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Kathrin Röggla
translation by Isabel Fargo Cole

 

someone to talk to

 

krefeld, elisabethstrasse 52, 2 a.m., on the phone

i should take a deep breath, she said. take a deep breath first before i went on talking. she couldn't understand me, understand what i wanted to say, so first breathe in and out, ok? exhaling, she'd heard, was easy to forget. though actually exhaling was even more important than inhaling, why, she didn't know. maybe stale air was worse for you than no air at all, even though she couldn't picture that, she'd always preferred stale air to none at all, because with stale air at least you could still get some oxygen.

so i should take the time to express myself clearly, and above all i should tell the whole story from the start so it made sense, first things first, not the other way around. otherwise god knows what ideas she'd get, she'd think god knows what had happened, and i wouldn't want that, wouldn't want her to start panicking too here, one of us panicking was quite enough.

*

ok. had i calmed down now? could i talk like a normal person again? my voice was so quiet. did i maybe want a glass of water?

*

"great, then, let's start at the beginning," i'd always been so good at that, telling things from the beginning, i'd had a regular knack for it, whereas she had to search and search – though when she thought about it, it wasn't so much that i knew where to start, i knew where i wanted to go with it, and sorry, she didn't want to go there, she could tell me that much, she'd been there before.

*

what? didn't she have to listen to me talking about the water, the water with its water temperatures, with its flow rates and its salinity? today, for example, didn't she have to hear how the particles communicate with each other, how they transmit information across tens of thousands of kilometers? "whatever will they think of next!" she could see it'd be like pulling teeth today, getting me to explain the connections, when ultimately she didn't even want to know the connections, she just wanted to block it out. but you weren't allowed to block things out, right? that is, the only thing you were allowed to block was the underground waterfall driving the gulf stream, and then only mentally, to picture what would happen. whether ten years from now europe would really have an ice age like i promised.

in view of that, she was surprised she hadn't heard a thing about the seawater yet. it must have seeped away over our last conversations, all of them phone conversations, if she rightly recalled, no one ever actually set eyes on me. and still she'd looked forward almost feverishly to our nighttime conversations, for a time she'd lived in anticipation of lectures on plankton. after all, you couldn't close your ears to these things, on the contrary, you had to keep them open round the clock, right?

sure, she'd never pulled off this round-the-clock openness, she'd shied away from it. but someone like me didn't shy away. and someone like me never asked if this was appropriate, if all the seawater was appropriate to our conversation right now, at this moment, the rampant algae strain with its rampant algae bloom that did things like turn the pacific water red with its iron content – now at this moment. it was happening now at this moment, i'd yelled. well, who'd been on first-name terms with the pacific water and its iron content, on first-name terms with the nitrogens and nitrates, on first-name terms with the floating particles, the basis of some food chain that no doubt led straight to us?

but i didn't have a monopoly on certain everyday meteorological concepts, i didn't have a monopoly on concepts like "el niño" or "north atlantic oscillation", any more than i'd cornered the market on climate data. she for example could also call things like she saw them, though she saw them very differently. to me it might seem amateurish, she might lack elegance, verve, but i made even the pressure difference between the icelandic low and the azores high sound dire. i made a term like "polar drift" automatically evoke doom, the end of the world. she hadn't lost her nerve, though, she'd appropriated part of this vocabulary and so to speak defused it.

*

she had to say, "no wonder if nature starts taking revenge", that was the kind of statement she'd expect from me. though she didn't know if she necessarily agreed with me, that is, if you could describe what was going on out there as revenge. she'd always pictured nature's revenge as involving a degree of animal participation, and we weren't seeing any animal participation here. that is, herds and swarms, packs and prides, mass migrations from left to right, from right to left, what did she know. but there weren't any animals here or animal anomalies, no sudden animal movements, the revenge of the frogs and snakes failed to materialize and so did the revenge of the reptiles and fish, the birds and insects, though it would have been just like them. the revenge of the rodents and livestock seemed to have fallen by the wayside. normally now i'd say "so nature takes a different kind of revenge", but i didn't say it, which was too bad, because then she could bring up the forest fires. –

*

as if i didn't know, forest fires were nothing unusual in this region. quite the opposite, they were part of the natural cycle. and if there were no forest fires, there'd be no vegetation of a certain kind, certain native regional plants would die out, and wasn't that what we wanted, native and regional?

anyway for a long time that was the discussion, she hadn't really understood it all, but that was what the biologists and landscape gardeners i'd met on my california trip had always been calling for.

here they were starting the fires themselves, they were setting controlled burns, she'd heard me shout into the phone more than once; there were no more conifers of a certain kind, evergreens that needed the soot, the singeing. she'd never thought of plants as masochists, but she'd been put right. she'd pictured nature as having a strict will to survive, a prosperity principle, but she'd had to concede the point to me, of course, the way she always did. and now i had to concede a point to her for once – a strange turn of events, was it not? especially conceding a point to someone you'd never really wanted to acknowledge before.

but was i going to confront the reality of the forest fires i myself had brought up? it wasn't looking good with my capacity for confrontation on that score, and she herself, she'd be the first to admit, was no good at confronting the normality of the forest fires in california and the south of france, the normality of the bush fires in australia and whatever else kept going up in flames, she didn't have the facts at her fingertips. but you'd have to, she'd been told, soon you'd have a whole big heap of normality to get through, so you couldn't bog down in the normality of the forest fires. you had to swallow this normality, digest it as fast as possible to get to the next normalities that had to be digested.

*

evidently i didn't have the inhale-exhale business figured out yet. especially the exhaling, that didn't sound good at all, she picked up on things like that, she picked up on it even on the phone, i needn't think she'd stuck her fingers in her ears or let things go in one ear and out the other regarding certain statements on my part. though you couldn't blame her. no, she'd signed on to listen and she wasn't about to sign off just because she felt a bit exhausted, just because i'd abused the privilege.

not that she'd wanted to talk me out of climate change. she'd always known there was no way she could do that. but there were other completely different notions of climate change out there, and even if she and i now knew that one theory had prevailed, she'd just like to point out that that didn't have to mean a thing. she knew and i knew how things worked in the scientific community, you could take off your rose-colored glasses on that score!

*

come again? i couldn't possibly deny that some people had a completely different attitude toward carbon dioxide. up until fairly recently you could even talk about regular climate optimists.

and no, not to worry, she wasn't trying to force climate optimism down my throat after the fact, after we'd all taken our leave of it, she couldn't do that any more than she could force any other kind of optimism down my throat, because she knew i was a pessimist, albeit a cautious pessimist. but i had to admit that even if one were to take me up on my pessimism, a certain static interference could be heard in its midst, the interference of the long-planned countermeasures, and one could only hope, i'd have to agree here, that this static would become a real, solid noise, even a real, solid soundscape.

*

who knew better than me: not only were they building dikes in holland and denmark, they were planning to construct protective plastic shields and launch them into the stratosphere. there was talk of sulfur particles that reflect the sunlight, that they'd add to aircraft exhaust. of permanent underground co2 disposal sites, reached by pipelines criss-crossing germany. so ideas were floating about, ideas of immediately evident practical relevance. but apparently i wasn't interested in these ideas because in reality i wasn't all that interested in saving the world, or why else did i play down emissions trading in front of her, the talks and conferences, the bills, the EU allocations for climate protection.

and sure, there might be something ludicrous about eco-mayors with their eco-lightbulbs, but weren't these the people it all came down to?

*

there was no need for me to yell into the phone. i could talk to her in a calm voice too, in case i didn't know. she wasn't going to lose her head just because i'd evidently lost mine. she could tell me that much. because that was just what i was after. i came barging in on her with my panic by phone, so to speak, and all i was after was to throw her into just this state of panic. but she was going to shut down now, batten down the hatches, she wasn't going to take it anymore.

*

no, no complaining now! hadn't she gone along with everything? hadn't she played along with every scenario i'd set up? all the BSE hysteria, asbestos angst, particulate angst, alzheimer inklings, bird flu warnings, cell phone radiation angst that had led up to this climate business.

and who'd been on her case about all that? none other than me, me with my climate catastrophes that never seemed to satisfy me, me with my environmental toxins, yes, me with my weather events and my pathogens that i'd find a connection between somehow. i believed in climate catastrophes long before they ever happened!

did i remember the 80s? the 80s with their 80s armageddon obsession? that's what they'd advised her to do, read the armageddon static in my voice as a specifically 80s retro thing. they said i was doing cover versions of the 80s armageddon madness, in a slightly different form, with slightly different themes, but the zeitgeist was unmistakable.

but we got out of the 80s alive, they said. put through the wringer, but still.

and the result of this constant alarmism was that no one wanted to listen to me. did i realize that, that i'd have to lower the dosage from time to time, the alarmism dosage, for it to stay effective? the responsiveness was declining, it had just about reached zero. my looks of alarm, searching for alarm responsiveness, would all miss their mark, everything was all alarmed out, so to speak.

*

they should call me cassandra, had she ever said that before? and not just that but a double cassandra, not a one-way cassandra, no, a cassandra in both directions. because no one listened to me, and i didn't listen to anyone, as she'd been forced to realize. but maybe it had been that way with the original cassandra too, because there must have been some reason why she'd been cursed by a god or whatever, because otherwise she wouldn't have ended up like that.

hadn't anyone thought to dub me cassandra? well, she'd dubbed me that long ago, inwardly, outwardly she'd call me by my name, of course, but inwardly I was a definite cassandra. she felt there were astounding similarities, and if i didn't watch out, i'd soon come to a cassandra's end, and that was not a good end, she could tell me.

 

From die alarmbereiten (the alarmists) by Kathrin Röggla, © S.Fischer, 2010. Translation © Isabel Cole.

 

Kathrin Röggla Born in Salzburg in 1971, Kathrin Röggla has lived in Berlin since 1992 as a writer of experimental prose and plays for the theater and radio. She has received numerous awards, including the award for the SWR Best-List (2004), the Bruno Kreisky Award for the Political Book (2004), the Solothurn Literature Award and the International Art Award of Salzburg (2005).

Isabel Fargo Cole is a US-born, Berlin-based writer and translator. Her translations include Boys and Murderers by Hermann Ungar, All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach, and The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann. She is the initiator and co-editor of www.no-mans-land.org, the online magazine for new German literature in English.

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MadHat, Issue 14, Spring 2013