Those small-town people had certainly taken their revenge on their hated mayor! During his absence, they had not left him a single sock or shoe, not a shirt or a suit, and not a frock for his young wife to wear — all they had left hanging in the cupboard were the oldest, shabbiest rags. He had found out once again, and this time to his own cost, how feral and depraved this country had become: people felt they had a perfect right to plunder and steal, since the war had robbed them of so much. Who was going to stop them helping themselves? The mantra ‘Public need before private greed’ — never actually practised — had been supplanted by a different one: ‘Help yourself — and don’t hold back!’
In the case of a man as hated as their former mayor was, they didn’t need to be told twice. They had paid him back for that speech he made from the balcony of the town commandant’s office, when he settled scores with the Nazis among them. They had not forgotten his interrogations, the house searches, the confiscations; every request he had turned down had been added to the list of his crimes.
Well, the Dolls had made the best of it, telling themselves: What would we have done if the place had been hit by a bomb? Then we would have lost everything! At least now we have salvaged the furniture, or what was left of it after the little darlings used some for fi
So they had made the best of it. They had started to set up their new home, and he had started to work again — but maybe they still carried some inner trauma that had not gone away. There was nothing of the old fire and energy. I’m getting old, Doll kept on thinking. Not that he mourned the valuables they had lost: What was bought for money before can always be bought with money again. Nor did he care very much that he only possessed two pairs of old socks, which had been darned a hundred times, and one very shabby-looking suit.
None of this bothered him much. But what did bother him, perhaps, was the discovery that evil continued to triumph, as it had for the previous twelve years, that everything was actually getting worse all the time. There seemed no possibility that this nation could ever mend its ways. He often had the feeling that deprivation and hardship were simply turning them into better Nazis than they were before. How often did he hear the words: ‘Oh yes, under the Führer we had a lot more of this and a lot more of that …!’ To all of them, including many who had not been Nazis before, the years of the Hitler tyranny suddenly seemed like some sort of golden age. The horrors of the war, with the nightly bombing raids, husbands and sons sent off to bleed and die, the defilement of the innocent — all that had already been forgotten. They reckoned they had got a bit more bread or meat back then: end of story. They seemed beyond redemption, and sometimes it was almost unbearable to be living among them; for the first time, Doll thought seriously about emigrating — now, when the war was over!
Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes