Cracks in the Ice, 1989 (Excerpt)
trans. Liselotte M. Davis
Note of the translator: Joachim Walther's novel "Risse im Eis," the first edition of which appeared in 1989 is about a family in the GDR; husband, wife, two sons. Wife and older son are going along with the system to get along, husband is quietly disagreeing and withdrawing to a private desk, younger son is trying to live a non-prescribed life. A husband and wife growing apart, the conflict between the older and younger generation -- universal problems, here made specific within a totalitarian governmental system. The passage is a conversation between father and younger son, beginning with the fathers reminiscence of his high school experiences. p. 50 - 55
"[...] I remember the exhausting fights about Rock’n Roll, blue jeans, and leather jackets. Fashion as politics: it was embarrassing for both sides. Our educators put their all into these outward appearances, and we, seduced by their overreaction, thought outward appearances were more important than they really were. As ridiculous as that may seem today, at that time it formed us, it determined careers. The kid appearing at school in blue jeans had to count on being sent home. Change clothes, change minds. The kid pushing the front of his hair into an Elvis curl and combing the back into a duck tail was sent to the barber. It was forbidden to dance apart, and they who kept doing it were ordered out of the dance hall. For that there were groups of “regulators.” One day they climbed up on roofs and tore down the antennas pointing to the West. There were student assemblies, appeals alone for the fashion offences. Our homeroom teacher Meier, called Geier (vulture), did not tolerate anyone who by his clothes, haircut, or swinging moves let it be known that he cared for a sort of music he called ape screams.
Once, a lecturer came to our assembly hall with a tape recorder and gave a lecture about Rock’n Roll. In order to prove the objectionable, ruinous, and harmful aspects of that music, he played a few titles by Bill Haley and Little Richard -- and those were the few minutes when he enjoyed the full attention of the gathered students. I no longer believed unquestionably when Meier taught that abstract art consisted of meaningless smears, invented by brainless charlatans for the stupefaction of the masses, and I could no longer laugh about the fact that he again used the ape, supposedly throwing bags of paint onto the canvas. My childhood world started to crack. I no longer trusted the wisdom learned, and the future also no longer seemed sure-fire to me. Life with the “bomb,” that also was added, an early trauma. That threat was hanging over me in dark dreams, and I woke up with the resolution to hurry up with life.
Better rank than missile tank, you said. See red rather than be dead. But: is there a life before death?
Snappy sayings, I said, and I realized how the tension between us was growing. I, Mike, wanted to continue believing in something, in a possibility, a chance for a worldwide turn to the good, call it what you want.
Possibility of change, I said. When I was your age, I was fascinated by those words.
It was true that, like my elders, I did not believe the incomplete present time could be pulled into the ideal final goal with a brawny heave—ho, but I was convinced to be going in that direction and of being needed, with my probing and questionings.
And? You asked. Did it help?
Of course, I said, and I tried to laugh which didn't’t work too well. Questions were called want of clarity, probing a provocation, criticism a negative attitude.
Misunderstandings, I thought at that time, with a clear conscience, being surprised that they didn't’t embrace me, and people like Arwid. We tried again and again. Hope doggedly stayed with us. A seed, sprouting in every warm breeze, capable of germination even today.
Oh man, you grabbed your head and moaned. You are shrill types. High kicks with high hopes. While graying. Slackening. And yet still no real perception: what isn't going is going against you. For me, for us it is absurd: to want to work but to not be wanted.
And you? I called out, now hurt by your words. What do you want? Probably nothing, or what?
When I was ten, you actually should remember that I wanted to be an escape artist. I liked that. I still do.
Seriously, Mike: what do you want?
To live, you said. No more, no less. But intensely. Not just survive with a constant lifethreatening situation. Not saving up pleasure in favor of a dubious promise called future. To postpone wishes, to put them off is not life. Your generation is handing life to us like an inherited disease. Getting by, somehow, with lazy compromises, part accomplice, part victim, accomplice to “progress.” Into a bright future denied us by the present time. And nature is supposedly due to pay for everything, but it actually pays us back, and possibly it will just disgorge us some day, the lords, the sovereigns. But before that we are given cancer, radiation, poison. Dying away: that too is there. Putting one’s foot into one’s mouth for that or get one’s finger burned is the least in face of such a perspective.
Why is all compromise bad? I asked. That capability makes small steps possible, yes, but steps ahead to better times. To want to force the best things possible all at once, to confront instead of cooperating, that means to be frozen in protest.
Don’t worry, Daddio, you said. We don’t want to be an opposition party. Whether sun or rain, we are against it at any rate: that is there as well. Knowing everything better, admiring yourself, growing wooden over time, and confirming each other’s opinions which you are always sure of. There is no perspective in that. It is so uptight. So bitter and unproductive. Barren islands. Naked rocks. Pale moons. While constantly criticizing that what is, they remain hopelessly glued to it. Remain particles of the whole, particles with a negative charge eternally rotating around in the same circle. We want out, leave the trajectory, only that way new elements can come into being. Dogged fighting, the clinch in the ring not only distorts their features, the fighters eventually will resemble each other. Trying a different life, quiet, gentle, but lasting. Without pretense, finery, and riots. Everyone begins with himself, everyone for himself. Anticipations, experiments, the search for a new beginning, from below, without redemption from above.
Getting out and staying out, I said. Secretly you are off the grid and you think you are enormously clever.
Better to be secretly clever than enormously stupid, you rejoined, and you looked at me in an alarmed fashion, but I was not taking it personally, I knew it was one of your sayings. Excuse me, but you don’t understand: I am doing something, sometimes a little here, sometimes a little there, but that doesn't’t constitute who I am. When I make an appearance somewhere, be it at a drive, or at a reading, at an exhibition, or at a magazine, then I don’t do that in order to show the people who read, hear, see something to convince them of something, but first of all I am doing it for myself in order not to become deaf. Not for changing someone or something. With the head against the wall, that has to lead to great craziness. He who overextends cracks up.
The smaller the goals, I said, the better the credibility.
Yes, yes, I know, you said. You want great plans. Fighting programs, manifestoes. No thank you. No need. There are enough big, beautiful, hollowed—out words, language rubbish in great heaps. Blown—up word bubbles, bulky like dinosaurs: too much armor, too little brain. Clear feelings are more interesting to me than ideas. Pain, sympathy, someone else’s joy. Or fear: it can really activate you. I like questions better than constantly repeated facts, chewing the cud. Feelings are more important than theories. And common sense? Servile, up to selfdestruction. Cogito ergo wham! This has gone to extremes. Only extreme measures can help here. We have to have extremes, extremes have to be allowed, even if they seem brainless to those normals who tinker with the norms. Nothing can forge ahead coming from the mediocre, only backfire.
But, Mike, life always consists in balance, too.
And how we are balancing, Daddio! down below to the right the temptation is lurking to be taken in. Down below to the left the danger to be pushed out. And why are you refusing to learn from us?
Learn from your generation, you mean? Seriously? What exactly? Your agonizing? Your halftruths? Your rationales, open to bribes? Your tame language? Your brokendown rebelling, your always added: Yes, Your Grace? Your eternal justifications? It begins with your language. We want one tI~k names more than the already named, that is more than just rational, that does not want to constrict, lead by the nose, discipline, level everything. To take language at its word, not taking over, not taking on. Nothing new can develop out of word ruins.
Oh yes? A new language, one of your own?
I didn't’t mean to speak that way, and yet I was doing it just the same. You returned my irony with ridicule.
That’s right, we do not have a chance, but we will use it with all our might. And tI~t we remain among ourselves just happened. It was not a free choice. But it is okay that way. If the editors, culture center directors, gallery docents, and university people don’t want us the way we are but the way they want us to be, we will do our stuff by ourselves without having an eye on publication. We are not asking if we may do what we do, we just do it and wait to see what happens.
Breath was coming visibly out of your mouth: white banners fluttering away in the frosty air. Around us a clicking, a soft crackling. We stopped and listened. I thought I heard how the ice was groaning under the sun, and expanding, how it was moaning, being influence~by the continuing deep—seated cold, how it stood up under pressure, in an excited tension, how it was alive while carrying us. The sun was still too weak, hardness would win out under this high—pitched sky.
What would happen, I asked, if a publishing house would offer to publish a volume of your poetry?
Don’t know, you said. Rather utopian question.
It sounded as if you had never taken that into consideration. I couldn't’t believe that.
And if, you added, then all or nothing. Meaning not at all.
I had not expected anything else. All or nothing, nothing in between. And at some point you are standing in a corner, you realize that you are getting older, and you see, the wall behind you, only two possibilities: adapting or leaving.
I asked you.
Yeah, you said, some people look at it that way.
My voice became scratchy, and when you didn't’t answer my question, a flash of fear arose in me for the first time that you might want to go. That I would be hurt by that, I said, and took it back at the same moment, since I did not want to bind you with my feelings, did not want to blackmail you with a son’s gratitude which you don’t owe me. I wanted an example which was convincing, a live proof for the possibility of finding one’s place without curvature of the spine. At that time I could not think of anybody as an example. Today I would know someone. Vera.
It was hurting me to see how you created a gap between us. I was closer to you than you thought, Mike. And as we became more distant from each other, a dull boom was sounding from below. A blow hit the soles of my feet, an echo was rolling through the immense resonating space of the lake. The ice was vibrating. I panicked, and without even thinking I ran towards you. I ran towards you in order to protect you, but also in order to find your support. You too had run towards me. We held each others’ hands, smiling anxiously, expecting the great break. But the ice held. Only to the right and to the left of us two new cracks, as wide as a hand, were gaping. [...]..."