Variations in Space and Time
Once, in April, I took a ride on a little steam train in Jiayang [Sichuan Province] which was said to be the only one in the world still running. That can’t possibly be true, I thought at the time. And only two months later I was sitting on just such a train again in the Harz Mountains of Germany. I’m not terribly interested in these trains, the first time around I got on the train to graciously accept a friend’s invitation and the second time I probably just wanted to prove they’re just idly boasting in Jiayang. That wish was now fulfilled.
It was a rainy day this time, too, though the rain and wind were even stormier here in the quiet Harz mountains. As the train toiled uphill, I could see through the window the big white steam clouds from the locomotive, which were accompanied by a rhythmic puffing and hissing, like a meek old monster huffing and puffing as it crawled up the mountain.
I’d always wanted to see the Black Forest when I got to Germany, and it pains me that I never got a chance to. But at the moment I seemed to be seeing it: for there was the forest – and it was even blacker. A vast stand of cedars towered up outside the window, their tops as tall as masts and their roots all black, so densely packed in there that hardly any light could get through. Like soldiers in rank and file, standing at attention, cool and controlled, like German troops in a World War II movie. It was frightening.
Only 66 years have elapsed since the end of World War II, but travelling in Germany, amazingly enough, you don’t find the slightest trace of the war except in museums. This “black forest” was just about the only thing that triggered any World War II associations in me, but of course such associations are nothing to go on at all. The area the little train was traversing used to belong to East Germany. Germany’s reunification was 21 years ago, but you immediately notice the difference in “smell” between East and West, and you see it in the buildings, the landscape, the vegetation as well as on people’s faces and in their jewellery. Western Germany resembles a world already standardized, whereas there is an extremely pervasive sense of transition or abandonment in Eastern Germany. In a word, people here don’t belong to the “present”, they are yesterday, or gradually climbing up towards the future.
First 66 years, then 21: both marvels of time. First the catastrophic war, then bidding goodbye to a whole societal system. Clearing away the remnants of the first was hard, but it succeeded. Getting through the second ought to be fairly easy, but they haven’t got through it yet. In the former GDR, a sense of familiarity and coming home inevitably comes over you, but it’s coming home to the ’70s of the previous century. The prevailing mood in the not-unfamiliar former East Germany is a mix of nostalgia and inferiority.
On the way back we had to change trains in a small town, the platform was all but deserted. Suddenly an announcement came over the PA system. Sun Lin translated that our connecting train was cancelled due to a strike. We’d have to wait two hours, till 10pm, for the next train. But even more distressing was that we had no idea when the strike would end, the 10pm train might not actually come either. It stood to reason that it was very unlikely to come since a strike lasting only two hours is probably unheard-of.
We looked for a way out of the station and for somebody to ask, but not a soul could we find in or outside the station. It was still light, night had not yet fallen. The station square was very tidy and immaculate, nothing but a cold wind there, one gust after another.
We walked towards the centre of town, still no-one in sight. The houses were beautiful and the streets clean, this had to be Western Germany. A great many of its small towns look like this, with splendid houses, only the human element is missing. It was as though something mysterious had happened, as though the inhabitants had evaporated at a moment’s notice leaving a completely deserted town, with no trace of a struggle, as in a ghost movie. We couldn’t find anyone to ask for directions, there were only flowers of every colour blooming by themselves in the gardens lining the street.
At last we heard a voice from a little house in that street. A window was open and a stout arm was leaning on the windowsill. Sun Lin looked up and asked for directions, whereupon the head of a woman over forty popped out and assumed a comfortable position with her arm. Holding a cigarette in her other hand and puffing away, the woman spoke to Sun Lin in a remarkably hoarse voice. We could hear other voices and music coming from the room behind her, probably her family or friends visiting.
Without changing her posture, the woman helped us call a cab. During the five minutes it took for the taxi to reach us, we stood waiting across the street, staring at that window, that arm. Cigarette smoke, just barely visible, kept rising from the window.
The taxi to Göttingen took two hours and cost €70, roughly 700 renminbi, but it was worth it to us! Otherwise we’d have had to spend the night in that remote and deserted little town, where the cold already creeped up from your feet during the day, not to mention the night.
And we made another discovery: previously we’d thought Göttingen a small town, almost a village. But as if we hadn’t already known it, it’s actually quite a “busy” city after all. Especially in the vicinity of the station we had the feeling we were around people again.
Han Dong, b. 17 May 1961, now lives in Nanjing. As a child he was banished with his parents to the countryside in the north of Jiangsu Province. In 1982 he completed his philosophy studies at Shandong University, then taught at universities in Xi'an, Nanjing and other cities from 1982 to 1993, after which he quit teaching altogether. One of the most representative poets of the "third-generation poetry movement”, he put out an alternative literary journal called Tamen (“They/Them”) and has written mostly novels since 2000.
Poetry: A Phone Call from Dalian, Dad’s Looking Down on Me from the Sky
Essays: Dynamics of Love
Short story collections: Our Bodies, My Plato, Bright Scars, In the Western Sky, The Wig, Brand New World, Deer Park
Novels: A Tabby-cat’s Tale, Banished!, Me and You, A Small Town Hero Strides Forth etc.
Awards: Jugend magazine literary prize, Liu Li An poetry prize, Chinese media prize for best novel in Chinese, jury prize at Gao Li Gong Literary Festival, Mount Zijin literary prize; long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize.