p e r s o n a l   h i s t o r y  

j o e l  a g e e


Wo gehen wir denn hin? Immer nach Hause.

Where are we going? Always homeward.

— Novalis

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 language.


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 Glück!

“Glück” is 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 encloses.

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 language.

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 lost.

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 Abusch?”

“Because we’re not stupid.”

“Why would a spy show up at your border with two ID’s?”

“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, hesitates, knocks.


“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 word: “Schlüsselerlebnis.” “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 station.)

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 eyes.

“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.”

“In Carnival?”

“In Cuba.”

“Let’s say we help you. What would you give us in return?”

“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.”

“I know.”

“If you did something of genuine, material value for us, we might support your Cuban project. In fact, I can guarantee that.”

“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 sleep.”

“Of course.”

“May I go now?”

“I’ll take you to a hotel.”

“I already have a hotel.”


“On Kurfürstendamm.”

He smiled: “No good. We’re not finished yet.”

“What’s lacking?”

“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.

“Good night.”

“Good night.”

“If you need anything, just knock.”

“Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome.”

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 of them.

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 the passports.

Geiring’s aunt came back with dessert — plum pudding.

“May I ask you a personal question?” I asked Geiring.

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 city.

“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.

“Good bye.”

“Good bye.”

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 Brecht.”

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.) 2

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 subjection.

2 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.



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