In June 2016, the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. In the same year, just a few months later, the presidential election in the United States of America was won by the Republican candidate, Donald J. Trump, a man without any experience in political or military affairs, a billionaire and one-time star of TV reality shows, who many considered to be a classic populist and dangerous political shyster. Those who criticized the choice made by the British and Americans saw in both decisions some kind of decline: an unnecessary and incomprehensible descent from the heights to which Euro-American civilization had ascended.
With only the occasional brief diversion, our story is set entirely in an area that for centuries was called “Beyond the Alps”. This term is most often associated with what the English-speaking world called the “Northern Renaissance”, but after hundreds of years, on a symbolic and practical level, the Alps represented something much more than just a dividing line between two offshoots of one artistic and architectural trend. In many cases the Alps were literally a decisive factor – the iron curtain of its day.
It would seem that we are now living in a different era. In their own way, the peaks of the Alps are like old junk which we largely ignore – unless, that is, we’re happily skiing down them. We have no trouble overcoming obstacles, whether through air travel, the internet or overpasses and tunnels. We have carried out revolutionary changes. What unsettles us is the resulting discord. On the one hand, we long for vastness and heights, while on the other, we have grown so lazy that we refuse to climb. It is this – perhaps quite fittingly given the so-called refugee crisis – that I intend to discuss.
I. Mathias and Dominika
The application Mathias Walter used for writing text messages on his Motorola mobile phone had a series of miniature pictures or ‘stickers’ which he could add to his messages or use to replace the text of the message entirely.
The pictures in Messenger were arranged into ten different categories according to their nature. Specifically, these categories were ‘Happy’, ‘In Love’, ‘Sad’, ‘Eating’, ‘Celebrating’, ‘Active’, ‘Working’, ‘Sleepy’, ‘Angry’ and ‘Confused’. As for the images, these were relatively detailed depictions of one or more characters representing a specific mood or activity. They were a blend of cartoons and Japanese emojis. The stickers, though, were more variable: they captured body language and facial expressions. It became clear immediately after their mass distribution that the sticker conveying love would be the most frequently used; in practice, however, the vast majority of ‘love stickers’ sent did not express this deepest of human feelings, nor even insistent sexual desire, but a kind of entirely abstract form of consent and a wish to end an unnecessarily drawn-out conversation.
Mathias rarely used stickers when texting, apart from one image from the Shiba Inu series which, in the desire for a change of some sort, he had been regularly attaching to almost every message for about a year. This one sticker had practically become Mathias’s signature. It was Mathias Walter in a nutshell.
The designer of the images for the Shiba Inu series was probably Aiko Kuninoi. At least that was the name in the sticker store when you clicked on ‘details’ under the title:
This pup is the pick of the litter.
Mathias’s knowledge of English was good enough to work out that the longer sentence meant ‘this dog is really something!’
In Aiko Kuninoi’s series of pictures, each one was of a brown-and-white puppy portrayed in a variety of situations: going into its kennel, being fed, dreaming, jumping, catching a frisbee. However, none of these dog illustrations were Mathias’s. His was more refined.
The Shiba on a lead. And another dog beside the Shiba. The leads are slack, and the scene radiates calm. The dogs are in the ‘69’ position. The head by the rear end, the rear end by the head. Mathias Walter in a nutshell: a puppy sniffing another dog’s bottom.
Mathias used the sticker repeatedly without even knowing what emotion or spiritual or physical state the image officially expressed. When he went through the categories in the app, which used metadata to group together images from different series with a similar mood, he found the Shiba puppy in some of them (in the ‘Happy’ category, the Shiba was pictured as it greeted its master), but his search through all the categories for a bottom-sniffing Shiba was a fruitless one. When Mathias wanted to add this uncategorizable scene to a message, he had to select it directly from the Shiba Inu directory.
What was Mathias Walter trying to say with this picture?
Mathias was thirty-seven. Dominika Kurelová was fifteen years younger and still a student. They met in Prague in November 2016. They found each other on Tinder, which at that time was the most widespread dating app for mobile phones.
Tinder, which had been in existence for about five years, made use of GPS – the Global Positioning System. Based on the user’s specifications, the app would look for a match in a particular geographical area. Apart from the search area, it was only possible to specify the age and sex of the person you were looking for. After identifying potential matches, Tinder gradually offered photographs of them along with their age, shared interests and mutual friends on Facebook. However, it was the photographs which played the leading role. Interest or a lack of it was expressed by dragging a photo to the right or the left, the so-called swipe. A swipe to the right, a like, was represented in the app by a stylized green heart; a swipe to the left or a click on the red cross meant ‘not interested’. If the users liked each other, there was a match, and they could then write to each other within the app. In 2014 the application registered a billion swipes daily. Social-criticism theorists compared the swipe to the selection of prisoners on the ramp at the entrance to Auschwitz.
Mathias was a German who had been living in Prague on and off for eight years. He understood almost everything in Czech but had problems speaking it, so in Prague he preferred to communicate in German, or even better, in English. Dominika was from South Moravia and had recently moved to Prague to study. There was a significant age gap between them, but according to the symbols sent in Tinder, they liked each other.
[two years after his wedding, Mathias meets Sylviane, a waitress/prostitute, in Chad]
Sylviane had supposedly never been to Europe, but that information was almost ten years old. As chance would have it, she was from south-east Chad and had been born in a village about fifty kilometres from Amtiman. She shook her head when I told her my wife was working in Amtiman.
I found out that she had studied, at least some basics, arithmetic and, most importantly, languages: apparently the whole of Africa would stand or fall by its broken English – most likely fall, the sceptic would say. Her life had revolved around war and Western humanitarian aid – two perennials, something like work and holidays for us. People from charity organizations fed her and administered her like a parcel – always crouching and wearing helmets because of the bullets and machetes constantly whistling over their heads – in this way, they finally got her to N’Djameny. That was as far as they could go – after that, it was up to Sylviane herself. Charity parcels like Sylvanie could only be sent internally. In the meantime, she had grown from a five-year-old toddler to a twenty-year-old gazelle. That was how old she was when I met her.
She sat beside the pool with me the very morning that Maria left. I had taken some work to the pool, but I was unable to concentrate. I opened up my browser to look at Facebook. I put a like beside the picture of a sunset Maria had taken and then posted on Facebook over breakfast. We ate on the balcony – we had breakfast brought to our room. They made me porridge in the kitchen again, even though it wasn’t on the menu.
Maria’s photograph already had forty likes. There were mainly hearts in the comments and ‘fingers crossed’ stickers and emojis, words kept to a minimum. It was hard to believe that most of Maria’s friends were doctors, many of them very capable and extremely hard-working.
At that moment I thought of Sylviane. I wondered what she would think of Maria’s Facebook page. I wondered what she would say if she heard my wife was a top physician and how she would reconcile that information with the shrieks and cave paintings on her Facebook wall. I wondered whether the doctors on the mission also spoke to Sylviane in smileys and shrieks when they were inoculating and treating her, or whether they wore a different face in front of Sylviane. I wanted to know if Sylviane would condemn my wife for these smileys or if she would find it a relief. Perhaps Sylviane would appreciate this lightness…? Did Sylviane know what we presume to know – that severity and primness lead directly to Hitler? Did she know that the only hope for the planet was humour and lightness? Could she agree with that? And did Sylviane actually live on the same planet as me?
I opened up a new tab in Chrome. I typed ‘porn’ into Google. I was surprised that I couldn’t come up with an address for a real porno site off the top of my head. It wasn’t as if I had never looked at porn before, but this was clear evidence that I only looked at it very rarely. No bookmarks, no favourite sites. I definitely wasn’t one of those people with a computer where all you had to do was type www dot and any letter and the suggested pages would all be: www.p… orntube.com, www.s…. exycoeds.com, www.d… irtyoldfuck.com.
Sex with Maria was enough for me. I had never been unfaithful, unlike little Frauke – she had. I liked Maria, it was that simple, and perhaps therein lay the rub. It wasn’t about sex but about aesthetic admiration.
Porntube.com was the first link to come up. Now that I saw the site in front of me, of course I recognized it at once. On the menu at the top I clicked on the category ‘Ebony’. If I had passed over anything during my sporadic visits to porn sites, then it was this section of the spectrum. But Sylvanie had changed everything. She had become my gateway into Africa, to the jungle into which I had decided to plunge my pure hands, fully aware of all the risks.
I was disappointed with what I found when I clicked on ‘Ebony’. The vast majority were American women. That was obvious at first glance. And they were fat, tattoed, generally flawed, with bad teeth and so on. Sluts from Alabama, lost causes. No sooner had they first drawn breath and opened their eyes than they must have realized they’d end up on crack and doing porn. Their country is now being led by Donald Trump, which seems more appropriate to me than Obama.
There was no-one like Sylvanie in this section. Sylvanie and these girls were two different species of humans, two races. Sylvanie was too proud for something like that. When I saw her ebony competition, I realized that with a figure like hers she’d be more likely to end up on the catwalk than doing porn.
There still wasn’t anyone at the pool; occasionally a black man would pop out from the restaurant to see if I wanted to order anything. I had an ice tea, and I sipped it slowly and shook my head. I snapped my notebook shut and jumped into the pool.
Once there, it occurred to me that I should go and ask about her. The water was pleasantly cooling, and I swam with my head underwater. Perhaps there was some significance in the fact that the first time I thought about her in a realistic way was in a pool with my head underwater and it was there that it struck me that maybe we had more in common than I had thought. In any case, at that moment I said to myself that I didn’t have to just think about her but could try to find her and talk to her. There was nothing to it – after all, we all came out of the water.
I let my trunks dry off a bit and then headed to the restaurant. There were a few people sitting there, late breakfasts and NGO meetings. Notebooks, folders, ID tags around their necks. And me, leaving a small deluge behind me.
‘Hi there. Is Sylviane about?’ I asked the black man at the bar. ‘I’ve been looking for her.’
It was my first tentative exploration of colonial terrain. I wasn’t sure what tone I should take. I didn’t know where we had progressed to over the last century. I knew next to nothing. All I knew was that there was water dripping from my trunks and that my question was, or soon would be, beyond the bounds of ordering a Mirinda.
‘I’m sorry, she isn’t. She only works Mondays. She has another job. What can I do for you?’ he asked.
I kept reminding myself that the hotel was part of a French chain. It wasn’t an African brothel. On the other hand, I told myself that we were a long way from Paris in many respects.
‘I’d like her company,’ I said directly, and as soon as I’d said it, I knew that this man would not reply with: ‘But she doesn’t own a company. She’s a poor girl!’ A Czech would say something like that, it occurred to me.
But no, this man had other things to do on this planet than make people laugh.
‘Of course. I’ll call her,’ he said to me without hesitation.
I don’t know if I was just imagining it, but it seemed to me that apart from the matter-of-factness in his expression, there was also a slight trace of contemptuous hatred. I was familiar with it from waiters in Prague.
‘I’m not some fat old pig,’ I said to him. The sentence came out of its own accord, I had no control over it.
He pretended not to have heard. He called her and told me she’d be here in twenty minutes.
‘Could you tell her to bring her swimsuit with her?’ I added quickly before he hung up. He put his hand over the mouthpiece and said to me:
‘Sylvanie doesn’t have permission to go to the pool. She only works in the restaurant and in the rooms.’
‘Give her permission!’ I exclaimed. ‘I want to go for a swim with her, that’s all. Otherwise there’s no deal.’
He took his hand away from the mouthpiece and said something to her in their language. I could imagine what was going on. I was familiar with this from Prague as well – it had often happened to me. They had no idea I could understand Czech quite well. It was an embarrassing situation.
‘In twenty minutes, sir,’ he said, hanging up the phone. ‘At the pool,’ he added, motioning for me to return to the pool.
I went off to kill twenty minutes by reading the Wikipedia history of Chad, Africa and the world.
Along with the wave of refugees, a wave of interest in Germany also swept over Europe. My star was on the rise amongst the artistic youth of Prague without my having to lift a finger. The best techno and the best outlook on the world – what’s not to like? For these young, artistically minded Czechs, Berlin was everything. Germany’s Willkommenskultur became fashionable amongst Prague’s ambitious youth. Fritz Kola, Club Maté and the refugees. What the United States of America had been for their parents’ generation with its rock’n’roll and jeans Germany now was for my artistically minded Czechs with its techno and migrants. They loved me and Mutti Merkel. They despised and cruelly vilified their president, Zeman, who once said to the refugees on Czech television: ‘No-one invited you here… And if you are already here, then you must respect our rules… And if you don’t like it, then leave.’ Something like that. It seemed hilarious to me. Or Hillarious, or more like Donaldious… ‘Your president’s crazy,’ I said to them, roaring with laughter. ‘You don’t even have any refugees here – they don’t even want to come here!’ But those bloodless half-Czechs didn’t laugh. They apologised to me, were embarrassed, kowtowed to me. ‘Our Zeman… We are sorry about him.’
In my opinion, these young people were confusing concepts with impressions. They saw refugees as tourists and nomads. Something akin to the way they were, something open-minded.
At any rate, the German reaction to the refugee crisis was cool. Cool doesn’t examine the consequences. Cool exists for cool’s sake. Cool is sheer luxury.
That year we spent the Christmas holidays with the Caiazzos in Stuttgart. Me and Maria with the kids, Seba and Marta. Katharina came over from Wiesbaden. Maria and I were celebrating ten years of marriage. And on top of that, Dad’s first wife, Hanna, had died just before Christmas, so we drank to her memory too. She was exactly eighty years old.
Since our wedding Maria’s family hadn’t kept in regular contact with Katharina, but ten years had done nothing to alter their mutual affection – in fact, quite the opposite. In Stuttgart, Marta and Seba had been reading Katharina’s blog and other articles, and they agreed with them. They supported her and admired the vehemence with which my mother waged her lonely crusade.
And yet Stuttgart had been a city of immigrants for decades; forty percent of the population, more than half a million people, had come to Stuttgart from abroad – double the German average. After the war, it was foreigners who had rebuilt local industry: first the Italians, then the Greeks, Spaniards and Yugoslavs, and finally the Turks. The peace-loving and pragmatic city, a synonym for German know-how and the headquarters of giant corporations such as Bosch, Porsche and Seba’s Mercedes, carried out integration with exemplary finesse. Unlike other German cities, Stuttgart has no ghettos where immigrants live shut off in their own microworld.
‘For a long time, Stuttgart was heaven on earth,’ said Seba.
They immediately got onto this topic with Katharina on the twenty-third, shortly after Katharina’s arrival. Mother had travelled to Stuttgart by train – these days she usually left the Volvo parked in front of the villa.
‘A utopia,’ continued Seba. ‘A computer game where there’s a zoo at one end of the city, and a university and a football stadium at the other. Parks everywhere. However, something like that isn’t held together by green spaces, but by… Ten years ago, I’d never have thought I’d say something like this, but…by a strong will.’
‘And walls,’ added Katharina. ‘A utopia requires specific conditions. A city inside defensive walls… If you want something from outside, you lower a bucket on a rope from a tower.’
‘Willkommenskultur is by no means a new term,’ continued Katharina. ‘At one point this nice word was used to mask the simple fact that Germany raised up its mechanical arms and scooped up labourers from Turkey when we needed them most. The term is also well known in gastronomy, the hotel trade and tourism. Someone opens up an establishment and naturally they want customers to go there and pay them. There’s certainly a place for the term in tourism… Even now people say that Germany needs more foreign workers. Fine. But if you go to pour yourself a glass of water, you don’t expect a flood.’
This topic was a constant with us throughout the holidays. Even Marta was sceptical about the integration of the new arrivals:
‘They say they’ll become doctors and lawyers. Supposedly we only see their corner shops and fast-food stalls – we don’t see the doctors and lawyers because they’re sitting in the same buildings, only higher up, where they can’t be seen from the street… So, we’ll wait. It’s probably true that not everything can be sorted out from one day to the next. In the meantime, they’re standing or sitting in winter coats in front of the station and around Arnulf Klett Square. There are hundreds of them and they have nowhere to live. The city’s been busy setting up makeshift accommodation and in the meantime they’re sleeping in gyms or wherever they can… No offence, but I’ve been on this earth for more than sixty years now and these are fairy tales,’ said Maria, drinking the traditional Christmas punch. ‘Over that time, I’ve learned to tell what’s what. No offence, but these people didn’t come here to work. I think they’re relying on the fact that it’s over… That they can take this place apart.’
‘They don’t know why they came here,’ said Katharina. ‘Maybe they knew before they set out. But as soon as they got out at Stuttgart main station, then suddenly – emptiness. Minds blank. In my opinion, they suddenly just don’t know why… In front of Stuttgart station, something wiped their minds blank. That’s what I’m trying to say in all of my articles. The thing that is emptying their minds is probably something that belongs to us, that we are… We don’t know how to manage energy. We don’t have it. All of the enthusiastic welcoming and the demonstrations condemning racism and violence against refugees only complicate the whole matter. It seems as if there’s energy in it, but that’s an illusion. And those people from Syria, Pakistan and Nigeria recognise it, they sense it… They come out of the station, with all of that energetic pilgrimage behind them, but what they find here is kilometre upon kilometre of empty space in which a single lectern appears, with a pale woman with a bad haircut standing behind it: Mutti Merkel – which, by the way, sounds totally ridiculous. And then more kilometres of empty space, out of which a ‘like’ on Facebook will occasionally spring up like a hare… A demonstration in support of the refugees wedged in between two hours of sending little hearts and a Taylor Swift concert… I admit that we are a healthy, democratic country. I admit that we have triumphed over our history. But everything comes at a price. The way we are here now, how pale and listless we are here now, we can only be this way on our own. That is what I’m trying to show in every article I write!’ said Katharina, raising her voice for the first time.
‘We can’t accept them because we simply don’t have it in us,’ she said.
‘We can’t handle it. It’s happened at a bad time, it’s too late. And if we don’t give it up soon, it’ll be roughly fifty-fifty. Half of them will laugh at us and half of them will continue blowing us up.’
After this speech, Maria threw down her napkin, pushed her chair back loudly and got up from the table: ‘I have to go up and check on the kids,’ she said and went upstairs.
She was unhappy. She didn’t like what she’d heard at the table. She felt that she knew Africa, that she had been in Chad and we were just mouthing off in safety and comfort over a glass of punch. She didn’t understand how we could lump together refugees from Central Africa with an educated person from Syria. She would have liked to have told us all to go dig a hole and die. But she kept quiet.
As she walked away, I looked at her bottom and slim long legs in her tight Levi’s. Even at thirty-seven she was still very beautiful.
‘Maria should be our chancellor,’ I said. ‘Maria has the colour and shape. No-one would laugh at us if Maria was at the helm.’
In the end we spent a fairly pleasant fortnight in Stuttgart. The Caiazzos owned a spacious house in the suburbs, where they could easily have put up twice as many people. Katharina had her own room, while Maria, the kids and I had a studio apartment with a bedroom and bathroom.
On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve we phoned Piotr, who had flown to Ostia with his new girlfriend. Maria would occasionally see Piotr in Berlin and she had grown fond of him. Both of them were essentially loners, so they understood each other. We brought in the new year at the Caiazzos’ place; two-year-old Karolina was already asleep by midnight, but six-year-old Magda stayed up with us for the first time. It was a touching moment. I loved my family.
When we said our goodbyes on the third of January, the media was slowly beginning to talk about mass sexual assaults on women that were supposed to have taken place in many German cities during the New Year celebrations. The largest number of victims was reported in Cologne, though a series of attacks was also supposed to have taken place on Burgplatz in the centre of Stuttgart. The story was first run on the website of the local Stuttgarter Nachrichten paper, and later on the online version of the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the RTL television channel.
It then took the whole of January before any kind of clear picture could be pieced together. According to the final police report, more than a thousand women were attacked that night in Germany. There were approximately twice the number of attackers, often in groups of up to a hundred. They cut the women off from the crowds and surrounded them. Then they robbed them, groped them and pushed their fingers into their vaginas. In their official statements, the police said that the attackers were ‘men of Arabic or North African appearance’ and that Germany had never before experienced sexual attacks on such a scale.
In one of her outraged articles, Katharina wrote that this was a display of moral supremacy by Muslims:
‘This was their Kristallnacht. We are no more than cattle in their eyes, and we have to talk about this frankly. They despise us. Over the coming months, experts will tell us that these attacks were directly linked to the frustration of Muslims, who don’t get laid unless they have enough money to get married, that in Islam there are severe punishments for premarital relations and so on. Nonsense. They despise us. If their comrades cut off people’s heads and blow us up, as far as Muslims are concerned they have a reason for doing so, even though it might seem ridiculous to us. Put simply, they consider those bombs to be justified, full stop. But have you seen any of the pornography coming out of our country these days? I’m not talking about youporn.com, porntube.com, tube8.com. What I’m talking about is things like heavy-r.com. I’m talking about gratuitous vomiting, defecation, urinating and spitting in people’s faces. I’m talking about the fact that our children are one click away from people eating human faeces. One click away from breasts being pierced with nails. One click away from videos showing the aftermath of people jumping under trains and car crashes… I’m not saying there’s something wrong with all of this; human sexuality is very diverse, and this might be a healthy and harmless way of venting frustration. Our own affair. Our gratuitous, indefensible culture… Our strictly non-ideological violence. Our post-historical kicks… I don’t want this to sound ironic, but let’s protect our culture. Again, it’s exactly the same as I’ve said before. In the state we’re in, we simply have to be on our own here. The fact that their culture is often violent, the fact that mass sexual assault or taharrush jamai is known in the Arab world, the fact that women are viewed as inferior creatures by Muslim males – in this case, all of that is secondary. Essentially, I would say that it is their own affair.’
When this article came out, Katharina had already returned from Cortina d’Ampezzo. Seba and Marta went to their favourite resort in the Dolomites every January without fail. This time they had arranged with Katharina before Christmas that she would go with them too. They travelled in three nine-seater Mercedes minibuses provided by Seba’s firm. They all departed from Stuttgart on the third of January, just a short time after the children had returned to Berlin.
Medieval Cortina was one of the most luxurious ski resorts in Italy. The Olympic Games had been held there in 1956. The town was not only famous as a historical centre surrounded by ski slopes and beautiful scenery, but also for its social life or après-ski. The Caiazzos always stayed at the four-star Hotel Menardi in a typical mountain chalet with a saddle roof and ornate interiors and façade. Seba would never have traded Hotel Menardi for one of those boutique hotels with minimalist design that had been springing up in Cortina over recent years, despite the fact that the town had been trying to restrict building developments.
Mountainous Cortina reminded Katharina of Davos. She spent ten days skiing, hiking and sitting in cafes writing articles on her notebook for her blog.
She returned to Wiesbaden in mid-January 2016. One month later, when it became quite clear how the German media had lied and manipulated the information about the New Year attacks (withholding reports and relativizing the attacks), Katharina decided to join the national conservative party, the AfD.
Coincidentally, Marta had done the same in Stuttgart, even earlier than Katharina. She had done it for her little girl, for Maria’s safety and the future of her two grandchildren. In March 2016, the Islamophobic and populist AfD put up candidates in the regional elections. In Baden-Württemberg the party got 15.1% and Marta became a regional councillor.
When Mathias found out about these two things, he thought to himself: ‘Well, now we’re one big fascist family.’
For Mathias, this was all great fun. In those years his true nature was barely visible; he was happy and very youthful. From May to September he wore only shorts and a cotton T-shirt or open-necked white shirt. In the summer he wore flip-flops – and not just by the water, but also in Letná Park, which he now considered his home. He lived there in constant amazement – over himself, over Prague, over the Czech Republic.
In constant amazement, but very free and happy. At times like this, he would often recall his mother’s thoughts on the Stuttgart refugees, standing with their minds blank in front of Germany’s railway stations. He felt the same way in Letná Park, though this blankness was related more to the Czech Republic; at that point it was a country which seemed to be lacking a dimension, as though someone really had taken an eraser and rubbed out part of the Czech public space. There was a piece of reality missing. The rubbed-out Czech Republic, thought Mathias, and he was very happy in this partially erased country, he himself of necessity partially erased.
In addition to refugees, the Czechs also lacked the intellectual sphere Mathias was familiar with from Germany: newspapers like Die Zeit, his mother and people like his mother, the Berlin theatre, the Volksbühne, serious public discussions broadcast on TV or radio, always slavishly lightened by a joke… All that weight which seemed completely natural to people while they were living in it but which they didn’t miss when it was suddenly no longer there.
Translated from the Czech by Graeme Dibble