The Texture of Angel Matter | Yoko Tawada | Granta

The Texture of Angel Matter

Yoko Tawada

Translated by Susan Bernofsky

The man standing in front of Patrik looks very Trans-Tibetan. This is the first time Patrik has ever used this Celan word, which he’s been warming beneath his feathers for a long time now, without knowing what group of people or languages would hatch from it. The man really does look Trans-Tibetan; this is a subjective impression, and the purpose of adjectives is to support subjectivity.

The man asks permission to join Patrik at his table. The language he speaks is no rara avis requiring a recherché description like Trans-Himalayan or Sino-Tibetan. He speaks a straightforward German with a faint accent. Other tables are occupied, and it’s only logical, it seems to Patrik, for two men to share a table in solidarity.

‘My name is Leo-Eric Fu,’ the man says, elegantly extending his hand and then quickly withdrawing it before Patrik can respond. Patrik understands that a greeting need not be physically consummated. There’s a question buzzing circles in his head. Should a person reveal their full name right at the outset when making a fleeting cafe acquaintance, or are all three components – Leo, Eric and Fu – his first names? Patrik is cautious and offers only the first of his given names.

‘My name is Patrik.’

‘I know,’ Leo-Eric answers with an understanding nod. Patrik is unnerved, uncertain how to interpret this reply. Leo-Eric then says he’s often observed Patrik sitting in this cafe – the last time, in fact, reading the book of poems Fadensonnen (Threadsuns). Patrik has no memory of this, but it’s certainly possible he was reading poetry at the cafe, especially since he was planning to give a paper at a Paul Celan conference in Paris. At the moment, he isn’t sure if he’ll be cleared to participate or if he’ll be struck from the list of speakers as an oversensitive crackpot.

‘You intend to give a talk on the book Threadsuns?’

‘It’s possible I intended to a few weeks ago. But now, no.’

‘Why not?’

Patrik can’t find an answer to this question, so he quickly invents a reason, looking down.

‘I don’t like conferences.’

‘Why not?’

‘I find it a stressful situation, being observed from all sides. Everyone suddenly wearing devils’ masks.’

‘What do you mean? I don’t follow.’

‘First the talk, then questions, answers, discussion: it’s like a play at the theater.’

‘Society is a theater, it seems to me. Democracy requires a backstory, a narrative structure and well-rehearsed variations. You can’t build a democracy on authentic feelings alone.’

Patrik looks up again, wondering if this Leo-Eric isn’t a freedom fighter from Hong Kong. A moment later he erases this spontaneous conjecture from his brain-page. Someone from Beijing could be a freedom fighter too. Patrik himself is the one least likely to be democracy-minded.

‘I don’t like questions, criticism or discussion,’ Patrik responds. ‘But you can’t say that out loud, and when it comes right down to it, I don’t think it’s all right that I am the way I am.’

‘What displeases you about discussion culture? Do explain, I’m genuinely curious.’

A storm of chaos swirls up inside Patrik’s head; it’s a torment to be unable to sort out the multitude of multicolored thought-scraps. He invents a new theory, which at least gives him something to hold on to: Leo-Eric is collecting clips of people making anti-democratic statements. He’s using a hidden microphone, recording the authentic voices of EU citizens and selling them to countries where they’ll be used as teaching material in language classes. Patrik taps three fingertips against the forehead behind which this absurd theory is taking shape. He’s like a woodpecker hunting nice fat thought-worms in the bark to gobble up.

‘I usually construct a conference paper as lovingly as you would a sandcastle at the beach. I don’t understand why most children are so cruel they want to destroy my sand art with their toy shovels.’

Whenever Patrik hears the word shovel, he gets goosebumps. Now that he himself has uttered the word he feels all crumpled up inside, but it consoles him when a smile appears at the corners of Leo-Eric’s mouth and he says:

‘Oh, the children don’t mean anything by it. You shouldn’t take their game so personally.’

‘If I don’t take anything personally, what becomes of my person?’

‘A toy shovel is as harmless as the little wooden spoon we eat ice cream with.’

‘Even a tiny medical spoon can grate on my nerves so brutally that I can’t stand it for a second.’

‘An ice-cream sundae with strawberries, please!’

This sentence isn’t meant for Patrik. The waitress nods and places a cup of milk in front of Patrik.

‘Excuse me, I didn’t order any milk.’

‘You left the decision to me. I think milk is the most suitable thing for you.’

Patrik actually remembers what he said to her – at this moment he feels something like a continuity, which is rarely the case with him.

‘Yes, that’s right. I wanted to know what you think of me. I guess you think I still have my milk teeth?’

Ha ha, hilarious. Ignoring his words, the waitress turns to the next guest who has just lifted one hand in the air. Leo-Eric considers the Tipp-Ex-white milk and says:

‘You own a first edition of Paul Celan’s Threadsuns, is that correct?’

The man appears to know even unimportant details about Patrik’s life.

‘I have the 1968 edition, but that’s nothing special.’

‘Why not?’

‘There are five thousand copies of it. I’m one of five thousand readers. A surprisingly large edition for a book that’s so hard to understand. Even the Deutsche Oper only seats two thousand.’

Leo-Eric emits a bright peal of laughter.

‘Well, that doesn’t mean five thousand people have actually read the book. Possibly you’re one of only a very few still reading and thinking about the book today.’

‘I’m actually too tired to think about such a complicated book. My girlfriend got it for me at a used bookstore as a birthday present. When she gave it to me I was furious. I almost threw it in the garbage. But I found its snowy-white dust jacket and slender body appealing, so I put it on the shelf anyway. A thicker book would have ended up in the fire.’

‘What did your girlfriend do wrong?’

‘The absence of premeditation is paramount for me. Obviously, she wants to force me to write a lecture. Every sort of well-meaning female manipulation is like snake venom.’

Leo-Eric nods impassively and says: ‘A career can never be as radiant as a flame scallop.’

Someone who isn’t career-oriented can’t possibly come from China, Patrik thinks. Maybe he’s from Tibet. He’s probably one of those monks that meditate day and night high up in the mountains without giving a thought to money or worldly careers. Patrik laughs inwardly and interrupts this clichéd thought by providing a response: a Tibetan can also be a successful businessman with an account at a Swiss bank. Patrik doesn’t want to go on speculating about where Leo-Eric comes from, instead he’d rather listen. He just said a career isn’t radiant like a flame scallop. This is a crystal-clear statement and worthy of a reply.

‘If a career can’t be a scallop, what can?’

Patrik has succeeded in asking a question that moves the conversation along. After asking it, he goes on savoring the word ‘scallop’ in his mouth like a sip of red wine. He uses dead words far too often to be understood, or else he reverts to the state of a patient remaining stubbornly silent in a therapy session. But now he feels able to utter freshly squeezed words without being accused of sickness. Leo-Eric inclines his head gently to the left, searching for a response. He takes his time.

When human beings fall silent, a music can be heard. A singer sings impatiently in a tree. She places her first note high, then lets her voice fall step by step before quickly ascending once again. A blackbird. You don’t see her form until she comes down from her tree. Can so shy a singer sing at the top of her lungs? Oh yes, she’s just the one to manage this. Exaggerated shyness is a sort of traffic jam. Behind the dam, the pressure builds until it creates enough electricity to power all the chandeliers in the concert hall. Patrik loses track of the blackbird and finds himself looking at Leo-Eric, who has something birdlike about him. Perhaps it’s his slender neck, or his eyes like black glass beads. Who’s to say Leo-Eric isn’t a blackbird? He watches people from high up in a tree, he collects facts, builds a nest of them, and, when he finds it useful, he appears in human form. There are people like Patrik who wait to receive help from winged beings. Finally Leo-Eric opens his mouth again.

‘Do you know the No Tree? It stands in the middle of an open field. You can ask it the same question from all eight points on the compass. The answer will be different every time, though it’s always No.’

To Patrik this sounds like a koan from the tradition of Zen Buddhism. Perhaps Leo-Eric comes from the country in which most Zen Buddhists live today: France. This supposition is half confirmed when Leo-Eric says:

‘The word career comes from the French carrière, which also means quarry. Perhaps this is why for some people a career seems as impenetrable as granite.’

Patrik replies, ‘Everything about a career strikes me as highly disagreeable. I don’t want to be trapped on a career path, I want to be free. No highway, no train tracks. I much prefer open fields without footpaths or trails. A free, modern human being must be able to walk in all directions. I don’t just mean the four or eight points of the compass. There are more than eight directions.’

‘But the place you grew up wasn’t a Central Asian steppe, it was a city full of high-rises.’

‘Yes, that’s true.’

‘In a city, pedestrians and cars, for the most part, can only move in four directions: backward, forward, left and right. That’s it. But four directions are already too much for you. To avoid the necessity of making a new decision at every moment, you’ve found a single answer that you apply to each situation.’

‘And what is this answer?’

‘Turn left!’

Patrik swallows and blinks like a stroboscope. In the hectic alternation of light and shadow, his interlocutor vanishes. This makes it easier to speak.

‘How do you know that?’

‘As I said, I’ve been observing you.’

This beakless person cannot be a blackbird, Patrik thinks. Perhaps this intelligent-looking man comes from the northern half of the Korean peninsula, and is wearing special contact lenses connected to a giant databank. Patrik notices that his thinking has derailed again and considers how to get back to the main track of reality. Leo-Eric knits his brows and says:

‘Please don’t be alarmed. I’m not a stalker.’

A stalker! Patrik hadn’t even thought of that. After all, the victim of a stalker is never a man in a wrinkled shirt with no color in his cheeks.

‘No, I never suspected you of being a stalker, or more precisely: I can’t imagine being the victim of such activity. I thought maybe you were a spy. But since I’m not in possession of any important information, this too is unthinkable. Unless you are a Zen Buddhist spy who wants to steal the great Nothingness inside my head?’

Patrik has succeeded in joking his way out of an embarrassing situation. Leo-Eric laughs in relief, and begins the fluent narration he’s prepared:

‘I came to speak with you about the channels that run through the human body. There are twelve main channels, which are called meridians. The word “meridian” comes from the French translation of the Chinese term jingmai.’

Patrik responds reflexively:

‘But there’s only a single meridian. Why are you speaking of meridians in the plural?’

‘Most people only consider a single meridian, the zero meridian, and suppress all others.’

‘Well, there aren’t many poetological texts by Paul Celan, so “The Meridian” is really quite important to me.’

‘But can his poems be explained on the basis of just this one meridian?’

‘Of course not. If a single meridian isn’t enough for you, how many do you have to offer?’

‘There are as many principal meridians as there are numbers on a clock: twelve.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘For example, the liver meridian begins in the big toe under the nail, crosses over the top of the foot and then goes up through the knee and thigh. It passes through the liver, the back of the throat, the nose, eyes and forehead, until it reaches the crown of the head. If a person has a problem with their liver, you can use a needle to treat all points that lie along this meridian.’

‘Aha, you’re talking about acupuncture!’

Patrik feels infinitely relieved. Now he knows what’s going on. But this breath-pause of relief doesn’t last long. Leo-Eric draws him into a new vortex of confusion.

‘No, I’m talking about a poem by Celan: “Detour- / maps, phosphorus . . .” Do you know the poem?’

‘Of course I do. This poem contains the word “aorta”, and as a child I had a dog named Aorta. In this respect, the poem also serves as a detour to my memory.’

‘A detour? When the liver isn’t working right, we don’t treat the liver itself, we treat the liver meridian. That’s not a detour.’

Patrik becomes aware of his big toes, which for some reason are having trouble sensing the ground beneath them.

‘My feet have become strangely present. They can’t find the ground.’

‘My grandfather used to say: pay attention to your feet when you are speaking with someone! The foot is a nice thick book. Some people think only the eyes or heart are connected to the soul. That isn’t true. The networks within the body are far more complex.’

‘But Celan couldn’t have been talking about this sort of meridian. For him, only a single meridian existed.’

‘The meridian that passes through London? I don’t believe that. For example, here’s another very important meridian for Celan: the one connecting Paris with Stockholm.’

Patrik remembers in a flash that a meridian appears in Celan’s correspondence with Nelly Sachs. ‘Between Stockholm and Paris runs the meridian of pain and consolation,’ he quotes from memory, and then says, ‘A number of meridians exist – metaphorically speaking. But I don’t put any stock in metaphors, they’re too spongy for me. I prefer to rely on numbers and letters for orientation.’

Leo-Eric replies, gently, ‘I’m speaking not metaphorically but geographically. Have you ever visited the historical observatory in Paris?’

‘No.’

‘The so-called Paris meridian is found there, inlaid in the floor in multicolored stones.’

‘Didn’t you say meridians are channels in the body?’

‘What difference is there between the terrestrial sphere and the body? Place names and the names of organs were equally important as points of reference for the poet. We must search for the lines that connect them to one another.’

‘This is all very interesting,’ Patrik says. ‘Why don’t you go to Paris for the conference yourself ? You’re the one who really should be giving a presentation on Celan and the meridian or, if you prefer, meridians.’

‘Unfortunately I can’t do that. It isn’t my area of expertise. My grandfather practiced traditional Chinese medicine in Paris in the 1950s and 1960s – the period when Celan was living there too. My grandfather was a highly educated man who read Chinese, French, Hebrew and German. In his papers after he died I found the notes he’d made on Celan’s poems.’

‘Please go on.’

‘I can tell you some things that probably only a very few other people know. What you do with this information is your business. It’s all the same to me whether you have success in your profession or not. What I have to offer isn’t a career, it’s just a handful of meridians.’

 

Photograph courtesy of Lauren Bamford

Yoko Tawada

Yoko Tawada lives in Berlin and is the author of several novels, poems, plays and essays in both Japanese and German. She is the author of the story collections Where Europe Begins and Facing the Bridge, as well as the novels The Naked Eye, The Bridegroom Was a Dog, Memoirs of a Polar Bear and The Emissary. Her next novel is forthcoming in the UK as Spontaneous Acts and in the US as Paul Celan and the Trans-Tibetan Angel, in 2024.

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Translated by Susan Bernofsky

Susan Bernofsky is the prizewinning translator of works by Robert Walser, Yoko Tawada, Jenny Erpenbeck, Franz Kafka, and Hermann Hesse. A Guggenheim, Cullman, and Berlin Prize fellow, she teaches literary translation at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Her book Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser, was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography. She is currently working on a new translation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

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