Fiction by Justin Christensen
Let’s Live and Let’s Love
When he woke from the dream, for a moment Andres thought he was in his childhood bedroom, a memory of his mother replacing a tattered blanket with his grandmother’s Christmas gift blurring the line between the two states. He had dreamt of sleeping bags. Phosphorescent, blue sleeping bags. The hues of green and blue of his grandmother’s spider-veined legs visible under her opaque stockings. She shouldn’t be here, he thought. A childhood years ago. A Christmas morning gift. Rows of shiny blue sleeping bags dangling from the ceiling. She’s been dead for a decade.
Andres sat up. A modest studio Airbnb in Kreuzberg, more austere in person than the pictures on the app. He scolded himself for napping after the flight.
He hadn’t been home in years; few of his colleagues at the agency even knew where home was, nor cared to ask, but they did know he would be in Berlin for the weekend. Opening the front window that looked out on an empty school playground, he watched his breath float through the brisk October dusk.
A Turkish man and his two young boys walked past and entered the school playground across from the flat. At least they looked Turkish. Zühre told him this was a Turkish neighborhood—the reason the flat had been so cheap—and the mind seems to fit even the squarest of pegs into round holes when it suits it. One of the boys trailed his father a few steps. Andres remembered, maybe for the first time in years, how his 8-year-old self, alone in his dark room, would zip then tie himself up with the sleeping bag’s strings, leaving only his nose exposed.
The Frankfurter Buchmesse, with its endless meetings of international editors and agents—the money changers in the temple—the drinks and dinners, selling yourself just in the hopes of selling a book, didn’t start to Wednesday, so when Zühre asked him to come to Berlin, he agreed immediately.
A few days after she initially texted him, he wrote back asking, “Just curious. But why don’t you want to meet at the Hessischer Hof like last year?”
She replied, “Berlin is better,” a message he read 50 times, as texts are less narrative, and maybe more poetic, than the conversations we used to have on the phone.
When Zühre texted him the next day, she made it clear that this wasn’t purely a personal rendezvous. She outlined the opportunity in a long obelisk of a message, so much of it was focused on the writer’s bio, he wasn’t sure if it was the book or the author she was peddling, the difference between the two in the marketplace today was almost indistinguishable. This was what Barthes meant when he heralded the death of the author.
It’s the always the same—
Let’s look at his social media.
How many followers does she have—across all platforms?
Who followers her? Any celebrities? Pen International? Any big players?
Does he have a blue tick?
This is all that mattered anymore. The author is a commodity.
The author Zühre represented was a cause célèbre. A modern-day folk hero, she explained, admitting he had enormous followings on Twitter and Instagram.
Our Eunuch Dreams, a title he wasn’t sure worked in translation, contained a rather picaresque plot and an eponymous MacGuffin; a Kurdish fighter for Selim the Grim against the Safavids at the Battle of Chaldiran returns only to have a fanatical Şeyhülislam, order his castration, which eventually leads him back to the eastern village of his youth and to a Zoroastrian purifying ritual. The extradiegetic narrator begins by stating that the original manuscript of this tale was written in Kurdish, later highlighting what was lost in translation throughout the later portion of the novel.
The form—and Andres always felt a kindred spirit with the Russian formalists—intrigued him, but when he understood that all of the above had another meaning in the modern Turkish context, that the book itself was a cipher for those initiated, imbibed with cultural cues and political statements, that the secularist and religious leaders alike vilified the text, exchanging words such as ‘radical’ for ‘apostate’ when describing it, that the author had been murdered in Karayollari in broad daylight by three men in red track suits, that the funeral and subsequent protest march was attended by gangs of goons dressed in the same red tracksuits, he knew she couldn’t represent this book. Just as the author, Zanyar Yaşar Kaya, needed his eunuch, Zühre required an amanuensis.
Despite this knowledge, Andres was happy to be in Berlin, happy to watch this father and his sons pass by his window, happy not just because like all great cities Berlin is a palimpsest of cultures, music and art scenes, genres within genres like doors opening into doors, not in spite of the fact that in some respects it is a new city—rather he loved its rebirth from its razed, rubble corpse, still seen in the bullet pockmarks that line the bricks in the Pergamum Museum, that in it every reactive ideology had been abolished and what had been latent, or hidden, was beautifully articulated.
He sat down at the small empty table next to the fridge, a bare-boned necessity of any Airbnb, and nonchalantly scrolled through the promotional dossiers of each title he hoped to sell. Anson Hung, Mateo Vasquez, Monica Watkins, and now Zanyar Kaya—he found it difficult to get excited about any of them. Not that their lives weren’t interesting, it was just their lives and plights were more compelling than their work. He never knew if it was the market or just this generation, but he always felt that the personas—their brands—of these new writers were so contrived, every detail was filtered through some setting they have on their phones, hoping to capture the photogenic identity they wished to portray, one that is acceptable and brandable, that they all soon sounded the same. He could barely keep track of who had what happen to them, when it happened and how it came to impact their lives and writing. If all these varied events affected all this diversity, but every story came in the same prototypical proairetic package, then nothing that happened to any of them meant anything at all. Reducing yourself to an identity robs you of one.
Zühre and her life, on the other hand, had occupied his thoughts since their first meeting, taking up residence in his mind, manifesting in dreams, waking fantasies, interludes in the restless monologue of a traveling book salesman. A collection of contradictions and mysteries, she was a Turkish national but also ethnically Albanian, Arab and Armenian, each component with its own set of tales, many marked with tragedy and horror, details not shared to appeal to pathos, but to serve as signposts at intersections with other stories and events. She could begin a story about a kilim in her grandmother’s salon, only to describe how it had been obtained from a Turkish woman immigrating to Turkey from the former Yugoslavia, that it was part of the immigrant’s dowry, and that the husband had decided to stay behind, explaining how many women from Turkmenistan are doing the same today, only these new immigrants come as maids, selling their carpets at the bazaars and often marrying themselves off to old greedy men who hope to be a little pasha at home, unbeknownst to their first husbands in the motherland.
Like a holographic image that changes as it diffracts the light, a nymph’s glance can transform into a seductress’ gaze, at times even display synchronicity.
He wondered when she would arrive, and he felt the need to tell her in detail about the dangling, phosphorescent sleeping bags of his dream.
They had formed the habit of texting about their dreams in their respective mornings—an attempt to bring a narrative quality to the mode of communication—the nine-hour time difference positioning the listener further away from the dream state, as dreams are always fleeting and at the mercy of reason, as in attempt to understand, it contaminates the scene like a bad forensics team. Typing away with your thumbs, without giving the waking mind room to work, knowing a confidante in another time and space would receive them allowed the subconscious and conscious to speak to one another.
Andres opened their WhatsApp chat—
Sleeping bags...my parents’ top dresser drawer, a forbidden place—I shouldn’t be here; it looks like a floor of a doll’s house, a wall cut away to reveal rooms linked to rooms. I pace between them. The furniture is nailed to the floor like a museum exhibit. You—I call you by your name, Zühre in this dream—sit directly across from me; I’m seated, we are seated. It’s a hermetically sealed wooden box. The acoustics of the box distort our speech, words echoing like trumpets of different sizes with their own fitted mufflers; performance art; Sakıp Sabancı Müzesi; yelling from the lower floors, the lower drawers, endless parties, revelers in painted terracotta masks on the eve of a great calamity; a mime traverses the vicissitudes of the revelry, jesting at the decadence; obscene smiles and whispers. I lay down on the floor of my father’s dresser drawer, I can hear my brother calling my name, Andres; suspended from the ceiling—phosphorescent blue sleeping bags.
Even the particulars of the dream were simultaneously fleeting and overly ordered. The process of telling, or writing, only exacerbated the deterioration. If she didn’t read the message soon, or better yet, finally arrive here as planned, the dream would either be a catalogue of dissociated images or an overworked collage.
Andres looked out the apartment window again. Night had fallen on the playground and two other people—a man and a woman were sitting on its multi-leveled, wooden climbing frame that resembled a giant nest. The opaque streetlight only faintly illuminated the pair, and the school yard fence and a tree made it difficult to see what they were doing. He opened the window, hoping to eavesdrop on their conversation. A baby cried in the distance, and he remembered at a house party in high school a girl had given birth in the basement and later went to prison for throwing it in a frozen green dumpster. He hadn’t seen anything, couldn’t remember anything from that night except the girl—Maria—had worn a large oversized Dallas Cowboys jacket with a large 5-pointed star on it.
He turned off the light in the flat in the hopes he could see the couple in the playground, hoping he wouldn’t be seen in return.
Let’s Live and Let’s Love, a new novel by his most successful client, Anson Hung, aimed to be both neoteric and ironic by imagining a modern equivalent of the Roman poet Catullus in Hong Kong. The protagonist, Anson, like the poet, like the author, like the brand, was bisexual and Cantonese; the novel consisting of competing narratives, with one rooted in the state of heterosexuality and the other homosexuality. The narrators of both arcs constantly intrude, with each métalepsis more explicitly referencing the other arc, where the dialogic discourse attempts to explicate the nature of the protagonist’s existence and, quite predictably, merging the two into a vision of pansexuality (the real irony being that he considered pansexuality a modern construct).
After Anson’s heterosexual lover commits suicide by jumping off the roof of the Lai Chi Kok secondary school from which she had recently been fired, the heterosexual poet quits writing and recedes into oblivion. In the dialogical, parallel account, the homosexual Anson loses his lover in the same way, only he doubles the death by jumping from the Tsing Ma Bridge. The poems scattered throughout the book are written in iambic tetrameter, providing an air of classical sophistication, but are crude, provocative and often puerile in subject matter. They lull the reader into a world they might normally consider to be base (although is anyone shocked these days?) and a text they might deem pornographic, which in many ways makes them complicit to the events that unfold in the novel.
The book reignited Andres interest in Catullus and Sappho, two poets that he read many years earlier, when he hoped to have a career as a writer and scholar rather than as a salesman. In the last century before our common era, a Roman man turned to politics and warfare to prove his manhood, the burgher existed but was not yet respected. Today, there only exists the burgher—the artist, athlete, politician, physician, engineer and architect are all burghers and are only as successful as their paychecks. They all live and operate under the metaphor of time is money. The crisis of masculinity is that capitalism is a closed system; like the water cycle there is only so much wealth and its distribution can never be equal. Masculinity is relative to capital. Even the quest to obtain that wealth leaves a man chasing an identity designed to be branded and consumed. At best he is a commodity.
Only the lover, Andres thought, rejects this paradigm. While he quickly grew bored with his client’s novel, he became obsessed with the poems of Catullus and his Lesbia:
Sun can rise and set ad infinitum—
for us, though, once our brief life’s quenched, there’s only
one unending night that’s left to sleep through.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then a thousand more, a second hundred,
then yet another thousand then a hundred—
then when we’ve notched up all these many thousands,
shuffle the figures, lose count of the total,
so no maleficent enemy can hex us
knowing the final sum of all our kisses.
And kiss is what they did on the wooden nest in the playground outside. The man turned his head, as she slowly nibbled on his neck. He looked like Zanyar, Zühre’s Kurdish author. Published at 25, an MP at 30 and martyred for eternity. But here Zanyar whispers winsome words in her ear in their wooden nest. She loves to hear him move from Kurdish to Turkish, with transgressions into English and French, the many words he knows for pain and suffering, because one’s wealth is only heightened by one’s previous suffering, by one’s oppression. A martyr. A tongue then a pair of lips envelop an earlobe, a pair of hands brace against the wooden frame. The Kurd knows everything and is everything.
A large delivery truck passed through the street that separated the playground and his rented flat.
One of the last scenes from Zanyar’s book, Our Eunuch Dreams, the novel’s narrator reveals himself as a modern-day ancestor of the Eunuch, and informs the reader that he too has been murdered—providing a sort of objective correlative to the Eunuch’s death which takes place off stage. The narrator describes a large green truck, Istanbul’s equivalent to the hearse, stuck in gridlock, an urban quagmire; green because it carried the corpse of a Muslim, he says. If it had been a dead Christian, the truck would have been a black one. Nobody knew what they used to carry Jews.
I’m Kurdish and Alevi, but at least I receive a Muslim burial, the corpse explains from the casket resting in the bed of the green truck.
The description of the traffic jam alone reads like a work of absurdist fiction—cars darting for a millimeter of empty road, an old man standing in the street with his car door open trying to direct three other cars into position so he can pass. The corpse hears the radio playing from the truck’s cab, Ajda Pekkan’s “Son Yolcu,” accompanied by the rain pelting on the bed’s steel roof. The traffic lights turn red then green then red again.
The corpse listens to the undulating waves of honking and cursing.
On the back of the truck is an LED sign with rolling text like the sign above the front entrance of the school across the street from Andres’ Kreuzberg Airbnb. The corpse hears the young man read the scrolling text: MİLLİ İRADE ENGELLENEMEZ, or CAN’T STOP THE WILL OF THE NATION. A common phrase of the ruling party and an obvious insult to the Kurdish corpse.
The traffic jam opens and the hearse’s driver, emphatically singing—Yağmur öncesi gibi/Yaşla doldu gözlerim/Kalbimden en son geçen yolcu/Yolcu sensin…—slams on the gas, the sudden thrust projecting the casket, which hadn’t been adequately secured, from the hearse’s bed into another car, smashing the cheap, state-provided casket, displaying the corpse to the street.
A hideous, mangled corpse.
“They had tortured me,” the corpse relates, “in ways I would rather not recount, but they must have been cut off my nose after I died. In the green flags and trucks of the Islamic world, there exists a correlation between the nose and the penis. Both the nose and the penis break the plane of the closed corpus’ in a grotesque doubling. According to the Hadith, the believer when awakened at night and performs ablution is required to clean the nose 3 times, for Iblis resides in the recesses of the nose. Now my death mirrors that of my ancestor, the Eunuch. May our dismembered noses, ears and penises meet in heaven. May my nose nudge his penis and his penis my ears, and let us ponder if the dead can ever be whole again.”
The notion that what had happened in an extradiegetic narrative could affect or alter the primary story roused Andres. It spooked him, as if he had seen a great mystical sign. He closed the window to the wooden nest, grabbed his jacket and left the apartment. It was the most irrational thing to do—to leave the house to find the person he was waiting for.
Soon he was in a park, passing a pond with a fountain, a canal, a café (the sign read Görlitzer Park Café) before wandering into the terraced remains of the Pamukkale Fountain.
A group of young men sat together on the ruined fountain’s waterless concrete slabs. The graffiti on the varying levels looked like subtitles in English and German. A mixed group—an African, an Arab and a Turk—addressed one another in German.
He sat down on an upper level. The African called up to him in German, waving him over. The Arab, showing him the blunt they were passing between themselves, offered him a hit.
No, thank you, he said, in what felt like overly formal English.
In both arcs of Let’s Live and Let’s Love, after hearing the news of his lover’s death, the Cantonese poet Anson finds himself in Kowloon Park after a night of aimless wandering. The concrete goldfish pond is being cleaned. A Chinese man in yellow rubber boots, the ubiquitous ones found in wet markets through the city, the poet relates, has drained the water and now wades ankle deep, high-pressure-washing the pond’s sides. The pectoral fins of the koi break the surface of the water, the way the nose and the penis violate the body’s plane. The yellow boots climb out of the water and walk off into the park. A group of egrets, then a flock of gulls, swoop in and begin devouring the fish. The water is too shallow to escape.
The birds of the heaven gather themselves to gorge, the Cantonese poet explains, to eat the flesh of kings, lick their bones dry, the flesh of all people, free or otherwise, both the mighty and the meek.
The Arab offered him a Krombacher, and this time Andres accepted.
“What are you doing in Germany?” he asked.
“I came to Germany after a long journey,” Andres replied, “I was in Hong Kong.”
“Why did you leave Hong Kong?” the African, who wore a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, asked.
“I had a rendezvous.”
“A woman. We didn’t meet there. I’m not even sure how I even ended up here,” he paused for what seemed like a long time, “We met at a caravansaray—a sort of inn—in Central Asia…,”
“Central Asia? Who goes to Central Asia, bro?”
“I’ll tell you. We met at a caravansaray in Central Asia, where exactly, I’d rather not say. Even if you’re familiar with caravansarays, which you’re probably not, this one was quite unique; a basalt structure consisting of a square walled exterior comprised of a series arches on both sides, with most of the arches housing large windows. Two identical entrances on opposite ends of the inn made it impossible to tell which side was which and gave you the impression that you were neither coming nor going, or maybe coming and going. Once inside a series of narrow aisles and right-angles led to it single hall—the place my love and I decided to meet.
My love—not a love but the love—and I had planned to meet there a year earlier here in Berlin in these ruins of Pamukkale. She lived in Istanbul and I Hong Kong.”
The Turk leaned to the African with the thick-rimmed glasses. He didn’t speak English but identified the word, Istanbul.
“Was she Turkish? He wants to know,” the African with the thick-rimmed glasses asked.
“Yes, and more. No, that’s wrong. She wouldn’t claim to be Turkish, anymore. When I had last seen her, she had clearly undergone a metamorphosis. Please let me continue.”
They told the Turk that the love in question was Turkish.
The Arab man took a swig from his bottle, and everyone, even Andres followed suit.
“We planned to meet in this caravansaray to end things, all things forever.”
“I thought you said she was your love.”
“She is my love, not was my love. Let me continue. I am an author of ficciones, fictions, but sometimes our lives are more compelling than the stories we tell. My love—the woman I hoped to spend my life with—and I decided that since our love could never be more than what we imagined, that reality would only let us down, we would meet halfway, at the Zephyrus & Eurus, that what we called the caravansaray along the highway, a place we had both visited, although independently, years ago. She would travel from the west and I the east. We created a set of prohibitions: no flights, no friends and no speaking. Like the first actors, self-secluded from the world, we represented the dead. Ours was a funeral march of the living dead. In my breast pocket I carried a portrait she had sent me through the post. A portrait of her father. He had sat for the photo in a way few people do today except for weddings. He had died some years earlier. In her breast pocket, a folded page from my diary traveled with her to Zephyrus & Eurus. She wore her favorite earrings, and I wore my best suit.
We arrived at the Zephyrus & Eurus along that Central Asian road, one entering the eastern entrance and the other from the west, each entering like ghosts or the jinns we conquered. Two silent trains of people marched into the open hall of the caravansaray.
The plan was that the two of us, my love and me, to sit across from each other, exchange gifts and speak a final word before leaving. The breaking of this vow of silence would allow us to return to the world we had departed from and like newborn babies cry out in it, or to it. Along my journey, whether through torrential rains or dessert droughts, traversing both land and sea, I had meditated about the word I would say to break this vow: goodbye, thanks, sorry, never, love…I ruminated on lists and relationships hoping to stumble on that one word. One gift and one word.
The hostesses, daughters or nieces, of the proprietors of the Zephyrus & Eurus, directed us from each entrance through the narrow hallways with hexagonal tiles of turquoise, cobalt blue, violet and white, doors that opened into doors, into the central hall. She was accompanied by an old Uighur man with one arm and a set of twin sisters from Turkmenistan with long braided hair, together carrying a dowry chest. They dropped the chest then sat next to her on the hall’s long banquet table. My companions—the Boy from Harbin, whom had refused to leave me as he saw himself in me; the Hermaphrodite, who neither adored nor hated me; and the Captain, who had ferried us across the Black Sea—sat across from their counterparts on her side without exchanging a word. We had all prepared for this moment, although, we never planned what would transpire.
I secretly hoped we would come to this table alone, but it seemed unfair to dismiss these beings who had followed us so far.
One by one our fellow travelers told their stories, each of them having been met in different circumstances or during different episodes: the twins were on the side of the road near a carnival, immobilized by their tugging at the same chest; the one armed man had asked Zühre to severe the other arm, as he was unwilling to let go of something deep inside a tree trunk; the Hermaphrodite had been placed in a casket on a pile of sacred stones in the forest at the base of Bogd Khan; and the Captain had patiently waited in port for a crew that never arrived; and the Boy, who had been following another traveler across the Yangtze River Bridge when he saw me and changed his direction.
I noticed the one-armed man clutching Zühre’s arm, as our entourages told their stories. Each of them seemed to speak to the former, until both of sides of the tables, peered into each other like a set of mirrors, reflecting infinity in both directions.
The hostesses, sisters or nieces served us tea.
Putting down her cup, Zühre said, Refrain. She stood up from the table, lifted her arms and spread them like a condor or a vulture.
The Turkmen twins, seated to her right and left, nodded in agreement, their braids undulating in synchrony.
I remained seated. It was my turn to speak, to choose from my long list of words—etymologies and connotations running through my mind—but I couldn’t fathom what she meant. Did she mean refrain, a verb—to stop oneself, to perpetually cease and desist—or refrain, a noun—a reoccurring verse or phrase, a chorus?
Two very different endings, I thought, but decided that only the former was an ending, while the later was a series of beginnings, that a chorus is like the seasons, like a circular dance between the equinoxes, and that a happy ending is a misnomer and consequently rarely found in ficciones these days. These are not endings; they are beginnings.”