englisch The man who was a bear

The man who was a bearCopenhagen / Paris / Seoul, September 1989 / September 1999 / September 2009

Translator: Dieter Waeltermann
published in: Dimension2. Contemporary German-Language Literature. Ed. Ingo R. Stoehr. Volume 7, No. 2/3, 2005
Original title: Der Mann (07/03/2015)
published in:
Das Schweigen am andern Ende des Rüssels
– Dies irre Geglitzer in deinem Blick


ACTUALLY, WE HAD PLANNED on hitchhiking to Amsterdam back then. But since we came by a VW bus that had already taken loads of traveling people together with the corresponding number of Jew’s harps, guitars, and bongos on board, we changed our arrangements there and then. Perhaps we should have thought about it a bit longer.
Not that we would subsequently have had problems with our Amsterdam guidebook in Copenhagen to find the Little Mermaid or the colorfully barricaded Christiania where one could discover additional Jew’s harps, guitars, and bongos under a perpetual ganja cloud—oh no. But in the evening, when we—it was a Saturday, an exceptionally mild Saturday in September, where life was humming and drumming in all street cafes—when we, after enjoying a vegetarian smørebrød, which was skillfully hiding under eight slices of ham; at these Danish prices we could not afford more, in the evening when we just went with the tide—wherever we went, old undamaged façades were towering; wherever we looked, people were feasting, drinking, laughing—in the evening when we just drifted along with the stream of people that was finally surging around Nyhavn, between bright window fronts of restaurants and overcrowded tables at the quay where one could look at fake ivy and the water of the harbor, yachts lying at anchor: we were rather happy then, the two of us.
So we floated under a violet night sky where individual stars occasionally showed the tips of the masts, the clattering anchor chains, the storm lanterns on the tables, the waiters wrapped in white with their agile balanced movements, the umbrellas under which the radiant heaters were glowing, the tourists who continued to trip about in circles until someone of the locals would take pity with them, all those Saturday-evening idlers who abandoned themselves—in a cluster of people without beginning, without end—to the good mood: they ensured that we would have continued drifting forever in this wave of well-being churning along. If there had not been a jam in front of one of the restaurants, I believe it was the „Havfruen,“ and I „very nearly“ collided with the hand-holding person wearing shorts in front of me, a backup that would only dissolve hesitatingly: People struggled to push themselves past those sitting at the tables; again and again the line of people came to a halt, came to a stumble, gently pushing forward, gently being pushed forward, until—
—all of a sudden a dog appeared between the tables, panting, heading straight toward me while barking, straight towards me! Of all the people, I winced, and when I suddenly froze for lack of understanding, completely disappearing in my dumbfoundedness that it turned totally silent inside of me for a moment of shock

while a diver on a wreck in the Indian Ocean, forced by the strong current to hold onto even the dark places, was bitten in the finger surprisingly hard by a triggerfish.

when, suddenly, it had also become very quiet at the tables all around that I wanted to sink in between the cobblestones, there was nothing left to be sweet-talked. Because when I tried to size up the dog who just retreated between tables with an insulted look on his face and some rumbling and grumbling, just when I tried to resolutely size up the dog: it was no dog at all. But a person, a man who apparently pursued his Saturday-evening-fun on all fours, or rather: He seemed to be completely serious; even when retreating, he did not abandon his role, did not slaver for applause from those sitting around him, did not wink at any of the bystanders, no, even now he was all dog since he remained silent between all of the open laughter of gloating, oh yes, I had made a fool of myself, and let time pass. At any rate a few seconds, a few couples could stroll past unsuspectingly, then he rattled out again from his hiding place, a raging bull terrier, and snapped at a lady dressed in salmon pink who immediately turned into a small salmon-pink scream.
But in the next moment, she had to laugh along, in contrast to me, in contrast to me, and who, straightening out the beret that had slipped slightly, squeezed in and joined all those who had been enjoying the spectacle for a while. At that point, I looked at the woman at my side and tried to smile.
Oh no, I did not try to sweet-talk anything.
Meanwhile, the longer we—with one eye following the wild romping about, the startling of victims, the general gloating—the longer we argued about the motives of the man, the clearer it became that I would be hitchhiking back on my own the next day.

A decade later, I had a date in Paris; I was busy all day long to master the anticipation: at every corner a deli, a shoe store, a cake shop and café, shop windows everywhere with things I could not afford, boulevards, undamaged old house fronts—one suddenly really felt like becoming a megalomaniac, as small and superfluous one could feel here. I almost— despite continued rain but because of all the amazement—missed the last bus with which I could have reached my rendezvous fairly on time: an old bistro in St. Germain, I believe it was called „La Petite Chaise,“ for whose dignified visit I had moderated myself during the day with cafés au lait and croissants.
After happily climbing on the bus though—barely any space to stand was left, surrounded by well-dressed people and treasures in plastic bags, a tramp sat there and poked inside of his ear with a long chip of wood— but on the fully occupied bus that—it was already a quarter after eight and, therefore, high time; it smelled like wet umbrellas and all kinds of half sweated-out perfumes—on the overcrowded bus that was to take me to the beginning of a beautiful evening—we were currently in a traffic jam on the Place de la Concorde; the tramp pulled the wooden chip out of his ear, carefully looked at it and, finally, wiped it off with index finger and thumb—on the bus the head of a well-dressed man abruptly turned; it flashed through his neck muscles without any cause; and then he slumped, slowly and quietly, to the ground. He just collapsed. Which was almost prevented by the passengers standing close together; actually, he just slipped down gradually—didn’t anyone want to rush to his aid?— and even slower and deeper; when I, as the only one, finally made a move, it was already too late. With difficulty, I pulled up the man from the floor; none of the bystanders was willing to lend a hand; with difficulty, I pressed him outside at the next stop; fresh air would be good for him; and when he now stammered a few words of thanks, when he was still hanging in my arms with his full weight: he almost seemed a little familiar to me. Because I was not able find a bench for him, the rain took hold of his face, which would do him good, because I lowered him instead onto the stone parapet of a Metro entry, the man smiled at me with bewilderment but rejected as politely as helplessly any further measure in broken French: he certainly seemed familiar to me, certainly. But then another bus approached, and when it puffed open the doors in front of us, the man suddenly pulled himself onto his feet, pushing my arm aside, tore himself away from all of my care and—I motionlessly followed him with my eyes—agilely jumped onto the bus, very lively pressed himself into the crowd of passengers and, with doors already puffing close behind him, was not seen again. For a split second, I ran cold with lack of understanding, sank so completely into my amazement that it—maybe I was looking after the departing bus, maybe at the Ferris wheel and its lights in front of the Tuileries, at the tip of the obelisk shining golden, at the Eiffel tower decorated with small light bulbs—that it became totally silent inside of me

while on the night train to Algiers, where people and animals were sleeping on the open platform between compartments, in tremendously intertwined piles and until the edge of a rattling night: while someone who had been dangling only his legs in the dark silently toppled to the outside—one could rub one’s eyes, but the place where he had been dozing until just now remained empty …

so awfully quiet that I almost had to be sure of myself of being taken for a ride. To be precise, by just that madman—now I was completely sure—and by just that genius with whom I had dealt before. At any rate, my wallet was still where it belonged; he had merely been interested in the matter itself. But what does „merely“ mean here! When I finally arrived in the „Petite Chaise,“ completely soaked and, admittedly, rather late, I had to admit to myself that I had nothing more to lose here; my table had already been assigned to somebody else so that I would immediately turn around and drive home alone tomorrow.

A decade later, at the closing of a conference in Seoul, during which we had also been instructed by several Korean participants in the art of drinking A-bombs—actually, one only had to yell „Gonbae!“ loud and clear into the round and drink down in one gulp a glass of beer in which a shot glass of whiskey had been dropped—a decade later, there was a closing reception. Once again, we were sitting at a table with nothing but tiepin-wearing men who were called Kim and looked like it, too; our female translator („Good evenin’, I am your translate!“) could not stop giggling due to continual confusion. Other than that, she carried out her task with great seriousness so that we had no cause for mistrust when one of our three Mister Kim let her introduce him as person-in-charge-of-wall-sockets, when a second one agreeingly stating more precisely: but only for the Bell Street district! Incidentally, he himself was a complete gilder in his main job, but the third one, a „Graduate Geopard,“ simply a famous man. In addition, he played a leading role in the development of a semi-automatic quotation-destruction-machine.
I beg your pardon, quotation-destruction-machine?
Oh, very practical.
Excuse me, graduate geopard?

Why not?
Yes, why not. Gonbae! Moreover, he, the graduate geopard, knew how to say „one don’ count!“ in English, which he did at every occasion; to be exact, he said it—without paying any attention to the particular circumstances of the conversation—so often and so resolutely that even the people at the neighboring table reached for their glasses. A conversation was impossible; at the beginning, one often felt like going insane but persistently persuaded oneself („Remain supple!“) that this was Korean small talk and, moreover, that the consumption of A-bombs would soon produce its effect.
It did. Though we had barely gotten the third round over with—at least, we did not have to empty any B-bombs: glasses of beer full of whiskey in which a shot glass of beer stood—the great hour of the poetry slam had come: Oh, how we knew how to praise the beauty of Korea and its women and fans, the deafening magnificence of its drummer troupes, the garlic mustard and the rice-leftover tea, the parking garages into which girls in miniskirts directed drivers, the subway cars in which a digital cuckoo call announced the next station; even about the subway platforms where bird chirping was played from a recording, we had only good things to report. The Kim gentlemen liked that, and when they presented their rejoinders, all three of them led to the question whether we had been blessed by the magnificence of the local hairdressers?
No, why should we have had to go to the hairdresser?
Well, why not?
Indeed, why not. One don’ count! Gonbae! There were slaps on thighs, and when they finally rose from the table, they did not let anything stop them from taking us to a karaoke bar; I believe it was called „Noraebang,“ in English at least „Merry Throat.“ After quite a few subway stations, which were announced by the cuckoo, matters became serious: they had hardly found something to their liking on the menu-like lists with the available canned music, a Korean folk tune with an orchestral opening, when the Kim gentlemen loosened the knots of their ties, presumably to smoothen their whistles. We, on the other hand, naturally not having stock-piled any German song materials, being on our own and, thus, men fighting a losing battle, we tried to make up for it with volume: „Look here, there’s a dead fish in the water,“ we were bellowing; „we’re gonna kill him,“ we were bellowing, „we’re gonna kill him,“ and since we didn’t know the rest of the words, we repeated it until the person-in-charge-of-wall-sockets, the complete gilder and the graduate geopard were bellowing along. Even the translator began to sway, one don’ count.
Nevertheless, the three took their leave („You goot. Make us happy“)—after all, they still had an appointment at the hairdresser—and staggered away under sincere laughter in order to catch a cab. Gonbae! When we tried to match them, it was almost midnight; now & then a young woman collapsed in the streets, passionately fighting the results of consuming alcohol without anyone paying any additional attention to it; no sign of a cab. The subway station lay almost deserted; even the bird chirping had already been turned off. A cripple was crawling over the distant end of the platform on some type of self-made tray with rollers, which immediately attracted the interest of my two colleagues: as a result, I stood alone with myself and the translator for a while. As I stood and wanted to be happy that we had put up a good showing, particularly when all of us revealed our identity as former circus jugglers, „Aaaah?“ And because a sample had been requested, we swiftly revived a „philosophy of the seven balls“ to the center of our earlier activities: that many could not be found in any karaoke bar of the world—as I stood and thought about whether this evening had consequently been a milestone in international understanding or rather not—after all, the three Kim gentlemen had immediately revealed themselves as members of Postcard Writers Anonymous („Each morning wake we up and must write a postcard first. Sometimes even two. We have already tried everything but …“)—as I stood with my thoughts threatening to become gloomier—always the same in other countries: one remained a puzzle to each other, no matter what one wanted to say, was even alone while laughing—as I stood there and threatened to drown in the melancholy of the person who was almost on his „way home“: a hand was placed on my shoulder. A hand that quickly grew into a paw—I dared to steal a glance at it only out of the corner of my eye—into a giant paw covered with thick and brown hair with black claws, and as I realized what was weighing so heavily on my shoulder, consternation inspired me and I tore myself away: whereupon the paw slipped off my shoulder and I, eye to eye, was facing a bear. A bear as tall as a man, in the middle of a city of thirteen million, please; I was paralyzed by lack of understanding for a fraction of a second, so completely turned to stone in my dumbfoundedness that it turned totally silent inside of me

while the man at the reception of an hotel in Ankara brought to the brink of ruin, notified by the only guest that the toilet in his room did not work, only shrugged his shoulders: Then he should just use the toilet in the neighboring room …

so quiet that I would believe the ground would open up and swallow me with horror, but to my not even small surprise simply stopped moving. And I

when the tourist appeared in front of him a short time later and said that the light was not working over there: Then he should just bring along a bulb from his room. Whereupon the tourist …

did not utter a sound. But the bear did. But particularly his muffled rumbling gave him away, life shot back into my limbs like a fire and reminded me that not every fur had to have a fur-bearing animal, that I had not been told a whopping lie by someone for the first time in my life about a bear who—correctly, this time again, was no bear at all.
But a man who obviously allowed himself a midnight joke here, or rather: he seemed to be dead serious about it even while he was pulling the bear’s skull off his head without hurrying; he did not abandon his role, could that be the graduate geopard? and as he hinted at a bow, one could clearly see how cheap his masquerade was, an extremely run-down piece from the equipment store of some theater in the suburbs. As he smiled at me, though, from the bottom of his heart, I was almost completely sure to have recognized him; purest honesty spoke from this look, nothing but beardom without any memory of the fact that a dog had already lived inside of him, one who occasionally experiences fainting fits, not even since he was significantly involved in the destruction of quotations and A-bombs in his last form of existence: in these moments, he was nothing but a bear.
Before he pulled the mask over his face again, he briefly placed his index finger over his lips—„Shshsh!“ and made me his ally: disregarding the smell of strong admixture of whiskey in his breath, I nodded; „One don’ count,“ I whispered, and when he toddled off behind a column to lie in wait for the next victim, I discovered the translator at my side and smiled at her.
Oh no, I did not dare ask anything.
But she shook her head, placed her index finger on her lips, and smiled back.