Hans Carl Artmann
Excerpt: The Quest for Dr. U
AN ADVENTURE WITH YET ANOTHER BLACK EYE
I'd stopped reading and, gripping though it was, put the book down: Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I stood up and went over to the large French window of my study, looked out on the street—it was still pouring with rain. The man with the turned-up collar had now been standing for two hours in the gateway opposite; he had buried his hands in his trenchcoat pockets and, motionless, resembled the statue of some legendary Humphrey Bogart, raised in eternal memory by fans in a fitting part of the city (and this part was fitting) and exposed to the sky's waters and sun, until it was overgrown by moss and pigeon-sown weeds from the raingutters.
At the same time this motionless observer, about whose intentions I was still anything but clear, did not seem uncongenial; an inner voice called to me: Unspeakable it's not!
My reader will surely recognize this usually reliable feeling, its origins so deeply buried in the subconscious that one's content to push any thoughts about it aside. Indeed, I was increasingly convinced that this man in the October rain was observing not me, but for me. But who might he be? Going out and asking would have been silly—obviously the thought didn't even occur to me at the time. I'm only considering it after the fact, now that I'm recording the event, here in my cosy apartment around which the winter storms howl, by the flickering flames of an open fireplace, not a gunshot from the Atlantic.
I returned to my reading. When my pipe went out after a while and I wanted to relight it, I noted to my annoyance that no match was to be found in the entire house. I took my umbrella and stepped through the garden onto the glistening, gleaming street, intent on having a beer at the corner bar and buying a box of matches. The Humphrey Bogart statue was still standing there—motionless, hands in pockets, the wide-brimmed, totally soaked Chicago hat pulled low over the brow. I hadn't gone ten steps before I noticed that the man was following me. Of course I didn't see him, but that reliable telegram came as ever from the subconscious. I shook the rain from my umbrella and entered the bar, abuzz with loud, cheerful voices. The man behind the counter knew me well and greeted me accordingly. Otherwise no one took any notice of my presence; the regular customers were already used to my unusual appearance, since I too could count myself among the regulars. I relit my pipe and took a long sip of beer; it tasted wonderful; distracted by the "demon barber," I hadn't noticed just how thirsty I was. I set my glass down again and studied myself in the mirror behind the counter, from which my face appeared between batteries of alcohol, winking at itself—and suddenly saw the man who had just stepped out of the rain into the bar. I turned slowly, left elbow resting on the counter, and looked in the sodden figure's direction. The man approached me with a matter of course that disconcerted me a little. Then, not a yard away from me, he pushed back the hat that had hidden his features—and I stared into my own countenance, into the selfsame face that only moments ago had winked back at me from the speckled wall mirror. I found I had taken leave of my senses and almost dropped the shag-pipe from my half-raised right hand . . .
So am I crazy? Am I hallucinating? Did they put something in my beer perhaps? Dirty trick! Nonsense, after all it's a decent bar like a thousand others, not some clip joint where they put a mickey into flush customers' drinks to roll them later! Just look at father Bolcke—the picture of an upright publican! So then—what's with this hoodoo about doppelgangers and such?
"I am not you," my mirror-image said as if out of an illusionist's smoke, "and you are not me—it's just this damned resemblance we have. Frankly, it's really striking. I happen to know you a bit longer than you me and, believe me, just like you, I thought I'll be a monkey's uncle the first time I saw you . . .
"Would you also like a beer?" I asked my partner, if only to say something.
"Beer? No!" my second face answered. "But a double gin would suit me very well; I feel a cold coming on—Mr. John Farnmor, if I'm not mistaken!"
"Yes, that's my name," I replied and reached for the beer at my side. Damn, he even knew my real name, the name I keep secret from all the world, which I'm so intent on keeping incognito, and for good reason . . .
I ordered a triple-decker gin for my so familiar-looking unfamiliar and a double for me.
"My name's Marnix Pentycross, but that is merely by way of introduction. Maybe I'm called something else, I have just as many names and masks as you, but what matter . . ."
We toasted each other, drank, set the glasses down and fell silent awhile. Then Marnix Pentycross said: "Surely you want to know why I've been standing outside your house in this lousy weather, looking at the roof for hours?"
So he was looking at the roof. Strange . . . interesting!
"In time, I'll fill you in on all the details, but for now I ask you to remain patient—the time's not yet ripe."
It was a typical phrase found over and over again in a special kind of literature—but he was actually using it, yes, even completing it, for if he had begun to speak a few seconds later, he would not have brought it to a close . . . A simple worker standing some two yards from us, likewise leaning against the counter, let out a muffled cry, pressed his right hand against his left upper arm with a pain-wracked expression and threatened to topple forward. All eyes turned his way. Pentycross jumped toward him:
"Let's have a look at your arm, man!" he cried and pushed up the left sleeve of the worker's pullover. "Damn, a blow-dart! Quick, a belt or a sturdy strap; it must be tied off right away!!"
The stupefied publican immediately produced some strong packing string with which Pentycross bound the victim's upper arm in feverish haste.
"For heaven's sake call a doctor," he shouted at father Bolcke, "and make it quick, it's a matter of life and death, your customer's been struck by a poison dart!"
The worker gaped incomprehendingly at his bound arm; the innkeeper stabbed at the telephone dial with his fat fingers. An incredible excitement reigned in the little bar.
"That's not possible! All I hear is blowgun! Has one of the brats pulled a stupid prank? Wild west! Negro kraal! Hottentot sorcery! Just like the movies! That's what you get from reading comics" and so forth, the metaphors vying with one another in force.
"It was intended for us, Farnmor," Marnix Pentycross told me softly, "but it struck this innocent bystander by chance. Miserable shot, that Unspeakable!"
He said the words! So Pentycross too was after this monster . . . I nodded knowingly.
"Bill Markings, the sharpshooter, wouldn't have missed in his place," I said. And: "Do you think we'll bring the injured man around? In this cock-and-bull story he's received a poisonous shot just as the virgin did a child."
"Don't worry," my second self said, "I took care of his arm just in time, thank God—he surely won't object to a week's sick-leave."
The howling of an ambulance was approaching, the brakes of a white automobile screeched outside the bar . . .
"They're already here," I said, breathing a sigh of relief . . .
(From the back cover
): "Hans Carl Artmann
, an Austrian born in 1921, [was] one of the most remarkable experimental writers of his generation. In the 1950's he was the principal founder of The Vienna Group
; the group's black romanticism, allied to a scepticism partly derived from Wittgenstein, had a widespread influence on German letters."
The Quest for Dr. U
was published originally in 1977 by Residenz Verlag
, where you can find other German-language titles by the author. In 1993, Atlas Press
republished The Quest for Dr. U
in English, as translated by Malcolm Green and Derk Wynand. You can find this and other great nontraditional works at their website.
thanks Atlas Press
for their kind permission to reprint this excerpt.