A Russian Summer
by Gabriele Wohmann*
Translated from the German by David Herman
We’ve changed. In May, it hadn’t yet happened; in May, we hadn’t come so far. But now we know how we can use the summer: to create good window seats that look out into the garden, which we seldom enter, and then only in rubber boots. And only if we have to reposition the dolls after a night of wind or rain. The largest doll that we could find rests in the hammock. If you look at it through the wrong end of the binoculars, you can deceive yourself well enough. It seems as if a child really is dangling in the net stretched between the red maple (whose leaves are enormous this year of all years!) and the eastern white pine.
The fruit that spoils on the trees and bushes looks very beautiful—this is an experience that we’re now able to have for the first time. We’ve never been among those who use netting to protect their cherry trees from the birds, but under the present circumstances, we did purchase this green nylon material: we want to make our small contribution to safeguarding the health of the birds. And as for the tall grass that I’ve always wanted, finally there can be no more talk of cutting it; it’s now a lawn lushly embedded with daisies, buttercups, and faded dandelions.
And this silence, this stillness. At the veranda windows, all we hear is Alex on the first floor of the house, where he hammers out on his typewriter one satire after another. For him, after a period of helpless perplexity in May, this altered summer was transformed into a source of productivity. As I mentioned, he’s taken up the writing of satires. His shift from science fiction stories to texts about the realities of the present at last appears to be a success.
Grandfather, for his part, can’t get past the line Give us this day our daily bread. He resembles the tonearm of an old record player stuck in the groove with daily bread (the kitchen cupboards are still full). Grandfather gets no further; he thinks ahead to future harvests. But then we laugh at him because he’s so well off. He’s so old, so old—what can harm him in ten years’ time! Yet he looks sad, and repeats that he hadn’t wanted to witness all this. He mutters and, above all, prays to himself; he’s never done that before. Sometimes he’s reassured, at least for a while, by my suggestion that we long ago stopped imagining the daily bread from our father as food in concrete terms. But other times grandpa says: “Daily bread is food for the soul! Do you hear? You ask that we should love and take care of one another, and that we should embrace each other here on the veranda—within view of a summer garden that is overflowing with poison!”
From the start, the confinement bothered me the least: I have never been one of those summer fanatics. And yet I must admit that occasionally I’ve been troubled by unexpected yearnings. For example, going barefoot and running through a rain shower. All at once, I wanted to hold a leaf, a blade of grass. Anything but wax romantic, or start feeling homesick!
So that it appears true to life, we weigh down the hammock with a brick, which we place under the large doll. The hammock creates the illusion of proper home comforts, there in the shade of the garden. Nothing needs to be added to the garden now, for it seems to be alive, usable, without requiring our intervention. We’ve cleverly distributed and arranged the eight dolls, even setting up a garden table and stools and putting some crockery on a serving tray. There’s also a reclining chair that appears as though someone lounging there has just gotten up out of it. Our lovely, green, thick, leaf- and plant-filled garden—it’s now our hazardous waste. All the same, we expose ourselves to the residual risk and spread around toys, flipped-open books, newspapers. The neighbors need not see any of this. I don’t want to have to put off for a second time someone from social services or a district nurse, or even, as happened a week ago, two friendly police officers.
We’ve observed much since mid-May, with our observations playing a critical role for all of us. When all this greenery, all this wasted verdure, suddenly becomes too jarring for us; when, after our anger abates, we feel sad, even maudlin, as our compassion for the abandoned, lost, terribly lonely garden overcomes us; at those times, before any of us can break down in tears, we make use of various television sets and radios. We’ve moved all of our private possessions into a single room, which we call the information center. One no longer hears much about the subject at hand, though. Politicians, dismayed by our residual risk, rarely appear on the screen. Indeed, the residual risk, in the understanding of politicians, is our anger. In their view, we present the most frightful of all dangers—namely, the danger of becoming discontented voters, panicked, hysterical, unable to cope with life.
No isotope, no nuclide, can be as insidious as our feeling that this earth with its territorial uninhabitability, this planet of prohibited zones, may now finally be deserving of the line from the Bible about the tribulations you will have in this world.
Back to the matter at hand! I call myself to order. We here in our little family, the smallest cell of the state, who are more like dolls than persons in our household—we act in such an extreme way because my sister, always a little nature lover, has lost her mind. We do all this out of our love for her. Lately, through voluminous reading of her favorite old books by Russian authors, she imagines herself to be experiencing a Russian summer. The garden, uncultivated, has gone to seed like a garden in one of her beloved stories. The blossoms have fallen from the stalks of all the flowers, which my little sister must not pick. “Yes, my dear one,” I tell her, “you’re absolutely right—it’s a Russian summer. We’re in the south, and it’s too hot for any work; the only thing for us to do is to look out, so come and enjoy the view.” Thus we make every effort to help Sister avoid suffering from the added misfortune of mental derangement.
Short pauses in Alex’s hammering on his typewriter mean that he’s now secretly, secretly sprinkling into the soup a little white powder—a powder that has become unnecessary, the superfluous toxin of a weed—for our sometimes still rather rebellious little sister. If Sister constantly feels rather low, complaining of head and stomach pains, she at least retains, in perceiving her malaise, the smallest bit of reason. It’s her residual-risk brain. Meanwhile, life in Kiev goes on as usual, and not only in my little sister’s books.
We’ve gladly done all of this. But when—through what kind of catastrophe—will this spell, too, be broken?
Recently, unobserved by the neighbors, I took an official trip. I implored my family: “It’s not just a matter of having freedom. I’ll also bring back food and drink.” On the way to the mailbox, I dared to go into the Cologne Cathedral. At the time of its construction, people still built proper buildings. Suddenly, in the sublime coldness of the nave, I knew that accidents do not happen to God, and I was comforted.
* From Gabriele Wohmann, Eine souveräne Frau: Die schönsten Erzählungen. Pp. 151
© Aufbau Verlag Gmbh & Co. KG, Berlin 2012.
About the Author
Gabriele Wohmann (1932-2015) was born in Darmstadt, Germany, growing up during the Second World War in a religious and anti-Nazi family. An early participant in the postwar writers’ association Gruppe 47, Wohmann was a prolific author not only of novels and short stories but also of plays, radio plays, television dramas, poetry, and essays. “A Russian Summer” is the title story from her 1988 short story collection Ein russischer Sommer. The story, like Wohmann’s 1987 novel Der Flötenton (The Sound of the Flute), unfolds in the long shadow cast by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. But though this work of ecofiction focuses on a German family dealing with radioactive fallout from the disaster, it also has broader relevance vis-à-vis the current pandemic. Social isolation necessitated by hazardous surroundings, untrustworthy responses by political leaders, mental-health risks created by dangerous circumstances: all of this, and more, finds expression in Wohmann’s eerily anticipatory account.
About the Translator
David Herman, a recipient of the Ezra Pound Award for Literary Translation from the University of Pennsylvania, is a freelance writer, translator, and editor. His translation of Klaus Modick’s novel Moss was published by Bellevue Literary Press in 2020.