Ferdinand Klingenreiter is seventy-seven and for the first time in his life he finds himself on stage with his conjuring show, in front of the entire family and all the village. While he calls for attention (with limited success) and waits for the village hall to fill up, the history of the Klingenreiters’ family business unfolds in the background. Stanišić takes just fifteen pages to introduce a cast of characters of Dodererian proportions. Stanišić’s prose is so dense that it never feels rushed or flat. The world of the Klingenreiters – a world that is extremely German and for that very reason extremely exotic – is made particularly alive to us in the portrayal of the relationship between Ferdinand and his great-nephew: the two outsiders of the family come together in their common desire to magic themselves away. Sad though this may sound, the story is also humorous – like most of what Stanišić writes.
When Ferdinand Klingenreiter asked the audience, dear friends and family, boys and girls, to be quiet for his great illusion, some laughed; most went on talking. The Stadelmann girls interrupted their squealing chase and turned towards the stage. The younger one – Michaela or Martina or some other name reserved for a boy with an ‘a’ stuck on the end – shouted across the hall in a shrill, strident voice: ‘Mummy, where’s Grandad?’
Klingenreiter waved to her, she looked so sweet, the pigtails, the dirndl, at which she ran to Mrs Stadelmann in fright and clutched her arm. ‘But that’s just Freddie, my darling’, her mother explained. ‘Freddie… the Famous. He’s going to do some magic for us.’
Freddie the Fantastic would have been correct, but Klingenreiter didn’t let that worry him – this was his very first appearance, after all, and how was anyone supposed to remember his stage name at this point?
Overall, though, it was now a little quieter in the community hall; you could hear the coffee machine gurgling.
Klingenreiter looked over at the table where Felix was sitting. Or more accurately, lying: the boy had sunk low on his chair, his hands in his pockets, his head in his hood, one eye hidden by his hair. Felix made invisible every part of his body that he could make invisible. The other eye was staring at the Coke or the pretzel sticks in the plastic cup on the plastic tablecloth. It did not meet his great-uncle’s gaze.
The boy’s head was elsewhere. Or just didn’t want to be here.
Ferdinand Klingenreiter didn’t let that worry him. The thoughts in his head, too, had seldom enjoyed being where he needed them, but so what? They went off picking cherries and dreams instead of doing schoolwork. Remembered neither formulas nor verses, and remembered how to work the machines only with great difficulty. No, there were a few verses he remembered: the ones his Käthe wrote.
Magic tricks, on the other hand, came to him with the kind of facility only useless skills drew out.
His head was elsewhere, his body too, somehow. Klingenreiter had always been able to behave so inconspicuously that you forgot he was there. Felix might have envied him this talent. This trick. But it didn’t just work to his advantage. Klingenreiter’s parents had argued in front of him as fiercely as if he wasn’t there. The shouting often carried on even after he had spoken up. Those were the only times Klingenreiter had wished his brother was close by. Nobody spoiled the domestic bliss when Franz was there.
It was much later, perhaps only after Franz’s death the previous year, before it occurred to Klingenreiter that his talent was not for being inconspicuous. His parents, Franz, people in general were simply indifferent to whether he was there or not. But maybe that was a talent too, making people indifferent to you.
Maybe not Käthe. No, definitely not Käthe. Käthe hadn’t been indifferent, she had always twittered away happily in his presence. Of course, you might say that Käthe twittered just the same whether he was there or not, but that wasn’t true, Käthe asked her husband the occasional question, too, and although she might only have done it to make sure he was listening, asking Klingenreiter a question meant she noticed Klingenreiter.
The door flew open, and Thomas and the family marched into the hall, all of them but Felix. Lisa, the twins, little Max – a small barrel with his fist in his mouth next to the large barrel that was his father.
Some people turned their heads, and a few got up to greet Thomas. That’s how it should be: the boss had arrived. Klingenreiter nodded to his nephew, who made an apologetic gesture towards the stage and sat down at the table beside Felix, who ignored him with a gulp of Coke.
Thomas was doing well with the sawmill, meaning he was well informed and unyielding. Even now, on a Sunday afternoon, he took a pile of papers out of his bag, definitely work-related. Klingenreiter was about to carry on, but then his nephew made a questioning, circular gesture over the pile and around the hall, he seemed to be trying to communicate something to Klingenreiter, and Klingenreiter shrugged as if in assent.
At that, Thomas handed out the pile, ‘one each’, and almost everyone took a sheet or a leaflet or whatever they were, it was almost all mill workers there with their families. There was rustling at every table, everyone was reading through them. Right at the back, by the exit, a man was sitting by himself; it was old Stangl, he declined the pile.
Klingenreiter waited, what else was he supposed to do? His box beside him. Two yellow lightning flashes, a red question mark. Oak.
Stangl. Of course, he had been another reason for Klingenreiter’s parents to argue. This name, spoken at great volume, was one of Klingenreiter’s earliest memories. It went on for years, until eventually Father hounded him out.
Mother had liked Stangl, that was a fact. They even called each other by their first names, but the sawmill was too small for anything more than that. If something had happened between them, an extractor fan would have heard about it and a splitting wedge given them away.
Stangl must be closer to a hundred than to ninety. Came up from the valley especially for this. On the bus. Sought out Klingenreiter straight away to say hello. That’s all it takes for everything to be alright, between people, seeking someone out to say hello. But Stangl didn’t have any other friends here.
Thomas was getting himself a coffee now. It almost made Klingenreiter want to shake his head, but how would that look, a head-shaking magician?
The walk, the neck, and always the ambition. Thomas was like Franz. Too much ambition was what had caused Franz and Father’s only big argument.
It was when Franz had come back from university with ideas. Franz wanted to renew, wanted to invest, to ‘deworm’ the business. Forklifts, block trains, mechanical sorting plants.
Father didn’t want to hear any of it. Not because he wouldn’t have agreed. He didn’t like Franz starting his sentences with ‘In your position, I would’. He didn’t like the pressure. Good ideas, well, they’re all well and good, but Father wanted to teach Franz a lesson in the business of ideas, and lesson one was: package your ideas well.
In the end modernisation happened, and a little rationalisation too, but only when Father himself had looked at the time and decided it was ripe.
The only ideas that Klingenreiter had were to do with the canteen and the programme for the Christmas party. Ferdinand Klingenreiter loved the sawmill, and he loved entertainment, and he didn’t mind spending his whole life as his own brother’s employee, whatever people said.
There was only one matter on which he had spoken out: the business with the wooden barrels. Klingenreiter was against Franz’s suggestion of giving up the production of wooden barrels, largely on nostalgic grounds. All the beer that was stored in Klingenreiter barrels! And could still be stored there in future! He raised his voice with Franz and Father as if it was a matter of some great importance.
Nostalgic grounds had never been grounds that carried any weight in their family. Nostalgia is the accomplice of losers, not winners. Barrel production was halted, and not a minute too soon. The decline in production value over the years that followed was tremendous; soon it was all just aluminium and plastic and other heartless stuff, and more and more people were drinking beer out of bottles and cans, terrible.
Käthe, and what Käthe said to him:
‘You silly man, you.’
‘Where have you gone this time, my Freddie, come on, stay here with me.’
‘Ah, my Freddie.’
He remembered all that. A lot of what his Käthe had said. His thoughts sometimes chided him in Käthe’s voice, bossed him around, took decisions away from him: he was useless at making decisions. His thoughts sometimes also laid it on the line for him, but sadly nowhere near often enough.
His hands trembled. He balled them into fists. Ferdinand Klingenreiter had never had much to say, and now he was trembling on stage while people waited for him to say something. Though he knew and sensed that everyone was still indifferent to what it was he was going to say. The main thing was that he took his medicine and didn’t go for a night-time stroll in the road again.
Maybe notFelix, maybe Felix wasn’t indifferent.
His box waited resolutely at his side. The two lightning flashes like eyes. Maybe people weren’t indifferent to magic.
Klingenreiter cleared his throat to call back the thoughts that even now, as he stood on stage, were skittering away from him, and the PA shrilly cleared its throat along with him. Now he had their attention.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, my dear friends.’ Klingenreiter’s smile broadened. Soon he would say what he had wanted to say in front of an audience all his life, and anything over forty souls could happily be described as an audience, not to mention the church choir backstage. Two hours before the start of the official programme, here for a magical interlude, not bad, not bad at all, thought Klingenreiter.
Once again he sought out his great-nephew’s eyes, and this time he caught the edge of a blue pupil, but then Felix lowered his head. Klingenreiter didn’t hold it against him, he knew now that the boy was engaged, the boy was paying attention; he just didn’t want to get caught paying attention.
‘What you are about to see will change your opinion of magic forever. But in order for you to see it, I need a volunteer.’ Klingenreiter spread his arms invitingly, his shirt glittered, the coffee machine beeped. No one moved.
At the climax of her show, the great illusionist Halima had said something quite different, something bold, Klingenreiter didn’t dare say it: ‘Magic is not what I do. Magic is what you don’t see me do.‘ Halima, with her black locks and her long arms that beat the air as she leapt, danced, flew across the stage.
Halima had also used dramatic music to underscore her tricks and illusions; Klingenreiter just had the coffee machine. The church choir had in fact been available; before his number, they had been rehearsing for their evening performance, and Klingenreiter had really quite enjoyed it, first ‘What if God was one of us‘, followed by the very sad ‘Wir sind nur Gast auf Erden’, then the very cheerful finale, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, all of it very competent, Fichtner barely had to intervene.
But Klingenreiter and Fichtner hadn’t been able to agree on a song to accompany the illusion. Klingenreiter would have liked the choir just to hum ‘The Final Countdown’, his first choice, or that one everyone knows from Carmina Burana, his second. But for the conductor, humming was out of the question.
‘Of course not, goodness me, Freddie.’ Felix had also had an opinion on that.
Fichtner’s official excuse was that the stage was too small for the choir and Klingenreiter and Klingenreiter’s box, which along with Klingenreiter’s outstretched arms was still waiting to be used.
Klingenreiter had booked two VIP seats for Halima’s magic show, for himself and Felix, in the second row. It had been exactly one month ago, just after Felix’s fourteenth birthday, the ticket Klingenreiter’s present to the boy, but also Klingenreiter’s present to Klingenreiter, his first big magic show. For someone who had loved magic since boyhood, who had read Harry Potter at 65 and never left the house without a pack of cards in his pocket, it really was high time.
Klingenreiter had also looked forward to the trip to the state capital with Felix. He had found a Turkish restaurant for dinner, the idea being that there weren’t any Turkish places at home. The boy seemed indifferent, he asked if he was allowed to order a Coke.
‘You don’t have to ask my permission.’ Klingenreiter laughed.
Felix said okay and ordered a beer.
Klingenreiter opened his eyes exaggeratedly wide, and Felix gave him a jaded grin.
Fourteen, though, that was something, thought Klingenreiter, ordering a lager and an extra glass, and he poured some for Felix, though he didn’t touch it, drank his Coke, and Klingenreiter only drank half his beer because of the medication.
‘So what else do you like doing?’ He couldn’t imagine any response but ‘something on the computer’.
‘Why me?’ asked Felix.
Klingenreiter didn’t understand.
‘Why didn’t you bring the twins? They just had a birthday too. Or Max? He’s four, I’m sure he’d be into this stuff.’
Klingenreiter smiled and hated the fact that he was smiling. That he always had to smile out of the corners he was forced into. There was a tapestry hung on the tiled wall, the counter was made of glass and metal. Klingenreiter looked for wood and found none. The boy looked relaxed, as winners do. As if he were glad they were failing to have a simple conversation.
Including Thomas and his family, there were forty-eight people in the community hall. Everyone was silent now, but there was still no volunteer for Klingenreiter.
Klingenreiter’s arms were heavy as he held them out in the suggestion of a hug. Perhaps people were silent because his own silence had become too great. Because it’s uncomfortable when someone stands on a stage and doesn’t say anything. Or perhaps he had wet himself again and the silence was an embarrassed one.
Felix licked the salt off a pretzel stick.
On the wall opposite hung the eternal banner: The word was made flesh.
Beside him, his box. The lightning flashes like accusations, the question mark a malicious grin.
He had designed the box himself. Almost 50 years working in a sawmill, and at 77 this was his first piece of handiwork, from design through to manufacture.
Fine, Holger Schwarzmann had lent him his untrembling hands for the detail work, and Theo Schwarzmann his muscle for the concealing system. But he had done the cutting himself. When it came to the tricks and refinements, the essential elements of any conjuring equipment, he had to overrule Schwarzmann Junior several times, and the boy had been really thrown by the fact that old Klingenreiter was contradicting him, even though Klingenreiter had been holding back, because it was clear to him that you couldn’t expect someone who had manufactured boxes for transporting potatoes his whole life to instantly manage a box for a great illusion, a box for art.
The cut surfaces had to be clean, faultless, and Schwarzmann took a jigsaw to them, cutting freehand! When every millimetre counted! And so Klingenreiter had given him the little Japanese saw he’d given to Franz years ago. Wherever he was, whether it was heaven or hell, he didn’t need saws.
The saw was a Hon Dozuki Deluxe. Rattan handle. A great tool, beautiful too, you can’t say that about our saws, they’ve never been beautiful.
Yes, and when Felix dropped by, that was the best thing, when the boy asked what the box was all about.
‘It’s for a magical illusion’, Klingenreiter replied.
‘A vanishing act.’
‘Is it a trick?’
‘That depends on whether you’re the one vanishing or the one watching.’
Felix turned aside and spat.
‘I would paint the box.’
‘I was intending to.’
‘No, I mean, I’d paint it. If you’ll let me.‘
Of course he let him. Klingenreiter could scarcely conceal his delight, and in his head Käthe asked him why anyone ever concealed their delight.
That same evening, they met in the production hall. Klingenreiter had arranged the paints, brushes, light. Music and a bit of supper, too, but the boy didn’t want that, he wanted his peace and quiet and his Coke.
They spent four hours in the otherwise deserted hall. After four hours you could no longer smell the wood, or the anti-mould chemicals.
That evening would have been Klingenreiter’s answer to Felix’s question about why he had brought him. Great uncle and great nephew painting a box for a conjuring trick, in the 900m2 production hall of the family sawmill, surrounded by wooden panels, wooden frames, wooden beams, surrounded by the sawdust ghosts of dead Klingenreiters who were haunting them in the family’s usual style: ambitiously.
‘Freddie? Could I just…?’ That was Thomas. He waved the papers and started walking towards the stage without waiting for an answer. Klingenreiter was now feeling very comfortable up there. His arms grew lighter the closer Thomas came. From the papers in his hand and the brisk way he was advancing towards the stage, it seemed certain that he was going to make an announcement.
Now? Heat rose into Klingenreiter’s face, but the words came out in a friendly tone: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have our volunteer! A round of applause please for Thomas Klingenreiter!’
Thomas didn’t understand at first, the applause translated it for him. At once, he raised his arms like he was pushing something heavy away from him, and backed off.
‘What, too much of a coward?’ Klingenreiter didn’t know if he had said it or just thought it. He was entirely indifferent one way or the other. He looked at Felix. He was sitting up now and had brushed the hair off his forehead.
For an hour and a half, Halima, the First Lady of Magic, had given her all on stage. For forty-five minutes, Felix didn’t give any indication of whether he was enjoying it. He was slumped in his seat, his hands in his pockets. It was only before the interval that the boy became visible, so to speak, and started sitting like someone with a spine.
Halima’s guests, a Ukrainian couple, did a crazy quick-change dance number, with a telephone box as their only prop. The man entered the phone box right at the start wearing Mickey-Mouse underpants, and left it a moment later in a suit. So it went on, for minutes, dancing and changing.
‘The most important thing for quick change’, Klingenreiter whispered, ‘is a good tailor.’
Felix didn’t seem to be listening, Felix was leaning forwards.
The number ended amid great applause, the boy applauded too, and Klingenreiter applauded the boy.
In the interval they stood in the foyer with their Coke and pretzels, and Klingenreiter watched Felix watching two girls his own age.
‘I draw clothes’, said Felix, his eyes still on the girls.
‘You wanted to know. What I like doing.’
‘Yes – yes, I did. That’s good. I think that’s good’, said Klingenreiter, feeling silly.
‘I don’t care what you think. Nobody has to like it. I like it.’
The lights were dimmed for the second act, the warm tones vanished, the sound of bells rang out. Halima entered the stage all in black. The auditorium was in total darkness. The smell of Sunday church hung in the air.
Halima danced on black tightropes, made the ropes vanish, danced in the air, slowly, mournfully. She got into a cage and left the cage as man and mouse, man and mouse climbed onto a bed that went up in flames, and when the flames were extinguished, Halima walked out of the smoke. She put a sword down her throat, lay on a bed of spearheads and recited the whole of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe.
Like all people who are serious about something, she wore herself out. Cracks appeared in her makeup. The audience seldom applauded, but was still under her spell. She didn’t want to surprise, she wanted the perfect illusion. Her expression was cold, almost tense.
Klingenreiter understood it all. Why that turn, why this position. He could explain every build-up and every finale in mechanical or visual or technical terms. It was not the explanation he enjoyed, but the inexplicable – Halima made no mistakes, never showed any weakness, which meant that all of his explanations were ultimately just assumptions.
She quoted the great magicians whose illusions and legends Klingenreiter had lived with all his life. They had been his escape when the office, the wood, the family became too much for him.
Halima quoted Houdini and walked through a wall, harmonising with herself as she sang in a foreign language.
She quoted Hofzinser and transformed the stage into a drawing room, where tea was served for audience members and ravens walked among them like liveried servants. The magician as hostess: she whispered a word here, stroked a temple there, first with a deck of cards in her hand, then a cloth, then a black dove. When the stage was hers alone once more, the tea trolley and the carpet were strewn with watches, jewellery, wallets, phones. The audience howled.
Before her last, her greatest illusion – an escape act – Halima needed an assistant. She looked over Klingenreiter’s head, pointed behind him, shook her head, and then their eyes met. He pointed to Felix, but felt recognised all the same: she had chosen him out of hundreds.
And then Klingenreiter was up there, bowing to the magician. Applause surged up and ebbed away, Halima’s helpers flitted around him like black butterflies, a clarinet played a waking dream.
How lovely it would be, the old man thought, to die like this.
Halima explained to Klingenreiter what was expected of him. He didn’t listen, he knew what he had to do, he was interested in her fingers, always in motion, what signals was she giving, and to whom? To him?
Centre-stage, a complicated contraption bared teeth that were made of blades and flames, a rope dangling above it. The butterflies handed Klingenreiter a straitjacket so that he could make sure it was in working order, help Halima put it on and fasten the belt as tightly as he could.
He reached into the sleeve and at once discovered the cord to release the inner padding and give the wearer more room. He also knew that the burning rope on which the jacketed Halima would soon be suspended had a steel core, and thus could not be destroyed by fire; a technician would break it remotely, shortly after Halima had freed herself. She was in no danger.
What if Klingenreiter looked around and explained the trick to Felix? And Klingenreiter looked around, the straitjacket in his hands, turned to face the stalls, and Thomas said: ‘I just need to make an announcement for the boys on the early shift.’
Unfortunately Klingenreiter had only imagined that taunt about him being a coward. And then he saw Felix coming towards him. He’s going to take the mic away from me, he thought, he’s going to say that I’m the coward for not defending myself against his father’s rudeness, against this life, a whole life of being a clown at best.
With the straitjacket in his hands, Ferdinand Klingenreiter was in charge. The auditorium was dark and waiting for him. ‘It’s real, believe me.‘ A little smile. ‘I can tell you that from experience.‘ Here and there someone laughed. He handed the jacket to the butterflies, Halima blew him a kiss, her fingers thanked him, and Klingenreiter left the stage. Felix was waiting for him at the steps to help him down.
‘I’ll do it.’ Felix came and stood beside his great uncle.
Klingenreiter swallowed. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, another Klingenreiter!’ He winked at the community hall. ‘But this here’s a brave one.’
People applauded, Thomas retreated to his seat, Felix breathed a girl’s name into the mic, and a few seconds later four choirgirls around Felix’s age whisked out from behind the curtain. They positioned themselves at the side of the stage and, at his signal, began to hum that piece from Carmina Burana.
Freddie the Fantastic opened his box and showed the audience that it was empty. He asked his great nephew to get inside. He threw a black cloth over the box and raised his arms above his head like a conductor, like a great illusionist.
*Copyright © 2016, Luchterhand Literaturverlag, München.
*The translation of this short story was partly funded by the Goethe Institute.
*Image: Liu Bolin