the short story project


Kathrin Röggla | from:German

The Onlookers

Translated by : Jake Schneider

Introduction by Petra Gropp

Our world has entered a constant state of emergency. We are continually confronted with pictures of climate change, political upheavals, and collapsing infrastructures. We hear the sounds of panic: financial crises, epidemic plagues, and spectacular kidnappings. We watch scenes of panic, rescue missions, and security activities as if they were fiction. Indeed, these stories of disaster could be taken for Hollywood movies. Are we the heroes in a catastrophe movie? The anti-heroes? Are our lives a worst-case-scenario? Experts, curious onlookers and participants staring at the catastrophe and asking themselves: "Did we survive?" Kathrin Röggla reflects on the narration of catastrophe. She analyzes the language of panic, the jargon-laden rhetoric of experts, and the delusive doublespeak of security, creating an artisitic echo of the sounds of apocalypse. 

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Let’s see if the forests catch fire again. Let’s see if intense heat rushes toward us. Let’s see if smoke drives animals whose names we don’t know out of the bushes. Let’s see if that leaves behind a spell of silence. Let’s see if rain sets in, pushed across the country by a black wind. Let’s see if masses of water slam against bridges or dams have long been broken. Let’s see if fragments of buildings fall down on us. Yeah, let’s see if it all comes tumbling down and a cloud of dust rushes toward us absorbing all color. Let’s see if cars roll over and sheets of metal scrape together. Let’s see if there’s a power line across the roadway. Let’s see if they stand on a bridge again and look down, a stone’s throw from situations they don’t really understand. Let’s see if they move on to other things out of boredom. Let’s see if something happens again.

1st session: the minutes have gone missing. Presumably they were lost in connection with the events surrounding Paul Kirchstätter.

2nd  session: conference room 7 of the Safitel hotel, Pico Boulevard, West LA, Monday, September 23, 4:30 pm, attendees: Gerd Pregler (CEO, Geosick GmbH), Berit Strebitz (Head of R&D department, Murmur-Chemistry), Faisal Aslan (Architect), Ricarda Vierzig (Structural Department of Ministry of National Infrastructures), Marko Keglevic (EU Liaison at Eastern Structural Funds Subsidies),Marianne Gerhardt (Baumuck AG), Karl Voss (Physicist, Mainz University), and the recording secretary. After the disappearance of Paul Kirchstätte (“Disaster Tourism” agency), Herr Pregler kindly offered to take over as moderator.

“Let’s begin again by taking a look at the parking lot, the parking lot with all its people! Are those the panic shoppers, the panic shoppers with their panic purchases? Take a look at the cars they show up in! They can hold so much, and that’s how much is crammed into them. All those provisions and cleaning supplies, all those tools and clothes, disinfectants and water. Are those the obligatory water reserves? Yeah, have these people considered the power supply, the external power supply? Needless to say, that’s something to consider at this point. Any child knows that. And now the canisters are coming into play, the diesel canisters, the oil canisters, the gas canisters carried across parking lots, overpasses, and sidewalks. And where are they being carried? To gas stations, from gas stations, that’s the order of the day. before long there ought to be a crowd of people down there with canisters, crossing the parking lot, that parking lot and all the adjoining parking lots, the parking lot extensions constructed as if the people in this city had always been expecting an emergency, as if one had always been factored in. but no, once again nobody has been considering the power supply because they are all heading back to their vehicles, their SUVs and pickup trucks. Cars that have been the butt of jokes for years, all those comments that they weren’t city cars and their owners must have wanted to visit some wilderness but didn’t have the guts. Those comments have now been rendered obsolete; have now resolved themselves, as it were, drained of all their inherent humor.”

Still, he would have pictured the panic shopping a little differently. At any rate it seemed hesitant. What he meant was, just look at the way they climbed into their cars, the way they entrenched themselves behind steering wheels and took the passenger seats like they never wanted to give them back. And then the way they drove off like they had all the time in the world. Was he the only one who thought it strange the way they pulled out of their gas station, their supermarket parking lot, and left their shopping district? It seemed odd to him how calmly they entered the on-ramp to merge onto the freeway, what he meant was: “is that what people who are about to vanish into thin air look like?”


“Don’t you say that you aren’t considering the power lines. Don’t you say that you don’t see what is about to happen at this intersection. Don’t you claim you aren’t looking anxiously at the spot where the pole is about to topple and the line about to tear. Don’t you claim that there isn’t much to see yet.”

He hardly believed that someone like her wouldn’t be fazed by that. Yeah, he was talking to the woman next to him, Frau Strebitz, directly for once, because who’s the expert here, who’s always sussed things out around here? He was more of the guy who always asked the wrong people, whereas she always asked the right people. When something was going wrong, she was the one who knew what was going wrong. And the one who said: a corporation these days strictly follows the pattern of an alarm situation. Yeah, she was the one who to date had always been informed about lying low in alarm situations, so she shouldn’t suddenly pretend all this didn’t bother her. Didn’t she remember what she used to say until recently: “It’s the small things that trigger the large ones, the small shifts in forces that induce the large ones: a chemical irritation, a short circuit, a false instruction, a flipped switch.”

But were we listening to him at all? Or were our minds somewhere else entirely? He did think people should listen to him, since if people didn’t listen to him, there was no point in him continuing to talk. He might as well stop right then and there and make like his predecessor, who had left us so suddenly and in such a hurry. But he couldn’t imagine anyone here wanted to overlook something.


Well, for example he didn’t want to overlook the people who were now gaining interesting lives. “Who might that be?” to quote his predecessor, “Someone who will make it through, someone who just pulls it off.” But he could tell that present company wasn’t interested in this for the time being, was otherwise occupied and missing out on a heck of a lot as a result. E.g. because of Frau Strebitz’s disinterest, they had overlooked the young man in the car down there who could still have been taken note of and potentially exposed as a government operative. On her account they had overlooked the woman by the soda machines who no doubt would have soon revealed herself to be a geophysicist if only given the chance. Don’t make such a face, he said. In these sorts of situations, a geophysicist always shows up and explains who-knows-what and has access to who-knows-which special information. But because of her distractedness and the general distractedness in this room, all of these possible connections had been passed over. After all, the point here was to develop communication about the imminent events. That was the reason they had all traveled here. That was the reason they were sitting behind this plate-glass window looking out, or had he gotten something wrong?


He talked about the discussions they could have now, for example, why had some things been broadcast but not others? Of course the media usually had its experts to discuss even these questions—“but those experts are all absent now, aren’t they? Those experts don’t even show their faces anymore. They disappeared from public view a while ago or at least from this city, this country. They were succeeded by other experts who are now deliberating things that are allegedly more pressing. But those aren’t cutting-edge experts, no; they’re has-been experts, because the real experts have more important things to do than discuss these issues right now on the radio of all places.”

But okay, he turned the radio off. It was more important to observe what was happening down there on our parking lot. If the asphalt was already cracking, if a tremor had seized the blades of grass growing on the edge of it. If a barely audible crunching sound was passing through the air, some signal of what was to come. Ultimately the parking lot was our group assignment and even if some of the present company would rather not believe it, many things could be inferred from a parking lot in these circumstances.

But nobody should talk to him about emotional numbness because for the time being everything related to numbness was shelved. We had heard that from Herr Kirchstätter at the outset. This was the crux of the assignment. To be sure, some people in the room would wonder where that was coming from after the past few years of our standing instructions to pay attention to things and to pay additional attention to additional things that might be loitering around train stations and fast-food stands. Not only to take a closer look at abnormal objects, but also to notice abnormal developments in one’s surroundings and eavesdrop on abnormal conversations that were also taking place: “Of course these instructions overwhelmed us all to a certain extent, and granted, they initially bore fruit, but these soon rotted and spread across the ground as observational sludge, which needless to say nobody wanted to step on. But still we are moving forward, always straight ahead beyond events, always full circle around abnormalities.”


What, was he not speaking loudly enough, was that it? It seemed to him like some people here weren’t reacting at all. But okay, maybe they just wanted to ignore that too. Maybe Frau Strebitz wanted to ignore that we actually had an incident at hand, yeah her, pretending nothing was the matter. Maybe the man next to him who had circulated his hypothetical comments about warning gaps and organizational gaps earlier wanted to tune everything out. Yeah, true, we weren’t sitting on a train about to derail any minute, we weren’t sitting in a bus speeding toward a precipice. No, we were still sitting on solid ground in our conference room with a breathtaking view of a parking lot and might as well shake our heads and say: We haven’t learned anything from the events in San Francisco, we haven’t learned anything from the events in New Orleans, we haven’t learned anything from the events in Denver.


Yeah, we haven’t learned anything from the events in New Orleans, Denver, and Houston because now something is materializing—“The ball is rolling, people!” Finally something is happening and that being the case, nobody could say there hadn’t been anything to see.

— Nobody could say there hadn’t been anything to see?

— Correct, Herr Aslan, nobody could say that nothing had materialized. Because now the ball was rolling. I.e. several things had disappeared. We hadn’t been watching for only a second or two and they were gone. He could swear there had just been a family there and now, gone they were. Within a one-klick radius, it looked entirely like a family had disappeared. “Yeah, where did they go off to, the man and the woman? Where did they go off to, the two kids we only just saw leaving the shopping mall? Some trace of them is undoubtedly there. They must have left something behind.” He thought this must have something to tell us. In general, people disappearing always had something to tell us! This didn’t just happen for no reason, it only happened to us because we weren’t cooperating, even though everyone in the room knew the ground rules: Whoever didn’t cooperate here would regrettably have to leave us.

What was going on now? The answer was obvious, he said: “Different things happen in different houses, or so the saying goes, but this is the exception that proves the rule, because the same thing is happening in all the houses.

— The same thing?

 “The same thing, Herr Keglevic. But the passengers of the Boeing 747, which is about to lift off after accelerating to 300 km/h, won’t have a clue. With a barely perceptible jolt, it leaves the runway and will soon be gaining altitude above Marina Del Rey. It will be visible through the various layers of the late afternoon mist. It’s already evident that there will be a fantastic sunset on view if anyone were to look. But no one is looking. They’re all staring in another direction entirely.”

3rd session: Same location, same date, 6:45 pm. Attendees: Gerd Pregler, Berit Strebitz, Faisal Aslan, Ricarda Vierzig, Marko Keglevic, and the recording secretary. Gerd Pregler continues as the moderator because Herr Kirchstätter has not returned.

Oh no, we weren’t paying attention now, we weren’t paying attention for one minute now, and it’s already happened!

I. e., he wasn’t paying attention, he admits, as a matter of fact he had let himself get distracted. So he can only ask: “Where have they all gone? Yeah, where have they all gone, the fleeing people who were promised to us. Where have they gone, the sliding hillsides, the boulders rumbling down, the swarms of bees gone wild that were presented to us in such vivid detail. Where are they, the bursting floods that just give way under the pressure of the storm waters. Where are they, the clouds of dust, the torrents and the animals that always dart out of the bushes in such cases? All of the voles and rodents? Where have they gone, those sudden deer, the coyotes and reptiles, the snakes and flocks of birds whose formations can be used to infer all sorts of things long before people appear? And where are they, the people who run circles around each other, who stumble and stand back up? Where are the ones who keep running, the ones who will make it. Shouldn’t they gradually be showing up in our line of sight? Or how are they supposed to reach the supermarket if they haven’t even gotten to Main Street?”

Vierzig: She simply couldn’t abide people who seized up on the evacuation route, had she mentioned that? She didn’t know how the others in the room felt, but she just couldn’t stand it, it really got under her skin. In that case she had to hold her eyes and ears shut if she saw them looking in the wrong direction.

 Pregler: Well, neither could he put up with people who seized up on the evacuation route because where would they get to? But he couldn’t allow himself behavior like the kind she exhibited. In his position, a stifled attitude was advisable. In his position, you just had to pull yourself together. Compassion of this scope was right out of line.

 Vierzig: Yeah, so as she’d said, she had no use for people who fell into a kind of rigor mortis and stuck by it, even though she wasn’t a board member.

Pregler: This shouldn’t be taken the wrong way, but people who had never heard of reaction speed really ought not to be so numerous now. It would be wise for people such as us not to be among the ones already setting into rigor mortis when the circumstances were still open-ended, but that’s why there was no point in making so much noise.

Vierzig: She was rooting for everyone. She wasn’t taking a completely indifferent stance toward the events.

 Pregler: Once again, this type of hysteria was not doing anyone any good now.

Vierzig: What hysteria?

 Pregler: She wouldn’t deny it, would she? She always had to sit on whole mountains of corpses, she always needed to keep compounding her mountains of corpses. That was her underlying depressive constitution, which she brought to the table and which didn’t bring us one centimeter further in circumstances like these.

Okay, he would de-escalate this discussion. After all, he wasn’t the kind of guy to say afterwards that there had been no point in cheering these people on, just because in the end they had kicked the bucket. No, he wasn’t that kind of guy. He always cheered people on, he said, even if it might seem otherwise. That being so, he said this openly, he would rather see a team goes searching for solutions than see this gathering of the bewildered. He had also expected a scene other than an abandoned supermarket parking lot and a deserted filling station, but that was no reason to break the concentration of the other people sitting around him.


So he had to admit he had bargained on just about everything, he had bargained on snipers, military convoys, and helicopter deployments. Aircraft carriers off the coast, or the National Guard at the very least. He’d expected them to show up fast and immediately partition the city into different zones, into different traversabilities and untraversabilities, but there didn’t seem to be any different degrees of traversability at all, as though it had turned out to be equally untraversable everywhere! Yeah, he had to go out on a limb and say he had even pictured the security forces’ breakdown differently. Because the breakdown had to come into play somehow. What he meant was, how gladly would he say now: “Nonsense, maybe no one puts much stock in the governor, but right now he’s the man who has to make the decisions.” But that wouldn’t work because a governor hadn’t come into the picture so far.

— “Looks like we’ve had another lucky break,” went the announcement that someone had arranged for, this voice on the radio that yet again was full of static, overlaid by all sorts of electronic noise, drowning out the voice completely now…

— Good observation, Herr Keglevic! Go ahead, Herr Aslan!

— He didn’t have the slightest clue about higher-order measures, evacuation plans, chains of command, collecting points. After all, there had to be collecting points for family members or people who just about passed as family members.

— “Yeah, let’s make a note of that!” people were out of touch with their neighbors, out of touch with those in charge, out of touch with family members. Electronic devices wouldn’t provide any information. Not even we here knew what was going on with the drinking water. And a huge number of things could be going on with the drinking water if you consider all the things that might contaminate it. What he meant was, no one in the room could seriously believe that someone was still sitting at the other end of the supply network and paying attention.

— No, that position was vacant.

— Correct, Frau Strebitz.


What? The televised projections didn’t offer any relief? And after all, who wasn’t staring at the screen eager for the precise statistics? What he meant was, who couldn’t be heard cursing about the fact nothing was coming in? You just had to imagine the doctors, he said, the doctors standing around in the halls of the hospitals waiting for the big patient influx even though everybody knew that when there was an incident of this magnitude, a patient influx wasn’t expected. Yeah, it was best to imagine the doctors. It was best to wait out all the emergency racket. But was anyone here doing that? No, he had a hunch we were thinking about other things entirely. We were just staring at our parking lot and the desolate streets and wondering what else we had lost here. And in the process we had totally forgotten about our watchword from the beginning: “No negative thoughts! Whatever happens, no negative thoughts!” There were so many positive things to think about at the moment.


E. g., that looting was not anticipated because it didn’t happen in events of this scale, or so they said. He admitted that over the last few minutes, he’d had nothing but looting on his mind because it was in fact imminent at this stage of the game. And still he had a sneaking feeling he hadn’t thought about it for no good reason. He hadn’t gotten his inner guard up for no good reason, just as other people had gotten their outer guard up, store owners or people who passed for store owners.

— That shouldn’t be underestimated either. Neighborhood help should now be anticipated, some kind of neighborhood help would materialize any moment now. Even in this area, which was predominated by office buildings, there would be neighborhood help.

— Correct, Herr Aslan! People would show up at each other’s doors again and try to solve problems together. They could serve as role models! What else?

— Team formation!

— Very good, Frau Vierzig! Yeah, eventually team formation could come into play.

— Oh, so a team would eventually crystallize? (strebitz)

— No, he answered regretfully, so far nobody out there seemed interested in being a team. Still the same rule as always applied: in these kinds of circumstances, a team always emerged. But no one here was having real reactions anymore. Even though it would be so easy: for example, someone could just pick up the phone for once.

— What phone? (strebitz)

— Didn’t you see the phone outside the supermarket? (keglevic)

— But who could answer it there right now? Nobody was nearby. (strebitz)

— No, apparently nobody could pick up the phone. (keglevic)

— Couldn’t anyone disconnect that phone? (vierzig)

No, he refused to believe that the very moment we need cooperation, people start challenging each other’s qualifications! Yeah, were we really headed in that direction? Nothing annoyed him more than disagreements, pissing contests, and clashes over qualifications at the most inopportune moments, just like a typical last-minute marital dispute. So he couldn’t bear to watch. This sort of thing made him aggressive every time and he’d always yell: “Come on people! Don’t you see what this is really all about?” But not to worry, this time he managed to keep himself under control. All he wanted to say was that it fundamentally didn’t make sense to him why pissing contests always broke out precisely when they were altogether uncalled for. He just hated having this feeling all the time like he had to correct people, had to interrupt people and say: “Hey, what do you guys think you’re doing?”

4th session: Same location, Tuesday, September 24, 8:45 am, Attendees: Gerd Pregler, Marko Keglevic, and the recording secretary.

“That isn’t the way they talk,” Frau Strebitz had said. “Not a special investigator, not a special commissioner, and not a SWAT officer,” she pronounced expertly. No, that’s not how they talked, she repeated. They started their sentences differently, they used different jargon, and besides, they didn’t explain everything in so much detail. These folks dragged the context like a cumbersome tail through every utterance. They explained things that their listeners should already be acquainted with. She’d noticed that right away, she’d said. She was well versed in these things. “So what,” he’d replied to her. “They’re the only ones we’ve got left.” But she just gulped some air and said, “You don’t understand what I mean.” Then she paused for a moment, a moment during which he truly had no clue what she meant. “Nevertheless,” he said, trying one more time. And now he knew what she’d intended to imply.

In that moment he was plain furious, he said. Then they finally made their way outside, made their way down to the street, where they came across something like a team right away, and she just took off. What he meant was: how long had they been observing the whole thing from above, how long had they been staring at the parking lot, and nothing had happened? He admitted that he had expected a little more from these people. But, he said, we should just take a look at ourselves in the mirror for once: we didn’t talk like SWAT officers, although it was time for us to start to, if you asked him.

– “Why? There it is again, the bomb defusing siren!”

– “Correct, Herr Keglevic!” he had shouted it toward her as she was walking away. There they were, the strained voices of people operating under pressure! But that hadn’t brought her back. So now he’d come back without her.


What? She just went away? He had also wondered how that was possible. Apparently she thought such a thing was an option. Still, most of our seminar participants would rather remain in here. The majority wouldn’t be happy if they had to leave us. But her? He couldn’t wrap his head around it. What he meant was, a person wants to know who the man pulling the trigger is. A person wants to know whether this whole thing will turn out to be a test, some kind of maneuver that got out of control. A test of an entire population’s ability to react, ordered by a government looking after said population. That’s the kind of thing a person hears over and over again!


Here’s how to look at it, he said: even now there were still people out there who didn’t know what liquid explosives were. Who thought it wasn’t necessary to get informed about specific strains of bacteria. Or viruses! Yeah, viruses! Why hadn’t he thought of those right away? It must have been viruses. Viruses always showed up as the last possibility when all else failed. But this time a whole bunch of things had gone wrong anyway, and of course he wondered what had gone wrong here with us. What he meant was, you had to do some critical thinking for once and bear in mind that teamwork had ground to a halt. E.g. he said, it was true that he hadn’t let this or that person have their say, that much self-criticism was called for, “Herr Keglevic, even if you give me such a skeptical look.” Hhe should just get back in his seat. No need to leave. Okay!


Fine, fine. He could take a critical view of what he himself had goofed up. He just needed to look around at this group. There was no one left who could be called a counterpart, let alone a teammate. The group had seriously decreased in size. That wasn’t the initial plan, on the contrary, everyone was supposed to be brought through to the end. And now the remaining participants had to approach the goings-on with the utmost vigilance instead of leaning back and hoping to survive the thing somehow.


“Herr Keglevic, please stay with us—Herr Keglevic!”


So now he was only waiting for sentences like: “A wolf wouldn’t do such a thing and neither would a coyote! And mountain lions haven’t been spotted around here for ages. No, this wasn’t perpetrated by animals.” Or: “Are we entering the age of the self-appointed sheriff? Is this already the inevitable dawn of the new dark ages?” that sort of thing could be anticipated. Only somebody would need to say these sentences out loud, was he right? But he had a sneaking feeling he would soon be left alone, alone in this landscape “with its insane geography,” to quote his predecessor. What gave him that idea? The two of us should just listen closely for once: even from the way the gulls were shrieking, even from the way the grass was moving in the wind. We only needed to consider the trucks passing by in the distance, though there couldn’t be any trucks passing anymore. No one was there anymore. That was only the rustle of the wind.

At any rate, we couldn’t really expect any serious signs of life now, but that was still no reason to give up yet. No, it wasn’t. Somebody must have gotten away, after all. Somebody must have survived this whole business, that was how it normally went, wasn’t it?


Nobody? Fine—he had only one concluding point to make: he’d expected differently from me at the very least. He’d expected cooperation, he’d expected an awakening of engineer emotions, an engineer’s features that would slowly grow on my face and then suddenly stay put. Couldn’t I contribute to the signs of life that were supposed to show up at the end, and demonstrate to everyone that things would keep going somehow after all? He could hardly be expected to show signs of life on his own, now that our EU liaison had disappeared too. Or be expected to cope with this desolation on his own. At this point normally, in fact always, a little group of stragglers would come together, roam around this landscape with its insane geography, and establish a new civilization somewhere, to quote his predecessor once again. But nothing of the kind was happening here. Au contraire, it was just going black, as it were. Yeah, black! But it was a black without closing credits, without music, without a list of soundtrack songs. A black without anything.


Well, if this was supposed to be the end, in that case all his bets were off. Well he didn’t know how he’d react if this was supposed to be the end, in that case he’d feel like he’d been seriously messed around with. Well, he’d get really pissed off now if something didn’t happen pretty soon. In that case he wouldn’t know, in that case it’d be off the record, he said. Because in that case he would seriously—well now he was getting majorly pissed off!


Personal note: having transcribed the meeting minutes, I, the recording secretary, will leave the room to find help even though that violates all the by-laws of the Disaster Tourism agency.

*This story is taken from: “The alarmists”, S. Fischer Verlag, 2009

*Kathrin Röggla: die zuseher, in: die alarmbereiten © S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main 2010.

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