My Conversations with Günter

Günter’s house was burnt to the ground. He died in the fire. The work has turned to ash.

I remember our conversations.

– The work is in a state of perpetual transformation. It is incessantly revised and extended, he said.

He grew lemons in his garden. They were big, fat and juicy.

– ‘When life gives you lemons make lemonade’, they say. Do you realize how deceitful that saying is? To embrace it as a principle means complete and utter submission to the powers that be. It should go like this: ‘When life gives you lemons, start a fucking revolution.’

The lake.

We used to sit in his garden on white plastic chairs. His voice was thin, melodic and vibrant. The lush greenery of the Scandinavian summer blended with anecdotes from a long and eventful life.

Those were inspiring conversations indeed.

(I never entered the house.) His wife spied on us from behind the curtains.

I woke up in the morning feeling dizzy and hung-over, but not from booze. I was laying naked on the wooden floor of my summer cabin. A fire burned in the fire place.

Who had lit that fire?

My arms were strangely twisted, as if they’d been spun around two or three turns. But they weren’t broken. I could straighten them out as if they were made of rubber.

Something has been here, I thought.

– Perpetual transformation? Surely that must be a figure of speech, I said. In reality a text never changes once it is finished and the author is dead. The letters, unchanged, constitute one and the same canonical text fixed as such for eternity, right?

Günter looked at me with disgust and contempt.

– Have you paid no attention to anything I have said? A text is a living, breathing, evolving beast. It is born, it sucks milk, it plays, it procreates, it grows old and weary, it dies, it is consumed by worms, it is forgotten. Oh humanity! Being surrounded by machines doesn’t mean everything has to be a fucking machine.

Who was Günter? And why was the work so important to him?

He was a poet, critic and a seminal figure in the Prenzlauer Berg underground art scene of the 1980’s. After the reunification of Germany he gained a position as a literary editor at a publishing house of some stature and went on to introduce the East German writers and poets of his intemperate youth to a wider audience. At around 2010, while shortlisted to become the head of Germany’s most renowned publishing house, he unexpectedly renounced his entire career and disappeared from the literary scene altogether.

He had lost faith in literature, he told me.

– Why? I asked.

– Because of its utter failure to foresee and cope with the complete transformation of mankind that lies ahead, he replied.

I do remember our conversations.

– Have you read all of it? I asked him.

– No. No, that is impossible. There is simply too much text. And some of it is extremely repetitive. Events, characters and plots appear again and again, in different versions, with few and marginal differences between them. You must read parts of it, chosen at random, in order to form your own trajectory through it.

– Is there any guiding principle?

– No, you’re on your own. In fact, it can either be the most tedious and meaningless read of your life. Or you may strike pure gold.

– Much like the monkeys and the typewriters?

– That analogy falls short of its mark. Assume intelligent monkeys with a great loathing for humanity – and you’ll be a bit closer.

I first met Günter at the grocery store in the small town near my summer cabin. He held a package of cream cheese in his hands. He wanted to know what it was. Not knowing Swedish, he was unable to read the label. I helped him out.

A couple of weeks later, when he had introduced me to the work, I asked:

– What is gained from reading the work in terms of insights, knowledge and aesthetic enjoyment?

He laughed.

– You ask very curious questions! “To gain something by reading something” does, in our times, not signify anything over and above a change in predisposition towards certain actions that fit within the structural framework of some or other socio-linguistic stratification.

– Does the work break those bonds? Does it pierce through the fine web of our techno-humanist endeavors?

– No.  No. No! I have one word for you. Indifference. That web you’re talking about, from the viewpoint of the work it’s shit, it’s nonsense, and is to be treated as such – flushed down the toilet.

I ran through the forest, towards Günter’s house. A voice in my head kept telling me that something was horribly wrong. When I got there I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was a big opening in the side of the house. It had been blown apart by some major force. Rubble lay scattered across the lawn and all the way down to the lake. As if some gigantic creature had busted through the wall and disappeared into the water.

– I guess it would be impossible to condense the work into one single sentence?

– And what is a sentence according to you? A subject and predicate composition? Perhaps with some pretty adverbs and adjectives adding graphic complexity, rhythm and nuance? Listen!

His voice was sharp and unrelenting.

– Listen! Listen to the sound of trickling water, tumbling rocks, burning trees and buzzing mosquitoes. The drunken seagull, the laughing beetle, the wounded wolf. There’s your sentence! But you won’t be able to hear it now will you, you little cultured brat!

My wife and I split up right before the start of our vacation, which we had planned to spend together with our children at the cabin. I ended up going there alone. What would have become of me, that summer, had it not been for Günter?

I live, in the biological sense. And know that I don’t exist. Humans simulate mindless machines practicing mindfulness.

I was laying on a sunbed in my garden. The radio played Born in the USA.

He moved without making a sound. When I reached for my beer his shadow covered my hand.

– Hello, he said.

At first, I couldn’t tell what he was holding in his hand.

– Do you have any bread? he asked.

It was cream cheese. We spread thin layers of it onto pieces of rye crispbread.

The pleasure Günter took in eating the cream cheese was evident and – I must admit – rather touching. When we had had three pieces each he politely offered me more. I denied, whereupon he ate what was left of the package with a spoon. He brought out a second package from his rucksack and ate it too, this time using a larger spoon. He ate a third package. And a fourth.

We talked about the largely ignored importance of cinema for the constitution of human experience in the 20th century.

He eventually threw up and left in a hurry, leaving a pool of cream cheese and rye crispbread in the third stage of digestion on my kitchen floor.

The digestive system is essentially one long tube that starts at your mouth and ends at your anus.

There is one little piece in the work that comes in exactly 146,378 variations. It is a simple story about a girl whose father died when she was two years old. The girl longs for a paternal figure in her life, so she approaches different men and asks them to become her father. The work explores all possible variations of this story. In 2% of these variations the girl dies. In 27% the mother enters a relationship with a man that the girl has introduced to her in the course of her search and in 0,0045% all men touched by the girl turn into water.

I invited Günter to my place for a barbecue. It was sunny and hot, as always that summer. I lit the barbecue. The fire – yellow, blue and orange – made cracking sounds as sparks flew. Just as I was about to put the meat on the grill, Günter appeared by my side and threw large chunks of cream cheese on it. The cheese melted, boiled and hissed, extinguishing the fire in sour puffs of grey smoke. He then left without a word.

Günter loved to cultivate his garden. It was lush, varied, beautiful and ordered. He said he thought of it as a celebration of mankind’s ability to tame nature and put it on full display. He called the flowers “my little slaves”, the grass “my foot soldiers”, the trees “my gods” and the bushes “my urban middle class”.

– What are you and I, standing here, overlooking it all? I wondered.

– The unknowable void. The plants cannot see us, hear us, touch us, nor smell us. But the emptiness that penetrates their fibers is us.

A large amount of packages lay scattered on the lawn. Günter’s arms were twisted behind his back – so he ate the cream cheese without the help of his hands, grunting and moaning like a beast. He was savage, and close to suffocation. And naked. When I finally had managed to tie him up with the garden hose I was completely exhausted, bleeding from bite marks all over my body. My clothes were in rags. I managed to call an ambulance before I passed out with my back against a tree.

We never met at the hospital. I don’t know where they took him and he never talked about it. I was released after a few hours. I took a taxi back home. When I got out of the car my mouth was metallic, salivating and fecal. I stood on all fours and vomited. Enormous gushes of cream cheese flowed from my mouth.

I made a habit of passing Günter’s house on my morning run. The house looked empty and deserted. The opening in the side was covered by semi-transparent plastic sheets. I later learned that this was the neighbor’s doing. He was a sturdy and practical man. The skies were mostly grey.

I thought I would never see Günter again, but then one beautiful Monday morning he was there, seemingly full of energy and confidence, sitting in his garden on a wooden chair.

– We don’t have much time, he said. You’re the one. You have to be.

I had mixed feelings about seeing him again. I felt genuine relief that he was okay. But he was also kind of scary. He had grown a sprawling chestnut beard and his eyes were intense.

– Oh my God, Günter, how are you!

– Come, sit, listen.

I sat down, facing him.

– It is a literary composition unlike anything ever known to humankind. I call it simply “the work”.

– “The work”?

– Yes, but let’s not brood on the title. It isn’t even a title. But things must have names, right? It… is hardly a “thing” either, not by any ordinary standards anyhow, not by any standards at all. So “the work” will have to do as far as titles go. It’s a perfect title. It’s an anti-title. There are no such things as anti-titles.

He leaned towards me.

– Five years ago a PhD student from Shanghai opened a storage locker at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and discovered a manuscript. Billions of pages.

– How do billions of pages fit into a storage locker?

– Oh, you’d be amazed at how much fits in a mid-sized storage locker. Sometimes I picture the work as a huge planet, a hundred times the size of Jupiter, covered by huge grass plains. You can walk the surface for an entire life and still only have seen a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of it.

– But if no human can possibly digest the entire work, then for whom was it written?

– Posthumans, whose lives will span 50,000 years. They will learn the entire work by heart. And more, they will map out every meaningful juxtaposition of words in it, all possible variations, so that their culture becomes clinically separated from the mystical, withdrawn and archaic. The work’s target group is actually an illustration of the concept “target group” in its purest form.

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol is the main international airport of the Netherlands, located 5,6 miles southwest of Amsterdam, in the municipality of Haarlemmermeer. It is the third busiest airport in Europe in terms of passengers. It opened on 16 September 1916 as a military airbase. The end of the First World War also saw the beginning of civilian use of Schiphol Airport and it eventually lost its military role completely. By 1940, Schiphol had four asphalt runways at 45-degree angles. The airport was captured by the German military that same year and renamed Fliegerhorst Schiphol.

In a different part of the world, at an international airport roughly the size of, but not identical with, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, an immense amount of paper was found in an ordinary storage locker. But those pages were all blank. Nothing was written on them.

There is a piece in the work that tells the story of a man whose parents die in a car crash when he is very young. The story is told backwards. It begins when the man is old and ends when his parents are still alive. Now, you may think that this story’s form is an account of events in the man’s life in reverse chronological order. But consider a music record played backwards. Does it sound like music? In the same way, this particular story is unintelligible, foreign and distorted. Except for a very condensed part right in the middle, where an ordinary shop clerk gives birth to twenty black pearls floating in the air. Shiny and black they hover, without a sound, before the senseless noise of the rest of the story returns and drowns everything.

Günter once took me to the massive anthill in the woods not far from his house. (This was, I should note, before we had begun our conversations on the work.)

For a long time, he stared at the anthill in what resembled awe.

– This is a little world, a society, a civilization, he said.

I assumed he was talking about the ants.

– Look at those creatures, their actions, their movements, their surroundings, their thoughts, their knowledge, their hierarchies. To us it’s so small and unsophisticated. To them it’s the entire universe, the limits of their conception of the infinite.

He lifted what I realized was a can of petrol and started pouring it all over the ants.

– Yet what alien creature is, at this very moment, about to pour gasoline all over us just to prove his point?

The anthill glowed like amber.

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