Weapons for El Salvador
by Max Goldt
(translated by Andrew Hammel)
Sometime’s life’s a bitch. You come back home late at night and put your bag down where you always put it, but then realize that this isn’t possible, because the bag is gone. That’s like getting hit by a bear’s paw. You open the door and, to exaggerate a bit, a brown bear in your apartment roars: “Where the hell is your bag?” You get a sudden hot flash, like a woman in menopause, and you begin feeling your own body to see whether your bag might be hanging from one or another of its parts. But it’s gone, it’s somewhere else – where? In the bar? The taxi? And what was in the bag? This is bad. Loss researchers from 16 countries compare the loss of a bag with the loss of hair, honor, watch, and homeland – in fact, all of them at the same time. Other researchers compare the loss of a bag to the extinction of the eagle owl, but they’re considered lightweights in the loss-research scene. Hair grows back, you can admire eagle owls in the zoo, and you can restore your honor by scraping pigeon droppings from the balconies of manic-depressive women. And plenty of people found a new homeland right there in the country they’d been abducted into. A bag, however, stays gone, and never comes back.
I lived through something just as awful: the loss of an almost completely full notebook. When you’ve got two seats free in a train, you naturally tend to spread all your junk around in the free seat. Recently, as I reached my destination, I had forgotten that at the start of my journey, I’d written something in my small notebook and then laid it on the neighboring seat. I then proceeded to pile the seat high with newspapers, orange peels, and chocolate-drink packages. Later, they all ended up in the janitor's garbage bag along with my notebook. A shame, because this book contained the sketch of a wonderful story that I’ll never be able to recapture. Roughly, it goes a bit like this: John Lennon, four weeks before his death, happened to be filmed by a Japanese television crew at the post office, withdrawing $15 million from his savings account. He wanted to buy weapons for El Salvador, which was very much the done thing in 1980. I still remember discussions with a left-wing friend, who wasn’t rich at all, but who had given 1000 Deutschmarks to the “Weapons for El Salvador” campaign. This completely puzzled me. Remember that in 1980, I paid only 179 Deutschmarks in rent. People assured me El Salvador could be helped only with weapons, and they accused me of political ignorance.
John Lennon wanted to buy $15 million worth of weapons and, as I’ve said, it was pure chance that he was filmed withdrawing the money. The Japanese only wanted to make a film about how average Americans withdraw money from their bank accounts, and didn’t even recognize John Lennon. And really, when you looked at John Lennon, he was a pretty unspectacular lanky, stoop-shouldered guy. The film was never shown on Japanese television, because Tenno, the elderly Japanese emperor, didn’t like the subject. So the movie disappeared into Japanese television’s legendary soundproof basement labyrinth. After old Tenno Hirohito died in 1989, the new Tenno Akihito, as a kind of act of rebellion, watched all the movies that his father didn’t like. There was a lot of sheer crap in there, such as a two-hour special about a married couple from Ludwigshafen on the Rhine who, for 25 years, vacationed at Ludwigshafen on Lake Constance. Just by chance, the wife explained, "not because the name was the same." Their cousin had inherited a vacation house there, and all they really needed to do was co-ordinate vacation dates with her. “But it’s still strange,” the husband added, “before, when we still used to take the train there, the conducted sometimes grinned and said: ’Well, these two seem to be traveling from Luwigshafen to Ludwigshafen!’” Sometimes, everyone in the train smiled. But that’s all in the past; we’ve started driving there five years ago.”
Unfortunately, the interviewer didn’t ask the couple whether now, the entire Autobahn smiled. Talk about no sense of humor. No wonder Emperor Hirohito didn’t like the piece. Nor did he like the film named Two Pairs of Shoes are Two-and-a-Half Pairs of Shoes. First, the film proved that a pair of shoes worn every day lasts six months. However, if you alternate between two pairs of shoes, the entire lifespan of both pairs is not twelve months, but rather fifteen. If you have three pairs of shoes, you’ll have something to wear not just for eighteen months but actually twenty-four – that is, three pairs of shoes are four pairs of shoes. Maybe Imelda Marcos saw this show, which would explain her shoe addiction. She thought: Three thousand pairs of shoes are eleven thousand four hundred pairs of shoes! I described fourteen of these films in my notebook, but unfortunately I can’t remember the other twelve in sufficient detail. I suppose it might keep the narrative trim if I skip these twelve movies – most of which were horrible anyway – and just announce right now that the Emperor finally got to the savings-account movie, recognized John Lennon, and said: “Wow! That’s really a nice little historical document, that’s ‚popular culture.’ I’m going to give it to UNESCO.”
Tenno turned to his chambermaid and said: “Birgit, gift-wrap this.” The chambermaid came from Denmark or Sweden. The actual country she came from was in my lost notebook, and I can’t reconstruct it exactly anymore, no matter how much I detest having to deliver this slap in the face to my public, which is licking its lips in hunger for detail. The name “Birgit” was also kind of improvised in all the note-remembering excitement. But what I definitely do know is that the Danish or Swedish chambermaid studied at the court of Regensburg and was therefore quite familiar with the manners of western civilization. Thus she said to the Emperor: “When one seeks to transfer an invaluable cultural treasure to an international organization, that’s not a present, it’s a donation. That’s kind of like the difference between a move and a resettlement. When you move from Bochum to Dortmund, that’s a move, but when you move to another continent, one uses the word ‘resettlement.’ And just as you don’t organize a resettlement with a bunch of college students, you don’t gift-wrap a ‚donation.’ For a donation, you’ve got to have official certificates in a folder wrapped with cord, and for the donation itself, you’ve got to have a custom-made case lined with red velvet. Plus, there’s got to be a nice coat of arms on the cover.”
“OK, but which coat of arms?” Akihito called.
“Damned if I know, whatever coat of arms you want,” answered the chambermaid, whose cheekiness hadn’t been entirely suppressed by years of Regensburg discipline. The Emperor went into the library and started rummaging through heraldic encyclopedias in the flickering torchlight. What he finally chose was the coat of arms of the city of Berlin. Not because he had any ties to Berlin, but because the unnatural way the Berlin bear walked reminded him comfortingly of the unnatural way some Japanese women walk. A bit strange, but who can probe the erotic depths of the psyche of Asian royalty? Perhaps the weak, flickering torchlight also had something to do with it. Well, whatever the explanation: The Berlin Bear decorated the donation case in which the John Lennon movie was sent to UNESCO. At UNESCO, though, nobody recognized John Lennon. They thought the film was some kind of boring, violence-free bank robbery. They decided to return the donation. However, the Emperor made the stupid mistake, also pretty common in Germany, of putting the sender’s address on the outside of the package, but nowhere inside. Of course, the shipping box had long since been thrown away by the time the UNESCO experts viewed the film. What’s more, the Swedish or Danish chambermaid had accidentally packed the donation certificate under the red velvet, where the protectors of cultural heritage didn’t think to look. After all, you can’t lift up everything in the world and look under it to see what’s there. The UNESCO people did notice the Berlin Bears, though, and send the historical film material to the Berlin City Council. That was at the beginning of 1990.
The mayor back then, Momper, was super-busy with the recent fall of the Wall, and didn’t know what to do with the package. Therefore, he instructed his lackeys to send it to the Beatles Museum in Liverpool. In Liverpool, however, they were disgusted with the Japanese stamps on the box: “Ugh, that must have something to do with Yoko Ono, and we don’t fancy her here at all.” -- Of course, that’s a logical mistake, since, as I remarked a few lines ago, the UNESCO had already thrown away the original Japanese package. In my little notebook, there was a truly majestic and critic-suffocating explanation of how the Japanese stamps suddenly reappeared, but what can I say? The notebook’s lost forever. So the Beatles Museum sent the film to Yoko Ono in New York. When the mailman came, however, Yoko Ono happened to be out at a guitar auction. Later, she had to go to the post office with the delivery notice in her hand. Now here comes the truly magical occurrence – the key that finally brings everything full-circle: The post office in which Yoko Ono was now standing was exactly the same post office in which John Lennon, just ten years earlier, had withdrawn money from his savings account. Of course, the clerks had diametrically different haircuts, the blinds had a more tasteful pattern, but it was still pretty much the same post office. Yoko Ono, however, didn’t know this!
What kind of emotional thunderstorm would have rumbled in this woman’s breast if she had been able to murmur to herself: “I am standing here in the post-office and will shortly take delivery of a film in which my deceased husband can be seen standing in the same post-office”? Presumably, Yoko Ono has never seen the film, because this woman, who’s always being denounced for her greed, has yet to demand the $15 million back from El Salvador. Maybe she left the package in some bar, and never thought about it again.
Losing a package with unknown contents is less painful than losing a bag, not to mention a notebook whose incomplete skeletal remains I’ve just been scratching out of my memory. The whole story was glamorous and filled with twists and turns, but it is lost for ever. There was a lindworm in there somewhere, but in what context? Catherine Deneuve also played a role. She was standing in a smoke-filled bar in Tel Aviv and singing a breathy blues number called ‘Monika Hohlmeier, Barefoot Tyrant of the North.' She earned plenty of applause from the Israelis, along with cries of “Bravo, Bravo!” and even “Logical, Logical!” But why? Monika Hohlmeier is the daughter of Franz Josef Strauß, she wears shoes just like the rest of us, and I have no idea whether she’s ever tyrannized anyone, much less the North. How did Catherine Deneuve come to portray Ms. Hohlmeier as a monster – especially in a blues song, a musical genre which had never yet been used to monsterize Bavarian politicians? And what actually happened to El Salvador? Were the weapons any use?
Source: Waffen fuer El Salvador, in Fuer Naechte am offenen Fenster: Die Prachtvollsten Texten von 1987-2002 (Rowohlt Verlag, 2003), pp. 307-313.