Out of the hundred thousand or more stories that happen in Berlin on a daily basis, why tell this one? Let’s say it’s indicative of a general trend. The story’s main character is Anita Paschke-thirty-two years old, blond, slim, single, and a mother of three. Minor characters making an appearance are Ströhler, a waiter, Schälicke, a second lieutenant with the East German People’s Police, and Siegfried Böttger, the director of a state-owned enterprise, People’s Own So-and-So. The events took place one night last year.
Things start off with minor character Ströhler. Shortly after midnight, having just gotten off work at The Bear Tavern, tired, of course, and slightly inebriated, he enters house no. 263 on Linienstrasse, where he lives in the rear, fourth floor, middle apartment, and leaves it five minutes later to go to the phone booth at Oranienburger Tor. But the phone is out of order, so he rushes back to The Bear Tavern with his slightly mincing step and calls the police from there, asking the officer on duty to immediately dispatch a squad car to Linienstrasse, where in the rear tenement, fourth floor, left-hand apartment, a person, to be more precise: a man, is beating his fists on the door, vociferously claiming that he’s been deprived of his liberty and urgently calling for the authorities. No, no one is drunk, not he, although he did drink a little, as the job all but demands, after all, he’s a waiter; and not the deprived guy either, who, if you talk reasonably with him, will give you a reasonable answer, incidentally with a Saxon dialect, if you’re allowed to point out things like that. No, the outside door isn’t locked and, by the way, he, Ströhler, would be willing to go down and wait for the patrol car in front of the door as soon as he gets off the phone so as to save them the hassle of trying to find the house; because what he referred to as the rear tenement is actually the right wing, the entrance to which is easy to overlook, the gateway to the rear courtyard being more visible since it is larger than the actual entrance, huge, in fact. It was made for vehicles but is no longer serviceable, just like the gateway out front, because both courtyards have swampy cellars underneath them and are prone to collapse, which is why two generations of tenants have had to pay an extra fee to the coalmen, because of the long haul. Yes, he’s well aware who lives there: the woman next door, fourth floor, left-hand side. His is the middle apartment so he knows her quite well, the way people know a neighbor without being friends. Her name is Paschke, actually a Fräulein, but one with three kids, two, four and six years old, that she was never able to find nursery-school and day-care places for all at once, which is the reason she works nights, as a receptionist in a small hotel on Friedrichstrasse, from ten in the evening till six in the morning, poor thing, a decent girl by the way, if you don’t count her changing partners. If he, Ströhler, isn’t mistaken, the guy beating on the door must be one of them, because he’s heard that voice a lot the last couple of months, from the stairwell, not through the walls, which are thick and virtually soundproof, the only good point about this place, but really the only one. No, he doesn’t know the man’s name.
Without wasting any time, Ströhler downs another schnapps and, bolstered by the encouraging words of his colleagues, sets out on his way to Linienstrasse 263, a building which, without his knowing it, was erected exactly one hundred years ago with the money of a man whose grandchildren now live in Hamburg and have their property administered communally. All that Ströhler knows is that the building was last renovated in 1930, and that the administrative authorities have no intention of repeating the procedure. It’s been slated for the wrecking ball since 1950, each time with a fixed date: 1960, 1963, 1968, 1972. The year of promise has now been set for the year after next, though only new tenants with little experience would pin their hopes on it.
By the time Ströhler reaches the scene, the second minor character has climbed out of his vehicle: the heavyset second lieutenant, who doesn’t introduce himself by name, though Ströhler does, whereupon he is obliged to report one more time what the reader already knows. As they cross the dark courtyard and ascend the staircase-the waiter hopped-up and frisky, the policeman calm and measured-there are still questions to be answered, first of all regarding the children, which Ströhler hasn’t thought about, though something occurs to him almost immediately, namely, a remark once made by their mother: they may have inherited all sorts of things from their fathers, but their talent for incredibly deep sleep they surely got from her.
At the next question Ströhler stops in his tracks so as to invest his vehement negation with a supporting gesture: Heavens, no! Definitely not, not by a long shot, that’s not what he meant by changing partners; if his memory serves him correctly he even referred to her as a decent person, as a pitiable one too, whose boyfriends always run off after a few months or years, possibly-you can never know for sure-because of the apartment, since no one can put up with squalor like that for very long.
The waiter’s torrents of speech elicit little more than a grunt from the second lieutenant, who doesn’t venture an opinion or display even the slightest emotion, not even when he reaches Paschke’s door, where the drumming of fists and cries of help resound from within, behind a door to one of the rooms. He waits patiently until the drummer pauses, then bends down, opens the letter slot, and shouts into the dark hallway of the apartment that the police are there and demand an explanation.
It’s hard to communicate. With two doors between them they have to speak loudly and slowly for things to be intelligible, which the man locked in only manages to do after multiple requests. In the end, the facts of the case are pieced together as follows: the man is being held captive with malice aforethought by Frau Paschke; he demands to be liberated forthwith, if necessary by forcibly entering the apartment.
The second lieutenant silently takes note of this, asks Ströhler, who is so excited he can barely stand still, about the woman’s workplace, tells the captive to calm down and be patient, bids Ströhler good night, and leaves the building.
Meanwhile Anita Paschke is dutifully doing her job, four-fifths of which consists of the deep sleep mentioned already. When problems arise, only an extremely loud bell will wake her. The owner of the boardinghouse, Herr Eisenpeter (who won’t be making an appearance here, since he gets his night’s sleep from 10:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.), had to have one specially installed for her so that guests arriving after midnight are spared from having to spend the night, perhaps not on the street, but in the stairwell, for Herr Eisenpeter’s little hotel with the big name “Stadt Frankfurt” occupies only the second floor of a building otherwise serving as an apartment house.
Till about midnight Anita keeps herself awake with the joys of TV and her knitting. She then sets an alarm clock if one of the guests wishes to be woken before she gets off work, makes sure the night owls’ room keys are near at hand, wraps herself up in a blanket, curls up into a ball on one of the giant lounge chairs, and falls asleep on the spot. That is, if, as on this night, she isn’t kept awake for five to ten minutes by her worries-not about the man locked in her apartment, but stemming from him nonetheless. She thinks about rats, sanitary facilities, and municipal authorities.
This all goes through her head higgledy-piggledly, but in the end a kind of plan for the next few days takes shape, which involves trying to bury her despair in a flurry of activity. She’ll make a round of visits to the authorities together with her children, will shed copious tears and give vent to her despair, she’ll rant and rave, talk behind people’s backs, tell a few of her many rat stories, talk about the cold, the heat, the damp, grime and stench, bring up children’s illnesses one by one, use the technical jargon of civil engineers, plumbers and electricians, and by doing so will hopefully once again get hold of a bundle of official documents certifying, according to the polyclinic, the hygiene department, the social welfare office and the youth welfare office, that her living conditions are unconscionable. Accompanied once again by her triad of obstreperous children, she’ll then take the bundle to the housing office, where sullen employees will add it to her already sizable file. If the obese lady happens to be working that day, she’ll be given short shrift with the remark that she can’t give away apartments she doesn’t have; if, however, the old woman is there, the latter will lament even better than Anita: about the many, many families who are much, much worse off than her, that have to get by with six people to a room and not, like her, with four people in two rooms, whose W.C. is not, as in her case, located in the stairwell, but in the courtyard, and whose water pipes don’t freeze up, like on Linienstrasse 263, whenever it dips below freezing, because they don’t work at all, and are irreparable. The old woman will be so good at it that Anita will suffer pangs of conscience on account of her selfishness (after all, she even complained about not having a bathtub or shower!) and will be overcome by a sense of pity: with the poor people who are so much worse off than her, as well as with the old woman, who suffers from the misery she’s not able to alleviate. She’ll humbly and remorsefully withdraw, and only when she’s on the street will she think of the many, many families that are much better off than her, and will once again find just the right words, belatedly, to attack the injustice of the fact that somebody who’s lived in a hellhole like that since time immemorial will never get out of it, that is to say, unless the house is torn down or its occupant has connections, to one of the places that distributes the newly-built apartments to people who can’t be expected to stand in line at the housing office.
The word “connections” brings Frau Paschke right back to where she started-the man beating on the door-but to make things easier on herself, she doesn’t waste another thought on him. She takes refuge in sleep, which only briefly affords her the protection she seeks, for the noise of a ringing bell disrupts it.
What Second Lieutenant Schälicke failed to do in the presence of Ströhler he doesn’t hesitate to do in this case: he introduces himself, gives his name and rank, and briefly points out what has brought him to the Stadt Frankfurt. Though he didn’t necessarily expect her to react in panic, he’s surprised all the same to find her amused. His comrades are waiting down in the squad car, he’s in a hurry, would prefer to settle the affair right at the door, yet follows the woman despite himself into the lobby (which is actually just an elongated corridor), plops his heavy frame into a lounge chair after being cordially invited to do so, smokes, even takes his hat off, and instead of showering her with reproaches and commands, is astonished to find himself asking sympathetic questions, after first having to answer three himself: Are the children sleeping? Is he still furious? What time is it?
Of course, his astonishment at himself, however great, is less than at the woman before him, who not only unwraps charms both dainty and stately out of her blanket, and combs her long hair before his very eyes while talking, but, most of all, utterly fails to treat him like a civil servant, disarms him with her disregard for authority, takes him into her confidence, and makes him her accomplice.
The man who is crying out in vain for his liberty in her bedroom/living room combo and is beating on wood with his giant white paws-an obvious sign he’s a bigwig-this guy, so he learns, is one Siegfried Böttger, known to friends and females as Sigi, director of People’s Own So-and-So. She had the pleasure of meeting him four months ago, in this very hotel, where he landed by chance when he was forced to vacate his apartment in Leipzig complete with wife and two kids (because of a new management position) without the new apartment in Berlin, his luxury flat on Leipziger Strasse, being ready to move into-all of which made him ready for a nervous breakdown. The separation and change of work affected him deeply, he needed comforting, and whenever somebody needs that, nothing can stop her, not even her bad experiences, and she’s certainly had her fair share of those. He treated her well, the children, too, and she eventually fell in love with him, which was always the case when she had something going with somebody, alas, far too often. Granted, she didn’t fall in love with him right from the start. Because he didn’t find the crappy house she lives in crappy; he thought it was delightful, and meant it quite seriously, however crazy that may sound. “It’s just like back home!” he exclaimed, jubilantly, in a Saxon dialect that, with all her affection, was almost more than she could bear. She nearly sent him back to the hotel. It took three weeks for him to grasp that his enthusiasm for rusty sinks, cracked plaster, water stains, and clogged drains was more than annoying. And it wasn’t her that changed his mind, but the rat that sat in the toilet bowl one Sunday morning and thoroughly spoiled his appetite.
Anita relates her story with details that, frankly, would be asking too much of the reader. It is sufficient to say that he opens the lid, still in his pajamas, and is about to sit down when the rodent, soaking wet and smeared with excrement, sits there staring at him, leaps back into the sewage and paddles around with its snout above the water, till he flushes and the rat disappears, then reappears and climbs back onto the platform–and that he won’t be able to flush again for another three to four minutes because the tank has to fill back up with water first. Bash it with a poker? Who could do that? Besides, the toilet bowl is made of porcelain.
Anita has plenty of rat stories up her sleeve. She usually manages to restrain herself, but there are moments when she has to tell them so as not to go crazy, out of sheer disgust, out of fear. She was bitten by one as a child, and in the evening once stepped on one in the courtyard. She woke up one morning to find one dead in her shoe, and at the start of winter discovered a nest in the stove. She’s used to people screaming “Stop!” when she starts up with her stories. She’s never encountered a man like the second lieutenant before. His composure is remarkable. He suggests using a pair of coal tongs to tackle the sewer rat: grab hold of it and drown it. He knows what it’s like because his living conditions are similar, though not for long.
“Moving to a new building?” Frau Paschke asks with a keenness in her voice. You have to work for the police or for an employer with a cooperative housing society, that’s it. But how do you expect her to do that with the kids? And where is she supposed to get the thousands of marks to pay for it? She’s spent thirty-two years on Linienstrasse, in other words, her whole life, has always suffered from it, and has had only one goal in life: to get out of there. In fact, everything she’s done, thought and even felt in her life has always been with this one goal in mind. Even love, scoff if you will. That is, if you can afford to.
A woman with intellectual interests will take even the ugliest man as long as he has a head on his shoulders, and a woman who wants to shine and dazzle will fall in love with manly beauty and elegance. She, on the other hand, falls for the guy who, like her Comrade Director on the morning of the rat incident, cries out to her, “You’ve got to get out of here!” and who has the power to set things in motion. Because he has connections, and it is a well-known fact that, under socialism, connections are more important than money when you want something big like an apartment or a car, whose distribution is strictly organized-apart from the exceptions, which only serve to prove the rule, and you have to belong to the exceptions in some way or another if you want to escape from a misery incurred through no fault of your own.
Although the second lieutenant can’t really answer for statements like that, especially on duty, he gives a grunt of approval. After all, he himself is one of those who were born into the slums and who, with all the newcomers settling into the new apartment blocks nowadays, feel like the indigenous people of a conquered land who’ve been banished to the back of beyond. Those who serve the powers that be that build the luxury apartments-so he normally likes to say-will eventually get one themselves. But he has the feeling that to say that would be inappropriate here, so without becoming too official about it he hems and haws his way back to the reason for his having made Frau Paschke’s acquaintance in the first place, asking, with a minimum of words, what the motivation was behind her actions, which have the makings, as it were, of a criminal offense.
The amusement Anita shows once more is the kind that can easily turn into tear-stained despair. The words criminal offense, she says, make her consider actually committing one, so she can present her case to a judge. Instead of landing in prison she might end up in a bright apartment with winterized plumbing (not to mention a bathroom), like that woman from Kleine Auguststrasse who stood on Alexanderplatz and protested against the housing office with a homemade banner, albeit not for long, since the police soon got involved and in the end things turned out for the best. Like she said, it was a new idea, freshly hatched, a snap decision really. It was pure action. She needs that kind of thing when she’s at the end of her tether. She refuses to play a role that’s imposed on her. She was the loser; she doesn’t need to act like one on top if it.
Her intentions may not have been all that earnest when she locked the door to the room. But then, shaking the door handle, he shouted, “Stop fooling around, Anita!” whereupon she removed the key and left-because of his tone of voice, which had made her livid with rage for four hours on end; that lecturing tone of voice where no matter what he says there’s always this overtone of “I know better than you!,” that dominating tone of voice that always contains an “I’m always right!,” that director’s tone of voice where a simple “So long, I’ve had enough of you!” sounds like: I’ve had a heck of a lot of patience with you, my dear, but since you won’t change despite your good intentions, which I assume you have, I’m afraid we’ll have to part company, I only hope you don’t try to cause me any problems.
What kind of problems could I possibly cause him?
The second lieutenant, who is starting to become a little uneasy after all, because of the squad car waiting for him outside, tries to hasten her story along by asking questions: “You locked him in, in other words, to punish him for his unfaithfulness?” Yet Anita insists that she acted on the spur of the moment. Only afterward did she give any thought to it. And what does he mean by unfaithfulness? The point was, he didn’t keep his promise. There was never any talk of marriage, not even in bed, the one place he would have been most likely to talk about it, since it didn’t take her long (she has enough experience, but it’s not just experience that counts) to find out what he liked.
It’s not just a matter of experience, she repeats, giving the second lieutenant a bemused look. It’s more of a talent, one that you’re born with, not something you can learn. What she’ll never learn is to lose her illusions. Not that she was hoping to marry him. No, it was the apartment she believed in, for three whole months, the one he was supposed to arrange for her. He talked about it every single evening; the effect it had on her was like alcohol. So steadfast was her trust in him that she sometimes even felt sentimental when he left. She already had an inkling of how nice it must be to be able to afford feeling emotional when, after ten years of living in a clean and sunny apartment, she would set eyes again on a hole like the one she’s in now.
And it all ended so abruptly. He spent four hours explaining to her that she didn’t love him the way she should. There was no talk of her apartment anymore, just his, in passing. The new one, five rooms in a high-rise. It’s ready for occupancy. The day that just began is moving day. At five in the morning he has to be in Leipzig to help his wife. He ordered a car for 11 p.m. “What time is it now, Herr Schälicke?”
“That’ll do. These are the keys to the apartment, this one’s for the room. But there’s no rush. By the way, I have a key to the apartment myself. Maybe you could drop off the other one when you get a chance? Say, tomorrow evening? Around seven or eight? Just be sure you make plenty of noise when you go through the first gateway, to warn the rats. They’re in the trash bins at that time of day. It makes an awful noise when they scramble across the metal lids. They’ve been poisoning them, twice a year, for as long as I can remember, but they never seem to go away. Know what I mean?”
The second lieutenant departs. Just the Little Man out for revenge, he explains in the squad car, trying to lend his voice a disparaging tone, which he doesn’t pull off very well. Only after they’ve pacified some rowdy drunks on Brunnenstrasse and delivered a pregnant woman to the hospital do they find time to free the director, who threatens to lodge a complaint against them. He’s not the least bit interested in filing a lawsuit against Frau Paschke, as the second lieutenant suggests.
Schälicke checks on the sleeping children. When he closes the apartment door, Ströhler appears in his pajamas and offers to take care of the key. But the second lieutenant makes a reference to regulations, and tucks the key back into his pocket.
Translated from “Freiheitsberaubung,” in Günter de Bruyn, Babylon (Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, 1992). Copyright © 1992 by S. Fischer Verlag. Translation copyright © 2006 by David Burnett. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.