‘The borders weren’t falling, they were going up again . . . And then a man was back in the cage he’d been born into, the cage called Fatherland, which dangled along with a bunch of other cages called Fatherland, all on a rod, which a great collector of cages and peoples was carrying deeper into history . . . But he didn’t want to sit in a cage, access to which was controlled by the police, who only let you out with a passport that you had to get off the head of the cage, and then it went on from there, you stood in the inhospitable space between cages, and you rubbed up against all the bars, and to get into one of the other cages you needed something called a visa, a residence permit from the head of that cage. He didn’t like giving permission.’
– Wolfgang Koeppen, The Hothouse, first published 1953, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
The image of a row of birdcages carried on a pole over a man’s shoulder comes from a novel of the early Cold War period. It is expressive of the idea of an alliance, of jealousy and unwieldiness. For all its flimsiness, the cage takes itself terribly seriously, restricting access, glorying in the name of Fatherland. The birds are kept segregated or isolated. It is all too easy to imagine the plight of a bird that has got out, or that is visiting – bird markets are always attended by free spirits like pigeons and starlings and sparrows, fascinated by a kinship of species, and maybe too by the presence of seed and feed – and now finds herself being rubbed to pieces between prisons. I wanted to share Koeppen’s rather Brueghel-ish image.
Sign in to Granta.com.