Monday, June 30, 2014

A Translation of "Der Kulterer," a Short Story from 1962 by Thomas Bernhard



The closer he drew to the day of his release from the penal institution, the more Kulterer dreaded returning to his wife.  He led an existence that was completely withdrawn and completely unheeded by his fellow-inmates, and during his free time, which was often much too long, because in accordance with regulations they worked only five or six hours a day at the printing machines, he would write down his ideas, or as he termed them, “trifling thoughts,” which preoccupied him almost uninterruptedly.  Out of boredom, and because otherwise he would inevitably have succumbed to despair, he would often read aloud to himself tales and stories of his own invention and composition—“The Cat,” for example, or “The Dry Dock,” or “The Swimming-Birds,” “The Hyena,” “The Landlady of the Inn’s Manageress,” “The Death Bed.”  The ideas for these stories came to him mostly at night, and in order not lose them he had to get out of bed in the dark and, while his cellmates were sleeping, to sit down at the table, and, in the midst of that “terrible darkness,” to jot down what had just occurred to him.  Moreover it seemed to him that for the time being he would be unable to write down an entire story all the way to the end without rather lengthy preparation beforehand, and this pleased him, because his stories did not admit of being interrupted by any kind of incident; he had once had to break off in the middle of a story because one of the three inmates with whom he lived in the cell had taken notice of him and brutally hissed him away from the table, and the story had been lost.  But over time he had developed a method of getting up from his pallet and sitting down at the table so soundlessly that they no longer perceived him even when they were hardly fast asleep.  There was hardly ever a night, and in the past year-and-a half pretty much not a single further night, in which he had not been awoken by an idea or at least by a thought, by a hint of a thought.  He called his writing “my pastime,” and it came to him the way dreams come to other people, and it was for him as fragile as a dream.

He began his conversations mostly with “Yes, yes, I know…,” and he would say, for example, “Yes, yes, I know, it’s hard…” or “Yes, yes, I know that can turn out badly…,” or “Yes, yes, I know, Mr. Warden…”  But he really never spoke unless he had just been asked a question, and he would immediately stand to attention upon the appearance of the warden, which was at first merely intimated by the clattering of his truncheon, which seemed to echo through the corridors, then by his booted footfalls, which grew ever louder and more portentous and finally overpowered the sound of the printing-machines.  The warden was very well-disposed towards Kulterer—who had to count, pack, and cord up the forms as they fell out of the printing machine—because in contrast to the other inmates he was a quiescent individual who, it seemed, had no aspirations of any kind and strictly followed all rules and instructions and was even in actual fact quite satisfied with everybody, apart from himself.  And when the warden told him that he must report to him after the end of the work shift because a letter and a package had arrived for him, “Not only a package,” the warden informed him, “but also a letter,” Kulterer rested his hands on his thighs and said, “Yes, yes, I know, Mr. Warden!”  “All right!” said the warden, who was dreaded by everybody from the top down, and who was gazing over and beyond Kulterer’s head into the spacious print shop, in which the machines and the prisoners had long subsided into silence apart from one of the apprentices, one of the new trainees, in the back of the room, who let out a barely noticeable exclamation of discontent every now and then.  Kulterer worried that one of these careless individuals might become abusive, and this was something that he wanted not to happen.  Such conspicuous behavior, culminating perhaps in the word “swinishness,” invariably entailed an intensification of the punishment meted out not merely to the individual who permitted himself to use such an expression, but also to the work crew as a whole.  Immediately afterwards the work shift would be extended by at least an hour, and there would be an array of other so-called “compulsory prohibitions.”  The walks around the outer walls of the penal institution would be stricken from the schedule, and the lights would be turned off by half-past seven instead of at the usual time of nine.

“Who has been assigned latrine duty?” asked the warden.  The three appointed inmates identified themselves; two of them were newcomers.  “We shall begin an hour earlier today.”  He made an inspective tour of the workroom, passing by one man after another, but today he saw nothing to find fault with.  They could continue working, he said, and the machines, which had been switched off the moment the moment the warden walked in, now began to run again, and their rattling and stamping—which, while making the minimum possible amount of sound set the entire shop shaking—filled the deliberately severely underlighted and indeed at this time of year almost pitch-dark room.  Having turned to Kulterer, the warden remarked that his term of incarceration would soon be over.  He, the warden, had “tenaciously” supported Kulterer’s release.  He said this so distinctly and so loudly that everybody heard it.  But they did not react to it; they were preoccupied with their machines, with the ceaselessly flying paper, and a laugh that flared up at the opposite side of the shop, only to fall silent just as quickly, obviously had to do with something completely different, not with Kulterer. 

“Yes, yes, I know, Mr. Warden” said Kulterer.

This was a fully equipped printing works, in which they produced every possible kind of printed form, exclusively for governmental purposes, for the various ministries.  All blank school report cards were printed here.  To be working at the printing works, which immediately adjoined the institution, a deliberately obfuscated building of recent construction, was deemed a privilege by those employed there.  In the penal institution there were a large number of more primitive, much less endurable work sectors.  It was not quite clear what the criteria were for assigning a person to one work sector rather than another.  One could be transferred from one work group to another.  One could be conscripted into a tougher or grubbier sector or a tougher and grubbier sector if one were found wanting in some way, if one failed to fulfill the expectations that had been set for one by the administration.  One could be assigned to an easier and to a more pleasant, less fetid sector (than, for example, the tannery), if one fulfilled the expectations that had been set for one and submitted to the penal institution’s system of order.  But initially, on the day of admission to the penal institution, everyone was always assigned to the more pleasant work sectors.  One might even say that the administration placed a certain trust in the newcomers, a trust that lay on the far side of a certain fixed border.  But by most of them this trust was abused and exploited in the coarsest fashion.  In all but a tiny minority of cases, the privilege of remaining in the printing sector or in the kitchen, or in the shoemaking sector, in the tailoring sector, in the clerical sector, could be but of the briefest duration.  It was owing less to his skill than to his sheer incapacity to rebel or to participate in any of the plots, the conspiracies against the administration, that everybody was pretty much constantly hatching, that Kulterer had managed to keep working in the printing works from the very beginning onwards.  If it had ever occurred to him to reflect on the matter, he might have realized that he was the only person who had survived as long as a year-and-a-half at the penal institution’s printing works.  During that entire time there had not been a single complaint lodged against him, nobody at the penal institution, among either the administrators or the inmates, had ever expressed any grievances against him.  Nobody had ever been less than well-disposed or even rudimentarily ill-disposed to him.  Without knowing himself how it was possible, he was often the one person who was capable of relieving the often considerable tensions between the inmates and the administration, and indeed of subduing the outright open hostility that would sometimes break out between the two power blocs.  He himself was less capable than anyone of understanding his own influence on such states of affairs, states of affairs that were often terrifying, that he found appallingly painful, that attained the utmost limits of what he could tolerate.  But the others were also mystified by his relation to these “enormities,” as he termed these occasional and sudden eruptions of mutual menace between the administration and the inmates; nobody saw anything even slightly special in him, apart from his mere exceptional unobtrusiveness.  As he was inconspicuous, they never found him ridiculous.  He struck them as so impassive that they often had the feeling that they must help him, even if they never knew how to help him.  But in this feeling they were mistaken, for, as they were all destined gradually to realize—because they had all grown accustomed to him—in virtually every respect, above all in the simplest respects, those that had absolutely no bearing on anything in particular and were therefore the most significant ones, he was vastly superior to them.  It was remarkable: they treated him as if he were not quite worth taking seriously, and at the same time they felt a high regard for him whenever they came into contact with him.  From out of the ridiculousness in which they bustled about and which afforded them ample opportunity to bawl one another out and put one another down, amid the despair that sometimes got the upper hand of all of them and drove them mad, they would come to their senses thanks to him, who would be standing facing them in the gloom of the almost completely pitch-dark room, and saying, “Yes, yes, I know--.”  What a powerful sense of shame would then come over even men bristling with cold-bloodedness and physical strength, men whom one would not have credited with feelings of any kind whatsoever!  One could carry such musings to extremes and maintain that Kulterer had more than often prevented a case of severe physical injury, indeed, even a murder.  Thus amidst filth and staled idealism, amidst swinishness, calumny, and covetousness, he formed a counterweight.  When they bandied blows—often Kulterer, to whom such a spectacle occasioned appalling pain, had been unable to prevent it—it seemed as though brutishness alone would prove viable, and everything else turn out to be sickly and obscene.  Then he would gaze into the profundities of this bunglery that was hopelessly, in the most barbarous fashion, incapable of coping with itself. All the while that amid their mentally unhinged unconsciousness, amid the forgone certainty of their defeat, they were impulsively scheming at the destruction of the elements, he would stand agonizing on the sidelines.

Regardless of the circumstances, he had always found it most beneficial to be unassuming.  Of course, like every human being, he had often felt a deep-seated need to improve his existence, to extricate himself from certain states of affairs that even he saw as constricting; but he had no desire to exert himself however faintly at the cost of the slightest impression of force, or to impel himself towards achieving anything that he instinctively felt and hence believed was beyond his due.  Throughout his life he had had at his disposal a small and indeed to all outward appearances completely insignificant, infinitesimal, ridiculous space; but he was forever painstakingly attempting to fill this space, and eventually, over time, it was no longer merely with his own intermittently sky-hung dreams that he was qualified to fill, and indeed devoutly decorate, his personal space and time.  He would have been a worthy subject of a study on how soothing a rationalized fate can be to a simple soul.  Any one of the others would have been appalled by the meagerness of his requirements.  And owing to the frugality of his housekeeping, while disregarding the physical environment, which in his eyes could often assumed colossal proportions, as it did in the eyes of other people, he discovered a wealth of opportunities for giving away tangible, plausible, purposeful, indeed superpurposeful material.  His was not a great intellect, nor was it any more profound than the intellects of the people around him, indeed and to the contrary, the reach of his intellect did not extend even to the suburbs of the others’, but in contrast to theirs, which often overawed him, his intellect was thoroughly efficient.  Efficiency, apart from size and willpower, is the most decisive quality of any intellect.
It was in prison that he had first come genuinely to reckon with thoughts, as if with sums to be added and subtracted.  To reckon with the dismantleable, infinitely intellectually and emotionally and pure- reasonably retractable dalliance with quite clearly delineated “unknowns.”  The thought that in his mind had suddenly, overnight been transformed into a concept, into a unique existence, enabled him to cope with the great misfortune that had befallen him in the course of a crime that he had committed as if in a state of radical, suicidal unconsciousness.  All at once he, who had long since believed himself lost, had ceased to be “lethal.”  The invention of thoughts in the human mind seemed to him the most precious gift in existence.  From this decisive moment onwards, the world was in his eyes a purifying infinitude readily amenable to the researches of concentration and precisely delimited consciousness.  For the first time, from then onwards, there had been solid ground beneath his feet, a sky above the earth, a hell, the rotation of a global axis without precedent.  Conjectures formed from perceptions were suddenly followed by the rudiments of a singular objective; effects were suddenly occasioned by genuine causes.  All at once there had sprung into existence what even he termed a “hierarchy.”  Anarchy was switching itself off automatically, so he thought, on either side of his path.  And on the supporting columns of mathematics he descried the poetry, the music, that bound everything together.

In the last few days before his release, days that weighed very heavily on his heart and on his intellect without managing to overwhelm him, and that found their inhumane expression on his face, he tried to establish contact with the inmates, and often in ways that were moving, as he wished to make this contact firm and lasting, for ever and always.  All initiatives and attempts from his side were prompted by the word “farewell.”  He now addressed men whom he had never addressed before, men who had never given even the slightest thought to him, men, indeed, to whom he pretty much meant nothing, men in whose eyes he did not even exist.  Towards whichever direction from which he sensed hostility he would make friendly overtures in atonement for something whose identity was completely obscure even to him.  For him it was a question of making sure there could be no doubt about the “kindness of his trains of thought” apropos of his fellow-inmates, or apropos of anything at all.  “Yes, yes, I know…,” he would say, and they would listen to him.

In the evening in the cell he tried to put them into a contemplative frame of mind in the hope of being able to read his stories to them.  Gradually they came to oblige him and to lend him their ears; it was obvious that they would initially be unable to appreciate his stories, his “fables,” his thoughts; they were unable to conceive anything about them, to conceive even a fraction of his conception.  Sometimes, though, they would catch a glimpse of an actual, proper image, and they would enjoy this, but most of the time they had to force themselves to pay attention, and to keep him from noticing how much he was boring them.  “It’s funny,” one of them said: “your way of looking at that.”  And he replied, “Yes, yes, I know…,” and another of them said, “I like that bit with the beer mug.”  And the third one, the dull-witted one, said, “I don’t understand, but it’s good.”  “Good?” Kulterer asked him, “Do you think it’s good?”  “The ape: what did he do after they duped him?” Kulterer was asked.  “He fell down dead from the tree,” said Kulterer.  He wrote only sad stories.  Sometimes extremely happy ideas would occur to him, ideas that he himself couldn’t help laughing at, but he was unable to write them down.  He had never managed to write even a single happy story.  Why can’t I manage to write any happy stories? he had often asked himself.  A story with a balloon, for example, with a shirt-sleeved sailor, with a trampoline, with a merry-go-round?  Now, because of course there were only a few days left until his release, they said that he could write even at night, that it didn’t disturb them.  He was delighted that from now on he need no longer impose upon them.  “It’s terrible when I can’t write,” he said.  They told him he could light the candle when he wrote.  But he replied to them that over time he had gotten used to writing in the dark.  “It’s actually only when there’s not much light that my stories come to me,” he said.  They marveled at how much he had written during his term of imprisonment.  One of them fished out the large packet of paper that Kulterer had stowed away under his pallet, and began dealing out to the others several of the stories, each of which had been painstakingly numbered and corded up.  They should read them, he told them.  The reason they had not hit upon the idea of reading Kulterer’s stories much earlier may simply have been that until now they had not been sure that they would understand any of the stories.  Kulterer said that he was delighted that they were now taking an interest in his stories, whereas earlier they had not evinced even the slightest interest in them; quite the contrary.  “I was always such a nuisance to you,” he said, “whenever I was writing or whenever I made any mention of my stories…”  He said this in a tone of voice that they all found very moving.  “If only there were just one story that you all liked!” he said.

But even after they had given him permission to sit at the table at night in order to write, he did so so soundlessly that they did not perceive him sitting there at all.  Often it was merely the desire “for it to be about a house” that got him out of bed and sitting at the table; often it was not even a thought of that kind, but rather merely a single word, the word “turnip,” for example, the word “altar,” the word “hoof.”  All words had the same signification for him, but a good many of them plunged him from the very beginning into a mysterious gloom, into the paradise of a primary color and into numbers and numerals, into a prerequisite for the written.  Not the least of the benefactors of his thoughts, and indeed of every part of him, were the deprivity and depravity of the penal institution’s system of deprivation.  He was afraid that once he had been set free and stripped of his prisoner’s uniform he would no longer be able to write anything, no longer able to think anything; he was afraid that in that savage state of imposed exposure, he would no longer be able to exist at all.  He punctiliously felt as if the fantastic character of this miracle that he had discovered in his powerless obliviousness would be destroyed during the passage of one instant into the next—destroyed suddenly, with the first step he took beyond the threshold of the penal institution.  How clear to him in this darkness, in the middle of this suppressed humanity that in virtue of its regimentedness scarcely dared to breathe, were the contours of concepts!  How clear to him here were even the utmost limits of the remote, the repulsive, the impulsive, the inconceivable!  How unmistakable here was the unfinished intuition that was elsewhere so murky, that elsewhere slipped out of his brain because it invariably rated as infinitely inascertainable therein and thereby.  How effortlessly here did everything that elsewhere was ignobly throttled by insensitivity and tribulation disclose itself!  How diffidently, amid this veritable landscape of darkness, which was completely devoid of unnatural sounds and smells, could one think here!   How trustingly one could feel  everything in the aggregate here!  To think that here it is possible to say something true that elsewhere would only amount to a lie!  He thought: here I can propound something that in the outside world is inhumane!  And with what daredevil discreetness!  There is a relation to light and to darkness here, to my divine world, that can lay claim to truth only here.  If I leave this place, it will die.  And if he had not been the most uncommunicative of individuals, the very most taciturn of all the inmates, he might have been constantly muttering to himself, distinctly enough, in order to offend himself and everyone else as deeply as possible, these words: “I’m leaving and killing myself, I’m stepping outside and killing myself.”  But this is preposterous, he said to himself.

Now he took leave of the buildings.  How beautiful and perfectly obedient did he all of a sudden find the lineation of the walls, a lineation much stronger than all those years.  One can see very distinctly that this is a cloister, he said to himself.  And in fact for centuries the penal institution really had been a monastery.  There is of course no difference between a cloister and a penal institution, he thought; the only difference perhaps is that the cloister is a voluntary and the penal institution an involuntary prison; the cloister is something one imposes on oneself and that one can leave whenever one chooses, whereas one is incarcerated in the penal institution compulsorily and cannot leave it whenever one chooses.  He discerned the harmoniousness of the irregularities in the masonry, the characterful antiquity of the gables and ledges, the noble munificence of the stairways.  He had never before become conscious of any of this, and certainly nothing of the kind ever struck anybody apart from him.  The gentle buoyancy of the edges of the windows!  The chapel, which he had repaired to for mass every day of the entire year-and-a-half, he now suddenly beheld with his “new eyes.”  And above all he noticed the work tools that hung on the walls of the courtyard, that lay on the floor of the shed; the multitude of old-fashioned rakes and gables and ledges!  He had always used to enjoy heading for the meadows and fields in the summer.  But he always found the warmer season here more oppressive than autumn and winter.  One cuts too vile a figure under the warden’s knout when the sun is out! he said to himself.  And the laughter of the countrywomen that one hears wafting over from the farms is a terrible abyss.  In winter of course the gates were shut and only the woodcutting crew left the penal institution through the rear exit leading to the nearby woods.  He had never worked in the woodcutting crew; he was too weak to do so.  The young people were naturally always worming their way into the woodcutting crew; they were hoping to escape.  But nobody has yet managed to escape, he thought.  Even when somebody does slip through, he is caught, nabbed, and everything is much worse than before.  Rebellion is megalomaniacal, he thought.  Rebellion inevitably leads to doubled pain.  During the midday walk around walls, he descried a steel trap lying in the shed—a real curiosity!  They’ve been catching beasts of prey with such steel traps for centuries, he thought.  How did this steel trap get here?  Probably, he said to himself, they actually set it from time to time, because there are wolves in this area.  One could hear them in the cold season at night; they really took a beating from the winter storms.  One heard them over and over again.  Kulterer thought: the warden always lets us stay in the courtyard a couple of minutes longer than the regulations allow.  He is tall and fat and strikes as quick as a flash.  They all call him “the rubber sausage” because he often uses his truncheon to get attention, to get legitimacy.  He loves to walk his beat in tight trousers; he has never raised his voice.  Not one of them has ever heard the warden raise his voice.  Short, muttered utterances—that is his style.  He can’t stand his hat, but he has to wear it; the regulations say that he must wear his hat.  He often says, “Incorrigible beasts!,” and he loves the stock-sentence, “This is indeed a grave misunderstanding indeed, you bastards!”

During the same evening in which he had unpacked the package from his wife (the latest in a series of packages that always contained the same items—meat, butter, newspapers, socks—a package that he had not so much as glanced at in several days; he particularly dreaded unpacking the package, along with reading the letter, he had always been fearful of this, fearful of the distressful state into which the unpacking of these packages and the reading of these letters had always sunk him, fearful of this recrudescence of shame within him that was capable of wreaking the most terrible effects on his world of thoughts, of igniting his world of reproof, of summoning forth in him a despairing lack of inspiration lasting for days on end), he had surprisingly written a story entitled “Logic,” a meditation that he subsequently—the next morning, after he had slept a few additional hours, having been pleasantly surprised by the narrative—read aloud to his cellmates.  “What sort of word is this word ‘logic’ anyway?” he had asked the inmates, before he had even begun reading his story.  None of them could answer him.  “What does this noun ‘logic’ mean?”  They remained silent.  “Yesterday,” he said, “I, too, was without an answer to this baffling question, but today I know that answer; listen: what I am about to read to you is the answer to my question, the question of what the noun ‘logic’ is, what sort of a meaning it has.”  He read his story out and was astonished at how calm his listeners were.  He did not allow himself to be tempted into believing that they had been impressed, but he was very happy.

Initially he had trembled whenever the door of the cell was shut and locked behind him; although he had not had a rebellious bone in his body, he nevertheless found himself in an enormously downtrodden condition on every such occasion.  On such occasions, the word “backtalk” had used to be written all over his face as a matter of course, but he never uttered it.  I naturally have no right to talk back, he had thought, I have no rights, I don’t even have the right to talk back, I pretty much have no rights whatsoever, I have no rights to lay claim to!  Despite the matter-of-factness that at the very moment of his sentencing had come into being within him like an elemental transmutation of the structure of his brain, that had set to work, had begun to dismantle and assemble at a radical level, had begun meting out justice point-blank, he had found it terribly difficult to submit himself to the new powers that be, to the facts, to the state of being a prisoner, a lawbreaker, a fellow destined for a well-nigh immeasurable stretch of time to be a criminal, a penitentiary preparation. Every deliberative thought about his case inevitably led him to the realization that no injustice had been done to him.  “There is absolutely no such thing as injustice!”  This proposition had almost ensnared him; a thousand deliberations rode on this proposition, until it finally had to be disproved…in his own case no detectable injustice had been done.  He had done what one was not permitted to do, and he was being punished for it; not unduly punished to be sure, as he now saw, no; looking up at his punishment from below as he now did, he felt it to be merely and precisely fitting. But initially it had been a bitter experience trying to make the best of his new possibilities.  Over time, in conformity with his deliberations, in the middle of his quarrel with his transgression, the feeling of being oppressed had transmuted into the opposite feeling, the feeling of being free.  It arose out of a simple train of thought that went, “The free man is not free; the unfree man is not unfree.”  “Where does the border of freedom lie and whence is it arrived at?” he asked himself.  It was such a clear train of thought that he fairly shuddered the first time he permitted it to think.  “Now I am free,” he could say to himself.  “Never before have I had freedom!”  It was an enormous uplift for him.  But it would, he thought, be a pointless undertaking to try to explain what he termed “a primeval feeling” to the people of the outside world as well as to the people of the inside world, to the free people as well as the unfree people, both of whom are both free and unfree simultaneously.  In simple terms and addressing himself alone, he now said, “My release from the penal institution means that I must surrender my freedom.”  To be sure, this idea was not connected in any immediate way to the circumstances that awaited him outside, to his wife and his breadwinning; it was much more directly anchored in the surpassingness of the ever-inconceivable, in an elevated universal inexhaustible execution of ideas.  It seemed to him as though he were completely incomprehensibly taking his first step not only out of the penal institution but also into death.  Into an insuperable, inevitable, sagacious, logically consequential death.

Early on the morning of his release he was summoned to the director’s office.  He must now thank the director for his residence in the penal institution, said the warden, who was escorting him.  “Yes, yes, I know…,” said Kulterer.  The warden asked him if he had any grievances to voice to him; he himself guessed otherwise; from time to time he had behaved rather brusquely towards him, but that had been unavoidable.  Kulterer had remarkably little trouble finding his way in the still-prevailing darkness.  In accordance with the regulations the warden walked one pace behind him; he had his truncheon in his hand, not hanging from his jacket.  Probably because there are two new people here, thought Kulterer.  If he wished he could take his breakfast outside the cell, the warden said.  But Kulterer had no such wish.  At the door of the director’s office, the office of a man who made a point of being seated at his desk by five o’clock each morning, the warden halted and stayed put.  Duty required him to wait there until the prisoner emerged from the director’s office, and then to escort him back to the cell.  “Well, well,” said the director, a short man in a heavy overcoat, a genre of garment that seemed completely appropriate neither as daywear nor as nightwear, a sort of military dressing-gown, “well, well, now it’s your turn.”  Kulterer had drawn to a halt at some distance from the director, who with a quick, stern movement of his head beckoned him closer to the desk.  “Where do I have your file?” he said.  “Ah, here it is!” said the director.  “Franz Kulterer, born 1911 in Aschbach, is that correct?”  “Yes, yes.”  “You are married, with no children,” said the director.  “Yes, yes.”  “There are no outstanding charges against you,” said the director, suddenly: “So what are you going to do once you’ve been released?”  Kulterer was unable to come up with any immediate reply.  “OK, fine,” said the director, “you of course know how you’ve got to behave out there.  The formalities have of course been taken care of.  But just because you’re now being released, that doesn’t mean…”  “Yes, yes,” said Kulterer, to whom the director had by now tendered several severe reproaches.  “So the formalities have been seen to.  By me personally, no less.  Wait a minute,” said the director, “aren’t you the man with permission to write?”  “Yes,” said Kulterer.  “That was a very rare perquisite you enjoyed.  To grant permission to write to a prisoner!  But as far as I can see you have done nothing blamable.  What have you been writing all this time anyway?” the director wished to know.  “Oh,” said Kulterer, “nothing to speak of.”  “Stories, probably,” said the director.  “Yes, yes, stories,” replied Kulterer.  “You of course know,” said the director, “that throughout your period of employment here the costs of your incarceration have been deducted from your wages; you know that, of course!”  “Yes, yes,” replied Kulterer.  The government requires you to pay taxes as well; you know that, of course!  Do you want to have the money right now, or would you rather have it mailed to you?  Where are you going to live anyway?  Are you going back to your wife now?”  “Yes, yes,” said Kulterer.  “All right,” said the director, “you surely must have been given our address as a reference.  It will of course enable you to obtain a position somewhere.  Make sure you apply for a job at a printing shop; you’ve got really good prospects in that line of work!  It’s astonishing how much people learn while they’re with us!  It’s really astonishing,” said the director.  “We’ll miss you in the form-printing department,” he said.  “So, even though you’re being let go, you aren’t being fired,” he quipped: “you’re getting your money.  All right,” he said and stood up and handed Kulterer a large gray envelope.  “You are to hand this envelope over to your local police department.  Everything after that will happen automatically.  You of course know that you have to report to that department once a week.”  “Yes, yes, I know,” said Kulterer.  The director offered him his hand.  He was much obliged to him, Kulterer said; he was, he said, saying this not in deference to any regulations, but rather out of a genuine, sincere feeling of gratitude, “…I am very much obliged to you,” he said.  He was ashamed of having not alighted upon any better words.  He had prepared a sentence of leave-taking for the director, but at the moment when he was supposed to deliver it the sentence had proved irretrievable.  “Very well, then,” the director said, and he dismissed Kulterer.  In the corridor Kulterer had the feeling that the warden, who was walking behind him, was well disposed to him.  Oddly enough he had never been afraid of the warden, in contrast to his fellow-inmates, who were worried to the point of panic about being forced to be alone with that man in the darkness of the corridors.  “Did you thank him?” asked the warden, who was prodding him around a corner with his truncheon.  “Yes, yes,” said Kulterer, “but I was clumsy.”  “What does that mean?” the warden wished to know.  “Too stupid,” said Kulterer.  “Did he give you the envelope?”  Kulterer pulled out the large gray envelope on which he himself had printed the inscription that read “Suben Penal Institution in the Ninth Circuit of the Federal Ministry of Justice.”  “You must give it to me,” said the warden.  “You haven’t had such a bad experience with me, have you?”  “No, no,” said Kulterer.  Now the electric lights suddenly came on; the cleaning corps were already at work.  One of them poured the lye out of the bucket, another immediately scrubbed the floor with a brush, a third mopped up with a rag behind the other two.  “Now, now,” said the warden, because they had poured the hot lye out right in front of his feet.  They immediately stood at attention and in expectation of a reprimand, but the warden ignored the incident; he resumed following Kulterer, who was walking with short, brisk steps.  By now they were already conveying breakfast to the cells.

“You’ll get the envelope back when you’re on your way out,” said the warden.  He wanted to lock up the cell area, but then the conveyors of breakfast arrived, and he lingered at the door of the cell area until they had finished distributing the breakfast food, urging them to a more speedy performance of their duties as he stood there.  It could hardly be a perquisite, delivering breakfast, he said.  “Move!  Move!”  They scooped the lukewarm beverage rations out of a gigantic zinc bucket that they had to carry by two handles and set down at the threshold of the door of the cell area.  From a cardboard box they distributed slices of bread.  Each prisoner received four pieces; that was the bread ration for the entire day.  “By this time tomorrow our Kulterer will be sleeping in a nice, clean bed,” said the warden.  The man referred to was standing off to one side; in the presence of the warden, he kept his hands flat against his thighs.  He was convinced that the warden had intended no malice by what he had just said, that to the contrary he was well disposed to him.  It would be out of the question for anyone to bear me any malice, he had thought.  He had of course always been impeccably punctilious, always the model of correct behavior; he had never evinced so much as a trace of the apple-polishing hypocrisy that some people might now be attributing to him.  To the contrary!  He admittedly never allowed himself to utter even such words of praise as these, but he got the feeling that the warden had always been satisfied with him.  The warden had no cause to be abusive towards him as he so often was towards the others, both justly and unjustly.  He often struck them directly on the head.  Terrible states of affairs would often result when somebody said “rubber sausage” within earshot of him.  “Yes, yes, I know,” Kulterer said after the warden had told him that he would now have to begin preparing in earnest for his release.  That he must, and indeed as dictated by the regulations, leave the penal institution within the next few hours.  “My writings…” said Kulterer.  The warden said he would bring him a rope so that he could tie his writings together.

His cellmates were of the opinion that he regarded this day as a day of celebration; they could not know and could not conceive that this very day was the most terrible one in Kulterer’s entire life.  “Why the hell aren’t you saying anything?  Tell us just one more tale before you bugger off!” they said.  Now that he had only a few more hours to spend with them, he was all of a sudden shutting himself off from them.  Why?  They certainly had nothing against him, never had had anything against him; admittedly many things about him had annoyed them at the beginning, but only to the extent that every human being is annoying, even to those closest to him; recently they had even taken quite a shine to him.  And even to his stories.  “Come on: let us keep a couple of your stories!” they said.  He would have been prepared to leave his stories with them, but he had no faith in them; the things they were saying now had for him the air of some mutually agreed-upon hearty sendoff of his corporeal self, whom they were basically happy to be getting rid of.  What he would have most liked to say was, “I’m glad I don’t disgust you,” but he uttered not a single word.  Once again, they curled up in their pallets, as they always had done after breakfast, in defiance of all regulations.  Kulterer sat down.  By the time the warden was at the door and handing in a rope through the hatch they were back on their feet.  “That’s a sturdy rope,” said the warden.  Kulterer consolidated his toiletries on the tabletop and his cellmates helped him, and he pulled out his parcel of writings, and without his having to ask any of them to do so, they joined with him in packing it up; the strongest of them pulled the rope taut; it was a fairly hefty package.  When Kulterer tentatively lifted it, they laughed, because this had possibly struck them as being funny; he felt a powerful sense of foolishness, a powerful sense of foolishness that was coextensive with himself, that he could not explain to himself because he could not explain himself even to himself.  “Too stupid,” he said.  “What are you going to do with your stories?” they asked.  He shrugged his shoulders.  “You really should sell them.  They say the newspapers snatch them up like hotcakes.  Whether they’ll print your stories or not is of course a different question.”  “Yes, yes,” said Kulterer, “I know.”  They were very sorry, they said, that they would have to do without him from now on.  They said that he had become indispensable to them.  “Yes: genuinely indispensable.”  They said that nobody who came next would be able to top him, as everybody of course knew.  “I at any rate am going to wish you were here,” the eldest said.  They said they had all had many enjoyable conversations thanks to him; not to mention the fact that they would now be one player short for card games.  “And for Nine Men’s Morris,” said Kulterer.  “The printing works will look after itself,” they said.  Still, he was surely planning to poke his head in at the printing works to say his farewells.  “Yes, yes,” he said.  That went without saying.  Whether they believed it or not he found it hard to set off.  He would have much rather stayed.  He found leaving “unimaginable.”  “But you can’t stay anymore when you’re being forced to leave,” he said.  “Even if you were to make an appeal to the courts, such an appeal would naturally be rejected.”  They laughed and didn’t believe he was being serious.  He looked distraught.  He wanted to give them a present, he said, something for them to remember him by.  Naturally, he said, he had no idea whether they would get even the slightest amount of pleasure from the thing that he had decided to give them, but he could imagine that even if they found it ridiculous to begin with, it might actually prove useful to them later on.  “I have written something for each of you,” he said, “something for each individual that applies only to him.”  And he handed each of them a folded-up piece of paper.  Even if they laughed their heads off at him he would not be embarrassed, but naturally he hoped that they would not laugh their heads off at him.  Before he had unfolded his piece of paper, the one who had always struck Kulterer as the most pitiable of them, as well as the most vulgar, asked what it was that Kulterer had written for him.  “An aphorism,” said Kulterer.  He did not dare to say anything more than “an aphorism.”  The three of them, who were serving terms of indefinite length, had permission to report to work a half an hour late so that they could say their farewells to the man being released.  The warden had let them take some sips from a bottle of spirits that he immediately took back from them; he said he had to go to the director to see to a mandatory formality involving Kulterer, then he locked up the cell and vanished.  But he came back immediately, unlocked the cell, and said that Kulterer had to change his clothes straight away.  “Come on!” he said and threw a pile of clothes, evidently Kulterer’s mufti, on to the pallet of the man being released.  “Get changed!” he shouted at Kulterer, not in a malicious tone, but in quite the opposite sort of one.  He locked up the cell and clattered off down the corridor.  Kulterer crouched down and took off his prison uniform, and when he was standing completely naked in front of his cellmates—who the whole time had tried to give him bits of advice: “Go out there and get ’em!”—“No, just say you really haven’t got a clue—you got that?”—“Nonsense, just knock on the door and walk right in!”—they had said all these things to him, they had tried to give him pointers on how to comport himself in the world outside, “because we know how it is when you’ve just been released,” they said—when he was standing completely naked in front of his cellmates they kept on prescribing to him rules of behavior, but he was unable to take in any of these rules, because the men were talking furiously all at once.  He now suddenly felt a horrible feeling of forlornness, a feeling that, because all those terrible stares were being affixed to it from all sides, he soon found unbearable.  “You’re going to catch a cold,” said the eldest, who was leaning against the cell door, and who under his breath said, “His skin is as white as a child’s.”  And the third one laughed a short laugh.  Then they fell silent, and aiming for his stomach the eldest tossed Kulterer his underpants, then his shirt, his trousers, his jacket, his shoes.  Kulterer put them all on; he was nauseated by the alien smell these clothes exuded; it was the smell of hundreds and thousands of alien, cast-off garments that had been crammed together in a tiny space.  He stood there trembling from head to toe, as though he had just received a beating.  “Go out and get properly soused once you’re out there!” said the youngest at the door.  “How did they actually nab you?  Well?”  “Yes, yes,” said Kulterer.  “And they beat you, didn’t they?  They apprehended you in just the way you told us, right?”  “Yes, in just the way I told you.”  “And they never once hit you on the head?  You never bled at all, right?  You know of course that the police are always hitting the likes of us on the head.  They show us no mercy!  Not a jot of it!”  Kulterer shook his head.  “They never did anything to me,” he said.  “And what about your wife?” they asked.  “What about her?  How did she react to it?”  Kulterer did not answer.  “Does she know you’re coming home?  Have you written to her?  Have you told her anything about it?”  He would have a nice train to catch at noon, they said.  They asked him how much money he had left.  If he had any left at all.  “Yes, yes,” said Kulterer.  He hastily wrote down their addresses and asked them to remember him kindly.  “You bet we will,” they said.  It was, they said, no simple matter to step outside; the world was cold and unforgiving.  He felt an urge to embrace all three of them, but at that very moment the door was yanked open and the warden led the prisoners away.  The cell door was left open. He stood there and registered the sound of the printing machines wafting over from across the courtyard.  He bent down over his still-warm prison uniform and wept.

The warden had told him to go the kitchen, where they had wrapped up something for him to eat.  But he didn’t know anybody there.  They were a bunch of totally new faces.  He went into the printing-works and into the tannery and into every place where he found an open door, and said his farewells.  At the chapel he gazed one last time at the beautiful images.  He had already taken his leave of the chaplain the day before.  Finally he went back one last time to the cell in order to fetch his things.  He made sure he was not forgetting anything, took up his package of papers, and set off.  Across the courtyard he could hear the warden subduing a prisoner.  He ran away as fast as he could, away from the prison and into the adjacent landscape, whose grayish-brown hillocks reeked of hopelessness.  


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2014 by Douglas Robertson

Source: Der KultererEine Filmgeschichte  (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1976), pp. 93-119.

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