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Max Goldt: On the Magic of Walking Past Sideways

It's time for part two of Max Goldt Weeks here at German Joys. Just in time for the annual opening of Christmas markets all across Germany! Which, for at least one German, is an occasion for gnashing of teeth...

On the Magic of Walking Past Sideways

by Max Goldt

translated by Andrew Hammel

How delightful it would be to receive a letter which said: “Please never write a satirical Christmas story. Writers who do that are really, truly crap.” Instead, every year there’s the following message: “We’d love to have a wonderful satirical Christmas story from you!”

To hell with that. The worst thing about Christmas is the yearly deluge of satirical Christmas commentaries in written, musical, and dramatic form. With the onset of winter, hordes of writers who preside over meager talents – and understand and profit from capitalism the whole year through – suddenly detect an onset of “consumer terror” which may trigger an intoxicating rush of spending in its supposed victims. But doesn’t terror generally provoke fear and mourning? If it were known to get you high, it would probably have some quite respectable admirers. Anyone who gets a rush from carrying home plastic bags full of toys would be well-advised to ask certain people who seem to hang around for an awfully long time in front of disco bathrooms if they perchance have something that might clear up any mistake about what it means to get high.  

For decades now, every December brings shows with titles that rarely deviate from “The Cash Registers Never Ring More Sweetly.” In the cinema and on TV, one sees nothing but cheerful, chortling little comedies, in which Santa Claus is kidnapped, or appears by the dozen in the same living-room because of wacky misunderstandings, or – in earthier variations of the genre – begins fumbling around with the woman of the house’s naughty bits. The soundtracks, usually created by Haindling or Konstantin Wecker, feature traditional melodies which, according to the equally-traditional imperatives of social critique, have been made “edgy” with slight dissonances. These films are invariably described as “playfully malicious” – but never are. Instead, they shimmer red-gold-green with knowing winks which say: Oh sure, it’s completely crazy, this Christmas business, but – hand on your heart – don’t we all really love it, deep down inside? Because of the children’s shining eyes, if nothing else!

Those who observe children’s eyes year-round will note that they shine year-round. An ophthalmologist could explain this natural phenomenon to laymen without too much difficulty. Perhaps he would add that when children’s eyes no longer shine, we must fear the worst, and no gift – no, not even the gift of love – will be of any use.  

What’s happy is moist and shiny! I’m happy too, and shine moistly – but Christmas markets don’t exactly make my heartlight shine.

Doubtless because of popular sentiment, nobody seems to have checked whether cultural-heritage laws allow you to fill carefully-restored historical market squares with cheap pressboard crate-huts for five, count ‘em five, weeks. These huts, mind you, are identical everywhere you go in Germany, from north to south – a fact which doesn’t seem to hinder certain busloads of women from voyaging across the country and, after much comparative study, deliberating on the question of which Christmas market is the “absolutely totally most beautiful.”  Those who are accustomed to regard their taste not as a God-given property, but rather as a faculty that must constantly be developed, will perhaps have some difficulty finding anything beautiful about a Christmas market. However, the hoi polloi will dismiss this objection and say:  “Oh please – what is beauty, anyway?” I admit not having known myself until recently, when a Czech saying crossed my path. The saying is: “What’s beautiful is Czech.” Finally, a clear answer to this age-old question. And an end to the old nonsense that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – which didn’t even originate with Shakespeare, by the way. No, beauty is what’s Czech! Of course, one should add that the Czechs frequently use this pithy saying sarcastically, for instance, when walking past Communist-era high rises.

Looked at this way, Christmas markets are the perfect messengers of this inverted Czech sense of beauty: Shacks covered with stapled-on fir boughs, in front of which groups of people gobble inferior food in the dumbest way imaginable. Only Nostradamus could have predicted a stupider way to savor Golden Delicious apples fished from 3-kilo plastic sacks than by transforming them into so-called “paradise apples.” That is, by impaling them on (usually rotting) sticks of wood and covering them with a coat of red-tinted sugar-shellac. The idiocy is compounded when you accidentally brush the little stick of paradise against your scarf – which turns out to be covered with scarf-lint, the goddamn little red piece of crap. One could proceed further, and thoroughly critique the custom of dumping last year’s almond harvest by means of caramelization – but you could probably fob off candied cigarette-butts on the almond crowd, whatever that might achieve. I’d rather say the following: If I had only bad red wine, but was convinced that the administration of alcohol was urgently necessary under the given circumstances, I would cool the wine down as much as possible. We know from the example of Coca-Cola and certain frozen dairy products that disgusting things can taste somewhat tolerable when cooled.

Christmas is one of the great faults of our people. The others are cars and football. Those who prefer to devote themselves to personal failings – and thereby have no time to participate in the mistakes of the masses – should nevertheless tolerate them. Those political systems which achieve enough power to eliminate popular weaknesses have the distinct drawback of ending in smoking ruins and mountains of corpses. Thus, let us not even begin to think of depositing quietly-ticking bags in Christmas markets. Instead, we will walk by them sideways – smiling coolly, with calm, peaceful disinterest. It is indeed possible, thanks to Germany’s excellent building codes, to simply walk past almost everything that’s ugly!

Source: Vom Zauber des seitlich daran Vorbeigehens, Prosa und Szenen, 29-34 (Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2005).