German Dolls

"German Dolls" takes Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) to Berlin. It is a text about memories--false and inaccurate, as memories always are--and how they interfere with the places we inhabit, the places we best know by getting lost in them (in the sense of choosing to vanish into them). Pessoa grew up in Durban and wrote his first poems in English. Apart from two trips from Portugal to South Africa, he rarely traveled, and so far as I know was never in Berlin. But his invention of identities, like different layers of one's self--the heteronymus--has everything to do with a city, Berlin, that hides its true identity, and its memories, behind names that are recognizable only from the inside. To a stranger, they lead nowhere. I wanted to work on a metamorphosis of the Poet into a dog. Pessoa used more than seventy heteronyms, some of them discovered only recently by scholars studying his handwritten papers. It made sense to me to imagine Pessoa as a Stasi agent, playing a game with a city, and a society, where everyone could spy on everyone, living a double life and reporting to a "master"--a Poet, let's say, or a demiurge--who had the key to everyone's true identity.--Pedro Rosa Mendes

Berlin is lost,

(he said, licking the back of his hand)

lost on the map. It's a tropical city in exile. Or in hibernation. The only tropical city in the north of Europe.

(licking slowly, very slowly)

It gets cold here. By chance, it gets extremely cold in this land. Once a year-in the winter. Isn't that incredible? That's not normal in the tropics. Snow. Every year, this chill. Have you ever been frostbitten? Implacable.

(there is a thermometer outside the window. it shows seventeen below zero)

The chill is a dog that doesn't bark. It installs itself. You have a sense that the cold is eating away your bones. You try to melt the pain, but you feel your extremities turning to stone. The mercury finally bites into the nape of your neck. You lose the ability to move.

(he has a studded collar around his neck)

It's not you that cuts off your fingers, your hands, your feet. It's the chill. Have you ever run away from a pack of dogs blue from the cold?

(the type worn by sheepdogs to ward off attacks by wolves)

Yes, I have.

(I can smell the sickening odor of his drool)

I was six years old. It was in March of 1945, in Pomerania, when the Russians broke through the defenses of the Wehrmacht between Gotenhafen and Danzig. A slaughter. People were trying to flee Gotenhafen, but the trek was interrupted by the Red Army. Our men fell right there. Without ceremony and with a minimum of effort. I didn't cry, because it wasn't called for.

(strange, the way he breathes, panting with his tongue hanging out, panting as he watches)

I remember a bottle that had fallen in the snow. It was anisette, domestic. My father, a German from Silesia, was no longer with us. I saw the other children witness their orphanhood. They shouted nearby and I didn't hear them. It was impossible, in the barrage of machine gun fire. The crying of the others was my first experience with silent film. I recall very clearly the emotion of that moment.

(strange, too, his ears: drooping, long, flaccid, a kind of threadbare flannel with fine hairs starting to emerge on the lobes)

(he changes hands; he continues to lick)

Aside from the chill, though, what I find in Berlin is a tropical decontextualization. The July rain is gentle and warm. The asphalt has a sickening film, smelling of lubricants. Human nakedness reacts to the sun, lasciviously but without shame. And the domestic animals: enormous! Look at the spiders. In that corner, up there-aren't they huge? The ants, the scarabs, the cockroaches, here the carpet and sewer fauna are as corpulent as in the lower latitudes. I could go on with the tropicalisms, but you wouldn't believe it: the cult of disorder; the great delight in petty disobedience; the corruption-yes, it's a hardened disease here; the debt-isn't that hilarious, the debt?! Millions of millions! It's so astronomical that no one worries about it. They limit themselves to closing down primary schools, hospitals, and dumping grounds-an entire cycle of life. They don't close the opera houses because opera is what distinguishes Berlin from the other provincial cities. Ha! The GDR would know how to deal with the debt.

(he drools profusely, showing the few teeth that remain: only the canines)

I can imagine: in an outburst of pragmatic revisionism the Party would demand, only for Berlin, a program of structural readjustment of the International Monetary Fund. The Party would rid itself of the thousands of useless people that the city suckles, without violating the sacred right of employment. And it would pull off an international coup, by courting capital without mortgaging ideological orthodoxy. It's what I say: the tropics. Above all, the fertile smell of earth under the heat lightning.

(as I came in I scratched myself on a rusty nail, sharp-pointed, in the doorjamb)

Amid this perdition, you are lost too, or am I wrong? At the very least you arrived late. Not much. But have you noticed what happens to someone living in the wrong time? He arrives late.

(when he phoned me-without our having met, without even introducing himself, telling me I would visit him in his apartment-he merely muttered an address, 39 Siegfriedstrasse, first street to the right, after the train, going up Langenscheidtstrasse after leaving the U-Bahn Kleistpark station in Schöneberg, and hung up)

I hope you don't take it the wrong way. It was a small charade. This is Siegfriedstrasse, but you didn't find it immediately because the street is hidden under a different name. It's Czeminskistrasse. Berlin isn't a difficult city; it's just not an obvious city. There are capitals that are privileged to grow in height, from the bottom up-in the sense of trees, scaffolding, and passions. New York, Moscow, Peking, etc. Berlin is a different type of body. It grew in depth, from the top down-the direction of bombs when they are born, for example, or waters when they die. In the direction of dreams-a piece of heaven committing suicide on the ground. There are cities that are the bright glow of the comet. Berlin is the ellipse. It has no monuments to the past, at least not with the opulence of Paris or Rome. Berlin bet its treasures on the present-and lost. Since then, it begs for everything-attention, investment, solidarity.

(he is lying on the floor, belly on the carpet)

They practice this toponomic perversion to an absurd degree: wiping out what is recognizable and replacing it with what is indifferent. You don't know who Czeminski was. But you know who Siegfried is and who Kriemhild is and who Brunhild is, because you don't have to be German-I'd say I'm not, or wasn't-to have heard the Ring and know the story of the Nibelungen. This district used to have several streets inspired by Wagner's Twilight of the Gods. They took advantage of rebuilding to denazify the street signs. They kept Brunhildstrasse, right behind here-nice, isn't it? Kriemhildstrasse became Naumanstrasse. Other streets ceased to exist; they disappeared when the rubble from the war was cleared away. How careful they were in the new design of the streets . . .

(there are photographs on the walls)

There's an excess of time here, you understand? It's morbid, of course, such anxiety to embrace a time that's died-which is the only time that we can, in fact, look in the eyes. The temptation to manufacture the future is no less dangerous-or buy it ready-made-in order to hide the insecurity of having no plan for it. One needs to create a dike between space and time, so as to protect the peoples from the mirror of themselves-otherwise, they fall into disobedience or civil unawareness. That was the purpose of the Wall. That was what we were all working for, in the GDR Ministry of State Security-the Stasi. To maintain the world by maintaining fear.

(he watches me, his tongue hanging out)

The Stasi supplied a cosmogony. No one thanked us. Only fear gave meaning to a society-by keeping it divided in two.

(there is something bothering him about one of his ears; he scratches it; expels a flea; or perhaps a voice or a memory; or just a tic)

Understand one thing: they're trying to replace that fear with vanity. But it's less efficient. You think people miss the Wall? Not even its shadow. What they miss is the fear. Menace is a presence. Tension implies relationship. The enemy exists-and we along with him, in a hygienic symbiosis. What do we have now? Everyone circulating but not seeing one another, or at least everyone ignoring the others. Did you see what they did to Mitte? They brought in Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, Jahn Murphy, that well-paid gang with good taste. They brought the architects to the Potsdamer Platz and commissioned a new heart for the city. And the heart is there, beautiful in its emptiness, waiting for someone to give it blood! In one thing, at least, you'll agree with me and the Party: the capital alienates man. In Berlin, it centrifuged him. Have you seen who's on Unter den Linden these days? It's the car manufacturers, who are also the armament manufacturers. Maman, who liked Germany, always told me that our future was a Mercedes-whether powered by diesel or gunpowder, she didn't know.

(repugnant: crawling, he approached an orchid at the back of the room, raised one leg, pushed aside his pajama, and-urinated into the vase; then he returned, calmer)

I think I lost Maman during the protecting of the orphans.

(he has placed his chin between his hands)

Suddenly, she wasn't there anymore. Before the shootings, I heard a soldier, with waxy skin and slanted eyes, grab her by the arm. He tried to kiss her. Maman resisted. He became furious. He called her "German doll." I didn't see the rest. I stayed close to a French prisoner of war. There were lots of them, distributed among the country houses and lodged with families. Ours was named Jean. Jean Seul de Méluret. The invasion of Pomerania by the Russians was very quick. Suddenly, thousands of prisoners and foreign workers were set free. They camped at night, filling the darkness with their bonfires. By day, they would take to the road again, carrying a flag, on the way to their country, which might be France, Romania, Lithuania. On the highways there were Slavs, Mongols, Gypsies, Balkans, Balts.

(glass flasks, in a bookcase with glass doors, many flasks)

It was my first experience with freedom. Along the roads, at that end of winter and empire, was spread the trash of war. Destroyed tanks, vehicles without fuel, ruined carts. Many carts. The Russian tanks crushed them as they passed. Sometimes the passengers managed to get away in time. The roads were full of carcasses. Dead horses. In several places I noticed that someone had cut chunks of meat from the animals. With Jean, I learned the taste of horsemeat mingled with the taste of hunger. I think it was my first experience of happiness.

(the drool, again)

I managed to make it to Berlin, with Jean. Much later I discovered the reason for such generosity with us, after so much violence. Jean was installed by the Communist Party in the French sector in West Berlin. He formalized my adoption. He began spying in the pay of Moscow, in 1946. As for me, I was to become a valuable orphan for the Warsaw Pact. I didn't have an adolescence. I had a period of dormancy. When they thought I was old enough, they moved me from the reserves into the active forces, as a mole. The victim of my first denunciation was, naturally, my stepfather.

(I don't understand the flasks: a collection?)

One day, Jean didn't come home. He disappeared, after I had described in a letter to the Ministry a conversation about the "German dolls." They were soviet women who had survived under the Nazi occupation, in the forced labor contingents. In the Red Army there was the general belief that they had "sold out to the Germans," which explains their being so mistreated after the liberation. Maman was a "doll"-a real one. I never denounced Jean for telling me that. Only because I already knew.

(he also has an itching in the haunch; I see a purulent sore, through the torn pajama)

Over the years, the assignments grew more important. I was raised with three languages-German, Russian, and French. But another talent became relevant for the Stasi: my sense of smell. The Ministry had an enormous archive of smells. We gathered odors of supposed enemies of the Party: of presumed dissidents, of doubtful elements, of whom we stored a smell so that, if it became necessary to locate those people, the dogs could follow their scent. A handkerchief, a napkin, underwear, a sweaty nightgown, a used sock . . . I was placed in the central archive of smells, in the Leipzig Stasi. At the time, I disappeared from West Berlin . . . I returned in 1990, after the Wall had fallen. I managed to save some flasks-a small part of my private archive. As far as I know, I was the only agent who didn't need dogs. I listen to the air with my tongue. I distinguish the threat in the midst of silence. I sniff out the attack, the hunt, or the flight. Dogs, of all the animal kingdom, are the best prepared to survive.

(he rolls onto his side, his paws in the air, rubbing his back against the floor; then he stretches out on his belly again)

My problem isn't lack of abilities-they continue intact. It's lack of space. What I know is crushed against my skull. I have horrible pains. Too much information. In my brain Ottilie, Mephisto, Wagner (not the composer, but Goethe's servant), Phorkyas bump into one another*Š I have been and am all of them but there's no room in me for them all. Have you heard of a breed of dog with heads that grow constantly? Their heads grow until it drives them mad. Then they're put out of their misery. Aliases-the Stasi had an obsession with aliases. At the top of the pyramid was a man who had the key to our identity-the files that allowed matching our operational names with the real names. I don't have my file. They say the CIA has them, all of them. It stole them here. Stalin was right. "First we take Berlin, then we take Manhattan." That was his criterion for looting. He sang better than Leonard Cohen.

(it's ugly, my scratch)

I'll let you go for today. I'm tired. Can you find your way out?

(I lick the blood from the back of my hand; I head toward the door; there is a sign on the inside, which can be seen only when leaving the apartment)

It's a relic from Pomerania. I took it off a German soldier. He was hanged by order of a general whose motto was "Force through fear."

("whoever fights may die. whoever betrays the fatherland must die! we had to die!")

Goodbye, Herr Mendes.

(I close the door; behind me, the building rattles from an explosion; from inside comes a howl, unfinished:

Mehr Licht, bit-!

(Berlin is lost; such a biting cold tastes good to me, under this tropical blue)

Berlin/Lisbon, October 2003

By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2005 by Clifford E. Landers. All rights reserved.