I hear the rumble, it comes up the street, hardly distinguishable from the other sounds that accompany it. The wall behind me is still warm. I’ve been standing ten minutes already in the front doorway of my girlfriend’s apartment building. “Are you sure you can manage it?” she’d asked, holding the door for me. “Seventy-eight steps and then left, and at the end of the entryway left again.” And, almost accusatorily: “The things you want.”
From my apartment it’s easier to get outside. I board the elevator and press the bottom button, then don’t have to move. The vibration gives me security, the soft ding when I arrive on the ground floor, the whirr of the door opening. Now. I exit the elevator. I feel my street like no other.
I perceive a car stopping, someone getting out, the car door swinging shut, hear a soft click and smell the burning cigarette.
“May I introduce myself?”
“Yes,” I say and wait. I don’t get much, just the name in a cracked voice, very hoarse. The hand I shake is warm, with the other I feel my way up his lower arm to the bend. No real angle. Tall.
“Six foot,” he says, “dark brown shoulder-length hair, two-day stubble.”
“We’ll get along, I knew it.” The rumbling has lessened. I hear the engine idling, slip my arm through his: The taxi is waiting at the curb. He maneuvers me into the car, seats himself next to me, shrugs off my arm without comment.
“I don’t know if I can help you,” he says after telling the driver our destination.
“I don’t need help.”
We listen to the radio. On the curves I feel his shirt, his pants. He wears jeans, tight-ﬁtting. Maybe he’s gained weight.
His voice is a bit too loud, deep and resonant. He’s making an effort, trying to drown out the many people milling about here. In a moment we’ll be crossing the cobblestones: I notice it in the abruptly ensuing clatter of bicycles drifting by, in the distinctly deeper rumble of the cars, smell the horse dung, know that carriages stand here, waiting for tourists.
He tells me about the west façade, both the Heathen Towers and the Gate of the Fallen with its projecting structure, quickly and without interruption, somewhat unsure, perhaps out of fear I might ask questions he can’t answer. Near us screams a toddler who still can’t talk. “The Tympanum,” he continues, “shows Christ as Pantocrator in the mandorla. His right hand is bestowing the blessing, in his left he holds the Book of Life.” I interrupt him, describe the glory, list the plants, the vine tendrils and grapes also to be found on the side doorjambs. He goes silent, surprised, and I feel him looking at me. Someone brushes against my arm, I smell a pungent scent, move a step to the side. “He was about thirty,” I hear my escort say a bit later, “looked like a student.”
“How,” I cut him short, “would you claim to know that?”
“The clothes,” he says. I laugh, not pointing out that a student could hardly afford such an expensive aftershave, and ask him about the “Lady at the Window,” the portrait of the woman found on a Roman gravestone uncovered during construction.
“You’re good looking,” he says abruptly, softly; it sounds as though he expected someone else. To break the embarrassing silence, he holds forth on the heathen components integrated into the Cathedral’s structure, describing the faces of the demons, their grotesque grimaces and animal heads.
For a moment I think he’s right in front of me, that I can smell his breath, but his voice sounds constricted, as though he’s craning his neck—maybe he’s looking up at the façade.
“What,” he asks. “You want to go on?”
In front of the ticket window it is quiet; we are the only visitors. I wait for his instructions, follow him step for step. At first I still walk without help; then, when he miscounts and I stumble over the landing at the entrance, I pull out my cane, cursing.
“I don’t understand why you have to go up there,” he says gruffly. He grabs after my hand, presses it against something cold, hard: “There—that’s the spindle of the spiral staircase; there’s no handrail. And now it’s just three hundred and forty more steps.”
I climb proudly and determinedly out in front, the pungent aftershave still in my nose. Gradually I find my rhythm, proceeding steadily, without pause, stopping only when someone comes the other way. “Man, this is hard on the ol’ knees,” I hear a German say. He is fat, I can tell when we end up on the same step. His belly is huge; he squishes it against my back, laughs cheerfully, begs my pardon. Then someone strokes my breast. The German has gone on down, I smell only his sweat now, don’t understand who could have touched me.
“Continue with your commentary,” I tell my escort, but he says nothing, offers no sign whatsoever. In the distance I hear hammering.
At first I’m hesitant, but then climb further toward the belfry where the great “Pummerin” originally hung, cast from captured Turkish cannons.
“Where are you, then,” I try a second time. The chatter of a power drill cuts off my words.
Creaking softly, the wooden door opens. As I enter, I don’t believe my ears. A voice from a loudspeaker announces, in Italian, the delay of a train. I cling to the wrought-iron door handle, raise my head. I hear no one else. I let the door swing shut, stretch out my arms, mark out a half-circle with my feet. Again sounds the loudspeaker; I understand “Roma termini,” “ritardo,” and “quindici minuti.” Well, I did come up here to hear the city from all four points of the compass. My girlfriend comes to mind, her misgivings: “I don’t know… so far up, and with a strange man, too.”
I grope around me, my fingers making out the hearts and letters carved into the cold wall, polished by innumerable hands. All I want to say aloud sticks in my throat. Then—the announcement breaks off mid-sentence; a friendly female voice asks for repetition of what was heard. I am not alone. High above the city, someone is learning Italian.
“Are you here now,” I say again, much too softly. Someone shifts a chair, shuts off the tape.
“May I help you?” He comes over to me. “I run the souvenir shop here.”
I’m unsure, don’t know if I can believe him. The floor beneath my feet feels smooth. “You’re standing before the south window,” he says. “Above you hangs the signal lantern. At night it served to indicate the direction of fires. During the day it was a red flag. And over there—oh, forgive me,” he coughs sheepishly, “hangs a megaphone.” I again smell the pungent aftershave, become anxious. The voice—it has a familiar ring.
“What does it look like, this megaphone,” I say impatiently and walk slowly and as inconspicuously as possible toward the door.
The hammering stops, the drill starts up anew, again and again. I pull myself together, retrace my steps, wide places for passing, landings, rushing behind my cane down the steps, out of breath. Below the belfry I feel with my right hand a stone figure—a lion?—and recoil. I hear the laughter of the German, long gone, smell his sweat. Where’s my escort gotten to.
I start to count the steps—futile, since I’m somewhere in the middle of the tower—and am not careful enough, almost fall, but am able to catch myself. My feet can no longer be trusted. “Hello! Is anyone there?”
I right myself, descend further into the depths, holding myself away from the spindle so as not to hit the narrow ends of the steps, twirling myself downwards with dizzying speed. I stop again: The hammering can now barely be heard. Already the horses are stamping their hooves outside.
“Thank God,” I hear my escort say. “There you are.”
A woman is buying two admission tickets; I hear the voices of people on the square.
“And the megaphone? Did someone up there explain that to you?” Am I wrong or is he standing right in front of me? I reach out, my fingertips accidentally ending up in his mouth. He takes my hand, kisses it.
“You’re crazy,” I say.
“Because I lagged behind? It’s my ankle….”
I am certain I smell the aftershave.
“Come on, we’re only in the way here.” He maneuvers me around to the front of the Cathedral, takes my arm. “Under the clock on the Heathen Towers,” he whispers in my ear, “you can see a phallus on the left and a vulva on the right.”
“Pfft. I don’t believe a word you say. Taxi!”
“It’s true. Maybe there used to be a fertility shrine on this site before the cathedral.”
“Why don’t you believe me.”
This time I slap him. It is quiet. I feel the people looking at us. I know he’s turning around now. And going.
Der Stefansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral, begun c. 1263) or “Stefﬂ,” as it is affectionately known to the Viennese, is the signature and generally most beloved landmark of Vienna. Its stunning west façade comprises two short “Heathen Towers” (their name stemming from the Roman, and therefore “heathen,” stones used to build it) and the “Gate of the Fallen” (sometimes mistranslated as the “Giant Gate”). The Cathedral also has two tall towers, the higher of which (the southern, completed 1433), rises 136 meters above the city. As the tower used to house a division of the Vienna Fire Department, it did possess both a signal lantern and built-in megaphone to alert those below and afar of ﬁres. And, yes, looking closely below the clock on the West façade (as the author herself pointed out to me), one can indeed make out small sculptures of both the male and female genitalia, symbols of fertility from a “heathen” tradition.
Sabine Gruber was born in 1963 in Meran, a city in South Tirol, an ethnically German province of Italy that belonged to Austria until the end of World War I. She studied German, history, and political science in Innsbruck and Vienna, then lectured at the University of Venice from 1988 to 1992. She has published stories, radio and stage plays, two critically acclaimed novels—Aushäusige [Those Away from Home] in 1999 and Die Zumutung [The Nerve] in 2003—as well as a book of poems, Fang oder Schweigen [Hunting or Silence] in 2002. Ms. Gruber has received numerous awards, most recently the grant prize of the 2000 Austrian National Award for Literature, the 2002 Heinrich Heine Fellowship, and the 2004 Elias Canetti Fellowship. None of her books has been translated into English. She now lives in Vienna, where “Sightseeing” takes place. Her website is www.sabinegruber.at.
Titled “Wahrzeichen” in German, this story was originally published in Berlin in an anthology entitled Vienna: A Literary Invitation (ed. Margit Knapp, Wagenbach Publishers, 2004). As for her inspiration, she had wanted to write such a story about such a character doing such a thing. (Please read further to learn why I’m being so vague.)
The primary challenge of translating this story was in maintaining a tone comprising uncertainty, captivity, anxiety, isolation, and a hint of bitterness, which Ms. Gruber so skillfully creates in the German. She does this in two ways: ﬁrst, by choosing several carefully placed and deliberately vague words, and second, by using a particular, oft-repeated sentence structure. As for the vague “lynchpin” words, they serve to gradually reveal—and thus heighten the impact of—the central premise of the story, which is also one of the major joys of reading it (hence the not-giving-away of said premise here, which is proving as challenging as anything). For example, in the very ﬁrst sentence, “the rumble” is how I ultimately decided to translate das Rauschen, which like so many foreign words can be translated in myriad ways. But these proved to be particularly divergent: everything from “roar” and “rush” to “murmur” and “rustle.” Moreover, I had trouble even identifying the English word to describe the precise sound in question. And though I am not completely sanguine with my ﬁnal choice, I am somewhat molliﬁed by the knowledge that even a German reader, given the multiple meanings of the word, would also wonder exactly which kind of Rauschen is meant, to be clariﬁed only by reading further.
Working with sentence structure, the other element central to the tone, proved again to me the maxim that only through translating a foreign work do you really come to know it. What Ms. Gruber does here is to frequently drop the personal pronoun after its initial use and string several verb phrases together after it, almost always without an “and” (und) between the penultimate and last one, but rather with only a comma. Of course we often drop the pronoun after the ﬁrst occurrence in English; for example: “I translated this story, sent it to TWO LINES, and got it published.” But Ms. Gruber repeats this structure over and over, primarily in the ﬁrst person singular, sometimes throwing in a couple of third person or other descriptive phrases followed immediately by another ﬁrst person verb, and always without the “and,” thus, if not forming a comma splice, then at least jarring the reader and forcing a readjustment or even a reread.
A simple example appears on page two: “I interrupt him, describe the glory, list the plants, the vine tendrils and grapes also to be found on the side doorjambs.” My initial impulse (unfortunately acted upon) was to “correct” these sentences in English, easily done either by adding an “and” or, since the simple present English can be written two ways—for example, “I go” or “I am going”—making the leap to using the gerunds for the latter verbs; i.e., “I interrupt him, describing the glory, listing the plants....” But the more I did this, of course, and otherwise corrected or clariﬁed sentences, the more the story lost the staccato tone of the original, until ﬁnally I realized, not having seen the trees for the forest, that this was conscious, pervasive, and extremely effective design. And so, with the rare concession to clarity, I have returned to the original structure where possible. This sort of abbreviated, seemingly incomplete sentence structure serves, in addition to creating a curt and claustrophobic tone, to blur the line of storytelling and thought and put us even more deeply into the narrator’s mind—as well as making that mind feel captive (all due respect, Mr. Milosz) and uncertain.
Perhaps the most unresolvable challenges came in translating the title. The word Wahrzeichen has, like Rauschen, numerous, divergent meanings: landmark, symbol, emblem, omen, and, taken as the literal sum of its parts, “true sign”—all of which, with the exception perhaps of “omen,” resonate with the story. The narrator visits a major landmark, and it is a “landmark” journey for her. Both Christian and “heathen” symbols and emblems abound, not to mention plenty of subtler, thematic ones. And by necessity the narrator’s primary, incessant search is for signs that provide truth. Moreover, the plural of Wahrzeichen is the same: Wahrzeichen—only the article, not present here, changes—thus virtually doubling the permutations to consider. But all these words and their combinations either captured too few of these multiple meanings (i.e., “Landmark”) or too obviously pointed them out. Looking further aﬁeld, I tried “St. Stephen’s” (too religious), “The Escort” (too sexy), “Up the Tower” (too surly), “Heathen Towers” (interesting but not thematically relevant enough), and, ﬁnally, my close second choice, “Stefﬁ,” which is—or so I thought—the Viennese’s pet name for St. Stephen’s Cathedral, until the author informed me it was “Stefﬂ” and rejected the title.
As for how this story is relevant to the theme of this issue, since telling you would again give away the “secret,” and this intro already runneth over, I will merely and glibly say that the story will make it obvious. Viel Spaß (Have fun).
Original text: “Wahrzeichen” © Sabine Gruber, 2004. The work originally appeared in Wien: Eine literarische Einladung [Vienna: A Literary Invitation], Margit Knapp, ed., Berlin: Wagenbach Publishers, 2004.