Fall 2007, Volume 24.1
Martin R. Dean
The Escape Artist
From The Guyana Knot
—Translated by Nadia Lawrence
Of joint West Indian and Swiss heritage, Martin R. Dean has emerged as one of Switzerland’s most prominent writers of the postwar generation. With degrees in German literature, ethnology and philosophy from the University of Basel, he continues to teach part time at the high school level while working as a novelist, journalist and essayist. Among his many novels are Die Verborgenen Gärten (1982, "The Hidden Gardens"), Der Mann ohne Licht (1988, "The Man Without Light"), Der Guyanaknoten (1995, "The Guyana Knot"), The Ballade von Billie and Joe (1997, "The Ballad of Billie and Joe") and Meine Väter (2003, "My Fathers"). He is also the author of two collections of short stories, Die Gefiederte Frau (1984, "The Plumed Woman") and Monsieur Fume, oder das Glück der Vergesslichkeit (1998, "Monsieur Fume, or the Good Fortune of Forgetfulness") and a published journal, Ausser Mir (1990, "Beside Myself"). An extended profile and information on his past and present work can be accessed from his home page at https://www.mrdean.ch.
The following excerpts are from the previously unpublished English translation of The Guyana Knot, which is fundamentally the story of two brothers: Ralf is an expert on knots and collects knots and the stories going along with those knots. Knotted together, these stories tell of his xenophobic encounters, but also of his German grandmother’s immigration to Switzerland. Ralf’s brother Daniel works as an escape artist in various traveling circuses. His travels through Europe eventually lead him to Trinidad, the second country both of them call home. The select passages tell of Daniel, who has just arrived in Rome and whose larger-than-life idol is Harry Houdini. The second excerpt takes place along the shores of the famed Asphalt Lake in Trinidad and becomes a metaphor for Daniel’s visit to his second home country.
First of all, I’ll lie down. You have to dream a city first, before you can take possession of it. Then I’ll take my clothes out of the suitcase and spread them around the room; I shove the heavy metal trunk with the work tools under the bed, to begin with. I won’t need it for my first appearance. Till then I’m a normal traveler.
The hotel room is a strange thing. The white walls radiate the blind concentration of a delivery room; towards evening they become crowded with colorful plays of light and shade, which gently heave and sway this way and that and simulate a deep ocean bed. One of the walls, the east wall, curves into the middle of the room with a wide, full angel’s swing. I felt as if I was in a submarine when I came in. There were the round windows too, molded in greyish cast iron, three bull’s eyes which lure you towards three different views.
In a certain evening light, the south window goes blind and reflects the Vittorio Emanuele monument. Behind that gleam the enormous incisors of the Colosseum. I think about the story of the hotel rooms I’ve stayed in while I’ve been on tour. In northern Germany, melancholy square double bedrooms with a rustic feel and a luxury that amazed me. Further north, purple or mustard patterned carpets, rooms which chilled or nauseated me, all of them overheated. Instead of enjoying a view of chimney pots or shrubby pedestrian precincts, I watched TV for hours at a time. Like someone chained to the bed, I shuddered at the sight of politicians, priests and sportsmen, waffling entertainers in gloomy brewery cellars.
Still further north, in Sweden, I was brought to a room completely lined in blood-red velvet. Outside it was pitch dark and cold, Stockholm in never-ending rain. I sat tight in that room; the blood-red walls flowed over my hands and feet, trickled over my body. I showered half a dozen times and switched on every available lamp. Rainwater clung to bull’s eye window panes as thick as my finger; the only window looked out onto a murky inner courtyard into which, I imagined, a small girl with red glowing eyes and a slit throat was throwing herself, over and over again. Stockholm, an ode full of blood; through my mind ran images of murder, incest, torture and refined methods of mutilation. After ten days I traveled on to Helsinki. There I was met by pure coffin wood, the euphoria of a hotel room lined with pale pinewood. Pinewood, wherever I looked: there wasn’t half an inch in this shack that wasn’t made of that wood. The bed and the walls, the rails and the shower, the breakfast dishes and the chairs and tables—everything was made of pinewood. Looking out of the window, I still saw nothing but pine trees, though in between was sand and a few heavy birches, and in the distance, where the wet black sky stuck, a dreary sea. Not the foamy, steel blue sea of the south, but a northern sea welded tightly into the horizon, heaving up and down, thick and filthy. Up here, life came to an end; obscene fact, everything lay limply on the ground and wallowed in its own oily daze.
Now I couldn’t leave my escapology exercises alone. Barely awake out of my deep sea sleep, I had to drag the heavy trunk out from under the bed. No day without practice. To brighten up my previous appearance in Gera, which is in what used to be East Germany, I tried again to get out of the Butcher’s Knot. This made people think of oven roasts and corned beef, so it got a lot of applause. It is also called the Jam Knot. I wriggled across the floor of my room, lashed a double loop around my legs, and tied up the top half of my body alternately with Bowline and Packer’s Knots. And for my arms, which have to be free so I can tie myself up, I have two artificial ones from shop window dummies that I tie to my torso. The pressure of the ropes immediately brought to mind a vivid memory of the hard floor of what were once the Russian barracks in Gera. Applied the Barrel Knot (relatively compact, doesn’t come undone and doesn’t cramp you) out of which tangle I freed myself in approximately a quarter of an hour. Too long for a Roman audience! I got pointlessly sweaty with the Swivel Hitch: the climate here doesn’t permit violent exertion. All the northern sorts of knots have to be dropped. Thought of the southern Trumpet Hitch, a Single-Strand Stopper, with which I tied myself to a chair leg so as not to escape too quickly.
It’s five o’clock in the afternoon. I stand at the bull’s eye and watch the play of the birds. In tight formation they climb over St. Peter’s, fly like bullets from the treetops and rise in flocks over the gardens. In the air the group forms the wildest, most exuberant shapes, runs away like a stream, falls and splashes and trickles on, forms soft waves pushed by the wind, is pulled away by a flying formation at the tip, a loose amoeba mass. Shortly after, it shapes itself into an arrow, shoots straight down towards a dome, a tower, and, just before hitting it, broadens into a wide sheet, an ever-turning mobile, a fluttering flag, which straightaway dissolves and disintegrates into hundreds of delicate spots, the grain pattern of the sky like black raindrops held lightly in the hand and dripping downwards, and then, over a little wood, a hidden garden, vanish from my sight.
But my world is not really the study, it’s the circus. Already, as a child, I played hooky from school on hot June mornings, to watch our national circus arrive at the village’s disused railway station. Scarcely had I seen the train of red and white carriages standing on the tracks in the siding, when the big doors opened and dark-skinned circus hands in light red livery pulled the animals into the open. Spitting lamas and sleepwalking zebras were dragged along the narrow ramp. Chewing on soggy Manger Hitches, camels came swaying from the interior of carriages that smelt of straw and dung. My favorites were the elephants which, linking trunks to tails, formed a lazy tooting trumpeting train through the village and left their huge cones everywhere. I stood excited amidst the din of foreign voices—Moroccans, Algerians, Liberians; the big wide world had broken into our nutshell and I was consumed for the first time with wanderlust. During the afternoon I prowled around the village green where the circus tent was being erected. The Dry Weather Hitch and the Bad Weather Hitch were tied to the poles, the Wet Weather Hitch thrown around the colorful posts; I watched and got the circus hands to explain everything to me. The iron tent pegs were moored to the corner post loops and the whole framework was made weatherproof with various Crossing Knots. The Maiden Knot and the Buttercup Knot would draw up the corners of the acrobats’ safety nets, after which, with a Slip Tackle Knot on the central tent pole, they hoisted the top of the tent. Finally the whole circus was up, including the Big Top and the stalls on the meadow, like a Fata Morgana of my school house. And I wandered along past the animals’ cages, a small exotic figure among noisy exotic circus figures.
It was as a performer that I finally returned to the circus. For as an adolescent I was introduced by a writer from Aargau to a legend which overnight turned my life upside down: Harry Houdini. The greatest escape artist of all time, the supreme magician of the supernatural, the king of escapees from every imaginable prison, a seducer and an illusionist, and an actor who was crazy about death, a self-made man selling a show, a spectacle—in short, a cloud of identities which were all called Houdini. For over half a century Houdini had been dead, disappeared, lost, had made his exit in a moment of ridiculous carelessness when a wiseguy student had a go at punching him in the appendix. But perhaps the story of the perforated appendix was much too convenient a legend, and the organizer of tricks, by that time of biblical age, had simply once and for all disappeared. That is how I imagined it, that’s how I wanted it, secretly. For the man who was really called Erich Weiss, Jewish by birth, had his whole life practiced disappearing acts, only to be miraculously reborn each time anew.
There had been times when it was my most ardent wish to disappear from the face of the earth, to put my birth into reverse. At these moments, moments in which I would have to spell out my name to believe in my own reality, I wanted more than anything to carry out one of Houdini’s suicide arrangements. And at the same time, because of my self doubt and my self destructiveness, I was longing to be reborn into a different, strange existence. Only my brother knew how little my life meant to me at that time.
I pored over Houdini’s biography as though it were a palimpsest of my own stunted existence. An adolescent mortally disappointed by life, I threw myself hungrily at his acts, at his absolutely crazy example of lawlessness and mocking of the philistines, and I tried to see what was behind the conjurer’s curtain. In a big wooden packing crate he had himself lowered by crane into a harbor, then he freed himself from his shackles, opened the crate underwater and carefully closed it behind him before coming up to the surface. Or, upside down and with his hands tied with the Houdini knot behind his back—a Strangle Knot round both wrists—he had a helicopter carry him over the rooftops at the end of a burning rope. Before the rope had burnt through, he would bow skywards to dazzle his spectators. Sailors of the British Navy tied him to the muzzle of an eight hundred kilo Howitzer so that, using his toes as fingers, he could make his escape minutes before it was fired. Had he failed, they would have had to collect his pieces from every direction the wind blew.
But that was not what fascinated me. It wasn’t the stunt with the milk churn either, which, filled to the brim with water, contained the bound artist like an embryo, blind and with gummed eyelids, in a jar of formaldehyde. Behind all this was hidden, ultimately, nothing miraculous so much as a dexterity honed to perfection, and experience. It was much more the Jew, Erich Weiss, son of a rabbi immigrant from Budapest to the United States, who was still cutting out the lining for ties at fourteen, and at seventeen had made his debut as a master of ceremonies and mediocre conjurer performing terribly boring card tricks, only to then go on to become the most brilliant acrobat and deceiver of the public alive. It was the absolute self control, the willpower of an immigrant who suffered in his soul from a morbid sense of rootlessness and who illustrated his self deliverance so that it became art, rehearsing with each new stunt his faked resurrection. And who, once he had found his identity, gave it away piecemeal to a greedy public. In the mass of the world’s uprooted nomads, Houdini sticks out like a lighthouse, a death addict who broke the shackles of his origins and anonymity.
The older he got, the more lavish, pompous and extravagant his acts became. In Boston he got himself sewn into a stuffed whale. In Paris he jumped from the morgue wall into the river, cheating death shamelessly. He always chose new settings so as to make his parodies of suicide appear ever more realistic and sensational. In Dresden he had himself tied to the railway of the Berlin-Dresden Express, but the train arrived sooner than expected and Houdini threw himself to the side of the track just in time, the wheels missing his body by a fraction of an inch. Once again he rose from the dust, smiling.
But perhaps his craziest performance was with the Chinese water torture cell. At the center of the ring stood a mahogany box, as big as a man and framed in steel. The front panel was made of glass, so that the audience could verify the act. Upside down—accentuating as always the unnatural, the perverse—he was lowered into the water-filled cell, an awful image that brought to mind other real torture cells. The two assistants standing by with huge axes to smash the glass in case of emergency demonstrated that this was no trick.
Houdini experimented with chains and handcuffs, which from time to time he got policemen to put on him—once naked, even, to prove that he did not have a duplicate key. He got the idea of trying a stunt with a straitjacket after visiting a lunatic asylum. Time and again, such cross references to the reality outside the circus gave his acts a false bottom, something even rather horrible. And through his performance he paid homage to those people who liberate themselves, imprisoned by fate though they were. Houdini was a suicide who, thanks to his art, persuaded himself to go on living.
Handcuffs, cranes, bridges, helicopters—he always worked at the highest technical level. And if his images needed to convince the public of his day, I thought, the technical requirements of today must be incomparably greater. Like my American colleague who got himself locked into a safe on the thirteenth floor of a skyscraper. He had given the go-ahead to be blown up, but just minutes before the thing was reduced to ashes and rubble walked smiling through the door.
These enormous requirements, which were only a hindrance to traveling, bothered me. I decided to construct my acts as easily and genuinely as possible. Instead of handcuffs and chains, I would use shackles made of string and rope. My public was dear to me, but first and foremost I wanted to do escapology for myself.
I started off in a run-down provincial circus, in a muggy tent where a Czech or Polish band played noisy marches. The circus manager himself sold the entrance tickets, introduced the next act in a fit of animation, and from time to time raked the trampled sawdust. Sometimes he even did some dressage with an elderly nag, or came on as a clown with his adolescent son. In between, the artists waved their hands around in a depressing act with monkeys and chased a frightened miniature poodle through a ring of fire. Plates fell in heaps from the juggler’s hands, but the audience just clapped all the more loudly; that was the year I learnt about sentimentality. Instead of admiration, these performers lived on pity. Instead of perfection they sold something that was cobbled together, something so amateurish that unintentionally it became cabaret.
But even the oddest, most pathetic acts contained glorious images that were completely lacking for me outside the circus. A dainty, rail-thin lady danced triumphantly on her enormous husband’s muscles and through a burning wheel. A rider artist bent backwards on her pony, her hair almost mingling with its tail and coming dangerously close to brushing the floor, not to mention the trapeze artists who defied gravity time and again, or the snake lady in a skintight fish net costume who, apparently without a bone in her body, tied herself into complex seductive knots.
The surface of the lake, which to Daniel seemed nothing like a lake, was reminiscent of elephant skin. He pushed the tips of his shoes into the grey viscous mass, which splashed gurgling over the leather. The one-armed man grinned and said proudly, "Yeah buy, dad dangeea, bui careful, buy."
He gestured with his arm to a place not far from where they stood. There, exactly there, someone had recently sunk and gone under. Drunk, or something. Choked. Slowly gone into the asphalt. Daniel wondered how he remembered the spot so well.
What was asphalt? If he remembered right, something composed of all sorts of other things. Wood, rubbish, grass, digested things, rancid things, fallen down things, which had been rotting in the earth for thousands of years. Fermentation process, natural change, transformation. Processes of decomposition and decay. What came up here was the transformed contents of the earth’s guts. Elephant arse skin, which was used elsewhere as a road surface.
The one-armed man did not know anything more about that either.
It was the biggest natural asphalt deposit in the world, he said, in the tone of a well-informed tour guide. Daniel thought he detected a certain national pride. Export import, said the black man.
But what did this asphalt consist of, Daniel wanted to know. The black man took two impulsive steps forward and tore the red, gold and green woolly hat from his head, so that his wonderful head of hair fell amazingly thick around his shoulders. Hair like greasy, carved noodles.
He wasn’t from here, he admitted.
He wasn’t either, said Daniel obligingly. He came from Europe.
The one-armed man pulled him further out into the lake. Daniel had no choice but to go along. He stepped as accurately as he could in his guide’s footsteps. There were definitely harder and softer places, though the soft ones seemed to be very soft.
How long did it take for a person to turn completely into asphalt?
In the middle of the lake, Daniel suddenly felt that this was a trap. The one-armed man struck a match on the sole of his shoe and lit a joint. Daniel had only seen this in films.
The black man was a dreadlock, a Rastaman. He talked about Babylon. Babylon was everything that was bad, Babylon was capitalism, the white man’s world, Babylon was money and corruption and racism.
The one-armed man had come to the island several years before. When he said this, Daniel guessed what he meant. The then black premier, an intellectual who had written an excellent book on slavery, had probably brought him to the island. In those days, as Daniel knew, the premier appeared to be losing power to an alliance of whites and Indians. So he imported huge numbers of blacks from neighboring islands to increase the black vote against the non-black. On the island, the imported blacks were considered to be lazy, stupid and parasitic. Whether they came from Dominica, Grenada or Jamaica, for the Indians and the white upper class they were true foreigners.
Why had he stayed here, asked Daniel.
The Dreadlock described a patient circle with his arm, said "Metogobaacktoaffrica," and repeated the impressive gesture, which, because of the long snaking word, almost took on another meaning.
"All here Babylon," he said, and stared vacantly into the distance, past the lake shore to where the jungle began, or even further, further towards Africa. Daniel was enveloped in a cloud of marijuana smoke.
When the Rasta’s gaze had circled the earth, he began to bless the ship which would soon take him away from this goddamned island. To Africa, homeland, motherland. To the land of the divine one, the Rastafari who, Daniel had read, was one and the same as the rather wretched character called Haile Selassie. A little man whom he had seen earlier on the news. How much did the Rasta want to make with his crazy theory?
They came as slaves, and slaves they are still, he remarked triumphantly. His raised voice showed clearly that he wasn’t giving his words away cheaply. Slaves of the great whore Babylon, he said, which one day, when the Black Ship came, would perish. Daniel remembered that Rastas didn’t as a rule like to wash. At any rate, not with soap.
He looked hard at him and found, probably because of his maiming, that he did indeed look like an escaped slave. If one of his arms hadn’t been missing, Daniel would very likely have been afraid of him. He was somehow disappointed not to have a genuine Trinidad native in front of him.
Why did he want to leave, asked Daniel cautiously.
"What you need to live," replied the Rasta, "what you eat and what you drink, must be pure. Here, everything’s filthy. Here there’s a goddamn load of muck, everything that comes from America, Chicken Nuggets and Coca Cola and whisky and beer," he said, and dragged on his joint. The capital was the worst Babylon. And there were a goddamn lot of filthy people in this country.
"I understand," said Daniel, and felt a dry choking feeling in his throat that almost made him cough. And then, in the middle of the lake, the Rasta stretched out his hand. Far and wide there was still not a soul to be seen. The man really stretched his arm out towards him, like the chewed-up barrel of a machine gun, and demanded fifty Trinidad dollars.
Daniel did not know why, but suddenly the one-armed man ran off. Was he disappointed because Daniel did not want to pay the sum he had asked for?
Daniel followed him, and gradually understood, better with each step, as it were, the underhand logic of his behavior. The one-armed man didn’t actually run, he just crept damn fast over the elephant arse skin, not allowing Daniel to take note of the places where he stepped. Even if he had been quick enough, he would only have seen half-erased footprints. The Rasta placed his footsteps cleverly, and he zigzagged as he ran, like a frightened rabbit. And he did it certainly not for the first time.
One false step and Daniel was already stuck fast and sinking in with both feet. The slime gurgled up to his socks. Daniel prepared to sacrifice his shoes.
But the slurping mush crept grimly onwards; the socks disappeared; the turnups—how long would it take for a person to turn into asphalt? In the end, only a leg would stick out, stick out of the lake at an angle. Out of Trinidad’s famous asphalt lake.
And then, amazingly, the distance between him and the one-armed man began to decrease. The Rasta quickly made a couple of decorative loops before he planted himself in front of him with devilish coolness.
Daniel had to pay double to be set free.
Unfortunately, shoes and trousers had bitten the dust.
Full of melancholy, he drove through the sugar-cane fields back towards the capital in the heat of the late afternoon. He took the land route, passing through dusty, dirty villages whose roads were often more like mule tracks. The people squatted like blocks of wood in the shade and tanked up with beer. From the bars came the shouts and howls of a cricket match.
His sadness grew into misery. He stopped in front of a wooden stand with a corrugated iron roof. In the corner lay two blacks, dozing. The smell of their bodies soothed him pleasantly. He drank some beer, with which each successive bottle became a little cheaper.
In the twilight he drove on further, through grassy plains which bordered the edge of the jungle. At a resting place he got out of the car to urinate. Dazzled by the sloping setting sun, he stood a long time in front of the forest and listened. The jungle lay like a panting monster in front of him; neither light nor color could penetrate it. But distant sounds pervaded the tense silence. From the innermost depths he heard a croaking sound, a mysterious sawing, chopping and chirping. Behind the green wall lay an eerie choir of invisible animals, shapes without heart or outline, giving off a groaning breath that came out of its darkest entrails. When he was about to get into the car again, he noticed the high plaster pedestal, on which stood a life-size statue. He circled the statue and looked up at a wooden Indian, faded and made brittle by the terrible heat, an Indian without headdress and dressed only in a loincloth. It was a baked piece of wood, motionless, staring back into the dark history of the land. On the pedestal was written in weathered script: The Last Carib.
So, there he was then, the native, whom Columbus called the Indian because he believed himself to be in India, while the immigrant Indians of today came from the East Indies, though everyone called them West Indians. Anyway, West Indian East Indians, or East Indian West Indians, were now in the place of the Indians who, except for this wooden carving, had all, long ago, been wiped out.