Luchterhand Literaturverlag, February 2008, 272 pp.
A voice close by: I am sorry, my brother, we close. He gave a start. What he had been gazing at wide-eyed is now in darkness, everything is black, the sun had set behind the shadows of the Shan Mountains long ago without him noticing it. In the inky abyss below, the few lights of Mandalay. Nearby, the man who had spoken to him, his features unfamiliar, dimly illuminated by a lantern. Who are you, what gives you the right to send me away. We close, repeats the man, his voice calm, friendly.
He nods. Tries to dismiss the memories of Sine, the first evening, the past as a narrative, a record. He takes a deep breath. Willing himself to return to this mountain, this man, away from his own straying thoughts.
I know, you once said to me, no one else who is so deeply immersed in their own thoughts as you are.
His hands are still resting on the railing. As he lets go he can feel the metal against his palms, his fingers in the air still form the shape around the bar. The man smiles when he notices this. He escorts him slowly to the landing, smoothing the folds of his russet habit. A monk, he thinks, of course.
He pauses when he reaches the circular edge where roof and pillar meet at the first step. Hesitating. He catches a last glimpse of the silhouettes of the people he had been watching as they cross the threshold, praying for them to be Sine, be Sine. He wants to ask the monk whether he might be allowed to stay; it is important, she will still come, she’s bound to come, how else will I ever find her. But the words die before they reach his lips, caught in his scratchy throat. Instead he smiles at the monk and, as he turns away, he waves his hand in greeting.
The weight of his body is dragging him down. His feet, as they take him further down the steps, make a scraping noise that merges with the sounds of the night. The mountain is crackling, he thinks. Rats in the undergrowth, at the edge of the steps - snakes, perhaps scorpions.
Then, suddenly, the sound of his mobile phone ringing. Abruptly the sound reverberates down the stairwell, penetrating the darkness. He starts rummaging around in his trouser pockets, automatically, without thinking, he tears at zippers, turns the lining inside out, fumbles for the phone, it must be here somewhere! Where is it? Sine. She’s calling me! Until he looks up and realises it’s a different sound. That it’s coming from the depths of the mountain forest. And he remembers: he hasn’t brought his mobile with him. It’s in Germany, not here in Myanmar, Burma, Birma. Burma, the last of the countries with no reception. Sine can’t call him, she doesn’t know his number, just as he doesn’t know hers. He doesn’t even know her last name, has no email address, no phone number, nothing. Who would ever have thought that this would happen.
He approaches the side of the steps that descend to the forest floor, screwing up his eyes, trying to work out where the sound is coming from. Until eventually he bends down, picks up a stone and throws it in the direction of the ringing. A rustling sound, something flutters up, then silence. Nothing but the murmuring in the treetops.
At the beginning of the journey, in Yangon, at the Golden Rock, even at Lake Inle, it still happened to him from time to time: he’d think he could hear the ringing of his phone, faint notes amidst the noise of the traffic, sometimes a vibrating in his trouser pocket. That’s phantom pain, Sine had said, laughing, when he’d told her about it, when she noticed that he was feeling for his phone in his pockets yet again, about to answer. Hello? Phantom pain caused by phantom ringing, we are victims of a degenerate society, a defective species, all of us. Even when I’m asleep I sometimes find myself reaching for the computer, wanting to boot it up, typing combinations of numbers on an imaginary keyboard on my bedspread. She wasn’t going to leave until she’d got rid of that ridiculous habit, she said. She told me that one of her friends was a dancer, an elfin creature. Sometimes at night she would dream about the sequence of movements in a complex choreography. She would wake up in the morning frozen in a dance pose, needing to straighten out her limbs and complaining about her over-eager body over the phone. But for me, said Sine, that would be an aim in life: me, dancing in my sleep.
How is he going to get in touch with her. During his descent, the realisation dawns on him, weighing him down: she hasn’t come. And yet she must be in Mandalay. He saw the bus setting off in that direction when he ran after her, when he screamed: stay, please understand. Where, he asks himself, where can I look for her. Should he come back to this mountain tomorrow, should he wait somewhere else, go to another town, would that make sense.
Further below he sees the glimmer of the streetlights. He’s almost reached the ground. The market traders, about to set off, give him a puzzled glance. They’d cleared away their displays and packed the souvenirs into boxes long ago. One of them is about to approach him, ready to get out a Buddha figurine he has just packed away and offer it to him, but another holds him back.
His shoes are the last pair left on the otherwise empty raffia shelf near the entrance. He’s almost too tired to bend down and fasten the Velcro on his sandals. He remembers the headache he had that morning. But when he pauses a moment to check, he doesn’t feel anything. He stops between the towering statues of Chinte. A deserted square in front of him. In his mind’s eye he tries to retrace the route the rickshaw driver took. Trying to remember where he turned off, the junctions and crossings. Then he reaches for the city map in his trouser pocket but sets off without pulling it out. The path crunches under his feet when he moves. His muscles are aching from the frantic climb, the hurried descent. Then the soft whirr of a bicycle. The voice of the rickshaw driver: Was she not there?
Slowly he shakes his head. No, he says, and looks up, no, she wasn’t. Suddenly his field of vision becomes blurred as he looks into the rickshaw driver’s eyes. Silently the driver points to the seat. A silent ride through the night. At last a sentence, outside the hotel: tomorrow, when should I come, I bring you back to the hill.
Everything is still linked to you. I can’t get you out of my mind.
The young Burmese man who was there this morning is still at the front desk. He must have seen him arriving through the glass door, because his room key is already waiting for him on the counter. This blonde girl, the Burmese calls out to him, before he’s even had a chance to say hello, min-ga-la-ba, this blonde woman: not arrived.
He nods. Grabs the key from the counter. And imagines how the man must have sat there all day, dreaming of Sine -- this unknown blonde woman from Europe. How he might have hoped that her dazzling fair hair would appear behind the rain-splashed window, the delicate Danish features just as he had described them.
Perhaps, he thinks, she’s already on the way to the temple ruins of Bagan. Or up in the mountains: on her way to Pyin Oo Lwin, the waterfalls at Pwe Kauk. Or Hsipaw. That’s where they had planned to go, together. Only the day before yesterday they had been lying on the bed, holding their guidebooks next to each other as if they were suspect playing cards: mine says this, mine says something else. Sine had been leaning against his bare chest, waving her book in the air, and had cried: this is my guide, my Mister Lonely Planet, he’s the only one I will follow. And he had pulled her arm towards him, pulling her down onto him and murmured into her laughing mouth, just follow me, this way, now this way, until her breath grew louder and replaced her laughter. Until she reached for him and wrapped her cool body around him. Until the books slipped off the mattress on either side of the bed and fell to the floor, open.
The Lonely Planet, the backpackers’ travel-guru. That, he realises, is what he needs now. In Germany he’d stood in the travel section of the bookshop and hadn’t bothered to take the Lonely Planet off the shelf. His finger had passed across the coloured binding without lingering. He’d been put off by the dark blue. It had reminded him of hordes of backpackers: in the picturesque back streets of the old town in Prague, in hidden squares in the most beautiful parts of Lisbon, in the trendy cafes in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. They were invariably clasping this dark blue book, following the prescribed routes: This is the place to be, yeah! Don’t miss it! He had chosen a guidebook from a different publisher. A reliable-looking book that had only just appeared and was only available in German. This way, he thought, he could avoid the globetrotters, the Australians and Americans, plus all those Europeans in their early twenties who didn’t know what to do with themselves after completing their civil service. And the thirty-somethings looking for the meaning of life: the editors-in-chief of failed internet companies, the unemployed art directors and weary web designers. It would never have occurred to him that, of all people, he would end up looking for one of them.
Back in his room, he looks at his travel guide. He must go and eat something. All he’s had today is water and an aspirin. His hands are already beginning to shake. He recognizes the familiar symptom, low blood sugar caused by an empty stomach. He leafs through the book quickly, finds the page of recommended restaurants in Mandalay and looks for Indian cuisine. He knows that Sine will be eating Indian tonight. Wherever she is. She can’t stand Burmese food. She’d called it unappetising slop any number of times, a tasteless mush of rice and oily vegetables. And she’d been really looking forward to the local cuisine as well. Other travellers had told her about jellied seaweed, kyaukkyaw, spicy soups for breakfast and sweet rice cakes with bananas drenched in coconut milk for pudding. But Sine complained that she hadn’t eaten a single tasty dish since she’d got here. It was all incredibly bland, as if they didn’t have any spices in Mandalay. Maybe meat, she had conceded. Chicken curry, lamb kebabs, fish patés – they might be tasty. But that was no good to her, as she was a vegetarian. That’s why they’d gone to an Indian on Lake Inle, every evening. Sine had declared that in future she would deal with the problem of food this way, after they’d put her metal plate of spicy Indian curry down on the table and she’d started happily forking the tasty vegetables into her mouth: Nothing but Indian food from now on. Fuck Burmese haute cuisine! Fuck kyaukkyaw!
According to his guidebook the Indian restaurants are located between 81st and 26th street, near the Hindu and Sheik temples. His eyes scan the list of names: Marie Min I, Punjab Food House, Laksmi Restaurant. Which one would Sine choose. Again he wishes he had the Lonely Planet. He would be able to work out where to find Sine. He’s sure he could. He’s watched her planning the next stage of her journey often enough. He knows her criteria. The price. The location. He knows the words she responds to favourably to: reasonable prices, for example, or: off the tourist track.
The Marie Min, he decides, seems a likely candidate. Family-run business, it says here, very reasonable prices, very good vegetarian food. He has no idea whether it’s in the Lonely Planet. But he decides it’s worth a try.
When he’s back in the street it occurs to him that he could call someone. Anyone, back home in Germany, and ask them to look up the Indian restaurants in Mandalay listed in the Lonely Planet. Someone with internet access, access to the world wide web, which is forbidden here, in this isolated country run by the military. He could also ask them to google Sine’s name for him: Sine + software + London for example. Or Sine + design + Copenhagen. They might get a hit. Maybe the situation isn’t as hopeless as it seems. Perhaps she can be found.
But then he realises it’s not possible. Not today, anyway. It would take him hours and hours to find a post office and to get them to put a call through to Germany. To wait for someone to react. He hasn’t got time for that. She’s still here. The journey back from Lake Inle was exhausting. He doubts she would have had the energy to set off straightaway. She was already too exhausted when she left. From all the tears. From the rage that gripped her as she screamed at him. Completely losing control.
There are, he reflects, such events that stir the murky depths of the soul. Moments with a deeper meaning, a lasting impact. Moments that set in train a whole series of events. They are like crossroads, divergent paths. Dramatic outbursts that upset the balance is what the director had called them. Emotional processes cause scenic shifts, she had said. You could chart these ground movements with the needle of a seismograph. In every good play you’ll find such moments: where tragedy could have been averted to produce a happy ending, where comedy almost tips over into catastrophe. Shakespeare was a master in this. She had shown him seismograms of her productions, tightly scribbled sine waves of Chekov, of Kleist. He had examined the charts she had created, geometrical analyses of characters and settings. Had turned the paper round in his hands, mystified.
There has got to be a way to find her.
The Marie Min I is shut. He is left standing in front of a boarded-up door. Staring at the rain-drenched cardboard sign: Closed. His fist moves towards the blurred letters. A short, fierce blow that tears the wet cardboard from the nail. He kicks at the wood.
The ground is covered with red saliva stains from betel nut tobacco. At first he’d thought they were puddles of blood. Once, in Cologne, walking home on an Ash Wednesday morning he’d come across a headless pigeon. It was lying on the pavement in a stagnant pool of blood. He can remember the whole scene down to the last detail: the alcohol coursing through his veins, his incredulity, the wind in the deserted early-morning street. He’d taken a few steps round the bird, unable to comprehend that the head was nowhere to be seen. He had wanted to believe it was some carnival rite, a practical joke. He had even tried to laugh. But the splayed torso of the dead bird was at odds with the cheerful atmosphere of carnival, there was no explanation for it. In the end he had knelt down beside the corpse and retched until the fluid spurted out of him. Until the mixture of half-digested jam-filled carnival doughnuts, sugared almonds, alcohol and stomach acid had showered down onto the mutilated bird, covering it with a foul-smelling, slimy coating.
He had noticed the stains on the asphalt in Burma even back in Yangon. Perhaps they slaughter animals in the street here, he had thought to himself. Maybe that’s the way they do things here. It was Sine who’d explained to him. It’s the betel nut juice, she had told him, it makes them high. They wrap the crushed betel nut fruit in palm leaves, mix it with aniseed and chalk. Then they chew it. But they don’t swallow the juice, she said, they spit it out like chewing tobacco. It stains everything red, even their teeth. It’s impossible to remove. Some of them even have red dentures.
And he hadn’t dared to tell her what he’d thought. About the headless pigeon. That he had assumed Burma’s streets were covered in blood stains. He didn’t want her to think he was hysterical. Or sordid.
The Myoma Restaurant. The Punjab Food House. The Everest Restaurant. Where should he go now. He is standing in the semi-darkness on 27th Street, on the corner of 74th. In the diffused light of a streetlamp he opens his guidebook and traces the criss-crossing lines of the city map with his finger. This is a numbers game, he thinks. 27, 74: random coordinates, a mathematical sequence. Who knows where Sine is located. In which of the squares she is to be found. Maybe she’s already on number 27th. Or at the other end of number 74th. In which case all he’d have to do is to stay put and wait. She should come running towards him through the subdivided blocks of houses. But she could just as easily be hanging around near 16th , 60th, 38th, on descending junctions, on her way to coach stations, pagodas, remote guesthouses on the outskirts of town; there’s no way of knowing. Which piece is she. What will her next move be.
Perhaps it’ll be the Everest. He sees in his guidebook that they’re meant to have good vegetarian food there. He could go there, it’s not far from where he is. But what if she decides on the Myoma. Or the Punjab. If he steps into one restaurant just as she’s pulling a chair up to the table in another. If he sits near the window of the Everest so that he can watch the entrance to the Punjab across the road, while she’s ordering a plate of vegetarian curry in the Myoma. Or a chai tea at the Laksmi, a mango lassi at the Taj. She could be anywhere. How is he supposed to decide. He has no idea. Has no idea how to decide. He can’t envisage sitting down. At a table. Ordering something. Drinking a Mandalay beer. The stabbing pain in his head is back. The dry mouth. He has to do something. Has to get moving, in one direction or the other. Even if every step takes him further away from Sine. Or closer towards her. He has to move on. Somewhere, anywhere.
So he could spend the whole evening checking all the restaurants. He could press his nose up against the windows, question waiters, position himself at a junction of roads. If he had a mobile phone, if there were reception here, he could ask to be called back. He could ask people to let him know if they spotted Sine. The minute she opened the door of one of those restaurants, as soon as she walked into a room. He could be informed as to her whereabouts by phone. But it could also be done without a cell phone, in this place without reception. There are ways and means, netless solutions. It used to work in the olden days after all. He could bribe someone. Little boys. An errand boy. Errand boys swarming everywhere, looking for her. Restaurant proprietors, detaining her, the only blonde woman in town, while they let him know they’ve found her. Rickshaw drivers. He needs informants. On the other hand: who would be willing to do that. Who would disclose the presence of a beautiful woman to a distraught-looking, ravaged man.
He rubs his temples. Kicks at the wet cardboard sign on the stained pavement. Closed. He is now absolutely convinced that the Mary Min I was the one she would have chosen. Perhaps she had been here ages ago. Perhaps she’ll never come. He tries to focus on the end of the road. Through the flickering light of the few streetlamps. And finds he can’t make out anything. He removes his thick-rimmed glasses for a moment, rubs his eyes. He must concentrate. She’ll go for Indian food, for Indian food. It’s all a matter of getting the right combination of numbers. The 27 has to be linked. To the 80, the 81, the 83. That’s the system.
But the system, he thinks to himself, is contradictory. The sentence is incomplete; as a theory it is incomplete. It is a false premise. Because Sine has a mind of her own. Her moves cannot be calculated.
So you see: I haven’t learnt anything new.
When he sets off, he still doesn’t know where he’s going. His body has set itself in motion. Has turned in one direction. Has started walking. That’s what it feels like. As if somewhere in one of these dark nocturnal streets a separation had taken place. He can feel that he’s moving. That he is making progress, at long last. But his thoughts are not connected to the movement. They remain detached.
He stops in front of a brightly lit shop window. Steam from the kitchen has accumulated on the window, blurring his field of vision as if he were looking through a soft-focus lens. He cannot make out the faces of the people inside the restaurant. All he can see is silhouettes bending over the tables. He can hear the clatter of bowls, the muffled thud of bottles on tables, glasses being put down on wood. It smells of spices, of seared meat. He feels dizzy. Quickly he grabs hold of the window frame, steadying himself against the window. Without lifting his head, without checking whether he’s outside the Punjab, the Laksmi, the Everest, he pulls himself onto the steps that lead to the door.
When he steps inside the restaurant, he is cold. He is engulfed by the heat, the humidity, the smells. Condensation streams down the brick walls, dripping onto the faces of the customers. Everything seems to be deformed by the heat, only he remains stiff. The only one chilled to the bone in this overheated room. He scans the heads, his glance passing over all the dark heads of hair. Searching. Registering immediately: Sine isn’t here. Not a single blonde woman in the room. Not by the windows, nor at the rows of tables along the side, not at the wooden bar, the benches and tables in the blurred centre of the room. Nevertheless, he allows them to usher him in. Lets them lead him to a table, pull a chair out for him, put a menu in front of him, look at him expectantly. He no longer has a choice. He has to eat something. Drink something. Refuel.
Christiane Neudecker: Nirgendwo sonst
© 2008 by Luchterhand Literaturverlag, a division of Verlagsgruppe Random House