the short story project


Robert Menasse | from:German

Enlightenment Before a Fall

Translated by : Thomas S. and Abby J. Hansen

Introduction by Gadi Goldberg

The stories written by Robert Menasse, who is known in Austria primarily for his novels and political essays, always deal, in one way or another, with enlightenment; in the question, for instance, of what we can learn from the past, and especially in the question of the politicization of the individual. How much of our activities in the socio-political sphere stem from socio-political motives and how much from private considerations and interests?
Through a great deal of irony and humor, short and penetrating sentences, this writer succeeds in describing the combination of the private, the social and the political, of personal pain and significant historical events. Thus he successfully asks questions about the difference between collective memory and personal memory, about time’s blurring effect on the memory, and about the odd European project called “enlightenment”. But the conflict in this story prevails not only between the private and the public, but also inside the realm of the private itself, between father and son, for instance, a conflict that spans three generations, and especially between who we were and wanted to be or thought we would become, and the person we actually became.  From today’s perspective, with the coups against the elected Ukrainian president and the putsch against Morsi in Cairo, it is interesting to ask how the progressive forces in the Western world reacted back then to the coup in Chile, and how we react to it today. And also, how the political events left their mark on the individual in the past, and how they affect us as individuals today.

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When I was lobbing cobble stones at policemen on that September 11th, I would never have dreamed that someday I would become a policeman myself.

It was September 11, 1973. I don’t know how I had heard about the putsch in Chile and the murder of President Allende. Isn’t it strange? Today I can’t imagine how information could spread like wildfire in an age before the internet and cell phones. But I got wind of it somehow, even of Henry Kissinger’s statement a few hours after Allende’s death, cheerfully acknowledging that the USA was always ready to aid friendly nations.

I found a taxi right away. There was no plan. I didn’t remember anybody telephoning around to organize a spontaneous demonstration. It was just obvious: I had to go to the US embassy. At the time I was in my early twenties, a philosophy student given to dreaming and melancholia. I didn’t have much money. I think I was the only student in Vienna who took a cab to the demonstration. But on that day a tram ride would have taken too long.

It was outrage.

Maybe we didn’t need cell phones then, because even without technology, everybody got a whiff of what was in the air — outrage.

When 1 arrived at Bolzmanngasse a few hundred people were already gathered in front of the embassy. There were more by the minute. I suddenly found myself standing there, rhythmically raising my clenched fist in the air and chanting, “Allende, Allende, your death is not the end!”

The truth is, it wasn’t my fist. I had a book with me, a copy of Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno, which I had been carrying around all day. So I thrust this book into the air as we chanted “Allende, Allende.” The next day there was a photo in the Vienna KUKIER where you could see me holding the book up and yelling. The caption read: “Students demonstrate with Mao bible in front of US embassy.”

There was a construction site on the corner of Bolzmanngasse and Strudelhofgasse. I think that’s where we picked up the stones. More and more police cars arrived all the time. Then I saw Werner, a friend from the philosophy department. I have him to thank that I was not arrested or injured. He was afraid. I had the impression that he was hyperventilating. He was wheezing; even worse, he was panting. He grabbed my jacket and pulled me away. I thought I’d better look after him.

I already knew that Werner suffered from cardiac insufficiency. He was convinced that capitalism had made him sick, which is why he refused treatment from bourgeois, orthodox medicine. There was no Marxist cardiologist in Vienna with whom he could have discussed therapy based on the premise that capitalism was the cause of the disease. It was barely two weeks after the demonstration at the American embassy that Werner almost died of his condition during, as it happened, a meeting of a Wilhelm Reich study group on The Function of the Orgasm.

Personally, I enjoyed the best of health in those days. I got in trouble just once – when I broke my leg in a soccer game between Trotzkyites and Yippies — and had to resort to medical care. I mention this because, although I thought Werner’s attitude crazy, it secretly seemed plausible to me as well. If I had suffered from Werner’s condition, it’s quite possible that I could have died on the spot and become an anonymous victim of the clash between world orders.

As imperialistic as the Western world had shown itself in Chile, it was correspondingly helpless against the Arab world. In 1973 there was the September 11thwe’ve forgotten today, and it was also the year of the so-called Arab oil crisis. The sheikhs, as the papers put it, were “turning off the oil spigot.” That was what upset the whole republic: primitive desert chieftains, who through pure luck, sat on the greatest oil reserves in the world, were forcing austerity measures on highly developed democratic cultures. The Austrian Chancellor recommended that all men stop using electric shavers and shave with razors to save energy. A car-free day was introduced to reduce gasoline consumption, and schools had energy holidays to save on heating costs.

While all the newspapers talked constantly about the energy crisis, I lived in an unheated apartment and, powerless, suffered through my own identity crisis. None of my problems had anything to do with the Arab oil crisis. My father had stopped my monthly allowance. He considered my philosophy studies a waste of time bordering on criminality.

He laid the KUIUER on the table.

“My son, a rampaging Maoist!”

“I’m not a Maoist.”

“Is that you? In this photo?”


He nodded.

I felt a hot flash of hatred and disgust. To me, this nod of my father’s seemed the epitome of idiocy, self-justification, and emotional decay. He didn’t know what Maoism was. He couldn’t have known whether I really was a follower of Mao­ism. So he couldn’t know that I rejected this splinter group and had nothing to do with it. But the way he indicated with a nod of his head that he didn’t want to know anything about it, that he wasn’t ready or in the least bit interested in talking about it or in learning anything from me, the harshness with which he uttered his verdict in every case without bothering to enlighten himself – all this left me speechless. The way he condemned his son rather than question a sentence in the tabloids! What a caricature of a Greek tragedy, the way he banished his son with a stony glare! There was so much I wanted to tell him that I couldn’t get a single word out. He accepted as “world politics” the coup organized by the CIA against the democratically elected president of a sovereign nation, but that his son should have taken part in a demon­stration against this coup, in defense of democracy, in a country with freedom of assembly, horrified this good citizen who now thought he had to intervene like a dictator.

I didn’t say a word. He kept talking, but basically all he said was, no more money until I “came to my senses.”

I stood up and left. I wished him dead. Today I’m very glad that I didn’t say that thought out loud.

He already had cancer by then, but I didn’t know it yet.

And so I sat in an unheated apartment and had my identity crisis. I wondered if my studies meant so much that I was prepared to finance them myself with part-time jobs. Philosophy? What next? I had already been infected with my father’s misgivings.

I went to lectures and wondered afterwards when I reviewed my notes, whether I had been delirious when I wrote them – or was it the professor? I took two or three tests, which were really just triumphal orgies for the professors who, only a few years earlier, had been pelted with tomatoes and who could now safely take revenge on the next student generation. “Nicely learned, my dear young colleague, but I can only give you a ‘satisfactory’. The reason? God gets ‘very good,’ I get ‘good,’ and after that, it’s a long way down.”

Werner died in March 1974. No, it wasn’t his heart. He had a car accident. I went to the funeral and there met a little ragtag bunch of “exes”; ex-student leaders, ex-commune founders, ex-revolutionary poets, ex-party organizers – almost everyone in his fifteenth to twentieth semester with a half-finished doctoral dissertation, veterans of the transition from theory to practice. At the public viewing, Werner’s thesis advisor, Professor Benedict, gave a speech that didn’t exactly change my life, but at least it provided logical subtitles to what had up to this point been just a silent biographical movie. “One cannot,” he said, “analyze a life phenomeno- logically, especially not such a short one. It is a phenomenon without any discernible meaning in relation to other pheno­mena or, in the final analysis, to death.”

There was a commotion. Some people called out, “Louder!” The acoustics in the viewing hall were very poor. And Professor Benedict bowed his head to the microphone and said – with over-enunciated exaggerated volume as though the god of thunderbolts were speaking: “Chance governs individual cases. Only the aggregate has meaning.” He paused and then added, “or, as in certain historical eras, lacks meaning, even then!”

I left. The gravel path of the Central Cemetery. The avenues of gravestones. I knew an era had ended: that of the world-weary psychosomatics. And thus ended my philosophy studies.

What to do? In Germany some 68ers had become department store arsonists – and I started working in a department store in Vienna. That too was a consequence of 1968: an increase in shoplifting to such a magnitude that department stores had to hire detectives. I had no qualifications except my half-finished graduate studies in philosophy with an incomplete seminar paper on the “Dialectic of the Enlightenment,” and department store detective was one of the jobs they offered me, the only one I wanted to take on physically. I don’t know which I found sadder, the arguments with the small-time thieves I had to catch and turn in to keep my job, or the conversations with the shop girls when I had to avert my gaze again out of pity. Misery and narrow-mindedness balanced each other so perfectly that I had the impression that some secret world order must exist.

When I quit, I had my first qualification; one year’s employment as a detective. That was enough in those days to get a back office job on the police force in the counterfeiting department, where lethargically, almost on auto-pilot, I had an astonishing career, thanks to regular promotions. By the way, these — surprisingly – did not hurt my social life. When I became a policeman, I was sure I’d be despised and avoided by my old friends. In fact, at the ten year anniversary celebration of 1968, I was celebrated as a hero of the student revolution — an example of our successful march through the Austrian establishment. That continued through the fifteenth and twentieth anniversaries. My story practically turned into a heroic epic. What they all didn’t know was that I had inten­tionally applied for a job in the counterfeiting department, because I wanted one that would be the least hassle for me. Everybody knew that there was no counterfeit money in Austria. Anyone with the means and opportunity to produce convincing phonies didn’t waste time on schillings. He went right for German marks.

When I moved to a desk in the police force, what tipped the balance in my favor was by no means the illusion that I could change anything at all from there: not the world, not history, not even myself. It was just an easy living.

Enlightenment was the great aspiration of the era in which I came of age. When I studied, that’s what it was all about. You had to be someone who, at the end of the day, was certain of things. I collected and organized facts, researched contexts, questioned motives, pursued all information, developed theories, looked for guilty parties, believed I was beginning to understand something, and arrived at a conclusion. That was what they called education in those days. Creating an image of the world. Anyone who observed the world from the left soon saw nothing but perpetrators and victims, witnesses and lawless rebels. But I never would have thought I’d ever become a policeman. If I had ever found out that I could really solve cases, I would have become a passionate detective, or at least a professor of philosophy.

I tried not to, but I became jaded. Sometimes, very seldom, I still experienced moments of passion. There were particular situations I sipped, like a glass of champagne, knowing that this was no everyday thing.

Under my boss’s sponsorship I joined his tennis club, dutifully learned the game, and here too with some degree of success but no particular ambition. I got the nickname “The Wall.” I didn’t score points but lived off my opponents’ mistakes. Over and over I won matches until I faced someone stronger, someone who really could score a point. I met a woman at the club who seduced me into learning passion again. I learned the game. I was “The Wall.” Then someone else came along who was able to score points with her. What remained from this affair was a child. A son.

I couldn’t argue with him when he told me at age eighteen that he thought cops were shit. I was guilty myself. When he was born and his mother and I were discussing what to call him, I absolutely wanted to go with a revolutionary freedom fighter’s name. Then I realized for the first time: all revolutionaries have totally unattractive names; Karl, Friedrich, Ferdinand, Leo — nothing that would make anybody think of a freedom fighter. Or Vladimir, Fidel, Che — names that would have earned the child nothing but scorn. Things would have had been easier with a daughter; Rosa or Olga. Or Alice. But unfortunately it was a son.

With desperate irony, I made my final suggestion: Zorro.

“What made you think of Zorro?”

“The last freedom fighter who occurred to me.”

“Freedom fighter?” she said. “Zorro was basically a Robin Hood.”

“How about Robin?”


It would be an exaggeration to claim that I gave up my police job to win back Robin’s love.

It was mid-December, 2001, just before the introduction of the euro. I was meeting Robin for dinner.

“How are things going?”


“And your mother?”


I hate it when someone is so persistently uncommuni­cative that I feel forced to keep on talking, because I’m afraid all my chatter causes embarrassment. The way he looked! I really should have arrested him for violating the law against wearing masks in public.

“Could you at least take your hood off in the restaurant?”

“Who is it bothering?”


He nodded.

“You’re not some official,” I said. “You don’t need an eyeshade to check over a long report I’ve submitted.”

“Okay,” he said, and brushed his hood back. He sat with his head down, as if he were still looking at me from under his hood. I remember looking at my father just as defiantly back when he told me over dinner that he wasn’t going to finance my studies anymore. Back then I was older than Robin is now. But I too had nothing to say.

I looked at Robin, attempted a sympathetic, complicit smile. The way he looked at me! It made me aggressive. I couldn’t stand it. His grumpy look. He was no rebel. He was a dumb adolescent, but by this age he should have outgrown that.

My son was the wall that bounced my own displeasure back at me.

“You know,” I said, just to say something, “there are things you can’t do when you know their significance. A free man, for example, shouldn’t wear his hair in a braid. Kids sometimes wear these little braids and think they’re rebels. But the braid – think of a powdered wig – was a mark of the aristocracy. It was one of the great accomplishments of bourgeois society that they got rid of those pigtails, literally and figuratively, and so anyone who wears a braid today —”

“I don’t braid my hair,” he said.

“Right. I’m just saying. Or nose rings. Give me a break. Kids think it’s a symbol of defiance, but it’s really a symbol of oppression. It says, ‘Lead me around by the nose.’ ”

“Do you see any piercing on me?” said Robin. “Not in the nose, and not —”

He stuck out his tongue.

‘‘That’s good,” I said. “You know what I mean. Only bears wear nose rings. What I wanted to say…”

The waiter brought the menus.

“What I wanted to say is, anyone who isn’t in the Ku Klux Klan shouldn’t wear a hood.”

We opened the menus. It took me half a minute to make up my mind. Robin looked like he was memorizing the menu, including all the wine vintages.

After ten minutes I asked him, “Do you know yet?”


“What you want.”

“Do you know what you want?”

“Yes,” I said.

“And are you going to get what you want?”

I looked at him. Then the waiter came. I ordered. Robin said he would have the same thing.

“And to drink,” I asked. “Apple juice?”

“You ordered a bottle of wine.”


“’That’s good.”

“And a big bottle of water with that,” I said to the waiter.

In restaurants I always swear not to eat bread before a meal but can never resist it. Robin tried, or pretended to try, to spear an olive with his fork, but it kept jumping away and rolling around on the table. He stabbed at it, and the olive hopped away. I munched on bread, which I dunked in olive oil and watched with growing irritation as Robin kept on stabbing at the olive. It eluded his fork every time.

“What are you doing there?” I asked.

“I’m tiring it out.”

“Knock it off ” I said. “We have to talk.”

“What about? My allowance?”

He opened the menu and studied it again.

“I brought you something,” I said. “Here. The new currency starter packet.”

I put it in front of him, a shrink-wrapped collection of all the euro and cent coins worth 100 schillings, a total of about seven euros. These starter packets were distributed by the banks so people could get used to the coins before January 1.

“Thanks,” said Robin. “You know what grandma said?”

“No, what did she say?”

“That you are going to lose your job.”


“It’s in the papers every day. Never in history has there been such a counterfeit-proof currency as the euro. Now there won’t be counterfeit money around for a long time.” “Why? It’s just a new challenge for the counterfeiters.”

“But why should someone take the trouble to counterfeit money when it’s enough to use a fake conversion rate?”

“There’s a law that prohibits it.”

“And you’re in charge of that? They won’t need people like you anymore. Grandma said they’re going to cheat us officially. We won’t get suckered by counterfeiters but by the new currency. Just like the currency reform of 1947.”

What do you know about the currency reform of 1947?”

“What grandma told me.”

I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. Robin was rebelling against me, but with stories from my own mother!

The waiter brought the salads and wanted to take the menus away.

Robin held onto his and said, “I still need it!”

“Well, how are your studies going?” 1 asked.


“And that means?”

It was strange. My son was studying philosophy. I should have understood that. Or at least felt some gratification. But I didn’t understand it. We ate our salads.

The waiter cleared our plates away. Again, he wanted to take the menu with him, but Robin kept his hand on it. “No, I still need it.”

“So,” I said. “Your studies! What courses are you taking?” “Introduction to Philosophy One. Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion.”

“Philosophy of Religion? Is that a requirement?”

“Yes. And Introduction to Logic, and also Political Utopias, but —”

“Political Utopias?”

“Yes. But that’s not happening.”

“What does that mean, it’s not happening?”

“Like I said: it was scheduled, I signed up for it, but it was cancelled. And one more. Climate Change.”

“Excuse me, what?”

“Climate Change. From an ethical and scientific per­spective.”

“What is that?”

“Core requirement. Required in the first or second semester.”

I shook my head. Robin took the menu and shoved it into his backpack. The waiter brought our pasta.

I always ordered something vegetarian when I met Robin for a meal. He didn’t eat meat. And symmetry at the dinner table meant a lot to me. I thought that eating with someone should be a shared experience in every way. I watched the way he drank his wine. He didn’t have much experience with alcohol. He gulped it like juice, stopped in shock, and then drank a lot of water. The pasta was grotesque. This vegetable sauce was much too fatty. I sipped my wine, watched Robin. He ate with gusto. At his age you still have a good stomach. I shoved my plate away, didn’t want to finish.

“Was it good?” asked the waiter as he cleared the dishes away.

“Yes,” I said. “Excellent.”

Robin looked at me and laughed.

“I know exactly what you’re thinking,” I said.

“It’s okay,” he said.

For dessert we had lemon sorbet.

“With a shot of champagne?”

I had expected Robin to say no, but he said, “Yes, please.”

Finally he looked at me. I found his direct stare just as unpleasant as his lowered gaze had been before.

“Do you know what I’d like now?” he asked.

I looked at him.

“Some bar-hopping.”

“Some bar-hopping.?”

“Yes, want to? We could go to a couple of places and —”

He drank the rest of the melted sorbet.

“And take home all the menus.”

“The menus?”

“Yes. The menus and wine lists. And in one year go back over the same route and compare the prices.”

I had to laugh. He was messing with me. But I found it clever. And it was clever. We were like two detectives collecting evidence. Ordinary middle-class bars took on the aura of suspicious haunts. The later it got, the sleazier the turf we were checking out. We didn’t talk much. We understood each other without words.

Nine months later I got an offer of a generous bonus and retirement package from the office of the police commissioner. Soon after, in the winter of 2003, I found a job with a private detective agency. On the thirty-fifth anniversary of 1968, at a huge party in the Vienna Town Hall with the mayor, the city council for cultural affairs, and the director of education, I was celebrated as a hero. I was a perfect fit with the romantic notions of the old 68ers, who saw in me a kind of Philip Marlowe, someone who brings things to light — an enlightener, as it were.

At the party I met Werner’s former girlfriend. She stared with melancholy eyes through big red glasses.

“I don’t think Werner would have liked the world today,” she said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think anyone alive likes the world better than anyone who’s dead.”

Robin started a Facebook group against the euro currency conversion fraud, quit his studies soon afterward, and found a job at the Department of Labor, Office of Consumer Protection.

Basically, he became a kind of policeman. Consumer protector. I will never understand it. There I was supporting his philosophy studies, but he became a kind of policeman.

I sit at a writing desk in the state-licensed Fränzl Detective Agency. It’s a gray day, according to the calendar a spring day, a day in May, but the kind Vienna also has in fall and in winter. One of those days when even lovers can’t feel euphoric, when poets have no feelings worth expressing; the kind of day when people who jump up to go out for a cigarette just turn around and go home lethargically; when the gray suit of the man on the street seems like a cloak of invisibility against the gray atmosphere. I am typing up my final report of a closed case, boring paperwork, as gray as the light behind the window.

Six more years to retirement.