CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
translated from the Slovenian by Aljaž Kovač and Forrest Gander
B—as in Bruno
Quietly, covertly, bears have toddled into the name Berlin. They took the Polabian-Slavic route through the root word brl, meaning swamp, but once the residents of Berlin levied the swampy banks of the river Spree, the bears walked right into the T-shirts and key pendants of tourists, they stuck their tongues out at the world from the city’s coat-of-arms and, after their winter sleep, they reared up into the caps of skaters and the balustrades of bridges. Instead of damp socks and riverine dwellings sloshed by swollen waters, people started to think of these shaggy ones when they uttered the word Berlin, even after the bears fled South. A few remained. In front of the entrance to some hotel, bank or public institution, you might still find a bear performing a handstand, dressed in a Russian folk costume or in the robes of a Malaysian Buddhist priest or as a soccer player or, worst of all, as a Bavarian in leather knickers. No matter that it’s made of plastic. A plastic Bär perfectly suits Berliners—just as long as it doesn’t collect dirt. Naturally, with live specimens things can get complicated. When visitors enter the Berlin zoological garden through the Elephant Gate, the roses—wafting their red fragrance towards the highest floors of the Intercontinental Hotel at the horizon and towards the Zoo Station subway rattling below the face of the Earth—lead them to a romantic sculpture of three white bear cubs at play. But this still life of a shaggy threesome loses its charm almost at once. I prefer the empty elephant cages where visitors rail in anger because they didn’t catch sight of what they paid to see. Gradually, I can even reconcile myself to the neurotic loafing of the Zoo-born rhinoceros, Ina, who nudges open the side door and slouches around in a melancholy circle. The chimpanzees quickly make me realize that the more sentient creatures are inside the cage. I’ve always experienced moments of equanimity during my travels, even when I was shabbier than the orangutan dozing in straw like a giant hank of hair covered with a piece of sackcloth. But I’m deeply saddened by the close-knit nets that, a few meters above the ground, clip the flight of birds and even more by the pathetic plod of polar bears in the sultry heat. So I concur with the bear that lowers itself to the rock’s edge now and, instead of meeting the crowd’s expectations by plunging into the tepid water separating the steep wall from the bear’s cave, just turns its bottom toward the cameras and takes a dump. With its sense of irony, this first bear has the upper paw on the other two. They shift neurotically from one foot to the other back and forth, back and forth, as though still restrained by the circus cage in which they were raised. Sometimes when, after months of repetitiously walking past a street or courtyard, I swerve and am flabbergasted by some revelatory beauty all this time right there in front of my muzzle, I see myself as one of them. I carry my bars with me. Each of us is a prisoner of the places we’ve been. And we all search for new places to come clear of our cobwebs, no matter how spacious they are. Such is the case of the bear Bruno, shot to death in Bavaria on June 26, 2006, by a hunter whose name was never revealed for fear he would be lynched. The first bear to tread on German soil after a hiatus of one hundred and seventy years was of Slovene descent, the son of Joseph and Jurka, themselves likely offspring of Bosnian ancestors. Bruno’s last journey took him northward. Was he fleeing or was he, like that famous dog in the movies, returning home? Was he the descendant of those migrating bears that the first Brandenburg count, Albrecht der Bär, used to hunt, returning to his name, which begins with B like Berlin? Slovene socks continue to dampen in the soggy terrain and German forests stand empty as the Berlin Bear Pit behind the Märkisches Museum, empty at least until the bears Shnute, Maxi, and Tilo sleep off their lunch.
We moved into the apartment during the November winds. They blow from Siberia and, on the way, pick up the scent of Poland, letting it sift down into the Berlin streets, sharp and flecked with melancholy. Strollers start to clench their fists in their pockets, they fondle their wallets because everything is ready, Christmas could happen tomorrow, if only two more full moons and the new one in between weren’t still to come. Regardless of the melancholic face of a lonely guard at the Cartier shopwindow around the corner, sushi is a bargain at half price. All that’s missing here are the kebab joints which have come to occupy only the most obscure western nooks of the westernmost fringe of the city. There’s a kiosk, one last bastion of German culture, at the edge of a parking lot at the market where, after midnight, Mercedes pull over and men with loosened ties get out and gorge themselves on Berlin beer sausages. The heart of our apartment has three valves through which light and dusk interchange. Three large windows look out on chestnut trees that border the market but reach this way to embrace the one of us who, between sips of green tea, is reading the day-before-yesterday’s newspaper with grace and a few-centimeters-above-the-world tranquility. Three windows, three blind eye sockets confronting timelessness. Through them, someone slightly dizzy from the muffled noise of traffic peers out through his three blindnesses. The first blindness is for day, the second for night, and the third blindness is for that which knows neither day nor night. Wooden frames, weathered and cracked, hold the double-pane windows which haven’t been washed for years (and likely won’t be anytime soon) except by rain. Outside, the paint has chipped away. The filth and mummified bodies of dead insects that have accumulated between the double windows make clear they haven’t been opened in ages. It took a thwack to dislodge the windows from their beds and reveal why we’ve been so happy here. Hundreds of ladybugs had taken shelter from the winter in the crevices of the decayed windows. From there, they broke into the apartment in commando squads. My joy at that first sighting of a ladybug spreading its lower winglets on the rim of a jam glass, flashing three spots of fortune, soon turned into something more tragic and Greek, a bloody slaughter. Like an Ajax, I had to pluck ladybugs from my toothbrush every evening and in the morning shake out my shirt which, overnight, was infested with too much good luck, and at lunch, I’d fish kamikazee-ladybugs out of my soup bowl, their Etna’s crater in the middle of the round kitchen table. When I shut my eyes and held the hose to my ear and heard the little crackle of tiny bodies sucked into the eye of the tornado, I couldn’t remain neutral. Putting away the vacuum, I consoled myself with sentences of friends who, after a beer or three, liked to repeat to me the axiom that sooner or later, living in this city, each person discovers himself to be the murderer of his own happiness. They were genuine Berlin ladybugs, they’d occupied the windows illegally like my friends in apartments from which they were later evicted. Those three kitchen windows remained barren, as did our heart which, between the reading of an old newspaper and sips of long-ago-cooled tea, with quiet guiltiness and a bit more restraint, went on absorbing a little bit of light, a little bit of dusk, a little bit of luck, a little bit of that which knows neither happiness nor unhappiness.
Aleš Šteger is a celebrated Slovenian writer and translator (from German and Spanish) best known for his four books of poetry (including The Book of Things, translated into English by Brian Henry). He has also published a novel and the sui generis book Berlin from which these sections come. Translations of Berlin have been published recently in Sweden, Germany, and Italy.
Aljaž Kovač was born June 27, 1984 in Celje, Slovenia. He will soon graduate from the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana, in English language and comparative literature studies. He writes and publishes fiction in addition to translating and working as a radio journalist.
Forrest Gander is a United States Artists Rockefeller Fellow and the author of many books of poetry, essays, fiction, and translation. He teaches at Brown University.