A Protagonist’s Nemesis
Translation by Rachel McNicholl
So why do you think furniture stores don’t sell coffins? That’s what
the young intern asked me at the last office party. I raised my eyebrows. But when I tried to answer her, I couldn’t think of a convincing
argument. A coffin wasn’t a piece of furniture, I ventured hesitantly;
it was at best a container, a shell.
But a coffin is an essential part of the furniture at wakes, the
young woman insisted. We stock the right furniture for every stage
and purpose in life. It goes without saying that we supply everything
for newborn babies, so why not everything for the dear departed?
It also went without saying that we supplied everything for our
own mid-summer picnic – our office party. We brought along our
own brand of garden furniture, tablecloths, and tableware so that we
could enjoy our day in the park in true company style. Everything
was stowed in our capacious yellow-and-blue shopping bags, which
look a bit like wide-bellied boats. We ferried our stuff along the avenues
to the historic Lusthaus, the pleasure pavilion where imperial
hunting parties found shelter and amusement in days gone by. In
front of its baroque façade, we set up the furniture, laid the tables,
and put out the food from our own delicatessen. Meanwhile, the
employees’ children cavorted on the grass.
We – the adults – ate and drank our fill and stretched out to relax
on our own brand of rug. Then the intern asked, since we were used
to having our office party outdoors, why couldn’t we organize a wake
outdoors too? And again I couldn’t think of any good reason why we –
meaning my company – had allowed ourselves, up till now, to ignore
the very substantial line of business represented by funeral supplies.
I attended our staff parties in Moscow, Riyadh, and New York too.
We’re expanding in every direction and bringing a family ethos to consumer
culture; speaking for the company, I welcome this, but not the
shortsightedness of excluding death. It is my job to connect mundane
episodes and form a unified whole. Just as a wreath needs a frame,
life, which is a series of episodes, needs a scaffold, a skeleton. A firm
needs backbone, and people need backbones, for all people are brothers,
and for “brothers” you can also read "sisters," since they’re just as
subject to mortality. I see it as my ideological mission to globalize the
concept that both living and dying are affordable and part of everyday
family life. Using innovative PR and marketing concepts, I gave the
company a frame of reference for human existence that is understood
the world over, while to the world I gave a culture of cordiality and
to our staff a climate of congeniality in which a person can not only
bloom and grow but also fall ill and die. But something is bothering
me and I can’t put my finger on it. I keep feeling I’ve forgotten something,
something that’s almost within my grasp . . . Our furniture
company is prolifically permeating every aspect of life.
In principle, a corporation is a body, but not bodily in the sense
that a body can be arrested or locked up; the corporate body is defined
by its function, its role being to put skin on our flesh and keep
it all wrapped around our bones so that we can embrace our nearest
and dearest without literally assimilating them, merging or decomposing
into a shapeless mass. Indeed, this is why you might characterize
a coffin as a sort of wooden skin for the deceased.
My company’s branding is all about conveying a sense of security;
we want our customers to trust that we are there for them.
I wanted to get to grips with my own self-deception too. What I’m
saying right now sounds strange, as if I were merging with myself,
my own plans and goals, and my own horror of death. Of course –
death. Why didn’t I think of it first, instead of that impudent intern?
There’s the room where the body is on view, the room where mourners
are greeted or served refreshments, maybe another room where
people can say a prayer ... At the very thought of these spaces I
could see before my eyes flat-pack coffins in pine, tie-it-yourself funeral
wreaths, print-it-yourself sympathy messages, candles for the
wake, lanterns for the cemetery, self-assembly crosses for the grave,
in metal or wood. Of course, it would all have to be cheaper than the
traditional undertaker’s wares.
I faced Death and overcame my fear. I lay back on the company
rug and surveyed the set: woodland clearing, historic pavilion, horsedrawn
The children were playing baseball. A cradle with the latest employee
offspring in it was nestled in the grass to one side. Patterned textiles
fluttered in the wind, like flags run up a mast. A successful business
playing its part in conquering death. The crown in our company logo
symbolizes our Corporate Eternity.
Man is, and always will be, mortal, the intern asserted. I turned
away; I had no desire to discuss the finer points of a monarchic corporation
versus a corporate monarchy with some young intern. She was
neither a political scientist nor a sociologist, nor had she any other authority
to be voicing opinions. With every word she spoke, it became
more obvious that she simply wanted to be noticed. She was trying
to hook my attention with her determined obsequiousness. Once she
realized that her pretentious blather was boring me, she moved on to
topics that naturally interested her. Some of these were quite interesting,
and I built them into the model of our furniture company, which
would embrace the generations entering this life as well as those on
the way out. Seeking was a way of life for her, she told me. She sought
meaning and purpose in every word. She found meaning bit by bit,
she told me; and the purpose of words was to make reality speakable
and readable. The word was mighty, it ought to be so mighty that it
could call itself forth; the word was almighty, she said. She confided
in me that she wanted to be a writer. She wanted to write right into
power, and write all the way through power. That’s highly ambitious, I
replied patronizingly, and yawned. She apparently didn’t believe I had
what it took to take her ideas and make them my own. She wanted
to grasp each individual word, she continued, clearly not getting the
message. She wanted to command the spoken word; to have power
and be able to communicate what struck her as powerful.
She sat down on the rug and stretched out. I think she wanted
to make herself my reality; she said she was curious and wanted to
see what reality looked like. I only hoped that I looked better than
her image of power. I had to muster all my strength when she said
that the only real power was death and fear of it, which could only
be sublimated by celebrating death triumphantly. Whoever manages
to banish your fear of death, to show you how life and death can be
overcome, will be rich and powerful, I thought. Suggestions of immortality
. . . resurrection! Now we’re in advertising terrain. It’s time,
I believe, for the word to be made image.
I’m originally from Memmingen, in southern Germany. I knew
very well that Vienna was famous for its cult of the dead, but unlike
"dear Augustin" of the folk song, who fell into a pestilential pit during
the Plague, I had every intention of landing in a gold mine.
For all her clever ideas, I was more experienced and quicker at
bringing ideas to fruition than you would have thought from looking
at the intern’s funereal expression now. This afternoon she was being
allowed to help out with the photo shoot for the pilot catalog.
I had to muster my strength. It had been a very trying year. I felt
drained and didn’t want to move around too much. Soon I would
see whether power could create reality – if I had the power that I
portrayed myself as having, that is – and then I would see whether
adding the funerary line to our business was a success. I sprawled
on my rug, arms and legs stretched out, while the others unpacked
the coffin parts.
Dressed in several layers of black, the intern was playing the part of
a romantic beauty, recently deceased. Like a princess in mourning
surrounded by flattering courtiers (the heads of department), she
busied herself fashioning a funeral wreath for the camera of pink
roses, ligustrum, and ribbon. The cameraman was clever, and certainly
good enough at his job to conjure just the right mixture of
grief and composure into her expression. I waved encouragingly
from the sidelines. I kept out of the limelight. I thought it fair that
she should be allowed play the corpse.
From a distance, our midsummer’s party this year would have
looked more than a trifle odd to passersby. The entire staff worked
on the shoot. We were one big family, dealing with a bereavement.
Our furniture company will help you deal with your bereavement;
that was the motto for our project, and this photoshoot was for the
pilot catalog that would introduce our customers to the new line.
We are setting an example, describing our vision of the affordable
funeral of the future. We welcome more honesty in matters of life
and death. We offer valuable tips, equipment and accessories, clever
solutions. You will not be alone in this. We will help you. We will
supply instructions. Invite your friends over and mourn together
while you think up a few wise, comforting words.
The employees’ children were playing baseball, badminton, football.
The younger ones were playing pirates in the sandpit, or on
swings and jungle gyms. They relieved some of the solemnity of the
situation and symbolized renewal and the eternal cycle of life. The
first funeral wreath was under construction: the intern was making
it with the heads of department. The photographer snapped away
eagerly while they worked. She rattled off the instructions, and they
handed her ligustrum, then carnations, roses, ribbons. She made a
floral crown out of the leftovers, which she was wearing on her head
the next time I looked over. It was slightly cloudy, so I could look up
A canopy of leaves. Wind. Dappled sunlight. Perfect lighting conditions
for our model funeral.
The checkout girls were dressed in casual gear from our textile
department – we consider clothes, which after all we put on and
take off, as portable furnishings. They were working away, equipped
with screwdrivers, demonstrating that our coffins could be easily assembled
by women too. The intern looked proud as she stood there,
erect, chin jutting out. She was the first to put her hand up when I
was casting for the shoot, I remember.
The wind was blowing the black ribbons about. The apprentices,
who had put them out too early, were cursing and throwing away the
tangled ones, rolling off new lengths of ribbon from the spool and
putting them on the tables where the golden lettering for our sympathy
messages lay. The early summer light shone playfully on the
apprentices’ young faces as they enthusiastically rubbed the transfer
letters onto the black ribbon.
The intern was busy chatting to the women screwing the coffins
together when they began pointing excitedly to the other end of the
grassy area. There, beneath the green shade of a tree, and between
the green of the bushes, a woman dressed in white had suddenly appeared.
She just stood there, a distraction.
I think my first thought must have been that someone had ordered
an angel of death for the set. I was annoyed by this kitschy idea,
which would have ruined my enlightened plan for an enlightened
society. I was about to jump up and give the intern a dressing-down,
but at the last minute I realized that the apparent angel of death was
more likely a bride in her wedding dress who had accidentally wandered
onto our set.
Meanwhile the intern was already running off in that direction,
and before I could even raise my voice, she had already reached the
little girls, whose innocent game of baseball was meant to illustrate
how death is just a natural part of everyday life. Waving her arms,
the intern shouted at the girls from the edge of the playing field and
rounded them all up. Following her lead, the gaggle ran off blithely
toward the woman in white.
I no longer remember whether the carriage that I’d spotted in front
of the pleasure pavilion was our horse-drawn hearse or a wedding
coach. The horses were whinnying, tossing their heads back and
forth. The coachman was in traditional dress: black trousers, black
cloak, and black bowler. We had even purchased a background banner
that said "Horse-Drawn Hearse."
The horses headed off, the coachman roaring unintelligibly at
them. He kept shouting and yanking the reins as if to force the
horses to a halt. But all his shouting and roaring only sped them up,
and they broke into a trot, whinnying all the while. The coachman
pulled on the reins again and the horses started to turn. Another
yank on the reins, a crack of the whip, and the horses started galloping
around the pavilion as if racing one another. The grown-ups
were laughing; the children were getting a little scared.
The coachman disappeared behind the pavilion. He shouted for help.
The horses stomped, then the carriage clattered off along the main avenue
into the forest, the sounds fading as it grew more distant.
The excited children ran over to the grown-ups. The grown-ups
reassured the children.
Had anyone seen what happened the bride?
And where had the intern got to?
At first I just scanned the area from where I was. Maybe she was
behind the bushes?
We couldn’t go on with the shoot if the deceased had up and left
with the bride.
I waited a bit, then stood up and went looking. The photographer
took a break. I was fuming. The intern was sabotaging my project. Out
of revenge, because I had stolen her idea. The first place I looked for
the impudent girl was behind the bushes. That’s where the pond was.
A murky green. A few leaves floating motionless in the middle. Water
lilies in flower. Water striders skated jerkily across the still surface. I
spotted a few toads on a small spit of land along the shore, but no sign
of my chief mourner. Farther on there was nothing but scrub.
I went back to the park area. The children were playing Who Wants
to Be a Millionaire? As I listened to them explaining the rules of the
game, I was struck by the careful way these kids, who had all grown
up with two languages, chose their words. Everyone had forgotten
about the bride, and the intern was still missing. Which of them had
All the staff were sitting in a circle, finishing off the food. The halfassembled
coffin lay abandoned on the grass. A few of the children
were trying to put the crosses together. I took the screwdrivers away
from them so that no one would get hurt.
Later on I had another good look around all the paths in the park.
The intern had vanished into thin air. I had to take her place. Otherwise I might as well dig my own grave. We quickly finished assembling
the coffin, completed the wreaths and ribbon-lettering in a
flash, fit all the bits of the candelabra together, stuck in the candles,
distributed the crape, and took up our places in a casual, free-standing
formation around the coffin, in which I lay, playing the corpse,
to top it all off. The photographer clicked and clicked and clicked. I
think we managed to get the whole thing in the can.
The midges arrived as the sun began to set. The toddlers grew cranky.
The baby was hungry again. The children wanted to go home.
We started to break camp. The adults took care of the furniture
and the heavier things; the photographer took care of his camera.
The children folded up the tablecloths and collected the dishes. I
took care of the trash, collecting the ends of ribbons, the scraps of
crape, the bits of ligustrum and wire. Where had the intern got to?
The women wrapped plates and glasses in foil and banners so that
the insides of our bags wouldn’t be smeared. I stuffed what was definitely
waste into an ordinary trash bag.
I carried the trash over to the large bins behind the pavilion. I
walked right around the circular building.
Maybe the intern’s still hiding out with the bride and waiting to
ambush me, I thought, because she feels robbed of her idea.
Not a trace of the carriage. Nothing but the wind and the avenue.
I went to the bins and stuffed the refuse in. Then I went along
the avenue for a bit and from there into the bushes again. I found a
piece of cloth. White and black. I pressed on into the thicket. Found
what were perhaps shreds of ribbon or crape, and footprints in the
softened ground. My heart pounding, I bent branches aside, broke
off twigs. Snapping. Splashing. The pond. It was all darkness above
the water; nothing to be seen.
I beat my way back through the undergrowth and hit upon the
bins again. The tarmac shimmered a silvery color. I opened the lid
of a bin and lifted up the bag I had thrown in, to see if any bits of
bride or intern were lurking underneath. But the only thing under
the picnic refuse was my funeral refuse. I walked around the building
again and wanted to head back to the grass. But I couldn’t budge.
I tried to lift first one leg, then the other, but I was glued to the spot. I
pulling and strained so much that my muscles and ligaments began
to burn. I couldn’t move, and finally became exhausted from all my
exertions. I fell to my knees, breathing heavily, bobbing my head like
a horse, and then looked up.
I was alone. I hadn’t even noticed the others leaving. My colleagues,
the apprentices, the check-out girls, the photographer – all
gone! They had left me behind. Where the hell had they got to? Why
hadn’t they waited for me? How long had I been running around
after the intern? By now it was pitch black.
There was one bag left on the grass. Where was the coffin, where
were the crosses and flower arrangements that had been scattered
across the grass? Only this last bag was still there, glinting in the
dark. They would have waited for me, I was sure, and wouldn’t have
dared leave a bag behind if I had exercised more authority with my
staff and hadn’t stood in as the corpse.
Maybe they had stayed behind and were watching me from within
the pavilion. In the darkness the round building had become a watchtower.
I felt as though I was under observation, and that was enough
to scare me. I didn’t want to feel scared. But I started to panic all the
same. The only thing that seemed at all reassuring was the plain
company bag on the grass. The crown in our logo gleamed kitschily
at me. The bag had no handles, just a zipper. Surely I didn’t design
this type of bag, I thought to myself. But I didn’t want to add to my
confusion and ask questions that I couldn’t answer. All that mattered
was that the bag was one of my company’s bags. So I accepted it
unquestioningly. It was much bigger than our other bags, the ones
I knew, and longer than it was wide; it looked a bit like a boat from
where I was, if I were at the helm.
The dew was already falling on the grass, on the trees, on the bag,
on me. I didn’t want to spend the night crouching there senselessly
and getting wet. And I didn’t want to be afraid. Eventually I undid the
zipper, crept into the bag, and was going to crawl over the grass and
onto the avenue, on all fours, with the bag on my back like a shell. I
was pleased that I’d had this idea and that I could, as it were, wrap
myself up in the idea of sheltering and hiding in the bag. I started
crawling but immediately got so tired that I had to give in to it. I lay
there in the bag and slept and dreamed. I could hear myself speak. I
distinctly heard myself say "bag."
And at that very moment I realized that’s it, that’s what I’ve been
forgetting. But now I don’t even care. I’m not thinking at all. For I am
a fictional character, and the writer who created me wants me to die,
because she doesn’t like advertising directors who steal her ideas.
So she lets it become tight and dark and airless around me. I can
already hear her closing the zipper, which can only be opened from
the outside, of course. So I am trapped and doomed to die.
Now I’m shivering. I could do with a good stretch but I can feel
my limbs growing stiffer and stiffer. I want to sink into a deep sleep
again or else die quickly. I have a feeling I can still hear steps, but
should I cling to disillusionment until my last breath? I think I am
being carried. I feel the scratching of the pen that is writing: yes, you