This story is a house. Reading it, I watch Maxim Biller energetically laying brick upon brick. He calls the story ‘The Architect’ – brick number one. But it doesn’t seem to be about an architect at all; it’s about Splash and Naila who live in a flat the architect can look into at any time – bricks two, three, four and five. Splash’s real name is Jörn – brick number six. Naila always calls Splash ‘my darling’ which makes him impatient – brick number seven. Splash is sick to death of Naila’s crazy Lebanese family – brick number eight. On the day when the story is set, Splash and Naila both have important appointments – brick number nine. And so on. Biller doesn’t lay many bricks, and when the building is finished, I am surprised to discover that although I can’t see behind the façade, I know all about what’s inside. I see the furniture, the mess in the bathroom, the half-opened kitchen window, the stains on the carpet – everything. But even as I’m staring at the building and imagining a future for it, the author destroys it with one blow. The house collapses. That is the great art of the short story.
When they woke up in the morning the architect was already sitting at his computer. His office was in the right wing of the building; they lived in the left wing. The light was on all night in the inner courtyard. It would soon go off, and then at some point the architect would put the light out in his office too. Now, in winter, that might not be until mid-day. On particularly dark days he kept the light on until evening – until he finished work, leaving the office after everyone else, and took the elevator up to join his family.
He waved to them and immersed himself in his work again. He never made them feel that he was watching them, but nor did he think of drawing the drapes in his office. They didn’t draw theirs either. Usually they just pushed one of those large aluminium blinds resembling aircraft wings from one side of the long window to the other. Sometimes they forgot to do it, woke up in the morning, and they could see him at work from their bed. Once they had sex on the sofa in front of the TV set in the middle of the day. He couldn’t have failed to notice. But he never once raised his head, and to make phone calls he went back into the large room where his staff sat at long white tables, looking at their computer monitors all day long.
While Naila was in the bathroom, Splash made breakfast. They were in a hurry. They were almost never in a hurry, but Naila had to be in Jakobstrasse by ten, because her permit to stay ran out today, and he had a date to meet the one-eyed Icelander in Kopenhagener Strasse to show him the studio. He hated the idea of not being able to work alone in his studio any more – but they needed the money. Anyway he was hardly ever there, so it made no difference. He hadn’t done any work for almost a year, not since they started living together, and sometimes Splash thought that was to do with Naila. Then he thought it was to do with this building. It was far too transparent, glass and aluminium and black stone everywhere, and the trams rattled down Rosenthaaler Strasse every few minutes, scaring away the few ideas he still had with the noise they made.
Naila came out of the shower naked. She had wrapped her hair in a towel, and when Splash nodded toward the architect she said, “He doesn’t look anyway.” Splash shrugged and went into the bathroom. When he had finished Naila was standing by the window in panties and his new blue T-shirt. The architect was standing at his window too, and they were both making funny gestures. Splash turned, went back into the bathroom, and came out again two minutes later. Naila was fully dressed, the architect was back at his desk.
The architect had designed this building himself. It was his first; that was why he found it so hard to part with it. Either he sat down there in his office, or he was up with his family. He left the building only in his car. He drove out of the garage, and when he came back he drove straight into the garage again, as if the car itself were a part of the building, and that way he never had to leave the place.
Splash usually met the architect’s wife and children in the elevator or the entrance hall, which had walls clad with large, matt steel panels. It was so tall and narrow that you felt as if you were inside a rocket there. The architect’s wife smiled a lot. She was small, almost as small as her children, and the children laughed a lot too, but Splash didn’t believe their laughter was real. He had never distrusted a child’s laughter before. Probably he was being unjust, and he didn’t believe the laughter of these children was real because their mother’s certainly wasn’t. Or perhaps it was simply that the children didn’t fit into these surroundings, in their brightly colored, ugly winter anoraks, the kind that every child wore, and their thick winter boots, which were usually smeared with mud.
“Are you going to the studio today, my darling?” Naila asked.
“My darling,” said Splash impatiently. He used to be called Jörn, not Splash, but so far she had never called him by his real name.
“Well, are you going?”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” she said.
He looked at her and didn’t know whether her delight was genuine. Sometimes Naila spoke in a tone of voice that he couldn’t interpret. No doubt her friends and relations at home understood that tone of voice – but he didn’t. He was angry, then he put his hand over Naila’s, which was lying on the table almost as if it didn’t belong to her, and he thought he could draw that hand some time. It was a warm hand; he stroked it, turned it over and opened it, and it was cold inside. So he put the palm of his hand on hers, and suddenly he stood up. leaned toward Naila and kissed her. She didn’t kiss him back. It had often been like that recently. When he tried to touch her breasts she retreated and said, “Stop it, he can see us!”
“I thought you said he didn’t look.”
“I did, I did,” she said, and there it was again, that tone of voice he couldn’t interpret. “I did,” she repeated, and they both looked at the architect.
The architect was standing with his back to them, speaking on the phone. Plans hung on the wall behind him, and he looked at the plans as he phoned, but he kept turning his head to look at the two of them. He had never done that before, and after a while Splash had had enough of it. He took Naila’s face firmly in both his hands and kissed her on the lips, in spite of her resistance. She pushed him away and ran into the bathroom, and when Splash looked up his eyes met the eyes of the architect. The sense of nausea in his stomach disappeared as quickly as it had come.
“Naila!” called Splash. “Quick, come here! You have to see this! I think he’s gone crazy!”
The architect had been calmly continuing his phone conversation, but suddenly he threw the telephone on the floor, tore his plans off the wall, and swept his papers, the computer, and his models of buildings off the desk. His employees came in, two of them took him by the shoulders and tried to hold him and calm him down, but he broke free, ran to the window and drummed his fists on it. In the end he slid down past the window pane and fell exhausted to the floor, and his thin face with its large green eyes and the shock of untidy black hair over them looked more attractive than usual.
“That’s what I’ll do if they don’t make long my permit to stay today,” said Naila. She was standing behind Splash and had hooked her fingers into the belt loops of his jeans.
“If they don’t extend my permit to stay today,” he corrected her, and thought, well, why not? Then he could start working again, and it wouldn’t be all Naila, Naila, Naila any more. Then he wouldn’t have to keep talking to her about her life, then it would be none of his business that her mother had had an affair with her grandfather, that her father called her Puppi and often called her at night from Beirut, in tears, that Lebanese men were all idiots and that was why she liked the men here so much – too much, he thought – and he wouldn’t have to stay living in this stupid, expensive, icy rocket of a building because of her any more. He could move back into the studio in Kopenhagener Strasse, and he could tell the one-eyed Icelander today to look for some other place, he didn’t need his money any more, not ever.
“Do you know what’s wrong with him?” said Naila.
“I thought you did,” said Splash.
“Me? Why me?”
She put on her tall brown boots and the red Alaia jacket that he hated so much – it was a present from her father – and said, “Do you have my keys?”
“Why are you always asking me for your keys? I never had your keys.”
“But you can always find them.”
“Darling … my sunlight, my heart!”
He stood up and began clearing the table. He went back and forth between the table and the kitchen at least twenty times, always carrying just one plate, or one spoon, or just the damn butter dish. When the table was empty he sat down, lit a cigarette, and tried to concentrate. Should he call the Icelander and put off their meeting until the evening? By then he’d know whether Naila could stay on or not. Or should he call off the deal entirely? He’d already put the Icelander off twice, perhaps that meant he wouldn’t turn up anyway. But maybe he wouldn’t have to put him off at all. Yes or no? At that moment he heard the loud screech of a tram very close, and he jumped. An icy gust of wind touched his legs, the next tram thundered by, he looked up and saw that Naila had opened one of the huge windows.
“La-lala-lala,” she went. She was strolling up and down the enormous room as if it were a park, she walked in a circle swaying her large Arab behind around. “La-lala-lala,”
“Do shut that window, Naila,” he said. “I can’t think with all this noise.”
“Only if you’ll help me look for my keys.”
He stood up, went to the coat stand, and took the keys out of the little inside pocket of her black leather jacket.
“How did you know they were there?”
“They always are,” he said. “If they’re not in another jacket. Or in the soap dish in the bathroom. Or in the drawer with the cookies. Or in the bed. Or under the mattress. Or under the bed.”
“Thank you, my darling,” she said, hugging him tentatively.
“My darling,” he said.
“What will I do without you?” she said, smiling. There were tears in her eyes, and she kissed him on the cheeks and the mouth. Then she looked at him again, and the tears were gone. Had they ever been there at all, he wondered. Or was it just another act in her great big emotional Lebanese show?
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll get your papers today.”
“Suppose I don’t?”
“Suppose you don’t?”
“Yes – suppose I don’t? Suppose I have to go home?”
He looked at her gravely, she looked back at him gravely, and because he couldn’t hold her gaze he looked past her at the room. It was not with his own eyes that he saw all this, it was with the eyes of someone he was not yet but soon might be. After he had seen it all, the bed, the two white Pierre Paulin armchairs, the silver lamp on its marble stand, the photos of Naila’s family in gold frames on the TV set, and his old pictures on the high walls, after he had glanced briefly at the architect’s dark and empty office, he looked into Naila’s brown, very brown eyes again and said, “If you have to go back, my angel, then I’ll go with you, of course.”
“Would you do that?” she said, surprised. “Would you really do that …?” She pushed his arms away and removed herself from his embrace. “Come on, I must go,” she said. She pressed her thin, freshly painted lips together two or three times, and as she turned away she cast a last, surreptitious look at the other side of the inner courtyard.
They stood side by side in silence outside the elevator. They stood so that their arms and shoulders did not quite touch, and that was almost exciting once again. The elevator came, the door opened, and there stood the architect with his wife. Their children were all there too. Splash and Naila got in with them, they said hello, the architect said hello too, his wife smiled, and the children looked up and smiled as well.
The architect looked normal again. Splash watched him out of the corner of his eye as he stared past the heads of the architect and Naila to look at the gleaming silver wall of the elevator. He looked at Naila too now and then, and she seemed quite normal. Perhaps a little nervous, but that was natural. He would have been just as nervous in her position. He was nervous even when he had to go to the doctor, or get a visa from some consulate when he went on a journey. She had put off visiting the aliens’ registration office until the very last day, out of anxiety, and he would have done just the same. So now she was nervous. Splash went on staring at the elevator wall, but all the same he noticed Naila and the architect briefly touching hands. She stroked the back of his own hand with her fingers, he clenched his fist, and after that she removed her hands again.
The elevator stopped on the first floor, and Splash and Naila got out. The architect and his family went on down to the garage. They said goodbye, and the elevator door closed behind them. Splash took Naila’s hand, and they went out. They walked hand in hand to the tram stop, and when Naila boarded her tram and it drove off Splash watched her go. He even thought of waving, but then he didn’t. He turned and walked down Rosenhaller Strasse to the suburban train station, and because the pedestrian lights outside the Hackescher Höfen took forever to come on he looked up at the rocket-like building. The matt, blue-gray glass façade looked dead in the hazy winter light. On two floors, lights were on at the front of the building – in the architect’s place and in the publishing firm on the floor above – and in that greenish-yellow neon lighting the people in the offices looked as if they were slowly drowning. Splash shook his head and swore quietly. Then he didn’t feel like waiting in the crowd at the lights any more, but what could he do? He waited all the same, until they turned green. Then they turned red again at once, then green again, then red again, and he still stood there, not knowing what to do.
*This story is taken from: Love Today by Maxim Biller, translated from the German by Anthea Bell. Copyright © 2007 by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne.
*Translation copyright © 2008 by Anthea Bell. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.