Traveling on One Leg


Winner, 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature 

Irene is a fragile woman born to a German family in Romania, who has recently emigrated from her native country to West Germany. Politically and socially isolated, Irene moves within the orbit of three troubled men, while simultaneously embarking on an inner exploration of exile, homeland, and identity.

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Winner, 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature 

Irene is a fragile woman born to a German family in Romania, who has recently emigrated from her native country to West Germany. Politically and socially isolated, Irene moves within the orbit of three troubled men, while simultaneously embarking on an inner exploration of exile, homeland, and identity.

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Editorial Reviews

William Ferguson
The action in this volume may be slight, but Irene's innermost consciousness -- where the political has indeed become the personal -- is magnificently portrayed. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
The first English translation of an earlier work (published in 1992) from the acclaimed Müller (The Land of Green Plums) is a profound story of dislocation: an exile from Romania struggles to find her bearings in Berlin just before the end of the Cold War. Even in her native land, Irene was already something of a stranger, taking long walks by the sea partly because she knew there would be an old man, waiting in the bushes, who would masturbate while looking at her. A chance encounter on the beach with a young, drunken German provides her with someone she knows when she crosses the border for good, but Franz, fearful of commitment, can't bear to meet her at the airport, sending his friend Stefan to make the connection instead. While Irene endures the scrutiny of German bureaucrats before receiving relocation aid and citizenship, she also suffers a malaise of the heart brought on by the mixed messages of Franz, Stefan, and, finally Stefan's friend Thomas, who, though the most responsive to her, is also bisexual. Irene settles into a routine in her new Berlin apartment, a routine regularly punctuated by visits to or visits from her men and supplemented by her daily observations of the beer-bellied construction worker who labors on the scaffolding outside her window. It's a life of waiting, of anomie and despair, but for all that it's the bitterness of such an existence that she keenly feels and sharply observes. Through it all, Irene knows she will endure.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810127067
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 3/30/2010
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 149
  • Sales rank: 964,260
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.50 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter One

There were soldiers between the small villages under the radar screens revolving in the sky. The other country's border had been here. Its steep shore reached halfway up into the sky. The undergrowth, the lilac had become the end of the other country for Irene.

    Irene could see the end most clearly when she watched the water as it hit the shore and flowed away. It hit the shore briefly and then flowed away for a long time, far behind the heads that were swimming until it covered the sky.

    This loose summer Irene felt for the first time that the water's flowing away, far out, was closer than the sand under her feet.

    Irene saw the notice--"Danger Landslide"--at the foot of the stairs to the steep shore, where the earth crumbled. It stood there as it had all the other summers.

    For the first time this loose summer the warning had more to do with Irene and less with the shore. The steep shore was as if built of crumbled earth and sand, built by soldiers so suction couldn't come into the country, into the heart of the country from anywhere.

    The soldiers were drunk in the evening. They went up and then down again. The bottles clattered in the undergrowth. The soldiers stood there under the radar screens far away from the bowling alleys and the dancing summer dresses in the bars. They only saw the light in the water and watched its color change. They belonged to the other country's border.

    The sky and the water were the same at night.

    The sky glimmered restless to itself, with scattered stars, driven by ebb and flow. It remained black and still. And the water raged.

    Long after the water had gone dark and the waves high, the sky was still gray until night came from below.

    Irene had walked along the shore for two hours, as long as the music of the rock group could be heard from the small bar close to the village. Two hours every night.

    They were meant to be walks.

    The first evening Irene looked out at the sky and at the water. Then a bush moved, but not like the other bushes. It was not the wind.

    A man stood behind the bush. He said in a voice that was louder than the water hitting the shore, but still as if he were whispering:

    Look at me. Don't run away. I won't do anything to you. I don't want anything from you. I only want to see you.

    Irene stood still.

    The man rubbed his member. He panted. The sea didn't take his voice away.

    Then his fingernails were dripping. Then his mouth was broken and his face soft and old. The water hit the shore. The man closed his eyes.

    Irene turned her back to him. Irene was cold. She saw smoke rising at the end of the bay where the boats were.

    The wind moved the bush. The man was gone. Irene didn't walk to the end of the bay. She didn't want to see anyone. Where the boats were, where smoke rose. No face now.

    Then the days that had come had been bright and empty.

    Irene lived all those days only for the evenings. The evenings tied the days together. The jugular beat, the pulse, and the temples. The evenings tied the days so tightly together it was almost enough to hold the whole summer in place.

    The evenings had not been walks. Irene went by the hands of the clock.

    Irene was on time.

    The man was on time.

    Every night the man stood behind the same bush. He was half-covered by the leaves. Irene came through the sand. He had already unbuttoned his pants. Irene stood still.

    He didn't have to say anything anymore. Irene looked at him. He panted. He panted every night for the same amount of time. The sea didn't wash his voice away. Every night his mouth broke in the same way and his face became soft and old.

    In the same way the water grew louder when he stopped. And the bush grew tame in the same way. Only the wind made it move. Every night.

    Irene looked for this man during the day. And at night when he was already gone. She looked for him by the bars. And she never saw him. Or she saw him so often that she didn't recognize him because he was a different person on the streets and in the bars.

    It could have been a love affair. But on those days, when it happened, between the nights, Irene could find only the word habit. She had a feeling of loss. As if she hadn't come to her senses then in the nakedness between sand and sky. How could love be on time.

    Irene was looking for this man when she found Franz.

    She had seen Franz in front of the little bar by the railway tracks. Franz was sitting on the ground next to the entrance. His head was leaning against the chair.

    Franz had been lying more than sitting. The rock group played loudly. The music was deafening. Franz was drunk.

    The drunk spoke with his eyes half-open and looked open-mouthed to the sky. The legs of the village children stood in front of his face. They were scratched by the undergrowth. The children were barefoot.

    The drunk spoke German to the children. He also spoke to himself.

    The children picked up on his loose, incomplete sentences. They leaned their heads against the bush in the other country's language. They looked around when they did this.

    It was a closeness in two languages that didn't understand each other. A closeness to a foreigner. A closeness that was forbidden.

    The children giggled, insecure. A little bit malicious, a little bit sad, because there were things they didn't understand yet. But they knew this foreigner paid for the beauty of their sea with his drunkenness.

    Long freight trains would drive past the village once in a while. They rattled in the night and deafened the music.

    Then mothers were calling. The children left the drunk to himself, to the ground, the chair, and the bush. They ran along the tracks into the village without turning around. It had become dark long ago.

    The musicians packed their instruments into their small cases. Only the drums were left between the tables.

    What about the foreigner, the drummer asked. He pointed at the drunk and pushed his hair out of his eyes with the drumstick. He put the drumsticks in his coat pocket and walked toward the exit.

    Come, he told Irene. Come on, that's it.

    And Irene walked straight across the bar.

    And she didn't come.

    Irene walked up to the drunken man.

    Come, said Irene. Come on, stand up. You have to get out of here, the police will be here any minute. Do you hear me.

    Irene put the drunk against the next tree. She pressed his legs against the trunk so he wouldn't collapse.

    Goodness, said Irene.

    She didn't come up to his shoulders because he was so tall and heavy when standing up.

    Why do you do this.

    The drunk didn't do anything. He swayed and swayed.

    Where do you live, tell me where you live so I can take you there. His face was thin. He looked open-mouthed into Irene's eyes.

    God, where do I live. In Marburg, he said.

    Irene laughed and sighed. She held him at his belt because he was so heavy and he was swaying. And he was much younger than she. And his shoes were full of sand. And the streets were so crooked.

    Let's go to Marburg, said Irene.

    He struck out at the air.

    No, not to Marburg.

    Not to Marburg, said Irene. Let's go to the hotel. Where is your hotel.

    There were big apartment buildings along the shore. Hotels with a view for foreigners. Windows with a view of the distance. Irene wasn't allowed there.

    The drunken man found his hotel. He found the key. He found the elevator. The night porter was on the phone. Irene read the number on the key ring and found his room. She turned on the light next to the door.

    There was a book on the table: The Devil in the Hills.

    The drunk pulled the window open. Irene put him down on one of the two beds.

    Is your name Franz. The children called you that.

    He didn't understand the meaning of the question. He didn't say anything. Gray eyes, teeth pressing against lips, the incisors' edge like a thin, white saw.

    I'm drunk, but you speak German. You're not drunk, how come you speak German.

    Irene walked to the window. She looked outside.

    I'll tell you tomorrow.

    Franz wasn't aware anymore. Not even of the fact that he slept and that his mouth was open and dry and his lips as rough as the crust of the sand on the shore.

    Irene saw the curtains hanging to the floor. She stared outside at the surface that lay black between water and sky. Franz moved his hands in his sleep. Sleeping like this under the light, his face looked absent on the white bed.

    Nostalgia overcame Irene. And it wasn't nostalgia. It was a condition of things that were not alive. The stones, the water. The freight trains, the doors, the elevator, things that were moving.

    The biting tracks of night were on the black surface outside.

    Irene felt by the wind in her face that the room was high up. The stars bored into her forehead. The water raged below.

    No, said Irene out the window.

    She went to the sink. She drank cold water out of her hand. She turned the light off. Like Franz she lay down in her clothes on the other bed. She felt the room going out the window in narrow grooves. Out in the empty surface were the dark was even deeper.

    Irene couldn't cry in the dark.

    Irene disappeared into her sleep.

    Until the day cut into her eyes.

    Franz came naked out of the bathroom. A spot of light felt its way along the wall next to the bed. Franz sat down on the side of her bed.

    Last night, he said.

    How did you get here.

    I don't remember much.

    Neither do I, said Irene. I have applied for a passport to leave the country. It's my last summer. I'm waiting for the passport.

    Franz nodded.

    I dragged you, said Irene. You were heavy.

    Franz caressed Irene's fingers.

    This sea, said Franz.

    He looked at the ceiling. Irene touched the spot of light next to the bed.

    Franz pulled Irene's fingers out of the spot of light and kissed them. He looked at his empty, crumpled bed. Then out of the window with his head half-turned to the side. The sun was big.

    What do people eat in the village.


    And in the morning.


    And the children.


    Irene felt her tears running down her temples and into her ears.

    I want to wash up, that's better than crying. Yesterday is still sticking to me.

    Franz lay down on her:

    I want to sleep with you.

    The spot of light turned, it glimmered. Then Irene's head snapped shut. Her eyes were closed. They bored tunnels for themselves inward, through her whole body. She felt Franz, his bones, as if they belonged to her.

    The body was hot and found the proper words. The whole body thought along, reflected when Irene said something.

    Afterward Irene and Franz were at the station. Franz was leaving for Marburg.

    Irene had a piece of paper with his address in her pocket. And in her hand the drawing in the sand. And the poplar leaf Franz had put where Marburg was. And the stone Franz had put where Frankfurt was.

    Irene refused to think about parting.

    Then the train had left.

    Irene had gone through the poplar alley into the village. In front of the house she had seen one of the children who were in the bar the night before. The wind was blowing. Bushes were moving next to Irene's legs.

    Out of sight, Franz had said.

    And Irene: Out of mind.

    Nonsense, Franz had said.

    Irene went to the post office. Irene bought a postcard with the bay on it.

    Irene wrote:

    I don't really want you to write me. Because then I would answer you. But it's me who wants to write to you. There is a difference.

    When do you think you'll come, Franz had asked.

    Irene sent the card in advance. She let it fall into the mailbox to Marburg. She heard it hitting the bottom as if it shattered to pieces. The mailbox was empty.

    The noise on the bottom of the mailbox had been the sound of worries. The worries that were Irene herself. Impatience and waiting for the passport.

    The operator was eating fish.

    A room with a view of the distance, Irene said loud.

    The operator smiled. She pulled a pointed, white bone out of her mouth.

    Then the sea raged. Irene walked far away along the shore.

    Irene walked fast. She wanted to be on time.

    She had missed two nights.

    Irene stood in the sand. Only the wind moved the bush.

    The man wasn't there.

    The water hit under the boats. It pulled them with it and floated them back to the sand. The wood cracked.

    Irene heard voices, giggling voices.

    A poplar moved. It wasn't the wind. Behind the poplar stood the man, and he rubbed his member.

    Three girls were sitting below him on the sand. They were eating fish. They were giggling.

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