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Max Goldt: Test-Driving Misery

It's been a long time since I last translated some Max Goldt. That long time is now officially over.  Presenting my translation of Dem Elend Probesitzen.

Test-Driving Misery

[by Max Goldt; translated by Andrew Hammel]

I always wanted to visit Malta, even though everyone assured me that this island was more built-up than the Ruhr Valley – primarily with majestic, towering churches which resemble each other to a painful degree.  They also said that there was almost nothing to eat except chips and, at the beginning of the day, burned English toast with butter that runs down your shirt-sleeve.  And that there was nothing to do outside of swimming season except ride Malta’s legendary yellow buses from one storm-drenched village to the next, very similar, storm-drenched village. 

Unwilling to let my New Years’ plans be spoiled by the carping of these haughty globetrotters, I decided to just fly there. I must say, the warnings weren’t exactly wrong, aside from the point about the butter. What flew into my shirt-sleeve during breakfast was, namely, not butter, but rather a substance located in the domain of the substitute fats, and which was called “I can't believe it's not BUTTER." Should that have put me in hypercritical-consumer mood? Or should it have bothered me that on the very first morning, a slice of mortadella lay under our table? “Look! There’s cheap, ugly sausage under our table,” I said. To my satisfaction, my companion responded: “So? There’s also cheap, ugly sausage on the table, and that's what we're about to eat, my good man!”

Everything was much worse than it is at home. The miserable showerhead, for example, out of which one single tendril of water – noodle-thin, curled like a maiden's tresses, tasting of desalinization plant – more crawled than flowed. Hardly the thing for a cold-showering man accustomed to being drenched with strong, many-streamed flow.  Especially when he must twist to one side to foil the sucking, sticking, mildewed shower curtain’s attempts the claim his upper arm. The most important thing in a bathroom was entirely missing, namely space to set up the bottles and tubes in their accustomed order. Instead, they had to be arranged on the top of the toilet-tank.  No matter how skillfully that was done, as soon as the flush knob was touched, everything clattered to the floor, which was sprinkled with hairs from strangers' underbellies. No matter – the labels were read out and bottles put back in their place without grumbling. Nor was there any reason to complain about the small, old-fashioned bed, which was made with the kind of British corners that are rather unpopular in our culture. In the morning, you find the cover crumpled into a sausage-shape between your legs and register with horror that, in the last hours, you have been cuddling with this ancient, flowery bedcover, on which the odd impoverished English country squire may have bled to death. No, none of this could dampen our mood. Why? Was it perhaps the fantastic landscape or the cheerful local children that made up for these small inconveniences? Absolutely not! There was no landscape to speak of, since everything was packed full of little houses and factories ("Playmobil”, for example), and there people were as friendly as they are anywhere else. We felt a sense of purpose nevertheless: we were taking a vacation from the world of premium products. 

It is, of course, good to train one’s senses; to teach one’s tongue to distinguish that which is good from that which is less good. One could praise, as unqualified progress, the fact that a rather large selection of good chocolate has suddenly emerged in the past few years. But what of the man who can live only in castle hotels, and who throws a tantrum when his bread is not made from artisanal sourdough? What happens to him when he has to go to prison? There, you certainly aren’t going to find chocolate from “Hachez" or "Fedora."  "Milka" or "Stollwerck," if you’re lucky – and if not, an old, melted Santa figurine speckled with little pieces of red tinfoil, since the workers at the Santa-melting factory said: “The criminals can hardly expect us to pick out all the little pieces of foil for them.” So I advise you, once in a while, to eat some junk from the discount store, so you won't have such a hard time of it behind bars.

But even if you avoid prison, make no mistake: you’re certainly not going to be served Slow Food until the end of your days. One day, the transmission of life will start gasping even on slow inclines, and before you know it, “Bang!", „Radang!” and “Gong!” – 80 years have gone by. Next stop: retirement home! There, you will surely cuddle with many an unappetizing bedspread, and the cheese will certainly not come from “Manufactum.” In the morning, there will be two square, structureless slices, and the same thing every day at five for supper.  And thus it will continue, year-in, year-out. The brand of cheese will never change. Some people hang on 15 years in a retirement home. The slices start adding up. At the graveside, they'll say: “For most of his life, he was at home in the highest spheres of civilization. But for the past 15 years, he spent his time eating 21,900 slices of the cheapest cheese there is.” Can someone who has spent his time in the free world leading a sheltered life, refining his senses, face an end like this? To see, let us test-drive misery in a cheap hotel on a teeming Mediterranean island. Let us test how we tolerate small shocks to our social status.

We withstood it all without problems. If you can get nothing but a four-day-old chicken wrap, go visit some old ruin while you eat it – disgust mingled with boredom is, after all, still more appetizing than hunger. And don’t forget Malta’s wonderful buses. Maltese souvenir shops see these old British Leyland and Bedford buses as their main source of capital. This explains the bus-shaped bath-sponges, doormats, toasters, and hand-punishing bus-shaped corkscrews. All of the drivers sit on towels, like incontinent old women in a rest home. But man alive, can they drive! This deserves to be said this out loud, since, worldwide, far too few friendly observations are made about bus drivers. A friend once visited me and told me that one of our common acquaintances had a new boyfriend. She didn’t begrudge her friend the new happiness, she said, but you wouldn’t exactly call the new boyfriend good-looking. He looked like the drummer for the “Flippers,” or even like – and here she adopted a dramatic posture, to let me know that she would shortly be required to mention something even more unsightly than the drummer for the “Flippers” – “or even like a – bus driver!”  Far be it from me to chastise my friend for this nasty pigeonholing comparison – after all, I once said to a fellow TV-watcher, after seeing the much-sought-after trend researcher Matthias Horx: “He looks like a member of the Puhdys! Some trend researcher!" Strictly speaking, this was a superfluous jab, since every man of a certain age comes to look like a member of the “Puhdys.”  The Great Mother will have it so. Thus it comes to pass that the Botox capsule slips from the toilet lid and smashes to pieces on the tile floor, so that its contents shall become one with the mass of shed body-hair. Honor the Great Mother! But wash every day.

Maltese bus drivers don’t need to be botoxed. Some of them seemed to be to be just 16 years old, and they certainly weren’t afraid to pump some fresh Mediterranean testosterone into the gas pedal. A minimum age for bus drivers apparently does not exist on Malta, but then again neither do certain other things, such as forests or divorces. And we’re letting this sort of country into the EU lately! The chauffeurs often receive laddish reinforcement in the form of ticket inspectors of the same age who jump into the moving bus (since the doors never close) and, without so much as a “Hello" or “How are you?”, bark "Tickets!" at the passengers, in exactly the same tone in which, somewhere else, you might hear "Jewelry, cash, watches – pronto!" The mugging-like ticket checks inflicted by these human whelps are among the most exquisite experiences Malta has to offer. The problem, though is that neither the bus-stops nor the buses themselves tell you where the buses go. We wanted to go from Naxxar to Marsaxlokk, but watched, to our dismay, as the bus rolled to a stop before the gate of Mdina, Malta’s historic capital.

"But we just did a complete tour of Mdina yesterday!” said my companion. “No matter," I replied. “Don’t you remember the old After-Eight ad on television? A married couple from the English upper classes sees some act of insubordination. The man says to his wife: ‘Let us pretend we didn’t notice.’ We shall do the same. We’ll just amble through the city a second time and say: ‘Let us pretend we didn’t notice it yesterday!’”

This we did. Experiences must be repeated in order to be properly evaluated. When you taste cheese or a fruit for the first time, it’s unwise to rely on your first impression. To recognize distinctive qualities of art or of food, you must carefully arrange a series of tests. Wait a few weeks, and then bite in again with renewed energy! It took me about five test-runs before I could determine whether I liked a Tamarillo (yes) or a Cherimoya (no). It’s the same with places. The student with the Santa hat, grim reaper’s scythe, and judge’s robe, who was handing out flyers for a multivision torture show, was the same one we saw the day before.  However, the first time around Mdina Cathedral, we hadn’t noticed that the Christ child rests on a bed of germinating sprouts.  

Bus after bus, day after day, the week crept by in its middling way. “The sausage will be definitely there again,” you told yourself in the shower, and were never disappointed. Faithful and sweating, it sat there, alone, in five-kilo piles at the buffet.  We placed it upon our cottony rolls and chewed it, silent and without expectation, like peasants in a 19th-century painting.  If we had stayed seven weeks instead of seven days, not only would we surely have forgotten that the salmon in the luxury hotel didn’t taste any better, but the very flame of cultural critique would have died out within us. Then, we could have allowed ourselves and the years to flow gently away, perhaps not without some intermittent pleasures, when they come once in a while to open the window or wash us.