KR OnlineMixed GenrePoetryTranslation

a hole in paper big enough

Translated from German by Bradley Schmidt

this is the capital, the more southern capital, the capital that is no more. its presidential palace is non-european. its presidential palace is as european as a colonial villa. its presidential palace is a replica; it is built on the ruins of the presidential palace of jesus’s younger brother. its presidential palace has curved roofs, a pavilion for forgotten birds, cast-iron fin de siècle elevators from schindler, a garden open to the public, and a goldfish pond. its presidential palace can be viewed for 40¥, and then you stay all day. the government stayed until the winter of 1937. when it left, the city gates were locked. in the next six weeks the japanese soldiers killed 400,000 civilians. in the next four weeks the japanese soldiers raped 20,000 women. the city wall and gates are still standing, and they can be viewed for 20¥, and then you stay all day. it is the only completely preserved city wall in china. i did not know that.
   
the heat is incubating in the wūlóngtǎn park. everything could be very new or very old, the difference refuses to emerge. i write letters to till, who is lying next to me in the grass. i write letters to christoph, who will read them in a small european city. in other words: i write letters to the past. the past, l. says, is there where not everything happens at once, where the present is not a simultaneity accelerated to 350 km/h, instead of a wall-in security that’s airtight and has been renovated for energy efficiency.
   
and that is exactly the problem, b. says, and reaches for her beer: we don’t have time to think. my students need 30 years to realize what they want, and then they’ve already done what everyone else does. what we need urgently, b. says, is individualism. by that she means something different than i do.
   
x. says individualism will get here, it’ll only take a little time. and exactly how long is a little, b. asks with her head in the refrigerator, looking for more for me and herself. 137 months and 22 days, x. says, not a second less, not a second more.
   
h. says he’s constantly been thinking on the 70s recently, it feels like the 70s were coming back, and i ask myself what all i wouldn’t take for granted if i were part of my parents’ generation, or the generation before, what i would fight for more, what i would be more afraid of. in the 70s there was no press, just the government papers, h. says. three months ago he gave up his job as editor in chief and founded an ad agency. which i would be more afraid of.
   
 
 
中华字海 (1994)
meer aus
worten.
sämtliche
schriftzeichen
der chinesischen
kultur (1994)
 
 
臧棣 :像雪山一
样升起丛书
zāng dì: rise up
like a snow
mountain (2011)
this is not the city of swallows. this is the city that was forgotten. forgotten: wàngjì: a word with two syllables, like almost every other word in this language where every syllable is a character and every characters is a word, that has 85,568 characters and 400 syllables, so where things constantly rhyme and every third spoken word would be the same if it wouldn’t be given a second syllable, a language that’s actually two languages, one for writing and one for reading, and both are very unpractical and very, very beautiful. Wàngjì, so two syllables: wàng: to forget, jì: remembering something. the english translation for wàngjì is: forgetting, but literally wàngjì means: to forget to remember something. naturally, this can also be said differently. this is not a poem about the short-circuited connection between language and thought. in the best case, this is: a hole in paper big enough to want to get through it. big enough to see the fish swimming behind it. the pokémon.
   
孙文波 :六十年
代的自行车
sūn wénbō:
bicycles in the
60s (2002)
so collect everything because everything should be seen: the slices of ginger and the nutmeg broth, the 20×20 cm flagstones, each with 1 circle, 4 curves, and 16 squares on the edges—ca. 3,000 eyes with lots of sleep in the corners. The noodle stand and the pancake stand, the man from the mobile key service taking his nap leaning against his mobile stand, a water hose in the university garden. the fat, sleeping campus cats; portable, battery-powered, mini-radios gradually crumbling from the edges of their plastic casing; loudspeaker announcements; a car alarm that catches in the plane trees; red ribbons in the branches and bicycles; freight bicycles; zìxíngchē. liùshí niándài de zìxíngchē, says x., bicycles like from the 60s: wherever they go, they’re driving through dusty afternoon light.

in other words nostalgia, says l.: a heat where everything nods off, gets heavy, and loses importance. the streets go along hills, along something familiar mediterranean. in nánjīng i first think of italy and then of something that i no longer have to compare to like it.
   
li-young lee: the
city in which i
love you (1990)
 
于坚 :0档案
yú jiān: file 0
(2002)
this is not the city of swallows. this is the city in which i love you. its walls washed white like a file, the gates round like a ball slowly becoming deflated. you can still walk through. through a past, which is one among many, which is an earworm of the present, which is exactly as it should be, namely rènao. rènao is a word for the kind of coziness that emerges when a large group of people all talk at once and produce so much noise that you forget what’s up and what’s down – a surface of noise in which everything becomes soft, relaxed, and loses importance.
   
in nánjīng i see a poverty that looks like tiredness, a poverty that sells everything it can get hold of, bottle caps, used flower wire, tadpoles, things i had no clue you could sell, a poverty that carries around plastic sacks, a poverty made of red-white-blue-white-red-white-blue-striped, water-resistant, all-purpose tarps stapled together, a poverty that hangs from a construction scaffold to protect privacy.
   
in nánjīng i see plane trees wherever i go, most of them were planted before the government left. nánjīng is a city where i didn’t know that it had plane trees, a city with bookstores and parks and sidewalk cafés and lakes, whose great, joyful story has not been written yet. in nánjīng there is a constant sawing, a shoving of hoarse chirps from branches. when i pass by, the crickets briefly turn down their volume. as if they would see me, as if they were embarrassed by it.
   
李沉简 :挺直脊
梁拒做犬儒( 北
大一二〇纪念)
lǐ chénjiǎn: 120
years after the
hundred days
reform (2018)
in nánjīng i read an essay by lǐ chénjiǎn that everyone read because it was online for almost a day before the censor authorities noticed the clicks. lǐ chénjiǎn is the dean of yuánpéi college at běijīng university. lǐ chénjiǎn is one of the highest officials in china. cynicism, lǐ chénjiǎn writes, forms the basis of our society, and there’s a simple reason. if everyone who dares voice their opinion is eliminated, then what’s left are those who have none. zhūjūn, jù zuò quǎnrú, writes lǐ chénjiǎn: ladies and gentlemen, we should never be cynics.
   
eileen j. cheng:
literary remains.
death, trauma,
and lǔ xùn’s
refusal to mourn (2013)
 
kate briggs: this
little art (2018)
so: collect everything because everything should be named. a decision to not just let things be; not to become accustomed, not for the sake of simplicity, and not to this miserable fear. a decision in the present because of the present; that rejects all kind of mourning; that one in the wūlóngtǎn park on the little island behind a beverage dispenser – coca-cola: kěkǒu kělè – behind garbage separation and willow branches and lunch breaks, behind herb ice tea in cans and plastic take-away bags, behind a decision, behind which it does not retreat: say it too fast and it sounds like a platitude: exactly the kind of reductive, crushing generality i want to try to avoid.
   
this country is complicated, b. says, by now i don’t care whether it is good or bad, at any rate interesting. no clue what will happen in two years; i can hardly remember how it was two years ago.
   
so collect everything because everything will be different: sun shades, tomatoes with sugar glaze, the xuánwǔ lake, when you look down from the city wall, the regatta route for the rowboats – tiny needles between the islands, thick cauliflowers in the lake. y. says after school she came here when she wanted to be alone. y. says i should drink more, duō hē diǎn, and that’s what everyone says. boiled water: kāishuǐ, yet another word with two syllables: kāi: open, shuǐ: water. boiled water, kāishuǐ, yet another stroke of luck: opened water.
   
y. says everyone is waiting for the real estate bubble to burst; y. says she doesn’t know if she’ll go back to berlin then. the first time y. went to berlin it took two months until the wall fell. 1989, that was a terrible year for china, y. says, i didn’t return for a long time. while taking her into my heart, i ask myself what i actually want to hear from her. y. works for the state. y. hates xí jìngpíng because xí jìnpíng hates intellectuals. he has that in common with máo, y. says, that petty bourgeois scorn for the enlightenment. (i did not know that.) y. says she’s no longer interested in calligraphy, and that is what she calls foreign cultural policy; y. says china is more complicated than that. yes, i say, and that’s why it’s so interesting. y. gives me a tired smile. duō hē diǎn.
   
and below us lies the lake, lies the calm in the city, which had been forgotten, in chinese: the calm of a city that had been forgotten to be remembered; the calm of a city that had somehow been overlooked since the 50s; the calm of a city with 8 million people.
   
in nánjīng, in an autumn that is a summer, that we stuffed full of conversations like a jiǎozi, filled so greedily that it will burst when cooked, in an autumn that is a beginner’s mistake, that is more beautiful than objectively possible, and is a summer, i lay the lexicon of modern chinese next to till’s coffee cup on a table on a balcony on which drying towels hang, footnotes to footnotes, outriggers on the bridges of languages that break with us, promise us.
   
even though german and chinese are so similar, y. says., both claim their words, crude translations, where other languages agree on elegance, chinese and german agree on literality. children’s languages in which everything is called what it is, in which it isn’t called television, but distant looking, or diànshì, yet another word with two syllables, diàn: electronic, shì: looking; diànshì: electronic looking, or just as well distant looking. languages with low tolerance for foreign words, which approach the world with tenderness, with the tenderness with which you carve a fish.
   
 
david der-wei
wang: the
monster that is
history (2004)
and that is no connection, x. says, no line of tradition, no anthropological constant, that is a hole in the paper that is big enough, one of these chance structural similarities that logicians characterize as miracles, all of these somehow congenial monsters that yell from their islands in history and want attention.
   
西川 :夜鸟
xī chuān: night
birds
(ca. 1992)
so collect everything because everything belongs in language: tea eggs, yóutiáo, the censored newspapers at the kiosk next to the metro station gǔlóu, which no one reads, the reporting in nánfāng zhōumò and on cáixìn, which everyone reads, the koi pond and the magpies standing in front of the temples, their floating decorative fins, the royal blue under their speculum, on the border. what color are the birds flying their neglect away?
   
in nánjīng i see a kingfisher, the only kingfisher i’ve ever seen, in xiānlín on the edge of a canal covered with concrete at the second to last stop on the metro no. 2 to jīngtiān lù.
   
in nánjīng the plane trees are painted white up to a meter over the ground and the walls in the old city are painted pastel yellow, in nánjīng the air conditioners are from hǎi’ěr, in nánjīng the power cables hold the sky together.
   
魯迅 :鲁迅自选

lǔ xùn: preface
to self-selected
works (1933)
in nánjīng i learn the difference between pragmatics and pragmatism. the difference lies in a decision, and it lies in the price you pay: pragmatics wants to have it as small as possible, pragmatists calculate it as high as possible. not due to desire for pain, not due to hope – hope, writes lǔ xùn, is the same illusion as despair – but rather due to a decision that is a commitment, due to a commitment that is a refusal. due to the refusal to become cynical, the refusal to become accustomed to letting things be, due to the inability to let things be, due to the hopeless seriousness with which people devote themselves to a game, promise.
   
魯迅 :墳
lǔ xùn: graves
(1927)
i write because people hate it, says lǔ xùn. the world is full of people who only want to secure their personal comfort zone, and because this should not be so cheaply achieved, we have to place some odious things before them to afflict them in their world without action.
   
the poster behind the kiosk in wūlóngtǎn park says send your love on valentine’s day, send it with a courier service. tóngchéng fēisòng, just 5¥, delivery within the city, just 6 hours. valentine’s day, qīxì, the seventh day of the seventh month, is in autumn in nánjīng, which is a summer. i did not know that.
   
西川 :月亮
xī chuān: the
moon ( ca. 1995)
suǒyǐ yào jué mù, nǐ jiù gǎnkuài dòng shǒu ba, b. says: if you want to dig up the graves, well, get started then.
   
秋瑾 :秋风秋雨
qiū jǐn: autumn
wind, autumn
rain (1907)
qiūfēng qiūyǔ / chóu shā rén, says qiū jǐn, china’s first feminist, the anarchist with autumn in her last name and the sword from mirror lake in her pen name. on july 13, 1907, the evening before her execution: autumn rain, autumn wind / this miserable fear. millions of chinese schoolchildren who learn her poems by heart, say qiūfēng qiūyǔ / chóu shā rén.
   
jure detela via
tibor hrs pandur:
manifest ilegale
(ca. 1975)
sooner or later we’ll all get a bullet in the head, h. says. it is unavoidable, and that’s why we have to assure that we get it from our opponents, and not from ourselves.
   
韩博 :自由二
hán bó: freedom
nu. 2 (2017)
 
marina
cvetaeva: story
about sonechka
(1938)
cǐkè, shéi méiyǒu fángwū jí bùbì ànjiē dàikuǎn, h. says: whoever has no house now, will have no mortgage to pay. and anyway, h. says, i never understood why anyone would work for the state, by now there’s so many ways to earn money in china. h. pays for my lunch and laughs. you should be careful, i remind myself, when cherished people give away something too big: it will be a parting gift.