I am looking for the names for the three characters in this short story. Should I use a Javanese, Chinese, Arab, Western or Indian name for each of them? The three characters are Indonesian. One of them has lived for a while in Bremen. One has lived for quite a while in Berlin. The third has only spent three weeks in Berlin.
“Just call me S,” said one of them.
Suddenly, one of them, decided his own name for himself. This started to annoy me: how could a character in the short story I was writing, decide upon his own name?
“I’m D”, said one of the others.
“And I’m just A”, said the last one.
They were so rude. The third one stated that after A had chosen his name, it was clear that I was annoyed. This showed the difficulty in arranging one character in amongst two others and one character amongst three.
“Are you learning how to write a short story?” S suddenly asked.
“Every time I write a short story, I am learning a-new how to write a short story”, A answered.
They increasingly made me nervous in ordering them within this short story. I wasn’t sure that I could arrange them in the same way I could arrange a sentence. I wasn’t sure. I always doubted that they weren’t material for my sentences. They weren’t real, but they lived in who knows what circumstances. They made language like a shadow of another world.
What worried me most was if they were exchangeable. This led to only one conclusion: the three were actually only one person. Their dialogues thus were nothing more than an effort to distribute sentences in order to create one pathway. How was it possible to create three people and how could three people become one person?
They were hanging out at A’s apartment in Waldstrasse, Moabit. They had finished two bottles of beer. S, who was born in Malang, then had lived in Bali, then in Berlin, started to play the guitar. This man with curly hair and the slightly greying beard, started to sing his own song. It was a cheerful reggae song. The cheerful melody was like a mask to cover his sadness that could no longer be erased. S was working in a house for the elderly with a wage of 750euros per month. This was enough for a simple life in Berlin.
His singing was like a memory. I didn’t know what they were memories of though. They were like memories of a time and place that had disappeared. Every song was like a memory of something which has disappeared; which has passed by. But S also made paintings. I had seen his works, piled up like second-hand goods in his small apartment. Paintings which showed his happiness in amongst his despair, chaos, anger and also something to do with his nihilism. I could just make guesses in amongst the rumbling of the passing trains in my mind.
D held her laughter every time she saw S do something: singing, cooking or telling a story. His stories came from a place without a home. Stories from street kids. Stories from a person who couldn’t be institutionalised in a home.
The three of them left Waldstrasse and went to the train station which would take them to Friedrichstrasse. They were going to see surrealist paintings and collections of Papyrus at the Agyptisches Museum. I didn’t know: were they foreigners in Berlin? What is the meaning of being a foreigner, these days? We can become a foreigner in our own home, can’t we? Anxiety emerged once more: like a virus spreading every time I used the word “foreign”. A word which had caused so much bloodshed and sadness which could never be erased.
I looked at the three of them in the train. The train was covered in gothic stickers.
“How far have you got with the short story that you are writing?” D asked.
S laughed. I was silent. I didn’t know, who was creating this short story: was it them, or myself? The question made me feel like an empty suitcase that could be taken anywhere – without ever knowing what should be placed in to the suitcase. Does every suitcase need to be filled with something, or do we not even really need a suitcase?
D and S shared something while cooking. Nations passed through their cooking through their combinations of spices and different flavours. The smell of their spices couldn’t be photographed and put in a museum. The smell of their spices made people remember their mother or children who had gone far away without taking a train or plain. D did a variety of jobs: from working at poetry festivals, documentary films or working in a restaurant. She had a small body; but she could carry a large suitcase, all the way up to the third floor.
They got off at Friedrichstrasse and walked towards Bodestrasse, the place of the museum where the surrealist works were kept. I reminded them that when they left the station they had to turn left. If not, the short story would get lost. But they insisted on turning right. It was clear that they were the ones determining the action. It wasn’t me who was writing it.
S walked with a slight limp. Perhaps because of some kind of accident. S had to stop now and then and massage his heel, so that it started to feel loose once more.
“We’re already old,” A patted S on his back. D laughed. Her eyes were a mixture of Javanese, Arab and Chinese blood. It was an extraordinary mix; shattering. The DNA looked for a temple in which to become united. A’s eyes narrowed when he smiled. A was someone who always appeared to be friendly, but had trouble being a friend. He was too far on the inside. Every time he tried to come out, the outside world pushed him back in.
They had been walking for more than half an hour, but they still hadn’t reached Bodestrasse. They were well and truly lost. If they turned left again, Bodestrasse would become even further away. In the end, they took a bus to the museum. It was too far to walk. When the bus stopped, the rain had started to fall, accompanied by the typically cold wind of Berlin.
They didn’t go straight into the station. They found shelter first in the café in front of the museum while drinking a coffee. A started to imagine: this was the first time he had seen surrealist works in large numbers. The works of Odilon Redon, Alfred Kubin, Henri Rousseau, Carlo Carra, Max Ernst, Hans Bellmer, Paul Klee, Salvador Dali, Wols, Andre Masson, Christian D’Orgeix, Georges Hugnet, Paul Eluard, Fernand Leger, Oscar Dominguez, Jean Dubuffet, Louis Sountter, Wolfgang Palen, Gerhard Altenbourg, Mark Tobey, Frantisek Kupka, Pablo Picaso, Max Klinger, Eduourd Manet, Rene Magritte. These were works from 1890 until 1979. There were also works by Giovanni B. Piranese (1760) and James Ensor (1896).
Their names were like a mantra in amongst the echoes from the graffiti that was written clearly on one of the museum’s walls: DOGMA: I AM GOD. I didn’t know, why such a genre could endure for almost two centuries. It was a way of looking at reality through distracting reality itself. It was like placing eyes on the inside, and seeing from the inside, rather than from the outside. They rejected reality as an institute which determined constructions and plots about where we should go and to where we should return.
I saw that S was no longer looking at each work, one at a time. He was just moving from one room to the next. Sometimes, he stood on a stair, staring at the floor above or below him. It was like he had become a surrealist work in the museum. I didn’t know where D had gone. I could no longer follow him; reminding me of how far out of control of this short story I was. I just remembered that D had fixed the tie in her hair and had brushed the hair away from her face. Then, she smiled, as if saying, “everything is okay.”
I was still following A. he was stuck in front of a work by Mark Tobey (The Terrible One) which was painted in 1960. This black and white painting depicted a figure on a fractured wall. It was like a nest of wounds which were projected onto masks of mystery. It was a painting which made a long shadow on the Berlin Wall during the Cold War era which almost gave rise to the third world war.
A stayed for quite a while in front of Mark Tobey’s painting. Afterwards, A immediately left the museum, without looking at the other paintings. He returned to the café in the courtyard of the museum and ordered a coffee.
After that, I could no longer follow the three characters of this short story. Who knows where S and D were. The short story had become a story in which the characters had left it behind. It was an empty house and all the doors were left open.
I left the museum. I passed by Neues Museum which was being renovated. I stopped in front of the Berlin Cathedral and took some photographs of the old building. I was like a tourist who had lost any particular reason for taking a photograph. What was the purpose of these photographs? Just to take a photograph of what had passed by? A photograph of time separated from its grammar.
I waited for D, S and A at a bus stop. The light rain had stopped. But the Berlin-wind was still blowing. While waiting, I smoked a rolled cigarette. Finally, they arrived, while smiling in my direction.
“How is your short story going?”, asked D.
“It has drowned in a painting by Mark Tobey,” I replied.
S and A smiled, hearing my answer. Their works were going deeper inside of me.
The afternoon light entered through the bus window. It made lines across S’s beard. It made the white in his beard shine, and the black became a deeper black. I took out my camera and took a photograph.
And then I realised that the bus was moving, but there was no driver.
It was moving; until now.
Translated by Andy Fuller, July 2018
Afrizal Malna, “Renovasi dalam Cerpen”, in Afrizal Malna, Pagi yang miring ke kanan, Yogyakarta: Penerbit Nyala, 2017.