Lutz Rathenow

The Fantastic Ordinary World of Lutz Rathenow:

Poems, Plays & Stories

Translated from the German by Boria Sax
& Imogen von Tannenberg
with an afterword by Boria Sax

Illustrations by Robyn Johnson-Ross
& Boris Mukhametshin

ISBN 1-879-378-31-0 (paper)
176 pages, $15

Anti-poster of Marx by Boris Mukhametshin


"The world Berlin author Lutz Rathenow depicts is the colorless, flat, thuddingly dull DDR the German Democratic Republic, as it called itself, or Communist East Germany, as we knew it: a sub-Soviet, sub-standard, bureaucratic parody of a society (1949-1990). And he depicts it very well, only not from the outside, with detailed descriptions, historical costumes and polemical plots, but rather from the inside, dropping in on the mind of one or another of its characters. Here is the little man starved of human contact and longing for romance ('The Girl in Finland'), the timid bureaucrat standing in front of an office door and wondering how to knock ('Mr. Breugel), the writer facing the blank page and fearing both to write and not to write ('The Blank Page'). Here, in other words, is Angst, paralysis, a funnel of doubt and indecision. Out of it comes murderous resentment ('Professor Dr. Mitzenleim'), mocking defiance ('Reasons for Refusing to Make a Statement'), ironic futility ('Meditations on Peace'). People who are emotionally starved, anxious and futile develop a perverse sense of humor ('The Phone Call'); they find grim little pleasures in their living death ('Obituary').

Rathenow's works crystallize not only a past, but also a present and recurring assault on the mind. The government, the political party, the church, the organization, the television program, the newspaper, the company, the office, the boss all want you to think the same way, their way, whatever the country and whatever the time. And if you do, this is what results: reduced capacity, distorted thought, fragmented language, inverted feelings, a sense of unreality, a drabness unto death. The Fantastic Ordinary World of Lutz Rathenow draws this lesson and thus the pleasure out of the painful republic."


Artwork from the book cover by Robyn Johnson-Ross

Excerpt from the book:

No Ordinary Spy
translated by Boria Sax

The spy this story is about was no ordinary spy. He was the best in the land. He cleaned his ears five times a day and could write down three conversations at once. At a distance of seven hundred meters he could hear when somebody coughed against the wind or simply muttered a curse to himself. With his exceptional hearing he could ascertain whether one lit a fire with the daily newspaper taken straight from the mailbox, without having first studied it with appropriate thoroughness.

When this spy crept soundlessly through the streets, nobody saw him, at least not in his normal form, something he hardly knew himself. He changed his name and appearance several times a day. At first he imitated street sweepers, moody greybeards, cripples, nursery-school teachers, undertakers; later he transformed himself into objects, disguised himself as a wastepaper basket, park bench or shrub in order to follow a conversation unnoticed. He gradually perfected his ability to continue for hours as an object. Even accidental steps or dogs relieving themselves did not make him lose his composure. Once, it is true, he resisted being carried away by two men who were stupified as what they presumed to be a piece of junk, the exact nature of which they intended to determine, bodied forth as a person and hurried away without giving them a second look.

In the main, he performed his duties without complications. The Ruler so valued his reports that he was regularly admitted into the presence of the highest officials in the land. Naturally under cover of the greatest secrecy; even the ministers were said to have plans other than what they gave out. Thus by dint of his talent the spy was placed only in the most exclusive circles and assigned by the Ruler to check out primarily the Chief of the Secret Police. This was, after all, a democracy, everyone had to be kept track of. His immediate superior, the Chief of the Secret Police, on the other hand, ordered that his first concern should be to observe the behavior of the Ruler: democracy means that nobody is exempted from observation.

Unfortunately, the spy could not savor this uncommonly ticklish situation in all its piquancy. His increasingly refined ability to conceal himself in enclosed spaces hindered complete fulfillment of his assigned tasks. By now he no longer spoke, was barely able to whisper, audibly enter an office or, indeed, face someone else as a human being. He continued on as a piece of furniture in the room. People sat on him, left plates, pressed out cigarettes.

In the beginning, he deposited plain-text reports in the offices of his superiors and picked up new instructions left for him; that was when the floorboards in the hallway creaked more loudly than usual, indicating his change of position.

But later, after he had several times been decorated with the "Golden Ear," the sleuth used codes specially contrived to prevent possible contamination. Ultimately he renounced writing altogether and tapped out the information on microfilm that he hid at varying locations, so that only by chance could the Ruler and the Chief of the Secret Police obtain the data, which was barely decipherable in any case. The spy did his recherche conscientiously, by this time no longer nervous, though he remained motionless for weeks on end as a folding chair in the room of the executive and reflected upon a method of delivering reports that would be absolutely foolproof, by which he would need neither to speak, to write or even to move. Something like thought transference, an idea that eventually failed due to the insufficiently conspiratorial mentality of his taskmasters.

The Ruler and the Chief of the Secret Police forgot the existence of their most capable informant and let an entry be placed in his file: missing, presumably killed in a street fight. There was no time to go over the matter. The state leaders were set upon and toppled by an ever increasing number of demonstrating people.

Now the happy ending: good times began without a Secret Police and a Ruler who both had to fear losing power. The spy, however, finding that an insufficient need for denunciations deprived his activity of meaning and therefore his real motivation to discover ever more elaborately contrived methods of disguise, this spy gradually degenerated into a man who realized that he had become superfluous.

He joined a vaudeville show and demonstrated to an astonished public how one turns into a table or hat rack. But loud applause did not prevent his performances from becoming progressively joyless. One day he refused to present himself to the public as a curiosity.

He still retained his considerable ability in hearing and smelling, and was able to work in a clinic. After acquiring a certain routine, he could diagnose a stomach ailment simply on the basis of how the mouth smelled. In addition he was assigned to listen to the chests of all the patients to see if there was an irregular noise. For that he needed only his ears. It goes without saying that he performed his duties exactly.


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