the short story project


Arno Schmidt | from:German

Drummer for the Czar

Translated by : James Woods

Introduction by Nora Bossong

Just to get one thing straight: ‘I've never had any grand experiences myself.’ That at any rate is what the narrator claims, in the very first sentence of Arno Schmidt’s story "Drummer with the Tsar". He is a somebody; you might even say he’s an everyman, except that his observations and language are a little more caustic. He likes going for walks and doesn’t get far into the big, wide world – but maybe he has some experience of it even so, because ‘…what's New York after all ? Big city is big city; I've been to Hanover often enough.’ It soon becomes clear that experience is something this man likes to leave to others, something he acquires vicariously. We follow him into a lorry drivers’ bar near the GDR border, where the preferred drink is Coke mixed with Nescafé – and where, as this cocktail fizzes over, talk turns to reunification, and problems of globalisation are slapped down on the bar along with a few figures. The parochial is set against the Everywhere – against the world of ‘the closely monitored’. Would you get a better view of the world from anywhere else? Schmidt’s report draws on the abundant resources of the Federal Republic of post-war Germany; it is brusque, surly, often sarcastic and wonderfully funny and, let’s admit it, agreeably salacious. Truck-drivers’ jargon is combined with a full-on linguistic archaeology – a mix that earned Schmidt a reputation as one of the most challenging of German-language authors. In fact, our panicky fear of punctuation is more to blame. If you simply go with the flow, you’ll hear the people come alive as they talk. The tenderness of Schmidt’s language urges us to offensive directness; its weirdness safeguards it against any form of misappropriation.

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I’ve never had any grand experiences myself – which doesn’t bother me at all by the way; I’m not fool enough to envy some world-traveler, I’ve read too much in Seydlitz or the unabridged Brehm for that. And what’s New York after all? Big city is big city; I’ve been to Hanover often enough; I know what it’s like of a morning when a thousand lunch-boxers with their thermoses double-time it out of Grand Central, in fan formation, and into the Gilded Age. One of them walks as if a dachshund were on his tail. Brick-hued creatures intermingle, umbrellarrows in their bloody hands, (or in hands black as death, too; soon their typewriters will ring out brightly like bobwhites. All those aroused by alarms. And the car next to me now clears its chastising throat; even though just looking at me it’s obvious I’m really no longer at an age for anyone to entertain the suspicion that I might still make a fool of myself at the sight of two lactic glands!).

So, none of that. But of an evening or at night, I’m glad to get out and go for a walk – please note the triple glottal <g>, it just struck me how unpleasant it is, too (<why>, however, is something I don’t care to know; I no longer set any store by <psychological evidence>, not since I made an inquiry on the qt about the meaning of these nocturnal strolls of mine. One expert said point-blank that I was cowardly as a hyena and a potential criminal; most of us are, sure. Another maintained I was man of phenomenal courage – good God! It all quickly became too much for me, and too expensive. I then gave it some extended thought myself; the real reason may well be that my eyesight is so poor, and that it’s too bright and too hot for me by day).

In any case my stroll always lasts a wholish hour – I should have written the more customary <whole>, I know; but that would have rhymed with stroll, and I don’t like poems – and you see all sorts of things, and don’t have to feel you’re a <voyeur>, I mean <guilty> or even <sinful>: most-of-us spend our lives painfully readjusting the inverted standards inculcated in our youth.

The time of year plays no role – I’m quite capable of appreciating a wintery construction site, at 5 in the morning; when the workers are melting the frozen pump of the finished job next door by setting fag ends of wallpaper ablaze. It can be a summer meteor drawing its nylon thread through Camelopardus, and bursting above the GDR; (I live that close to the zone crossing. And so have granted recognition to the GDR just to be on the safe side.) It can be an evening in late autumn, when you stand there and listen: what was that noise just now? A nearby cricket; or a tractor miles away? (Nothing occurs to me for spring at the moment, and I’m not pedant enough to force something just for that; autumn is my favorite among the seasons in any case.)

Afterwards I make it a practice to go to the truck stop; and that can sometimes last a while; because the only people there are the kind who have had <experiences>, that is to say, are all still in the midst of experiencing, and with a vengeance.

Just the whole atmosfere of the place: the hyperoptical fusion of naked artificial light and shadows minced small & stubby. The stained tabletops (only 2 tables have cloths, those to the left of the entrance, where the closely monitored high-class customers sit, slender spiral of fingers around glass sundae goblets, in which bow ties of lemon rind are swimming: HE with that dignified insipidity and vacant gravity so invaluable for civil servants, (and so stupid that if he ever had to be self-supporting, he couldn’t sell ice cream in hell!); SHE, the sort who immediately plants flowers in front of the camp-ground tent and sets out a pinecone beside them.)

The ones to take seriously are of course the others, both males and females. Broad faces mostly, draped with energetic flesh, the drivers; to a man capable of using a smallish piece of abstract sculpture as a can-opener; (I’m not much for modern stuff; maybe that’s already apparent). The women mostly <Dollys>, with slightly strained defensor virginitatis, but stalwart: the breast up-front is no Bluff & Tare, nor at the rear is the Porta Nigra.

I had often seen the woman in question, a broad-shouldered fifty-year-old, in here before by the way; always slightly be-toddied, so that her voice had taken on a charming high hoarse bass. She was just declaring by means of the same: “My father was drummer to the czar: it all comes natural to me!”. (A logic that frankly I found rather bold, but which apparently seemed quite legitimate to her partner for today, for he nodded eagerly. I realized what his profession was when he then promptly drove off alone: he was out for his weekend jaunt in a hearse. And for 1 whole minute I vividly pictured that to myself. Until I had to giggle.)

My 2 neighbors on the other side first ordered “a packa cig’rettes,” (one of the some “peppahmints” as well); and then they did as follows: each put 2 heaping teaspoonfuls of Nescafé in his empty glass, and then poured fresh Coca-Cola over that: it foamed up, thick & yellowbrown; it all seemed to dissolve; they slurped and smile technoidally. (That must work you up into a wild lather! Give it a try sometime.) With a draught like that in their bellies they were ready for some good apostasy calumny & history:

told by the laryngectomee, whose silver cannula the Russians had pilfered right out of his throat; (and here his name was <Wilke>, and everybody knows that comes from the Slavic <vlk>, which means <wolf>: but none of that had helped!).

“What d’ y’ think a live-in maid deshurves aftah wuhkin’ foah the same fam’ly foah 60 yeahs?”: “A cehtificate from the county commiss’nah?” the other fellow declared unctuously. / They also wanted, relata refero, to neutralize & disarm Germany; and then some sorta solid-loose confederation <between Bonn and the GDR>; and their argument, as always with truckers, wasn’t all that stupid. Their premise, you see, was the 5% clause and some future world government: <Bonn> wouldn’t even be represented in that parliament! “’cause five puhcent o’ three billion, when y’ reckon it out, comes to a hunduht fifty million!”. (And the other one nodded, thrusting out his lower labiation, à la <Yep, things ain’t all that hunky-dory round heah>.) / “Hell. You still readin’ Kahl May?! Theah ain’t so much as a single cah in his stuff! They’ah all still ridin’ round on hohses, like they did in Fritz the Great’s day – no futuah in that whatevah!” / (And finally he began to tell about his <‘speriences> – which was what I was waiting for; which is what I always wait for; there’s nothing else I do wait for. I felt like I was at Homer’s place: come on: skin the goat!)

: the man in question – (for the mystery of it, I want to call him <The Man in Question>. That fits a lot of people: drought in Lower Saxony; while floods ravish Salzburg? : <The Man in Question has once again messed up the arrangements !>)  – had been visiting <in the West>, goodtimehadbyall; and, being a bus owner by trade, had frequented our local gas stations and auto dealers. Enviously inspected the best-preserved used vehicles – all of a sudden, his blue eye flashed: wasn’t that bus there just like <his own> ? Naturally, a good deal spiffier and almost like new. –: “Gotta have it!”

They came to terms relatively fast; because the man in question also managed a ComOrg branch on the side, and as everyone knows there’s always some cream to be skimmed off that. Except that <his> had 2 extra oval windows at the rear: ? “We’ll jist cut ’em in!”

“Fifteen thousand? Okay?”. – “Yep. But due only on receipt o’ the goods!” (And how to get the thing across the various zone boundaries; it was after all an object that you couldn’t just slip up your sleeve!).

: “So it was me that got it crosst the bohdah!” (Now the offspring of the czar’s drummer was showing interest too and leaned her mighty charms closer. Well, at least a portion was definitely natural.)

: “‘Cept that fuhst they’d buhned the whole inside o’ the roof”; when cutting out the two new back windows so indispensable for camouflage. They had to go clear to Lünberg to fetch a saddler: “‘nd me sittin’ on the anxious seat! Nine o’clock came ‘nd went” (that’s P.M.; it’s been 30 years now, but the average joe still doesn’t tell time by the 24-hour clock); “ten o’clock came ‘nd went; fin’ly, round eleven, I could head out!”

And had been a dark night: the rain poured in torrents; the weathercocks up on the steeples screeched down at him as he, leviathan in tow, spurted his way through the sleeping villages; Paul Revere couldn’t hold a torch; on to Helmstedt.

: “I know one o’ the customs boys, ‘nd he says: <Get a load o’ them two; they been waitin’ now foah three days foah somebody t’ pick ’em up. Betcha they skedaddled togethah ‘nd now ‘re tuhnin’ tail back to mommy.> They looked pretty grim to me.” (No trick to it: waiting 3 days; probably never washing up; with no money; and in that weather. At any rate, the bus was completely empty, so for chrissake he’d taken them along as far as Lehnin. But as might be expected, had adjusted the rearview mirror so that he could keep an eye on the crumpled pair just to play it safe. Also described their more intimate evolutions; to which our oldish listener, her expert’s lips pressed tight, gave several approving nods. Though at one point she gave a thrust of disdainful air through her nose: beginners!).

: “Othahsida Braunschweig I now had a white mouse on my tail,” (among this sort of people, that’s the irreverent name given to a lone traffic cop on his motorcycle); in West Berlin it had been a “prowl car” (one whole carfull) that had pulled him over to the curb and checked his papers: they had been issued for the FRG & West Berlin via the Zone, and therefore unassailable; so there was no difficulty at all there; but

: “theah I stood in Buhlin-Chahlottenbuhg, and the man in question shows up: with a briefcase that big! All of it fifties ‘nd hunduhts.” And so the money from the sale was transferred to a neutral and trusted third party known to them both; he stood there and by the sweat of his brow wrote out 15 postal money orders at a thousand marks a piece, and mailed 7 of them right there in the post office – nothing surprises people in Berlin anymore.

: “Y’ got the license plates?!” The ones, that is, from the man in question’s “old East-zone jalopy”: they first had to be made to fit; which meant aligning the screw holes exactly, oiling all the nuts. And then came the first real risky part

: “through the Brandenbuhg Gate: ‘nd was that evah tight, like a vuhgin’s: <You watch the left side; I’ll take the right.>”; and that’s how they steered their way, almost scraping the sides, through that non-marble symbol of Germany; and on the far side the People’s Policeman was waiting.

Now for driving around inside berlin no extra papers are necessary – but for someone to choose, of all things, an empty bus for seeing the East-sector sights, that did indeed disconcert Mr. Spit & Polish a little, and rightly so. But the plump fellow, who’d had a bellyful of stony looks by now, just kept on pointing to his own sight-seeing corpulence, and to his 1 friend, until the officer finally said with a shrug: “You’ah payin’ for the gas.” And let him drive on.

: “but now came the real problem”; and that was the crossing from East Berlin into the <Zone>, that is, disons le mot, the GDR: “Now I’d already mobilized all my buddies befoahand: <Find youahself a real lonely bordah crossin’>” – he held his index finger to great effect an inch away from his thick caesarian lips, and glinted majestically at us listeners (and flattered too. The gesticulations of narrators here are manifold.)

: “‘nd best head in the direction of Ludwigslust. – So I jist keep drivin’ right along the canal. Nobody ahead of us, nobody behind; it’s really not much mohn’n a tractuh path.” Up on the starboard the guardhouse came into view: just a plank shanty, quite non descript. They pulled up to within 1000 feet:

: “then we climbed down. I say: <Git the plates: me up front, you at the reah!> And jist screwed on the nuts with our bahr finguhs. The old plates into the canal; and still not a lousy soul in sight. ‘nd now I stand up. ‘nd now I tuhn around. ‘nd all I say is: <Heah’s youah bus.>” (And we all nodded in envious rhythm: there are still some real men!).

: “He couldn’t believe it neithah! That he had a new vehicle.” Just kept beaming at the shiny lacquer of his Western prodigy, the man in question did. And then at his bold-plump pal. Had swung himself up blissfully behind the wheel; pressed an extra “East c=note: foah a good lunch!” in his hand; and then had rumbled off.

: “‘nd I go on watchin’ till he cruised up to that guahdhouse. And one fella peeks out, jist his head. And then jist a wave o’ his hand” – and gave a limp and drowsy imitation wave of his own such as I, in a longer and misspent life, had never seen before – “and he gives anothah wave –: and then he’s through. No papahs checked. Nothin’…” . And, shaking his head slightly, spread his hands; and let them fall back down onto the tabletop: home run.

We were obliged to nod yet again. And did it gladly. The other fellow offered him a butt in recognition.

“Now that’s somethin’ I didn’t know neithah, that that Brandenbuhg Gate ain’t all that massive. I al’ays figuhed granite at the least, or whatevah.” But the narrator just dismissed this with a shake of his knowledgeable head: no, not at all: “Whitewash ‘s flakin’ off it everywheah.”

“It all comes natural to me,” said the valkyrie, and leaned back more amply: “My father was drummer to the czar!”

*This story is taken from: ders., Trommler beim Zaren. © 1966 Stahlberg Verlag GmbH, Karlsruhe. Alle Rechte vorbehalten S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main.


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