Yoko Tawada: The Naked Eye
The uniformed and jackbooted soldiers are speaking German. At the hotel reception desk, on the street, even in the theater, everywhere one finds them standing
around saying, “I don’t speak French.” The voices arrive from far away. Behind the sound of this language, another life of mine was buried. Sometimes I was seized by an urgent desire to return to the GDR, to undo everything that had happened. If only I had acted differently then… If I hadn’t gone to that Russian band’s concert… If I hadn’t exchanged frivolous words with a stranger from Bochum… If I hadn’t drunk that vodka… But I could no longer return, for the GDR had long since ceased to exist.
When I came out of the métro station Odéon, I was en¬circled by a handful of men and women who looked like stu¬dents. I wanted to run away, but I heard the sentence: “We’re from the university.” I nodded, since after all I wanted to go there myself. “We’re from a student theater and are looking for an Asian actress.” Two men, three women. One of the women began to explain an array of things to me with great enthusiasm: the university, communication, culture, solidar¬ity, the theater, literature, politics. Her words joined hands to form a whirlwind that spiralled around me. This could be my first step toward entering the university, I thought, and so nodded quickly twice in succession. We went together to a café, where the woman placed a booklet in my hand. It was a somewhat crookedly stapled copy of the play. In the drama¬tis personae I found the Vietnamese name “Phuong Lien”; the rest of the names were French-sounding, like Arlette, Nadine, Rosette, and Bernard. One of the men introduced himself to me as the director. I couldn’t understand his name and lacked the courage to ask him to repeat it. “Actually, Lu¬cas was our director, but he can’t come anymore. So now I’m directing.” The name of the director who would no longer be coming was easy for me to retain. Why couldn’t Lucas come any longer? Immediately I began to think about this absent person although I didn’t even know him.
Every evening at seven I went to rehearsals that took place in a small, moldy space. The others attended seminars at the university during the day. I would have liked to ask them questions about their studies, but never found the right mo¬ment to do so. During every rehearsal there would be one fifteen-minute break when everyone hastily lit their Gaulo¬ises and drank pitch-black coffee, speaking twice as fast as they did on stage. The contents of their conversations, along with their individual facial expressions, were obscured by the thick cigarette smoke. I loved the smell of the Gauloises, but was afraid of the name as it reminded me of an old tiger. I preferred not smoking to uttering the name at a kiosk.
My lines consisted of short sentences in which the words were placed next to each other without anything holding them together. People probably thought this was how im¬migrants talked. I expended little effort learning my lines by heart, but it took a lot of courage for me to speak the lines aloud. The first sentence of the day I would utter with my eyes closed as if leaping off a cliff. The moment I finished the sentence, everyone would jump in to correct my pro¬nunciation. My words had never before attracted so much attention as they did here at these rehearsals.
I screamed, “Leave me alone!” without meaning it at all. That’s only what my lines said. My lips burned hotly all the same. Speaking meant wrenching one’s mouth wide open or pursing the lips to form a narrow passage for air and forcing the breath out violently or rubbing the consonants against the mucous membranes of the throat or discovering new sinus cavities behind the nose. Especially difficult for me was the art known as aspiration. When I forgot it at the neces¬sary point, I would be criticized at once. I didn’t understand the rule, I thought it should be possible for people to peer into my head and see the caesuras I was inwardly placing.
At first I kept my new job as an actress secret from Marie. I ended up telling her two weeks later as she was looking wor¬ried watching me prepare to go out. “It’s a student group, but they have a rehearsal space. And all of them have a good heart for good things,” I added, as though I needed a justifi¬cation. “That’s wonderful. What sort of story is the play?” Marie asked. I couldn’t tell her the plot of the play because I didn’t understand it yet. So I simply began to recite my lines. Marie burst out laughing, and I felt hurt—it had never occurred to me that my lines might be comical.
I appeared in three scenes. In the first, I was surrounded by women who were asking me questions, and I struggled to answer them. Then I remained alone on stage and spoke a broken monologue. In the second scene, a burly man in a suit approached me, grabbed me by the collar, and asked me ques¬tions. This man, whose name began with a “D,” was being played by the director as this character only appeared once. In the last scene, I had to lie on the floor the whole time. The others tried to wake me, but I remained motionless, probably dead. After this, the play ended happily without me.
I had never visited a theater house in Paris, though the setting was familiar to me from the films in which you played the role of a stage actress. I particularly liked you when you were work¬ing at a theater. The screen in the cinema was a naked illusion that immediately drew me into its space, while I could measure, accept, and enjoy my distance from you when you were stand¬ing on a stage. Once I took a walk in Montparnasse to find the theater where you worked in the role of Marion Steiner.
Strangely, I began to develop a hatred for the burly man in the suit, Monsieur D., who grabbed me by the collar every day and bared his teeth. I knew it was only a play, yet it was all I could do to keep my arms from violently shoving him away. “You must look intimidated and paralyzed and keep mute,” said this man, suddenly switching into the role of director. I felt annoyed at his tone of voice and simply looked away. “You acted better in the beginning. Why can’t you do any better now?”
After the rehearsal, Nadine and Rosette sometimes asked me whether I wasn’t cold in my thin clothing or what plans I had for the evening. Only Arlette acted as if I didn’t exist. She quickly changed her clothes, lit her cigarette, and went to join the men. The director usually brought her home on his motorcycle. I thought she was in love with him until one day I surprised Arlette and Nadine in the women’s bath¬room. They were standing there half undressed, caressing one another’s breasts, drawing circles upon them with their palms. Later I was no longer sure if I wasn’t remembering this scene from one of your movies.
Once, we had a visitor. He stood with his arms crossed and his lips closed, observing the rehearsal from beginning to end. He occasionally scratched his right thigh as if he’d been stung there by an insect. The visitor was a university profes¬sor and had recently returned from the U.S., the director told us later. After the rehearsal, the professor came up to me and said I’d done a wonderful job. I realized that it had been a long time since anyone had praised me.
Once I happened to run into Nadine at the movies. The film’s story was set in a theater house. Lukas, the theater’s artistic director, is hiding in the basement because he is of Jewish descent and this is World War II. You are playing the director’s wife, Marion Steiner.
Marion continues her work as a stage actress. In the eve¬ning she sits in the office, wrestling with mountains of pa¬perwork to keep the theater above water. With a pale, over¬worked face she opens the door to a little room. There stand two of the women who work for her, in the act of tasting each other’s lips. One of them becomes hysterical, begs Mar¬ion to forgive her, weeps. Presumably this woman worships Marion but consorts with another woman who is easier to handle. And even the new male actor who’s just been hired appears to worship Marion, but nonetheless chases after other women. Only on stage does he dare to declare his love to Marion: day after day with exactly the same words.
In this film your face appears narrow and pale. It no longer has the vitality and body temperature of your face in Indo¬chine. Indochine was also made twelve years before. The more recent the film, the younger you look. As Marion, you ap¬pear to be a fragile bridge between the girl Carol in London and the mature woman Eliane in Indochina.
Nadine was sitting right behind me. I didn’t notice her until the film was over when she spoke to me. She invited me for an ice cream and asked me if I selected the movies I went to see according to their subject matter or by director. I imme¬diately replied: “The actress is important.” Nadine laughed, gave an embarrassed cough, and told me about a lecture that might interest me. She was currently attending a seminar on media art that was hosting a public lecture the next week. I should come, she said.
The lecture was being given by a young academic whose head motions reminded me of a canary. It was difficult for me to follow what she was saying. During the lecture, she showed slides with scenes from several films. My eyes were riveted when I saw you in one of them. You were dressed in white and inserted into an exotic landscape. Mississippi Mermaid, Af¬ricans, and Touche pas à la femme blanche were the titles of these films, I later learned. “Exotisme” and “orientalisme” were the only words in the lecture I definitely understood. As for the rest, I couldn’t say what I did or didn’t understand, but when the concluding words were spoken and the discussion began, I suddenly raised my hand and asked: “And Indochine? What about Indochine?” I myself couldn’t comprehend how I had suddenly become so impertinent as to ask a question at a university. The face of the lecturer beamed as if I’d put my finger right on the crux of the matter. She talked and talked until the audience became restless. I understood not a single word of her response, but this no longer mattered.
It was raining. I went to rehearsal carrying my saggy umbrella that I’d bought very cheaply near the Gare du Nord. The di¬rector walked up to me and abruptly asked if I possessed a valid residency permit. He was transformed into Monsieur D., the unpleasant character in the play who insolently inter-rogated me. Arlette walked over to us and observed the situ¬ation like a street fight. “Do you have a residency permit?” “No.” “Do you have a passport?” “No.” Arlette raised her eyebrows. The face of the director vanished from my con¬sciousness—I heard only his voice. “There were policemen here before. They were asking about you. They said they were coming back. It would be better if you went home right away.” At this moment Nadine ran into the rehearsal room: “They’re coming!” The director opened the back door of the room, pressed a key into my hand and pointed to the stairs. “Go into the very last room, where the props are stored. Then lock the door from inside and wait quietly until we come to get you. Don’t turn on the light.” I went down the stairs, crept along the narrow hallway, and opened the last door. Soon my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness and recognized shapes consisting of crosses, angles, corners, bars, and hooks. I was standing among props not currently in use.
After a long time the director tapped on the door. “Now you can come out. Where’s the key? Give it back to me.” In the rehearsal room, the others were waiting for us. They didn’t run to greet me, they didn’t hug me, they didn’t console me. All of them were paralyzed with their own worries. “We’ve been informed about your past. Starting tomorrow you can’t come anymore. Otherwise they’ll arrest you.” “What about my role?” “We’ll have to find someone else.” The director’s cheeks were purple; Bernard and Rosette hung their heads; Arlette walked nervously back and forth as if she wanted to start doing something else right away. And Nadine was staring out the window with an insulted expression, as if I had betrayed her.
I stopped in front of a shop window containing a large number of bottles. There was something trapped in them, perhaps people who had been transformed into liquid. The contents of the bottles were mostly white or gold, though in one bottle the liquid was a dull caramel color, in another green. An old man with a blue apron stuck his head out of the shop and asked me something. “Pardon?” He repeated the question. The third time around I understood he was asking me the name of my father. But why would a liquor store owner want to know my father’s name? I was getting nervous. He persisted. I shouted: “Ho Chi Minh!” Satisfied, the man gave a nod, pointed to the sky with one finger, and placed a heavy bottle in my hand. On the label I read: “Gorbatschow.” He laughed, and I laughed as well, but for no reason. Then I tried to give him back the bottle, which was shaped like a Russian church, but he said it was mine. “Why?” I held out the bottle to him. He pushed it back toward me, repeating that it was mine.
On the label beneath the name “Gorbatschow” was the word “Berlin.” The sound of this name made my body start to quake with fever and chills. I soon discovered that Mon¬sieur Gorbatschow was a healer. After the first swallow, my blood awakened, my lungs immediately filled with pride, my temples flushed with fresh inspiration. Unfortunately there was no dance floor in the basement where these new ideas could manifest themselves. So I began tapping against the wall with two fingers that were meant to represent the legs of a dancer. They had neither a torso nor a mouth, just two legs dancing in the air. The Gorbatschow basement theater had no audience. Nonetheless, I held it in higher esteem than that ridiculous student theater. I was a born actress. I didn’t wish to follow the example of Tristana, who was poisoned by her own brown bitterness, or of Carol lying unconscious among overturned furniture. I didn’t want to drown like Professor Marie in a Mediterranean made of whiskey. I wanted to be like spirits rising up from the bottle to rescue a woman like Marie from her thoughts of suicide. I wanted to survive the war like Marion. The place of this survival was called the theater. What sort of play should be performed? I didn’t know the play Marion was staging be¬tween the cherry orchard and the magic mountain to sustain her during wartime. When the war was over, Marion stood on stage to receive the applause of the cheering audience. To her right was her husband, to her left her lover. She held them in her two hands like suitcases.
Gorbatschow caused a side effect that might detract from his fame. When I woke up, my bones had lost their density and my hair was hanging down lusterless. I felt an urgent need to ingest something, and frantically searched for the unknown food I was lacking. Meat perhaps? Marie had brought me “sweet and sour pork” from her favorite fast food restau¬rant, but that didn’t satisfy me. Chocolate perhaps? Even this black, magical item brought me no strength. In the end I just went on drinking Gorbatschow. At once I felt extremely motivated to do something, for example to read books, learn new vocabulary words, become prettier, and venture out into the city to attend a theater performance. But my engine wouldn’t start. I couldn’t even manage to get up and look out the barred window. I simply remained flat on the mattress Marie had found in a heap of trash on the street.
The bottle was soon empty. If I were to return to the shop and utter the magic words “Ho Chi Minh,” perhaps the man would give me another Gorbatschow. No, I’d bet¬ter just go to the movies and visit my temple, my Pantheon, my pagoda. My feet, however, automatically chose the street which contained no movie theater but only the shop in ques¬tion. Today, the man who had given me the Gorbatschow wasn’t behind the counter; instead it was a saleswoman with a long, narrow throat. She wouldn’t give me anything. I would have to pay. What did a Gorbatschow cost? I didn’t really want the bottle, but felt it was urgently necessary to find out the exact price.
While I was observing the saleswoman from the sidewalk, a boy appeared out of nowhere, grabbed two bottles of wine and ran away. The saleswoman jumped out of the shop and sprinted after him with unexpected speed. I went into the shop and found the bottle I was looking for on the shelf behind the cash register. No price tag was visible. I took down the bottle and rotated it 180 degrees. If I had found the price, I would have waited for the saleswoman’s return and paid the amount in question. But since I couldn’t find one, I took the bottle with me and went home.
I was happy while I was drinking, and I understood that the word happiness contained a chemical significance. A few days later I discovered the miniature edition of Gorbatschow, which I could afford to buy with my pocket money. I placed each empty bottle in the garbage can on the street so Marie would be none the wiser.
Whenever I walked down the steps leading to the métro, the passers-by lost their colors. Even the columns and posters withdrew into the mood of a black and white film. I walked back up the steps, trying to imagine the steps covered with a bright red carpet. I wished to keep ascending, to rise up higher and higher.
Tawada, Yoko: The Naked Eye / translated by Susan Bernofsky – New York: New Directions, 2009. – 256 pages. ISBN 978-0-811217392. Original title: “Das nackte Auge” (German)
Published with kind permission by the publisher.