Excerpt from "Volatile Texts" by Zsuzsanna Gahse

The following excerpt is one if the student works I had the privelage to assist in workshoping at the 5th Biannual Graduate Student Translation Conference, held this May 8-9 in Ann Arbor, MI. Before finding out who the author really was, I read this excerpt, translated from the German by Chenxin Jiang, and thought I was seeing a new sample of something by Ror Wolf, an author Open Letter publlished a few years ago—which is probably why this specific piece, titled “Winter”, from the book Volatile Texts by Austrian author Zsuzsanna Gahse, was one that particularly stood out to me of the three phenomenal excerpts the students in my group brought to share. Again, I’m grateful for the experience and for being able to participate in the conference, and I hope to see as many of these bright and talented students as possible at the 2015 ALTA conference! Thank you as well to Chenxin for letting me post this! Without further ado, the excerpt . . .


Several hundred people were waiting in a great hall when the door opened and a man came in, the last one, so to speak, the one who arrived last, which means something. Actually being last isn’t easy. The people stood facing each other in two long rows, waiting, and the man walked between them, first nodding wordlessly to the left and to the right, then striding forward, holding his head high, it all came down to holding his head high. His forehead gleamed, he had big, wide-open eyes, which you could even see in profile, his nose gleamed too, or rather, his head was very round, very polished, if you looked more closely at the back of his head, it was bald and also gleaming, and as he strode forward you could see from every angle that his skin was gleaming, or rather: it was not really a head that the man carried on his shoulders, but a radiance, a penetrating glow that shone through everything; the head threw light on the other heads and figures around it, more and more light, and everyone could see with increasing clarity that a lightbulb was glowing where his head should have been, everywhere he went lit up, and as he reached the back of the long room, someone said cheers, glasses clinked, and someone else called out, the lightbulb just broke.

Helmut Heißenbüttel told me about the lightbulb a man carried as his head, he was astonished that this was even possible, but something similar had once happened to me. I stood in front of a door concealed by wallpaper, and when I opened it I found myself striding into a large hall, left and right of the door stood many people facing each other in two rows, and while I walked along between them, I could feel my skin becoming thinner and probably gleaming, I had beads of sweat on my forehead, on my nose, and on the back of my head, and I knew without even having to touch my head that it was turning into glass. I could see through my own glass and at once I saw that all the other heads had turned into lightbulbs. Then the light gradually became so bright that I couldn’t see anything, and someone called out cheers.

These days it gets dark early, at a quarter past five in Lugano, at five here in Basel, by four-thirty in Hamburg, further north the night begins at midday, and from then on everything is always artificially lit. The less daylight there is, the more important lights and candles become. The smallest fire sparks wonder, a matchstick, a smoldering cigarette. Blue and yellow lights give the place a particular tone, but the most important color is red.

Here, night falls at five in the afternoon, and from then on everything is lit in red, the red tint of winter is reflected in the puddles, red is warm, warming, festive, cozy, familiar, trustworthy, attractive, romantic, invigorating, bracing, promising, and full of memories. Not to mention that the color red has something reckless about it.

Red is the color of courage, and whether it’s courageous or not, red is always provocative,

now you’re thinking about something that I didn’t mention but am also thinking about,

who wouldn’t,

we don’t have to compete with each other,

it’s all the same which one of us was the first to think that thought,

why should we have to compete,

on my account you’ve been thinking about nothing else this whole time, which says something,

in any case we can now see dark-red lips, naturally in a house that’s glowing bright red, and nearby three pastry shops have had to close down. A hostile takeover, that’s what they called it. It would stimulate growth in the red-light district. The chocolate scene is dead, twenty-three jobs were lost, and a few of the sales clerks went over to the other side, they were probably hostile to begin with. Instead of the candy stores there are entire houses full of red lamps, and in the middle of the night, the winter night, red-lipped, red-eyed women in red boots and red underwear emerge from the houses and breathe red fire.

A man with a white beard unbuttons his long red coat, discards his beard, and hurries naked into the house, that’s how it goes!, he screams, why on earth,

I am not going to figure the world out or see through it, not even in winter, and I am not pretending to be happy about it, which is to say that I’m not pretending to be happy about how the color red is abused under these or any circumstances at all. (Coughing) How did I end up here? Great, if I’ve lost my good mood I’ve lost everything, that much is clear, there’s always something that’s forbidden, and right now losing your good mood is forbidden, that is what the sales clerks at the candy stores told me too.

Show your teeth, they said,

but then there’ll be black ravens flying past,

did you think about that? Have you had to imagine everything on your own? Why didn’t you say anything?

Ravens used to be called firebirds because they love smoke and always have. They can even start fires on their own, they love to set things on fire, they still fly past smoky fires and screech, pause, and screech again, the various meanings of the color red are all the same to them!

In this case the ravens are nothing but phantoms, animated phantoms directly from
the house with red lights, the daylight reddens early in winter,


excuse me, I have something in my throat, it feels scratchy,

like having a wire filament in my throat,

and as far as the ravens go,


but you know, I don’t have to say anything

there’s something scratchy in my throat. My skin is becoming thinner, I know without having to check that it’s probably glowing, there are beads of sweat on my forehead again, but at least no one is coming round with full glasses, and no one is saying cheers.

The above excerpt from Volatile Texts was posted with permission of the translator and Dalkey Archive Press.

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