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Saragossa in Berlin

Iftach Alony | from: Hebrew

Translated by : Daniell Zamir

Introduction by Nurit Zarchi

A pair of Israeli young men who shared some experiences in the army – experiences more easily suppressed than forgotten – are now spending their time together in Berlin.
An underlying darkness is ever-present in their attempts to have some fun, rearing its head as if at random, as if it's "no big deal" when they decide to buy a bull and run him in a bullfight.
The bull, who they name Saragossa, fulfills a symbolic function on multiple plains: the dark instinctual force they experienced in the war - a blend of power, fear, the desire to win and the forgetting of one's self in battle; the primordial symbol of the bull, manifested as a calf and widespread throughout the Egyptian, Minoan and Biblical world; and of course its name, which makes us think of Spain, yet not in the heroic context of bullfights but rather as an allusion to the Jewish community at a time when culture flourished in this Spanish city, while its fate was determined by history.
The bull becomes the mouthpiece for these young men. It represents what they cannot express, a profound feeling they are unable to give voice to, because of the Israeli culture, the political and military situation, and the need to be politically correct. It is a concept that completely contradicts the national vision, and perhaps reality as well.
And so Saragossa escapes from the ring, led by the notion of "Why should I die for you?"
Indeed he escapes, but it turns out he has no place to go to in this world, there is no shelter for him, and he cannot go further than the story's protagonists allow themselves to go. His only escape route is his desperate need to flee this conflict, to soar with the birds.[spacer height="20px"]

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Boaz called out to Chicko: “I saw those in the Golan, waiting for hot air to come so they can fly, be birds.” He was stretched out on the couch, watching a TV show about animal migration. Eagles circled and soared above a canyon sealed off by violet fog. The images of ascending eagles switched to a ketchup commercial: a blonde sunk her teeth into a bun with a juicy burger, the ketchup smeared on her plump lips. Chicko said: “I think I know her,” and laughed. Boaz chuckled, a strident sound, as if trying to clear his throat of phlegm, “Germans… they all look alike to you…”

“Well,” Chicko said, “we’ve only been here for two days…” He scratched his head, “… it looks promising.”

“You think they’ll put out for you just like that? Because you’re Israeli? There’re a dime a dozen like you here…”

“Then who needs them anyway.” Chicko raised his arms like Maciste and flexed his muscles. “We’ll make our money and then  off to South America.”

When they were about to leave to go to stall on Mullerstrasse that belonged to Daddon, their old army squad commander, a herd of bulls crossed the screen. Chicko said: “If we get one of those over here we’re set…”

They bought a bull online. It looked good. Eight hundred and fifty kilos of flesh and muscle. It had black fur that shined with the flow of light and horns that seemed menacing, as if they possessed a force that was about to burst out any moment.

They named him Saragossa, wanting a name that momentarily halts the day-to-day thoughts, that draws from the memory feelings like: we’re on vacation in Spain. Spain is corridas. We have to see a corrida. Whatever it costs…

“That’s a tight marketing name,” Boaz said.

Saragossa had a good and happy temper. While they waited for the municipality’s tourist department to authorize the corrida, they roamed the streets of Berlin with him, so he could get used to the language, so he could understand where he was. In the mornings they would take him to Tiergarten Park to run between the tress and the lawns, work up a sweat. People got excited, stood up and clapped for him. He would pass by them, turn his gaze to them, swell and ram the air with his horns, making fear spread inside their bodies like a thread of heat. And laugh: I’m not a ghost. “They should take pictures with him,” Chicko said, “posing with a bull is worth at least ten Euros…”

Boaz positioned Saragossa beneath a tree and told him: “Stand like a statue… like that monument over there, see?” He pointed towards an obelisk-like marble column that marked a roundup point for Jews.

Saragossa stood beneath the tree. He listened to the birds singing through the rising and falling German diction, and thought: They’re laughing at me. He felt the void inside of him intensify. He gazed into the distance. Tried to ignore the hands waving in front of his eyes. Spread his legs slightly apart, peed and broke into a sprint, showing them what he was made of.

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When he returned to his post beneath the tree, a police officer arrived mounted on a big, white motorcycle: “You’re under arrest,” he told Saragossa.

Ha. Ha ha ha ha. Saragossa bellowed.

Boaz said: “How exactly are you planning to arrest him?”

It became very quiet. Even the jaybirds clammed up.

“You didn’t see the sign, huh? You’re blind? It says right here, ‘Keep animals on a leash’.” The officer pulled a threatening face as his mouth splintered the words in English.

Boaz said in Hebrew: “What an idiot, how does he expect us to understand what’s written there.”

The officer took out a large notepad and filled in the details: Saragossa. Bull. 43 Mullerstrasse. They got a fine.

Afterwards the officer looked at Saragossa with a  kind of  ‘I’m watching you, mother fucker’ Robert De Niro look, and said, “Next time it won’t end with a fine!”

Saragossa blinked at him, and Chicko said: “You don’t want him to flip out on you.”

The officer gave Saragossa a very angry look in return and moved his hand towards his gun as if repeating a motion against his will, as if something from his past had taken over him. Saragossa lowered his head.

Chicko said to Boaz: “See how easily they turn into assholes who only want to screw you over…?”

The officer climbed onto his big motorcycle and took off.

A rather old lady approached Boaz, asking to take a picture with Saragossa: “I adore bulls.” She looked into his eyes and placed her hand on the white spot on his forehead, stroking, humming as if remembering something.

Saragossa thought: sometimes it’s nice to be a statue. She stroked him and he dreamed he was galloping. That the wind became thick as if full of particles—fragments of tiny images that break the illusion that he has no memory. He thought he heard the sounds of the bolero from his last corrida. He felt that he was running, ramming his head into trees, pushing them with all his might. The air wore a blue metallic color. He rams and his head fills with ringing sounds. The old woman’s eyes are unrelenting, piercing, as if to wake something that refuses to stir in the memory and become present. It occurred to him that perhaps the joy is false, that his soul is broken deep inside the flesh: If you prick us, do we not bleed?

The Berlin Department of Culture and Sports decided that the corrida would take place in Wannsee. They had a long list of reasons. Boaz said: “Wannsee is great, there’s a forest there where Saragossa can run around, Granwald, Grunewald…”

Chicko laughed, “These people find a solution for everything…” After a moment he added, “It’ll be epic, we’ll sell double-feature tickets, corrida and a visit to the Wannsee House…”

“Yeah, the city council said they want to promote tourism to the Wannsee House, that recently people stopped going. That once it was a hit,” Boaz said and became silent.

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On the night before a corrida I always have a dream. The dream is built like a tower created from layers that rise and vanish in infinity, or collapse and vanish in the depths of the earth. I march in a spiral, and the spiral becomes a labyrinth that has no roof and no bottom, no walls and no way back. I advance inside it, lost, bumping my horns in objects, shaving off fragments of them. I hear a distant voice: Does the bull have no eyes? And then I’m captured and grabbed by the horns, forced to listen: You’re going to be a badass, yes! You’re going to show them that bulls know how to die heroically! I want to answer the voice and a surge of answers rise inside me. I try to ram, but the horns are held tight. A jet of hot air flows from my nostrils, I foam at the mouth, I make myself sick. My head slowly sinks, I feel that I’m succumbing to the voice and wake up in horror.

A moment before Saragossa is supposed to enter the ring, Chicko said to Boaz: “I think he’s not in the mood for the corrida.”

Boaz approached Saragossa and stroked his forehead, whispering in his ear: “Revenge!”

“Catch him with your eyes in his!” Chicko blurted out to Boaz. “That’s what my father used to do to them in the pen.”

Boaz yelled out to him: “Why would he go in there?” Why would he agree to die…?”

“It’s all about the instincts… Bulls give in to them. You’ll see in a minute,” Chicko answers.

Their sentences flew above him. He felt how his muscles move, swell from blood, that maybe Chicko is right.

“Come on, go in!” Chicko yelled, shocking him with a taser. Saragossa opens his mouth feeling as though his hinges are breaking. He emitted a fuming snort, stomped his legs, sprayed dirt and raced into the corrida: Fuck you all, mother fuckers.

He charged ahead, running wild.

Chicko yelled to Boaz, “See, it’s the instincts!”

The toreador’s face tensed. Seized in fear.

Boaz said to Chicko, “I hope he doesn’t shit his pants.”

The explosion of thunder cuts through the sky, diving into the ground.

Chicko shouted: “That piece of shit is stopping!”

Eight hundred and fifty kilos of Saragossa halted, dust shoots into the air.

“He’s going backwards!” Chicko raged.

Saragossa looked back, staring at Chicko: Why should I charge? Why should I agree to die? For you?

Chicko answered back with his voice: “It’s a game, don’t you get it?”

Ha. Ha ha ha ha. I laugh and push myself backwards. And backwards. I step backwards and hum:

Between midnight and dawn, baby we may ever have to part,

But there’s one thing about it, baby, please remember I’ve always been your heart.1

“I want to see you run off!” Chicko waves the taser at me, standing in front of me in a battle position.

I look at him: You think you’re a magician?

He rams me with the taser. The pain doesn’t bother me. I step back. The air is bathed and pleasant. It’s amazing how clear you see when looking backwards. The wind howls in my ears. The other voices float shapelessly. My gaze flies towards the city’s horizon, wandering in the darkness that grows and plucks the fringes of the golden light.

Chicko charges at me: “You’re a bull! What’s your problem?”

I continue marching backwards. The old woman from the park waves at me: “Remember me?”

As the sun sets I enter a street of gray slabs. Not a single window or door. The smell of urine hangs in the air. I butt one: Concrete. The butting shocks the head. I want out but the slabs resemble each other, like the headstones in the cemetery they took me to one day. I march and become dizzy. The tiredness takes over me. I reach a concave square, letters tattooed on the concrete. I lick them:

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

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Reason ends here.

Peter Eisenman.

Chicko says to Boaz, “We’re screwed.”

Boaz scratches his stubble-covered chin: “I thought bulls didn’t have a memory.”

Night, the city lights flow in front of my eye, I’m a bit cold. I have nothing to fear, I have already glimpsed beyond my own death. Something happened to fear, it bends over me, laughing a dark laughter and speaking: Here’s a hero bull who doesn’t charge, the bull who won’t agree to die.

Am I dead anyway, and that’s why death has no power over me? What’s stopping me from taking off? With sudden clarity I understand how lost I feel inside my body. The giant muscles move, I try to sleep and dream of meadows. A truck races on the road, its headlights slice the concrete slabs, tearing from them scary voices.

Slowly the night’s fog disperses, the sky is dark, stained with gray, as if the memorial’s two thousand seven hundred and eleven slabs of concrete are reflecting in it. I close my eyes, turning them into woods and lawns. I wander between the slabs, sharpen my horns on them, lick the dew, scratch. Soon the jays will come to clean the fur, so the black will shine, pop for the tourists’ cameras. They’re sure I’m part of the memorial. As they arrive I turn my back to the sun, stretch the neck out, showing off the sharp horns. Every now and then I do a diva’s twirl in the labyrinth, bellow loudly and spray dust with my foot.

Eleven thirty, it’s getting hot, the blood gushes inside: at once everything looks like a magical meadow. I feel like galloping, to stir a caressing breeze. I look through the concrete street at the clearing skies: where there was a star there is now a blue depth. The birds from the Tiergarten across the street sing, and as if of one mind, abandon the trees and soar. I join them, flying among them, they don’t recognize me as separate from them. It seems I’ve been saved.


*Featured image: Studio Uber nice

  1. The quoted Johnny Temple song is from Julio Cortázar’s book “Rayuela”

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