Wo gehen wir denn hin? Immer nach Hause.
Where are we going? Always homeward.
here is a German word, a feminine noun, that
denotes like no other the welcoming warmth and sheltering intimacy of an
origin to which one can return: “Heimat.” Strangely, it has no
English equivalent. “Home” comes close — its German cognate, “Heim,”
actually forms the root of “Heimat” — but it is too narrow, it usually
means an apartment. The “land” in “homeland” makes the image more ample,
but too geographic. What the German word means is, simply, the place
where one feels at home, and that home need not have political or even
physical boundaries. When Elias Canetti, a Sephardic Jew who was born in
Bulgaria, studied in Zurich, lived in London, and wrote in German, was
asked what he considered his Heimat, his reply was: the German
I was born in New York City in 1940.
When I was a year old, my American mother left my American father and
went with me to Mexico. There she married a German expatriate who
became, in every sense of the word but the biological, my father. We
stayed in Mexico for seven years. In the course of that time, I learned
to speak Spanish better than my parents, better than I spoke English. I
played with Mexican children in Mexican schools. A Mexican maid, Zita,
loved and scolded me like a second mother. I thought of myself as
Mexican. Nevertheless, I knew I was a foreigner. No one deliberately
made me feel that, but I sensed it nonetheless. I wanted to be like the
others. I wanted to sing those proud Mexican songs as if they were about
me: “Soy Mexicano del Norte!” It seemed to me that talking like a
native should be enough to make you the same, but it wasn’t. I asked —
insisted — on having my hair shorn to make me resemble Mexican street
children. It didn’t work: the bald head made me a pelón.
Why didn’t they call bald Mexican children pelónes?
Because a bald Mexican child is Mexican, but a bald gringo is
ridiculous. I put on a big sombrero. That covered up the baldness, but
it didn’t make me Mexican.
When I was eight, my parents took me and my
two-year-old brother to the part of Germany that a year later became the
“Deutsche Demokratische Republik,” DDR for
short. The German kids didn’t call me a gringo. They called me an Ami.
How to become German? Obviously, I had to learn the language, but would
that be enough — since it hadn’t been in Mexico? It was enough. Zum
another German word without an exact English equal. Sometimes it means
“luck,” sometimes “happiness,” but there is a third meaning that
combines the first two — outer good fortune, inner felicity — and for
this plenary good we have no single word. Of course there may not exist
in reality such a thing as “Glück”
in the hermetic sense suggested by that fluting
ü embowered among
consonants; but it exists in the mind — vaguely where the world utters
itself in English, and rather tangibly in German, where that old word,
Glück, stands waiting like a
cage for the soul that would lose itself in it and sing. Beautiful poems
have been made of this word, sublime music from the painful joy it
But I was speaking of “Heimat,” which could
be defined as the province of “Glück”
— its source in memory, its goal in longing — and my happy
discovery, as a newly arrived immigrant, that in Germany, unlike Mexico,
I could be released from the exile of foreignness simply by learning the
It really was simple. A tutor apprenticed me in the
first fundamentals of syntax and vocabulary, and two or three boys in my
village grade school offered themselves as guides to the subtler
refinements of pronunciation. But the real teacher was the fluid,
breathing, intelligent life of language itself, and the student so
swiftly taking increasingly difficult degrees of initiation, all the way
up to the heights of poetry, all the way in to the arcane wit of
dialect, was not the boy trying to memorize his conjugation tables but a
miraculously responsive nervous system alerted by day and by night to
the challenge of optimal adaptation: How to fit in, how to be the same
as the others, not myself the other, no longer different.
The State, of whose existence I could have no
notion yet, had interests remarkably consonant with mine. Through my
school, I was offered a virtual certificate of sameness, a blue
neckerchief, identical in cut and color with dozens of other blue
neckerchiefs worn by children in the village. That was the insigne of
the Young Pioneers. Learning to tie the knot was an initiation in
itself. And with the honor of membership came a set of statutes that
called us — Us! No more lonely I: Us! — to high moral duty: Young
Pioneers are examples (of maturity, comportment, studiousness,
etc.) to other children; Young Pioneers are hilfsbereit, ready to
help where help is needed. Not should be, but are. Virtue
conferred by the sacred act of induction (a vow? Probably, I don’t
remember), and repossessed any time you desired by the magical act of
knotting your blue neckerchief in front of a mirror.
It is no different with collective identity than
with the personal ego: sooner or later you meet with the other, the “We”
that is not your own. There were children in the village — the majority,
in those early years — who did not join the Young Pioneers. I don’t
remember any outright animosity, but a difference was noticeable,
particularly in the matter of virtue. Young Pioneers don’t crack jokes
behind the teacher’s back. Young Pioneers don’t paint obscene symbols on
walls. Young Pioneers don’t shoot stones with a slingshot. Young
Pioneers don’t have a whole lot of fun. I realized that after a while.
Those were the infant days of the cold war, when
the borders were open and lightly patrolled. The solution was simple:
Blur the boundary, have it both ways. Lend those tough kids from across
the lake your Pionierhalstuch for a face mask in a game of cops
and robbers; then wear it to school, feel the thrill of virtue as you
salute the rising flag, thumb-tip to forehead, while the national anthem
swells your chest beneath the neckerchief’s long, slightly smudged, blue
ears. How good to be part of a “We,” any “We,” how painful to be
excluded from it. Let “We” span the village, the country, the world!
Sometimes, listening to Mozart or Bach, or at Christmas, the idea of
limitless, haptic communion with all living beings seemed not just
possible but imminent, almost real. I remember coming out of a
performance of “The Marriage of Figaro” in Berlin and sustaining the
fantasy, for a half hour or so, that if people — all people — really
sang their emotions like those characters on the stage, the result would
be an enormous chorus in which even the cruelest conflicts would be
resolved in harmony.
Once again the State saw eye to eye with my desire.
It, too, had a vision of global communion, and this wasn’t a dream, but
a scientific prediction — so scientific it couldn’t be doubted. Some
time in the not too distant future there would be a world without
strangers, all mankind working together — yes, working, not playing — in
peace and amity, united at last under the banner of communism. Until
then, though, the world would be sternly divided, not by custom, as
Schiller put it in his Ode to Joy, but by grim necessity. All the
socialist countries with their wise, humane leaders were threatened
without and within. Invisible enemies lived in our midst, Nazis,
imperialists, saboteurs and wreckers, spies, bearers of false tales,
hired by the West and intent on destroying the hope of humanity, while
outside our borders stood armies with rockets and atom bombs poised
against us. Only the utmost vigilance could preserve the peace.
Fortunately our soldiers and politicians took care of this tough job,
leaving us children to the manageable task of being responsibly
cheerful, decoratively young — a political function, if the newsreels
were any indication — and eventually growing into self-sacrificing
defenders of the cause.
With the passage from grade school to high school
came another graduation: From the Young Pioneers to their adolescent
counterpart, the Free German Youth. I am holding in my hand a document
of my condition at that time, more telling than any memory. It is my
Personalausweis, the identity book every East German citizen was
obliged to carry on his person at all times. The first thing that
strikes the eye as one opens the small, dark blue book is a personal
message from the State to the bearer:
Citizen of the German Democratic Republic:
this passport is your most important document.
There follows a four-point list of instructions
concerning its use or misuse. On the inside of the first page, in the
upper left corner, is a photograph of my face taken in quarter profile a
month after my fifteenth birthday. The two circular metal staples
employed to clamp the picture to the page also punched round holes
through the paper, like oversized bullets or small cannon balls, one
through my right collar-bone and another one grazing my forehead. The
upper rim of the seal of the Potsdam District Police raises the letters
CHE VOLKS from my left shoulder, and another seal,
or possibly the lower rim of the same, marks the back of my head with
the characters 1S3, also in high relief. A
rectangular stamp, violet, sidles up to the edge of my face to declare
me “Valid for 10 years.” My lips, near the sharp lower corner of the
stamp, are set in a manner that an American friend generously interprets
as “defiant”: Actually I was pushing forward my lower jaw to counteract
the effect of what I considered a weak chin. Defiance can be justly
attributed only to a tuft of hair over my right ear that refused to be
flattened down with water. The eyes are set on nothing at all, unless
it’s the opposite page, where my “surname at birth” is neatly spelled
out in black ink: Uhse. Not true. Besides, my stepfather, Bodo
Uhse, had never formally adopted me. And my nationality: Deutsch
— also not true. By the letter of the law, I should have been registered
as a foreigner and given a corresponding document, but my parents asked
a highly placed friend to make a semi-legal arrangement on my behalf —
to spare me the pain of exclusion, to help me to feel at home.
Stamped on all sides with false legitimations, this
face looks sad, guilty, obedient, and absent, a juvenile Adam expelled
from the garden. How did it happen? He never even noticed the snake. And
no Eve in sight. What was that taste in his mouth? A word, “we.” All the
new songs had that word in them, none of them had the word “I.” He sang
them for the love of singing, for the sake of belonging: “Weil wir
jung sind, ist die Welt so schön!”
Imagine singing a song like that, thirty or forty voices strong:
“Because we are young, the world is so beautiful!” Because. We. He was
Five years later, my parents divorced, and my
mother obtained for me through the American embassy in West Berlin and
with the help of an American lawyer a passport that identified me
correctly by my true patronymic and my rightful nationality. This was a
very nice ticket to have, it promised swift passage from a messy pattern
of officially recorded failure in one Heimat to a perfectly clean slate
in another. Amazing privilege! This is what certain gangsters receive in
exchange for their testimony against the mob: a little plastic surgery,
a wrecked existence swapped for a fictive whole one, a move to some
palm-fronded spot where no one knows you, in short, a new destiny and a
new self. If only things were that simple.
Somewhere in the archives of the Stasi, the
infamous East German secret police, there must still exist a record of
the arrest and interrogation of a young man, sometime in the spring of ‘63,
who presented himself to the border authorities at Checkpoint Charlie
with two documents of identity, one made out in Potsdam to Joel Uhse,
the other in New York to Joel Agee. The suspect’s bizarre explanation,
first to the guards at Checkpoint Charlie, then, after a grim silent car
ride through darkening streets, to professional interrogators at Stasi
headquarters — that he was not and had never been a citizen of the
DDR, though his Personalausweis identified
him as such; that the Personalausweis was in fact a fraudulent
document produced for his convenience and comfort by the
DDR government; that he was and had always been an American
citizen and had left the DDR with its government’s
blessings; that he was a film maker on his way from New York to the
Leipzig film festival; that his motive in showing the border authorities
his spurious Personalausweis was simply fear of their finding it
on him if he didn’t show it; that his purpose in bringing it at
all was to identify himself to DEFA, the East
German film company, as the stepson of the recently deceased winner of
the national prize for literature, Bodo Uhse, so that they would equip
and finance a film he, the suspect, intended to make about carnival
season in the Cuban province of Oriente — all these avowals and sincere
protestations only served to heighten his captors’ suspicion.
“What agency do you work for?”
“I’m not a spy. If you call Alexander Abusch, the
former Minister of Culture, he’ll vouch for me, he’s known me since I
was a child.”
“Who sent you?”
“No one sent me. Why don’t you call Alexander
“Because we’re not stupid.”
“Why would a spy show up at your border with two
“That’s what we’re trying to find out.”
Two men took turns stirring this thick little
dialogue until there was neither spice nor substance left in it. They
stared at me with the desperation of boredom and perhaps the first
glimmers of hatred. As for me, I was full of good will toward them. I
wasn’t worried. We were all socialists here, sharers in a common truth.
To pass the time, I observed them for future reference in my journal.
There wasn’t much to record. They smoked a lot. They wore gray suits.
One of them was bald, the other wore two-toned shoes. Above them hung a
picture of Walter Ulbricht with an omniscient smile. By the window stood
a shelf bearing law books and volumes of Marx, Engels, and Lenin.
“Who are you?”
That question took me aback.
“You can’t be both these people.”
“I’m not. I’m one person. And these are, I mean . .
. they’re passports. One person, two passports.”
I thought I was being helpful. They didn’t think
so. They looked angry. I pulled myself together, resolved to cooperate
in every way.
I remember dreams from that period, nightmares in
which I shuttled from one country and language to another, often in a
train patrolled by suspicious soldiers. These dreams always ended in my
being asked for my papers and not finding them or inadvertently showing
the wrong one that made me guilty. Many years later I learned that this
is the prototypical dream of exiles, immigrants, and prisoners, and not
just prisoners but also released or escaped convicts. The dreamer’s
position, inside or outside the barrier, seems to make little difference
to the psyche as long as the barrier is there. The psyche wants
wholeness, not in- or outsideness, and that’s why her notions of freedom
are different from those of the ego. More particularly, though, my dream
was the prototypical East German dream. Here is one example: An old
school friend in East Berlin told me in the late Seventies that he had a
recurring nightmare in which he found himself strolling on
Kurfürstendamm, gazing at shop windows and pretty girls, and suddenly
realizing that he had to get back to the other side of the Wall within
minutes, or else be found guilty of treason. He runs to the East, but
there is the Wall, solid and gateless, the guards in their turrets have
already spotted him, the minutes are advancing, he is trapped in the
free world when the law, the law of the soul, of the whole dream, says:
Get back to the place of your bondage or be exiled forever.
A couple of hours later, my stomach began to
grumble, and the bald man introduced a startling new theme.
“Are you hungry?”
“Do you like blood sausage?”
“I’ve never tried it.”
The bald man opened a sandwich tin and handed me
half of his sandwich. I took a bite.
“Not here,” the man with the two-toned shoes said
sternly. “Out the door, turn left, sit down on the bench at the end of
the corridor. Wait there till we call you.”
Viewed from the bench where I sat with my sandwich,
the corridor proclaimed all the laws of rectilinear perspective: Two
rows of receding and converging doors right and left, one row of
receding and converging bright neon tubes on the ceiling. Viewed from
the brightly lit hallway, on the other hand, my chewing self on the
bench was shrouded in darkness, for the two ceiling lights nearest me
didn’t work. This position afforded me the unique point of view of an
unseen observer at Stasi headquarters.
I cite from my notes of the following day:
“Telephones ringing, muffled voices, silence. A
door opens, I stop chewing. A man in a green suit steps out, says
something over his shoulder, closes the door, takes a few steps in my
direction, stops, shakes his head, looks around surreptitiously, takes a
notebook out of his breast pocket, scribbles something in it, puts the
pen and notebook back in his breast pocket, walks on, stops in front of
a room just ten meters away from me, puts his ear to the door,
“The man in the green suit steps in, closes the
door behind him.
“More ringing telephones, mumbling voices, silence.
Echoing shouts and the tramping of feet in the stairwell at the far end
of the corridor. Four soldiers appear, hustling along a young man whose
hands are cuffed behind his back. They shove him into the last room on
my right, lock the door, and go back downstairs, laughing.
“Quiet. Telephones, mumbling voices. A familiar
door opens. It is the man in the green suit. He walks down the corridor
with a jaunty stride, jangling a bunch of keys in his hand, opens the
room where the prisoner is, closes the door behind him. A moment later,
a short, piercing scream. The door opens, the man in the green suit
reappears. He locks the door, puts the keys in his pocket, walks back in
my direction, adjusts the fit of his jacket with an athlete’s rolling
shrug, scrolls the fingers of his right hand in the air, and returns to
the office from which he emerged.”
And now it is time to introduce another German
“Key experience” is the best possible translation. It sounds dryly
analytical, but in German, the compounding of the two words charges them
with the potency of a seed, or a bomb. The idle heiress robbed of her
purse, begging for carfare, and spurned by the hard-working poor; the
devout Christian learning that some venerable relic was manufactured in
Taiwan; the young child who sees his parents in a grunting, moaning heap
on their bed — each of these has had a Schlüsselerlebnis.
(I hear my soul-critic’s voice protesting, the
familiar voice of a contentious reader who knows German as well as I do:
“A scream in the secret police headquarters — if
this is a Schlüsselerlebnis, so is my ingrown toenail. It may be
unpleasant, but surely not out of the ordinary.”
You don’t know what faith is, my quarrelsome
friend. Faith and loyalty.
“To what? To whom?”
To the man in whose name I had lived for twelve
years of my life, and whose grave I had come to visit, my stepfather,
Bodo, who wanted his children to be among those who inherit the kingdom
of heaven on earth.
“You didn’t tell that to the border guards.”
It was none of their business. That was between me
and Bodo. As I said, I was loyal to him.
“To him and his folly.”
His folly, yes. His foolish, generous faith in the
perfectibility of man by political arrangement. And that was why I was
shocked by the sound of a scream in an East German secret police
I must have sat there for another half hour. I was
scared. I had come home through the cellar door and discovered a
foul-smelling basement I never knew existed. There were rats in there,
snakes. But no animal behaves like this. What should I call them:
fascists? Fascists don’t read Marx and Lenin. Whatever they were, I no
longer felt safe in their company.
At last the man with the two-toned shoes came out
to conduct me to my next interrogator, a stocky young man with blond
hair and an ironic, not unfriendly expression in his eyes. He asked me
to sit down on a chair facing his desk. The man with the two-toned shoes
handed him my passports and several typewritten sheets of paper and left
the room. The blond man quickly perused the report, compared my face
with the two passport pictures, reread the report, shook his head with a
snort of derision — was it at me or his colleagues? — and raised his
“Herr Uhse, Mr. Agee — which should I call you?”
“Pleased to meet you. Geiring.”
We shook hands across his desk.
“You want to make a film?”
“Yes. In Cuba.”
“You want help from DEFA?”
“Yes, I need it.”
“You think they will be interested?”
“I hope so.”
“Let’s say we help you. What would you give us in
“A good film.”
“That’s not enough.”
“A good socialist film.”
“Films are expensive. This isn’t Hollywood, we’re
talking about a state budget. Money is needed to mend roads, build
factories, train teachers. Socialism is not a carnival.”
“If you did something of genuine, material value
for us, we might support your Cuban project. In fact, I can guarantee
“What are you thinking of?”
“A show of loyalty. We would ask you to live in
West Germany for, say, a few months. You would make contact with certain
people there — young, progressive people like yourself — and supply us
with regular reports about their activities. We would pay you, naturally
— quite well, I might add. You would have a nice apartment.”
“That’s very interesting,” I said. “It’s a generous
offer. I will think about it. But right now. . . I can’t make such a big
decision just like that.”
“I understand,” he said.
“I need time to think, and I’m tired. I need some
“May I go now?”
“I’ll take you to a hotel.”
“I already have a hotel.”
He smiled: “No good. We’re not finished yet.”
“An answer to my proposal, for one. Yes or no? It
doesn’t have to be now. You can sleep on it.”
“I’ll find you a room.”
He was overestimating his power. Not even a Stasi
officer could procure a vacant hotel room in East Berlin, not after
midnight and not on the spur of the moment. After five or six tries,
Geiring gave up and drove me to the home of an aunt in the country — a
picture-book house behind a white lattice fence where a picture-book
proletarian couple greeted me with smiles and bows as if a prince had
come to honor their dwelling:
“From so far away — America! Can we offer you
anything? I’m afraid we don’t have much . . .”
“No, thank you, I just need some sleep.”
They guided me upstairs. Geiring waved an ironic
bye-bye from below. The guest room: A fat feather blanket on a short
bed, flying geese on the wall, lacy curtains, dried flowers in a bowl on
the night table.
“If you need anything, just knock.”
“Thank you very much.”
A key turned in the lock.
The first thing I heard after falling asleep was
the sound of that key turning in the door again, and a knock. It was
Geiring: “Lunch is ready.” A light rain was tapping on the tin
windowsill. I felt angry, and the thought of my meekness the previous
day made me madder. Yes, meekness, not patience — subservient, cowardly
meekness. A real DDR-Untertan I’d been.1
Today I would thump the table. Today I would demand my American
passport back, yes indeed, and tell them where to deposit the other one.
Geiring, his aunt, and her husband were awaiting me
at a festively set table: Roast duck, mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, three
kinds of vegetables, Soviet champagne.
“To a happy homecoming,” Geiring said, lifting his
glass. What was this? Flattery? Apology? Seduction? I sat down and
joined in the toast. The old couple beamed at me with obsequious malice.
The old man in particular sucked his champagne through fluted lips and
drank me in with his eyes. Evidently Geiring had told them a few things
about me. A familiar of Abusch, and a prisoner in their house! What a
day, what a day!
“May I ask you a personal question?” Geiring asked.
“You mean yesterday’s questions weren’t personal?”
“They were analytical. This one is personal.”
I gave him a nod for permission.
“You have lived here for twelve years,” he said,
“and three years in America. You were born there, but spent your
formative years here. Which do you consider your home?”
“There’s a saying,” I said, “‘Heimat is
where I am needed.’“
“That sounds right,” Geiring said.
“But for me,” I continued, “Heimat is where
I’m not made to feel like a stranger.”
He nodded thoughtfully.
“So which country is it?”
“Not here,” I said.
He didn’t ask any further, and no one else spoke
either. I watched him eating. He was severing the meat from his
drumstick with a fork and knife, never once touching the bone with his
fingers. His aunt started fidgeting with her napkin. The old man chewed
rapidly with cracking jaws. Outside, birds were singing.
Geiring’s aunt started clearing the table. I
offered to help. “No, no,” she protested, “stay seated, there’s more.”
“By the way,” Geiring said, putting his hand in his
breast pocket, “before I forget.” And he handed me my passports — both
If this was meant to disarm me, it worked. I took
my new-found Yankee defiance and put it in my breast pocket along with
Geiring’s aunt came back with dessert — plum
“May I ask you a personal question?” I asked
He looked at me sideways and waited.
“If you were to choose a different line of work,
which would it be?”
“Psychology,” he said.
“As a therapist?” Now I was being ironic.
“No,” he said, sincerely. “As an analyst.”
After lunch, Geiring offered to drive me to the
“Where do you want to be taken?”
“To the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof. My
stepfather’s buried there.”
When we reached the graveyard, he gave me a piece
of paper with his name and phone number.
“You have three days to respond to my offer.”
“And if I don’t?”
He smiled ambiguously.
We shook hands in a spirit of frank mutual
indifference. I thanked him for the ride.
I never saw him again.
A herd of glistening black umbrellas preceded me
through the gate to the cemetery. Beneath them, uniforms — a delegation
of railroad men come to take leave of a colleague. A gardener showed me
the way: “Bodo Uhse? To the left, near Kant and Fichte, ten steps before
There it was, a tall, narrow rectangle with his
name in tall, narrow capitals. I immediately felt a hot proprietary
wrath at whoever had designed the stone, because he, or she, or they,
more likely, had known him well but not well enough: these shapes did
signal something recognizably his, but it was an aspect of him I had
never accepted and wasn’t prepared to accept now, something rigid and
narrow that wasn’t alive but constricting, that throttled the life in
him when he still lived. The life, I say, but I don’t mean the raw vital
urge, I mean something rarer, a vaporous poetic soul-substance that
moved in slow, curving, tentative gestures, that veiled itself in
cigarette smoke and made his voice trail off to near-inaudibility.
(Why didn’t they use his signature? Because you
cannot even recognize it as such, let alone read his name in it, because
it looks like a polygraph or seismograph registering God knows what
secret disturbances, because the public needs clarity and information,
not riddles. But riddles can be deciphered, and if you read this scrawl
in the symbolic language of forms, you can see, first of all, how he
joined his given and his family name in a single burst of up- and
downward pulsations, as if to belie the cut he made between his family
and himself at the age of seventeen; how the first steep Gothic stab at
heaven is followed by an immediate dive back to earth; a modest
bourgeois elevation then, followed by another, notably shorter flight,
and another vertical descent; the line stops a little above the median,
as if to avoid touching earth so soon again, lifts itself feebly, sinks,
picks itself up, relaxes briefly, and soars up once more, but lower than
the second flight and less than half the height of the first; plunges
down far beneath the median, down, down with a will, as far down as the
line soared up in its first sweep, and forms a decisive, curiously
angular loop at the bottom, as if to anchor its transcendence there
since it cannot do so on top; flies upward again, a long, razor-straight
line, up, up, but coming as it does from far below, it rises only a
little beyond the median, violently drops again to the furthest bottom,
leaps up a last time, just barely reaching the middle plane, bends, and
expires in a soft downward curl with just the subtlest intimation of
another ascent before vanishing altogether. As a graphic sign, it is
elegant, beautifully balanced. How much more of his nervous, unhappy
spirit it carries than those eight solemn letters.)
In front of the stone stood a rusty tin can half
full of rainwater. I, too, just stood there getting wet, feeling the
sorrow of Bodo’s absence and thinking that this was something I had felt
even when he was near me during his lifetime. And then memories started
to rise up. I could see Bodo as I had seen him on this same path just
four years before, walking slowly next to me, one hand holding the other
behind his back, his face relaxed, almost smiling. He had come here
often, and now he had brought me with him, either with didactic purpose
or, more probably, to share with me his pleasure in silently communing
with the illustrious dead. But I had just wanted to get away, his
reverence irritated me, I would much rather read the poets and thinkers
than muse on their tombstones. And now, with a blunt ache I remembered a
moment when I was sitting alone in the back of our car, I was twelve or
thirteen, Bodo was sitting in the front next to Jochen, our driver. It
must have been on the tree-lined street that led in a
two-and-a-half-hour detour alongside the border from our village to
Berlin. The car had slowed down. It was drizzling, just as it was now in
front of his grave. We were passing a crew of workers repairing a road.
They had put down their tools and were on their way to a nearby
barracks, maybe to get out of the rain. One of them was a boy a year or
two older than I was, he was walking side by side with a man who had
laid an arm around the boy’s back and a hand on his shoulder. The man
was old enough to be the boy’s father, but they looked like friends. It
went through my heart like a stab. As I said, my stepfather was absent
much of the time, not just from me but from himself. And now that
absence was stamped with the seal of eternity.
I walked on. When I came to Brecht’s grave, I
stopped. On the broad horizontal slab lay some fifty long-stemmed
carnations in a heap — a disproportionate amount, it seemed to me, for a
champion of the dispossessed. I took one of Brecht’s carnations, went
back to Bodo’s grave, and put the flower in his rusty tin can.
1 Untertan: “Subject,” “vassal,” “underling.”
But to catch the proper meaning, add to these English words a gesture of
inward and outward stooping expressive of voluntary and even grateful
A German critic described Bodo’s literary style as “alternately
cool and passionate, controlled and impetuous, simple-minded and
sophisticated, sensitive and brutal, dry and sensual. Every sort of
contradiction besets his work, polar tensions which, frequently, he can
neither overcome nor elucidate. But there is one thing one always senses
— the suffering of this man who [in his novel Leutnant Bertram]
wrote: ‘These days it is a curse to be German.’” Marcel Reich-Ranicki,
DEUTSCHE LITERATUR IN OST UND WEST, p. 445, Munich, 1963.
Joel Agee’s “The
Storm” appeared in Archipelago Vol. 4, No. 4.