Yotam Reuveni is a writer (or rather writer-poet) of otherness and misfit. He is so as an immigrant who has ventured deep into Israeli culture while remaining a chronic outsider; a declared homosexual who refuses to enter the LGBT community and adopt its petit-bourgeois familial character; a lyric narrator who disregards the conventions of Israeli fiction and doesn’t adapt himself to any of its accepted styles. He lets himself remain, at least partially, within the boundaries of hallucinatory fiction, a path he took forty years ago with his first book In Favor of Hallucination. On a flat, scorching Tel Aviv rooftop he employs the power of hallucination to create a story of a cultural world which might not have even existed the way he imagines it – the world of the German culture’s refugees who arrived in Palestine during the thirties of the previous century. That world fills the space created on the sweltering rooftop in between the visits of local men who confront the fantasy of “Deutschland” (in fact, almost none of the imagined protagonists in the story – Brod, Max and Stefan Zweig, Kafka, Wittgenstein or Engelmann – actually lived in Germany) with the sweaty, aggressive physical reality of the homosexual embrace in Tel Aviv.
Translated by: Leanne Raday
In the summer of 1977, you moved to 90 Ahad Ha’am Street in Tel Aviv for one month. The summer was a real summer. There was no air-conditioning in 90 Ahad Ha’am.
The entrance to the building was low, peeling away, uninviting. On the left there was an ambiguous shop, a sort of washing-ironing place. Or maybe it was an upholstery workshop. The stairs had this brown, rhomboid, cracking Tel Avivian pattern.
The apartment was on the roof. There were two separate rooms there, built at a considerable distance from one another, and in the middle, also built separately, was a small toilet and shower. You first entered one room. You didn’t know whose room it was. It had clearly been uninhabited for a while, maybe even years. The room was not big. Bed, table, chair, cupboard and a little sink with a wooden shelf adjoined. That was the kitchen. It was the same in the other room.
You sat on the bed in one of the rooms, we’ll call it the first room. That was the first room you entered. If anyone had lived here, you wondered, how did he manage with two rooms so distant from one another? And in winter, how did he go to take a shower? With an umbrella?
You came with a suitcase and a few changes of clothes. As mentioned before, you were supposed to spend only one month there. There was a mirror fixed to the cupboard door and under it a tie rack. The mirror wasn’t cracked, only blurred, as if someone had passed through it to the other side. There was no tie on the tie rack.
From far away, maybe from Jerusalem, came the sound of a harp playing. How could you detect the sound of a harp from such a distance? Anyone who had heard Wilhelmine Bucherer could detect the sound of a harp playing, even from a great distance.
You sat there for a while. The loneliness you felt there, on the roof of the two rooms, you never would and never had felt before, you thought. You could have gone out, sat in cafés, walked on the beach. But you did nothing. You became addicted to that loneliness, which had a different tone about it, German by the sound of it.
When evening eventually came, you got up and turned the light on. The bulb was bare. You had somehow expected that. In the sharp light you searched through the cupboard drawers, the table drawer, the tiny space that was supposed to be the kitchen. You found nothing. You ran to the other room overwhelmed by a longing.
There too you searched vigorously. You didn’t know what you were looking for. Photographs maybe, something in writing, an object of some sort that would attest to life, to someone being there before you.
The rooms were empty of evidence, as if they had arrived that way, separate from one another, with the toilet in the middle, from another world, perhaps from Deutschland, and just landed on a roof in Tel Aviv.
It was early. Maybe six or seven in the evening. The heat that rose from the tarred boards on the roof only intensified after darkness. You fell asleep as you were, in your clothes and shoes. There were no dreams. It was the end of time.
When you woke up you were no longer there. You were in a different city, forty years later. You could have asked who lived there before; you didn’t, out of hesitation or an unwillingness to let the knowledge shatter the mystery. You felt as if you were violating a different life, barging like that into the closed rooms, deep in sleep, roasting in the unrelenting heat of the sun.
You hated them. They stood there indifferent, deaf, blind. You could have realized something about your life there. You did nothing.
Searching on the internet, which wasn’t even a dream back then, you unexpectedly came across a photograph of the entrance to 90 Ahad Ha’am, as it was at the time. Something uncanny gaped before your eyes. You saw them sitting side by side almost in silence. The summer was a real summer.
Time and space glistened around you like the hot fumes that rose from the tar on the roof. You already knew back then that a person was nothing but the people he had met. Less so the books he had read. Even less so the people he could have met, but escaped the biography because of history, and whom he had almost come across. At any rate, their shadow could be seen through the cracked mirror and incorporated quickly into the biography. The other path, the one you are walking now, is more difficult.
It turned out that two men had lived on that roof. In one room lived Max Zweig, in the other room Paul Engelmann. Sometimes, after the heat subsided, Max Brod would join them. They spoke German. They kept recreating Deutschland on the roof of 90 Ahad Ha’am. When you arrived, you could no longer see the map of Deutschland, which had been spread out there like a second roof. You were too young and didn’t want to see anything besides the naked body of a young man like you. Seeing, which was like a looking glass, was less important to you than the sex.
You would go out onto the roof alone, naked in the moonlight, geography covers you in a web of the dead. With time, the dead become a fine web of yearning. It doesn’t take up any room, but it does take you. It wanted to carry you to Germany in the twenties of the previous century, but you resisted. You wanted the naked man, the Greek man who was travelling the country, whom you met next to a juice stand on the corner of Dizengoff and Ben Gurion. You didn’t have the energy for Max Zweig or his cousin Stefan, Max Brod, Kafka or Wittgenstein. The Greek’s naked body gleamed in the moonlight. The map of the dead appeared and wanted to cover him too. He took a bottle of Ouzo out of his bag. “So beautiful are the nights in Kna’an”.
Engelmann was an architect. He was chosen to build the large house that belonged to Margarethe, Wittgenstein’s sister. Not a house actually – a Viennese palace. Engelmann started designing and then Wittgenstein began intervening. In fact, he was the one who designed the house. The perfect house. You hadn’t seen it then, but you see it now. The shutters, for example, were lowered to the floor with an electric mechanism.
The Wittgenstein family was one of the richest families in Europe, after the Rothschilds. At one point, Ludwig was the richest man in Europe. He squandered the money. He worked as a gardener. He worked at a hospital in London, and his job was to distribute medication to the sick. He recommended them not to take it. In exchange for a certificate ascertaining that the family was only one quarter Jewish, the Wittgensteins paid Hitler one thousand seven hundred kilos of gold and extra money. Wittgenstein and Hitler attended the same elementary school, but it is doubtful that they had ever actually met.
The web opens up now. Beyond it you see Max Zweig and his cousin Stefan Zweig. Stefan was already very famous by then. He didn’t know he would commit suicide twenty years later in a town called Petropolis, which he had never heard of before.
Max Zweig wrote plays. In one of them “Davidia”, the Arabs who attack the Jews are freedom fighters struggling for independence. The plays were only staged at the kibbutzim, even though his friend, Max Brod, who was director of the repertoire in the Habima National Theatre, recommended them. He was an advisor whose advice was never followed.
Habima Theatre is not far from 90 Ahad Ha’am Street. Sometimes Max would come to visit Max. If Engelmann was there, the three would sit together. Coffee that was prepared on the kitchen shelf. Maybe strudel. They didn’t visit one of the cafés on Ben Yehuda Strasse. As far as they were concerned, they could spend their whole lives on the roof of 90 Ahad Ha’am. All was lost anyhow: a dreadful country and sand that flew like a swarm of locust. Incessant heat. The sea so near always, almost like a disturbance. The rudeness everywhere. And still all this was not important – the ashes of Jews were already soaring on eagles’ wings high above 90 Ahad Ha’am. Everything was already becoming an exile inside exile.
Engelmann was closest to Wittgenstein. They worked together on the plans for his sister’s house for two years. He sometimes repeated things his friend had said: “I should have been a star in the sky, but instead I’m stuck here on the ground.” Max Zweig would nod. Write plays in German. Live from hand to mouth, like all the German Jews who never had property, servants, a future. The future of the playwright who wrote in German about freedom fighters, who would emerge seventy years later and be called “terrorists”, was bleak. The two, sometimes three of them, almost sang, but didn’t. If they had been born in Russia they might have sung. But they didn’t sing. As they sat opposite each other on the roof, they were removed from the roof and the city and the country and were again in the twenties in Vienna or Hamburg.
And then Wilhelmine Bucherer came. She was sent to take Max Zweig with her upon the harp. There’s a picture of her, about twenty; a beautiful girl with braided blonde hair, playing the Scherzo no. 2 by Chopin somewhere. You did everything you could to find performances of the Scherzo no. 2 by Chopin on the web. You dedicated that search to Wilhelmine Bucherer. She would play the Scherzo a year later in an apartment in Ramat Gan, which you were forced to leave for one month that summer for Ahad Ha’am, returning afterwards.
When Wilhelmine came to take Max, he was already sixty. She was fifty two. The braids passed away as all braids do. Max had many ties on the tie rack in the cupboard. That’s all he could do for variety. He had only one suit. Grey. Wilhelmine, who was named after the Queen of Holland, asked the two men to bring the harp from the nearby shack where they would sometimes stage plays. The harp was covered in a faux-leather black cloth cover. They carried the casket along Ahad Ha’am Street until they reached number 90. They knew who was really in the casket which they were carrying. They brought the harp up to the roof. She played the Scherzo no. 2 by Chopin. Max fell in love with her and she with him. Later they would move to Jerusalem.
When you returned to your permanent apartment in Ramat Gan, Wilhelmine Bucherer came to play the Scherzo in your room. The landlady invited her in honour of your 23rd birthday. Wilhelmine came with a man who looked like an Arab and carried the harp. Following her instructions, he placed the harp where you used to sit after sex and work, spurting red ink on the walls and vowing to travel faraway.
One day followed the next. The same table, the same people, the same work. Fragments of a comet were sometimes removed from a faraway roof. Sometimes Wittgenstein would come, as Paul Engelmann knew him. Paul would also come. And Stefan Zweig. They all appeared on your puppet theatre stage. Stefan stood with his regular sign “Jewish by chance”. The Nazis took everything from him. Above all, his grasp over language. His language was declared not his own. German belonged to the Germans.
First you see the two narrow metal beds that were moved to be close together. Stefan is sixty. Charlotte “Lotte” Altmann is sixty five. They slowly step onto the stage. The puppeteer pulls them to the beds. The same puppeteer places a small bottle of sleeping medicine in their hands. And then, no Stefan Zweig and no Lotte Altmann.
Three of Wittgenstein’s brothers, homosexuals like him, committed suicide. They appear one after the other on stage, bow and vanish. Wittgenstein didn’t commit suicide because he had to bequeath his sentence to the world. The sentence by which he is still remembered by many. Not that it matters. But what the majority remembers is the main thing. What they remember in the universities is covered in dust. They sink unknowingly into the internet. Clinging to their premium pieces of real estate in the world’s cities. They don’t stand a chance. They will be demolished, skyscrapers taking their place. There might be a small plaque that will attest to the fact that a university once stood here. Dogs will piss on it. All those disputable theories that were refuted time and time again, the deconstruction and reconstruction, the theory of nothing and the idea of being – “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”.
Wittgenstein had the most beautiful lovers. He himself was also beautiful as a youth. Then came the Tractatus and he lost it. He fought against it like a lion. He wanted to die and instead received medals of bravery that amazed him. The more he wanted to die, the more medals he received. You, on the other hand, sought the virile, primordial, dangerous, foul animal. Far from all the webs of fake knowledge, you thought, from all the intricate thoughts and articulations. Why complicate things so much? Everyone comes from a fetid drop. Struggle for fertilization. What was really in the casket that the dead carried along Ahad Ha’am?
Engelmann told Zweig in the silence of a faraway summer or maybe an autumn when a cool breeze was already blowing, what he had heard from his friend Wittgenstein. “Everything,” said Wittgenstein, “is primordial life struggling to break through.”
The primordial life, the madness of those who stayed in Deutschland, the lunacy of those who left, not breaking out, on the contrary – astounded until they went mad. How could it be that Germany, their Deutschland, the Germany of poetry, the Germany of Berlin, Berlin of Unter den Linden, would do such a thing to them. Not betrayal. This Germany refused them the one thing for which they were destined: becoming part of its history. And maybe worst of all: it stopped them from being German. Didn’t stop them – forbade them. And they couldn’t be anything else. They didn’t know how to be anything else.
The young country in which Zweig, Brod and Engelmann found themselves had to carry the weight of its past against its will. In the distance resonated the sounds of concerts, plays, poetry. The whole thing was doomed. The country agreed to assume only frivolous things from the past; while they were born in Germany and were supposed to be part of the German culture, to sing in the choir with Hitler in the last row. They were supposed to live and die in Germany, not come to a hot, crazy country which they had no interest in.
And here, instead, 90 Ahad Ha’am. Mein Gott, what humiliation. What a tragedy. They sat on the roof and gazed toward Deutschland. They made precise calculations, Engelmann was after all an architect-engineer, so they knew the exact point on the roof where their faces were turned towards her. And they did indeed live in German. The language, the word play, the contemplation, the sights in the mirror, the chess games, even the sea, belonged to Deutschland.
Sometimes Brod would come to visit, furious that another one of his recommendations was rejected by Habima Theatre. He would also find a place for himself in the exact point, or plain, that overlooked Deutschland. Like the East with the Jews. Were they also Jews? Yes, yes, but Deutschland. They would sit in a row, the three knights defending the homeland, and say nothing. While in Deutschland Jews were murdered with a poison invented by Fritz Haber for a different purpose.
Sometimes Kafka would arrive. He would bring the black cloth casket along, and also emerge from it. Then he would lie across the knees of the three fathers and they would look at him fondly. His feet on Engelmann’s knees, his back on Max’s stomach, his head on the other Max’s chest. Brod would stroke Kafka’s head and say, take a candy, I’ll burn your books, in make-believe. Wilhelmine played to them from afar, from Jerusalem – because she was already working for the Israeli Broadcasting Orchestra – the Scherzo no. 2 by Chopin.
And you, instead of searching for the unseen which was so close at hand and looking beyond it, holding on to the rims of Max and Paul and Max’s magic, you wanted what you wanted and did what you wanted. Men from Greece and Jaffa and Kiryat Shalom came to 90 Ahad Ha’am. Some crept into the ghost cover of a harp that had long since grown silent. Others came out. It could be perceived as a sign of salvation. You were sometimes with them in Max’s room. Sometimes in Paul’s room. You didn’t know which was Max’s room and which was Paul’s room anyhow.
Image: Mehran Djojan via Vectro Ave
Want to listen to audio editions?
Purchase a subscription and enjoy unlimited access to all features.
By subscribing you contribute and support authors, translators and editors.