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The other night I encountered a stupendous, if somewhat Chicken-Little-esque, review by Hanno Rauterberg in Die Zeit about the Burj Khalifa, the world’s new tallest building. Of interest here is the kind of recognition of the foot-dragging of Western democracies in producing such feats, and the sense of the global future tacking to the East. And the fact that the review stems from a German critic who sees echoes of the Weimar period utopianism in this new global order makes the piece all the more delicious.
So here it is in four parts, minus fancy editing and three-piece suits by Leipzig tailors, but with the best German I can muster on a weeknight in North America. If readers have suggestions for ways that I could continue such features in modified fashion, I’d welcome the feedback:
In my own archive, a very delicious sentence has crossed my palette and I simply cannot help but post it for the delectation of the Germanophones, or for those bridging into the Teutonic, or for those who may be commemorating the fall of the wall (le chute de l’mur, der Fall des verdammten Mauers), or for those who want to know that Asian historians have a righteous seat to warm in the Berlin archives.
It concerns my plans for August 2008 in Berlin, that Olympian summer, so I suppose I’ll translate it as best I can, attempting to convey the vertiginous, delightful, aye, virtuosic and even dangerous, grammatical feat which it attempts — and at which it succeeds.
And it portends the return of deep memory of return in one 36-hour period thrumming with my own resilient fear. Fear that gripped me in the cold morning of Berlin in an empty train, past the Madonna posters, totally alone, into the granite teeth of the 1936 Olympic stadium, and from there to sleepwalk in awe to an airport and to find myself after a Moscow hallucination turned deep sleep turned horror at the utter aridity of Shanxi there, there in the heart of old Beijing, pedaling north toward the closing ceremony, somehow my feet and my body and my eyes in both Berlin and Beijing/Peking in a double-lidded day that was one, one where I witnessed the giant snake of PLA soldiers with submachineguns pouring out of the Worker’s Daily compound on the second-ring road in the darkness to block my path with my lady on a bicycle, one with the realization that the closing ceremony was guarded by anti-missile missiles, one where the Olympics were revealed to my quarter as a dress rehearsal for marshal law, one where my rickety trusty Peking bicycle was no good against this wall of green youth, one where I should not have said but did blurt out seditious things against Jiang Zemin in a Taiwanese cafe on Jiugulou Dajie, and one where I realized with blind serenity that Paris was dead but this place was alive, but that the life was seething and trying to move to the suburbs. That was my Olympic day.
And the trigger for this memory? Encounter with a letter, and a sentence, tapped in ’08 by the restless fingers at the klavier of one Eliezer!
The month was August, 2008, prior to the Olympic fete. I am in Beijing, seeking Berlin: to be away from the capital during the games seems most prudent, and my Dean has generously ponied up a check to work with an assistant in the Berlin archives on socialist solidarity. This grant will also facilitate, though it will not pay for, beer drinking with German workers while they watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games and state first “See! Just like the Nazis!” as the PLA marches to raise the flag, and second “The Chinese era has now arrived” at the end of the ceremony.
But first I had to get to Berlin.
Enter Eliezer. Here, he e-mails to Berlin to introduce me to his friends (become my friends! and blessedly so!), absent other various connecting points. Although his head is still firmly on his shoulders, and though he would surely eschew and disavow my attempts from this Lutheran citadel to claim so, Eliezer here acted as a kind of harbinger, a John the Baptist/Johannes der Täufer, functioning as a kind of poetic prophet of Wanderlust who has momentarily set aside the rough cloth of his own ecological disciplines to prepare the way for a heralded yet as yet insubstantial being, alleged to be a man. Without him, my journey, so epic in my own mind, would have had a path that tunneled into itself, like a failed predator drone or a salmon that longs for the darkness instead of the heights. So I quote from his correspondence and follow it with my translation:
Drittens (und der eigentliche grund dieses mails), habe ich einen sehr guten alten Freund, der Adam Cathcart heisst, der als hoechstbegabter cellist und hiphop freestylist gilt, der auch ein doktor, der menschen nicht hilft, ist, aber diesmal von ostasiatischen geschichte, der gerade in beijing sich befindet, moechte aber die olympische Verwirrung vermeiden und sich eine Flugkarte nach Berlin, wo man die kurioese kulturelle austausche und weitere Verhaeltnisse zwischen der demokratischen Republik Deutschlands und die nichtdestoweniger demokratischen Volksrepublik Koreas gut forschen mag, besorgt hat. Der, vor allem, ein toller, lustiger, lebenslustiger Kerl ist.
Third (and the actual basis for this letter), I have a very good old friend, who is named Adam Cathcart, who can be considered a highly-talented cellist and hiphop freestylist, who is also a doctor, a man who, if not helped — though he now find himself directly in Beijing, in the midst of East Asian history, wishing to avoid the Olympic imbroglio, having in his hand an airplane ticket to Berlin, where he aims to research thoroughly the curious cultural activities and further circumstances between the German Democratic Republic and the not-to-be-considered-lesser Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — would have great sorrow. He, above all, is a fine, affable, and live-affirming chap.
Elie unfurls a sentence which is more than kind to the point of exaggeration: but more importantly, its arc inspires. As do poems from Felix in New Cologne, and walks in the park with he and his kids, and children’s songs, and bike rides on an ancient steed through lightning storms in the Tiergarten, and placid statues of Goethe in the turbulence, and exhibits on Alexanderplatz, and passing out in a small movie theater which is actually my temporary address at the Institute for Chaosstabilization on 45 Old Cophenhagen Street near the old Soviet anti-fascist memorial and East Germany’s greatest Kettewurst stand.
Which is to say, apart from whatever nostalgic or narcissitic impulse started the translation above (for which I am very sorry and plan to recite the Lutheran catechism this evening, thus absolving me of all the things I have done and more importantly from all the things I have not done), I plan to bash out some new writing over the weekend based on this otherwise-combustible stack of documents in my grasp from Berlin. If the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall accomplishes nothing else — because, Scheiße, who really needs Vergangensheitbewähltigung anyway? — it ought to revive my work on socialist internationalism, the role of music in supporting and bringing down dictatorships, and the comparative meaning of commemoration in the PRC and the ehemaliger DDR.
And Japanese war criminals. Although it won’t pay for my brood or the new rims on my immense Escalade or the giant motor on my boat, a hot hot hot new article of mine on this topic is coming out this December in China Quarterly. Oh, right, in the blogging world, it doesn’t really matter that it’s the top journal in my academic field, because December is, like, forever away, and this whole “proofs and editors” thing is a little square, not to mention tiresome “peer review” by anonymous experts. So maybe I should put a damper on that until it hits. Right! Sizzle, sizzle….es zischt!
Die Feind b’reit sich für Angriff vor,
schon reich von Zeit und Land.
Dagegen sanfte Vöglein schweben,
hauen von gelber Hand.
Furchtlos und klein,
dies Änglein mein
ist auch aber nicht so friedensvoll.
Sie störren nicht welches’ ordentlich,
Gut. Aber wenn die Leiden schafft sich vor
den anders behändelt ist.
Dies’ Kunstlerin geblendet ist wie Feuer vom Liebe und Hass,
die beiden Fühlen stritten jetzt im Graben meinem Schatz.
Vergangenheitsfehler, die Stammbaum zerstörren,
Die sturmen von Frankreich liegt grausam am Meer.
Mein Meinung schon bedrucken war am Mauer papierische Gefängnis.
O Saint Croix! Mein heiligen Strom!
Wurfe mich dich ab, hinauβ dieser Wo!
Noch, ab mit dem Dämpfer! fest mit Bogenstrichen!
die Leid für Ewige Weibliche 否裕罢不能！
Baut sich jetzt vom Einsamkeit, 基础 vorbei, mein Sohn!
Gemeinen Länder verbindtet wird, est muβte sein:
obwohl, doch ja, die Vertrage jetzt in Fetzen liegt.