The Last of the Huelsenbecks
Translated from the original German by Angus Baigent
© by Rowohlt Berlin Publishers
Excerpt from the beginning
Being the Fifth Wheel at a Mass Grave
I don’t know. Would I have gone to Viktor’s funeral if I’d known it would set off a chain of events that would end in my death? The prospect of standing around at the cemetery feeling out of place, listening to speeches about someone who I’d not felt a bond with for years didn’t seem very appealing. But by now a lot of people in town knew that I was back, so I couldn’t duck out of it. That was why I was standing in the rain wearing a black suit on this Sunday in April while trying to look suitably sorrowful.
It rained, of course. But I should have expected that. It rained my whole childhood. The clouds coming in from the sea release their water here, onto the south-facing slopes. We were taught that at school. Frau Schlottmann, geography, third grade. That was the old primary school system, the Volksschule, before they changed it. The people in this town should have two thousand words for rain by now. But we only had a few: plothering, pouring, pelting. Cats and dogs. Stair rods, too. Drizzling. Dripping. Spitting. My mother always used to say: “When it’s spitting, the ants in heaven are pissing.”
It wasn’t spitting this Sunday. It was pelting it down. Above the northern slopes covered in beech trees, a crocodile with jaws wrenched open was snapping after a grey rag. The crocodile changed into a Chinese dragon with eyes like a Graves’ disease victim and started grinning. It was being chased from behind and below by cloud snakes with red eyes. That’s what I saw, anyway. I was, of course, completely stoned. Me and Frank had had a little smoke down by the tram stop before the funeral. I feel uncomfortable being with other people if I haven’t smoked a bit of weed first. I’ve come to need THC like I need food, for my twitching eyelids and to help forget all the arguing in Hong Kong. I’ve always been bad at coping with the end of a relationship.
When I got the email telling me that Viktor was dead, I was genuinely shocked. Usually I find news of someone’s passing quite gratifying. It’s not that I’ve ever been proud of that reaction. I’d rather feel grief like I imagine most people do. It never worked for me, though. When I hear that someone’s died, something in me jumps with joy. Yes! You’ve survived him, too!
The reason I felt differently about Viktor might have had something to do with him being two years younger than me. Apart from that, he was Big Viktor. I never imagined that he would die one day. Not before me, at least. That’s why Viktor’s death made me think about my own. I thought, Shit, shit, shit, everyone’s started dying. I never had those kinds of thoughts in Hong Kong, as long as things with Sandy were going smoothly. Clever Sandy, born in Mong Kok, raised in the USA, returned to the Fragrant Harbour, where she sat at my right side. The redeemer of my evils. Actually, that’s horse shit. Me and Sandy just took each day as it came without thinking about the future. Of course, we had our problems, who doesn’t? But as soon as I landed in Germany, the skies darkened. The first thing I heard when I got there was that Viktor was dead.
I was amazed at the expense, the effort they’d gone to, all the wreaths, the bouquets. When we were still friends, Viktor told me that he wanted his funeral to be a big party, with alcohol and drugs. He said we should crumble his ashes into the joints so that he would get sucked into the guests as smoke. It was the kind of stupid idea you had in the 70s.
Me and Frank deliberately stood a way apart from the mourners.
That’s how I soon noticed that despite its appearance of uniformity, the group was made up of two distinct sets. One knot of people huddled as close as possible to the black hole that was soon to receive Viktor’s coffin.
They must have been Viktor’s relatives and close friends because in the middle I recognized a woman with black hair and Marlene Dietrich cheekbones. I was sure that was Viktor’s widow, Agnieszka, who I’d heard quite a few stories about. But she and Viktor weren’t married, leading me to ponder if ‘widow’ was, in fact, the right nomenclature. With her black veil, she looked very widow-like, staring into the middle distance, her eyes probably red with all the crying.
The people around Agnieszka represented a statistically average selection of people. A few were slim, a few fat, a few tall, a few short, a few with muscles, a few without. A few wore glasses and looked relatively educated; a few wore glasses and were obviously uneducated. Some had no glasses at all, some had no hair. The group also contained the obligatory two wheelchair users and exactly four people with expressions best described as cretinous. They had one thing in common: their obvious affluence. You could tell by their coats, which, despite the convention demanding black attire, were predominantly of yellow camel hair. And by the various small stoles and, above all, by their shoes. Expensive to very expensive, no question.
I didn’t know any of them and was surprised that Viktor had put up with so many drearily normal people. Years ago, he would have gone up to those people and spat in their face. All right, maybe not exactly spat at them. But he would have let them feel his contempt until they stopped spending time with him. Anyway, the last time I had any kind of contact with Viktor was thirty years ago. Back when the Huelsenbecks were still around. Thirty? My God, more like forty.
But I knew the second group at the cemetery better. They were all people from my past and were easy to tell apart from the camel hair group by their cheap clothing. I was about to inspect them more closely when a man evidently intending to make a speech started to look around in a way intended to get people’s attention. He was a thickset man with no hair and a small, shiny indentation above the nape of his neck, as though he had been trepanned as a child but in the wrong place. His lips were too fat, he spoke with a lisp and mispronounced every third word. I tried not to listen but couldn’t help picking up a few scraps of his speech. It was the same, tired old song. “Inexpressibly sad”, “always in our thoughts”, “sounding brass”, “clanging cymbal”. Then over and over again: “Viktor”, “Viktor”, “Viktor”, as though he’d known him.
He left out the interesting parts, of course. He didn’t mention the Huelsenbecks once. And he didn’t reveal how Viktor had come by his new circle of acquaintances. Nothing about Agnieszka, at whom Lips goggled now and again. The longer Lips talked, the more agitated I got.
Then I blocked him out again. Or rather, my back did. A pain was spreading from the last vertebra above my coccyx, like someone was slowly driving a chisel in there. Down to the cold, damp weather, no doubt. I’d been getting bouts of soreness since landing in Germany. I felt like I’d aged years in the few weeks since I’d been back. I considered flying to Hong Kong on the next available flight before remembering that it was impossible. Funny, I’ve only just realized that I was still aware of that back then, at the funeral.
To blot out the pain, I concentrated on the people in the second group. Like Frank and me, they were standing further back near a small pine wood. One woman, who had greeted me when I arrived with a broad smile, was still grinning at me like a Cheshire cat. She was plump and carried an umbrella with caricatures of naked men with big, fat noses next to a slogan reading, “It’s raining men! Hallelujah!” The second group, unlike the first, were holding umbrellas in different colours, while the camel hair group were standing under uniformly black ones. I knew that I’d met Cheshire Cat before and was trying to remember where, but to no avail.
I scanned through the other faces in the group and realised that at one point or another I’d had – what’s the phrase? – a close relationship with just about all of them. With most of them I drew a blank, like with the fat one. Some of the names were on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t remember them, no matter how hard I concentrated. Instead, little shards of memories drifted up to the surface, made up of blurred, bleached out images and short action sequences.
I was relieved when I saw Bea in the crowd and straight away remembered her name. She was hard to forget, with her pale, fashion model face. When she screwed up her eyes because she’d forgotten her glasses, she looked twice as good. I’d always admired Bea’s beauty from afar because she always frightened me slightly.
She’d broken through a dam in my head. I was remembering more and more names. It wasn’t too hard to remember this pile of misfits. There was Mäxchen with the white-blonde hair and the skull-like face, Hugo the short, round mid-tier dealer with the unsure Danny DeVito smile that hadn’t changed in all the years I’d known him, and Erbser, the transsexual everyone gossiped about because back then transsexuals were called hermaphrodites. Some of the lemurs that had long ago vanished in the jungle of my memory had now emerged from the suburbs to group themselves around these three. All the way out on one side stood Eberhard Horstmann, who everyone called Horsti. He noticed that I was watching him. At first, he gave me a questioning look back before a smirk shot across his face.
I went through the pine tree group one by one, until my back pain returned. At the same time, I noticed that the rain water running down the back of my neck had reached my belt. I was freezing. Lips was still talking. God, how long had we been standing there? Was he being paid by the hour?
But perhaps I was wrong. When you’re stoned, time has a way of stretching out into infinity. Subjectively, the life of a pothead lasts a lot longer than someone who doesn’t smoke cannabis, even if the pothead dies earlier. Seen this way, Viktor hadn’t died at fifty-eight but at just over a hundred. I wasn’t sure, though, if he hadn’t given up cannabis a few years ago.
The people standing next to his grave looked like they preferred coke to weed. Awful people, they were. “Everything should live,” I mumbled in Frank’s direction. “Everything should live. But one thing must stop – the well-to-do citizen, the porker, the glutton, the pig being fattened, the, the, the…” I’d forgotten the rest of the quotation. Viktor, on the other hand, had forgotten everything. Suddenly a feeling began creeping outwards from my amygdala that I identified as disgust.
Then my brother nudged me in the side with his elbow. With a movement of his body he indicated a man standing next to Bea who hadn’t been there a moment ago. Ronny. The same long Zappa-esque hairdo as always, just with a few streaks of grey. I wasn’t the last Huelsenbeck after all.
The pallbearers lifted the coffin from the cart and lowered it into the hole. At the same time, a gaunt man in the camel hair group with bushy eyebrows set a bright yellow IKEA bag down next to the grave. Inside was an iPod and speakers. The man fumbled about with his equipment for a moment, and then we heard “Ain’t No Grave” by Johnny Cash. Terrible. Not the song, but the tasteless idea of playing it here. Agnieszka was the first to move to the edge of the grave. With her black dress and long gloves, she looked a bit like Jackie Kennedy at her husband’s funeral. She took a small spade and shovelled some sand into the grave. She looked incredible, bent forward like that. I imagined her doing it with Viktor on the kitchen table or under the shower.
It was only when the group behind Agnieszka began moving that my weed-induced fog started to clear. I recognised Ronny, who was elbowing his way through the bunch of better dressed people. When he got to the place immediately behind the widow, he stood still. He was obviously nervous. For a few seconds, he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, looking like a little boy who through some mishap had suddenly aged fifty years.
The widow was still busy shovelling sand into the hole when a kid standing right next to Ronny started crying. His platinum-blonde mother had taken away his phone, evidently to stop him playing with it during the funeral. Ronny’s whole body twitched visibly at the first wail. Then he couldn’t stand it anymore. He took a big step forward, pushed the widow to one side and threw an object into the grave, shouting in a fluttery voice, “A promise is a promise!”
A few seconds later, a bleating laugh emanated from the hole. The camel hair group froze. The kid that had been crying a moment before just stood there, eyes open wide in surprise. I wasn’t in the least bit shocked, as I knew that laugh well. The first time I’d heard it was in the early 1970s in a department store, on the fifth floor in the toy department. There was half a shelf filled with these novelty toys called Lachsack that played canned laughter when you pressed them, not far from the area with all the animals where they had those funny capuchin monkeys. Those Lachsack things were immensely popular, everyone had one.
The first time you heard that laughter you had to laugh, too, even if you didn’t want to. But for some reason, it felt unnerving to laugh along with it. If you listened to that laugh often and carefully enough, you realised why. That laugh was terrifying. It started off quietly, then each wave of laughter was followed by the next until the waves seemed to crash over one another. Then it morphed into something that sounded like the chatter of a herd of geese while someone revved up a chainsaw nearby. But the end was truly horrific, sounding like a child suffocating during a fatal attack of whooping cough.
That laugh was now echoing out of the grave. The toy Ronny had thrown in there had been manipulated to make the laugh loop back on itself over and over. The waves of laughter, the geese of death and the suffocating child repeated endlessly. The toy must have landed flat on the coffin and turned that into a resonating chamber. The hellish laughter mingled with Johnny Cash’s voice: “There ain’t haaaaaaaaahhaaaaaaa no grave hahahahaaaaahaaaaaa can hold haaaaaaaaahhaaaaaaa my body heheeheeheeheehee down.” It was as though Viktor was commenting on his own funeral.
The widow stared hatefully Ronny. Then she moved, pulling her right arm all the way back and trying to slap him. Ronny blocked her off and pushed her back lightly. Agnieszka stumbled and almost keeled over backwards into the hole. That was the signal for the man with the bushy eyebrows. He and some beefy guy pushed their way out of the camel hair group and jumped on Ronny. That’s how the fight started. It escalated in a few seconds. A few of the camel hair group sprinted over to the bewildered pine tree group shouting “Come here, you wasters!”, and immediately began punching anyone they could. The others, including women and children, collected stones and clods of earth and started firing salvos at the group of Viktor’s old friends. The whole camel hair lot seemed convinced that everyone knew about Ronny’s plot.