7 Lies About Holger Hiller
7 Lies About Holger Hiller
This short story by Momus was commissioned by Christian Kracht and published, translated into German, in Der Freund in 2004.
When you're deformed you have to be careful not to frighten people. Especially at night. I have that in mind now as I walk ten paces behind a woman on a nocturnal street. What if she should glance round and see my missing ear? Since leaving the crowded fairground where Dr Caligari has been demonstrating hypnotism I've been distressed to see this woman choosing the exact streets that I plan to take. I consider lingering beneath a crooked lamp-post to give her a chance to escape. But no, to stop like that would be too suspicious! I must continue walking behind her. Now she looks back and quickens her pace. I cross to the other side of the street and edge slowly past so that she no longer feels followed. When I come to the stairs leading to the canal I take that route just to be doubly sure of losing her. Imagine my horror, on the towpath lit only by moonlight, to see her once more in front of me! If she looks back, what will she make of a man with no head? I clamber up a steep bank, swing over a fence, stumble clumsily through some garden beds, slink down the side of a house, and reach the narrow alley beyond. Tok, tok, tok! The sound of a woman's shoes is reverberating along this small corridor! I must hide, for what will she make of a man who is only a pelvis, a stout cane, and two legs? I push myself into a cranny and stand very still with my back to the alley, waiting for the footsteps to stop. But when I turn around, she is there in the nook directly opposite, pulling down her underwear, squatting to pee! She will surely catch sight of a hidden, watching man who is only a pair of empty trousers with two feet poking out the bottom! Certainly she will assume the worst and panic! There is no other choice: I must kill her! My two bare white feet fly out of the shadows but all that reaches her throat are ten detached toes, a primitive tribal necklace. As the toes scrabble and scratch her neck, she utters a horrible scream. It echoes long in my ears... but what ears?
I wake in my room at the Hamburg clinic. It all comes back to me. My operation is tomorrow. My left leg has gangrene and will be removed below the knee. I reach for the notebook the doctors have given me and start to record my dream, as they have asked. Just as I am finishing my account, Dr Fehlmann knocks and, without waiting for a reply, enters. He tells me that a diagnosis has been reached. It has nothing to do with gangrene. In fact I am suffering from Munchausen's Syndrome. He tells me that some healthy people with a pathological desire for self-mutilation lie about symptoms in order to have unnecessary surgical procedures performed on them. I am apparently one of them. His voice becomes stern. He asks why I have been lying about my leg. I can offer no explanation. He says that his colleagues have recommended that I be kept in for a few more days 'for observation'. He says that he would like to try a 'displacement therapy'. Instead of lying about my body, he would like me to lie about something harmless. For instance, my favourite artist. Who, for instance, is my favourite musician?
I tell him Holger Hiller.
Holger Hiller is a remarkable man. He deserves to be much more widely known. It is really a terrible injustice that he has been reduced to pulling the levers at a funicular ride inside a mountain in the Austrian town of Graz. As soon as I leave this hospital I shall travel to Graz and seek him out. I believe that if I can interview him, get him to talk about his career, hear his new work, publish it, and persuade prominent figures in the world of music of its brilliance, I can put him where he deserves to be.
All his periods will be re-assessed. His early days as a pupil of Else Grunewalder, herself molded by the great Paul Hindemith. Then of course his album with the electronic pop group Palace Foam Castle. We will sit together inside the mountain, there in his funicular control box, eating two plates of herring and sour cream with spring onion, surrounded by green levers and oily rags. It is tempting to imagine that, as he warms to the subject, Hiller will begin to illustrate his anecdotes with musical examples. He will grab two spanners of different sizes and improvise a composition of tightly-timed clangs and bangs by striking them against the green levers, his red tin toolbox, and a pair of deer antlers affixed to a nearby outcrop of rock. I will join in by unscrewing my prosthetic leg and knocking it against the --
No! says Dr Fehlmann, you do not have a prosthetic leg! There is nothing wrong with the leg you were born with! Start again, please! How did you become interested in Holger Hiller?
I start again.
I was studying literature in the north of Scotland. The 1980s had just begun. In winter it got dark very early. It was too cold to go out, so I huddled under orange bedclothes in my tiny cell. The stark white hall of residence resembled an Arctic research station. Sometimes I would look out of my window and see a stag, a hare, or penguins. Then I would burrow back into my bedclothes and read 'Beowulf'. When it grew late I switched on Old Bill Barleycorn's radio show. Barleycorn relished all that was strange and new and difficult. He spoke in a soft, calm voice, but played records which were noisy, angular, ultra-modern and chaotic. His programme was the only place you could hear the music being made in other parts of Europe. They had 'new waves' happening there too, but they were quite unlike ours. The German New Wave was made up of sounds from a cold parallel world, a sterile, glamourous laboratory. One night Barleycorn played a record by Palais Schaumburg --
Wait! says Dr Fehlmann. You called the group Palace Foam Castle before, but now you've slipped back to using their real name! You must keep lying about this music, otherwise you will start to lie about your body again. Tell me something untrue, please!
I grapple for something suitable.
They... these young musicians, with Hiller at their head, travelled to Britain in 1981. They stayed for six months in Manchester. They were playing melodicas in the background when New Order recorded 'In A Lonely Place'. Their short hair and short leather trousers were mocked by some punks who believed their own short hair and leather trousers were quite different and far superior. The group had to make a dash to escape being beaten up. They came to the bank of a river, leaped onto the backs of four swans, and paddled them to the middle. There, however, three of the swans began to sink. Only Holger Hiller made it to the far side, because his frame was the most fine-boned. He was helped ashore by a shocked and portly man who had witnessed it all. Oliver Muller was covered in blood, having not five minutes before been involved in a car crash. When the ambulance came, Hiller and Muller shared it, and became the best of friends. Hiller was to release all his future records on Muller's label, Museum Records.
Good, tell me more. More about Muller.
Muller was obsessed, fascinated with all things German. But after his car crash he was terrified of travelling. So instead of visiting Germany to find out for himself what the place was like, Muller contented himself with signing fake and real Germans to Museum Records, building up, in release after release, an artificial Germany consisting of fairy tales, the Bauhaus, sinister brownshirts, moths and lightbulbs, humming sounds, aircraft factories, transvestites, ice fields, dwarves, and electronic devices with valves in them. Muller fell asleep every night listening to field recordings of the industrial sounds of the Ruhr Valley in 1928.
Some said that the imaginary Germany constructed over the years by the roster of Museum Records was better than the real thing, or worse, depending on your point of view. Some said that if the real Germany were somehow lost or ruined, its DNA could be found preserved in the cultural petri dishes which were Museum's releases. If the real Germany were lost, an exact scale model could be made by a skilled model-maker using Museum's releases as a blueprint.
The strange thing was, if you looked at the artists' passports, Holger Hiller was the only real German on Museum. But, after signing, he bowed to pressure from Muller, promising never to return to his native land. Hiller married a Japanese video artist and lived in London near Torture Crescent, the street where Museum had its offices in a brutal modernist block. Hiller's uncompromising records didn't sell well, but thanks to his close friendship with Muller he was able to keep releasing them without commercial pressure. Museum had a studio equipped with all the latest gadgets, and Hiller spent long hours there experimenting with samplers, which had just been invented. He started with the Emulator 2, a keyboard which could pitch, truncate or stretch any sound you fed into it, either from a microphone or a recorded source. Because sampling was new, and only a few artists could afford the hugely-expensive Fairlight system. A single Fairlight was so heavy that you had to re-inforce your floor before buying one --
No, no, stop! cries Fehlmann. I read synthesizer magazines when I was a teenager, these are not lies at all! Although the prices were incredible. The Fairlight CMI Series III cost 'a360,000 in 1985.
Exactly, Fehlmann! It wasn't just music fans who were excited. Even film directors at the time talked of nothing else. Werner Herzog, on hearing Holger Hiller's Emulator extravaganza 'Hyperprism', wrote a scenario in which Hiller, wearing a white suit, forces a team of Amazonian labourers to haul a Fairlight CMI IIx over a mountain, hacking away the virgin jungle as they go. Amazingly, despite the humidity and the ants, when it's eventually installed in the opera house the instrument works perfectly, and Hiller is able to sample some of the fiercest passages of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring'.
Fehlmann is suddenly plunged into reverie. I was not always a doctor, he says. In my youth I too was caught up in the mania for digital sampling. I saved my pennies one summer and bought a Synclavier Emulator 2, capable of 17 seconds of sampling at 26.6kHz. I was with Hiller on the island of Helgoland, you know. We performed the 'Guten Morgen Hosen' opera cycle standing in a ring atop a grassy outcrop, swept by powerful winds from Denmark. With open throats we sang of trousers on the exact spot where Hugo Von Hoffmansthal composed the German national anthem in 1841.
I am burning to learn more, but Fehlmann seems to regret his confession. That's probably enough for today, he says. We've made progress. I'll come again at the same time tomorrow. He leaves the room and goes downstairs. Soon I hear him wheeling his bicycle across the garden, closing the iron gate, and cycling off down the road in the direction of the shops.
This morning it has become clear to me -- as clear as a child's lesson -- that my 'hospital' is a private house on a nondescript street somewhere in the suburbs of Hamburg. The scales have fallen from my eyes. Fehlmann is obviously not a doctor, just some crank who finds me amusing. He has adopted me as a Scotch curio, and has been playing his pentatonic scales up and down me as the devil played Martin Luther for bagpipes. Deciding to leave forthwith, I set about packing a knapsack, a rucksack, and a coalsack with whatever possessions I can find. But just as I'm about to leave, a wistful, kittenish mood overcomes me. I spend a while parading up and down in front of a full-length mirror in some of Fehlmann's mother's clothes; high heels, satin dresses and a feather boa. Before I set off, disguised as an apprentice chimney sweep, along the footpaths, towpaths and cowpaths of Germany on my epic trek towards Austria, I decide to leave Fehlmann one last story.
I sit down and carefully unscrew a large fountain pen, open my dark hard-backed dream book, and write in black ink along the top line: 'Holger Hiller's Volvo Commercial'. To please Fehlmann I give my slow, meticulous handwriting a clear psychotic backslant.
HOLGER HILLER'S VOLVO COMMERCIAL
Dusk. The volcanic tundra of northern Sweden. Helicopter shot. We see a procession of sami people in native costume. Some are leading reindeer on leashes. We make a low pass over them, counting perhaps thirty or forty. On the soundtrack an urgent pulsing motif sampled from some work of early 20th century serialism is heard. Suddenly, headlights greet the samis. The sleek form of a black Volvo 850 blocks their path, menacing. But then, in a gesture of welcome, the Volvo's doors are thrown open and the sami file in: ten, twenty, thirty, forty, even the reindeer, all disappear into the car, which shoots off like a train on rails. The Wagnerian music pulses; dry, fragmented, mechanical. Mixed in are delicate high, pure electronic 'plings' and 'poings', little 'tum tum' sounds made with voice and mouth, and deranged, whispered phrases in some kind of Dada-German. As the car rounds a corner, there is a second's silence, then an operatic screech: the unmistakeable, inimitable voice of Billy McKenzie. We see a castle, lit by Roman torches, in magnificent readiness for a splendid reception. The sami file out of the Volvo and assemble on the steps of the castle, where they perform a native dance, shuffling back and forth, waving weather-sticks and ringing bells hung around the necks of the reindeer. Holger Hiller himself, dressed as Thor, emerges onto the balcony and salutes the crowd. Then we see the scene framed from afar with the car in the foreground, the Volvo logo, and the slogan: 'Volvo. Chariot of the Norse.'
Underneath I write an explanatory note:
When Hiller's records failed to sell, he was forced to turn to television commercials to earn his living. This is just one of 136 films he is know to have made. Hiller himself appeared in many of the commercials, with the result that some people, when they see him, get odd flashbacks, subliminal spurts of repressed memory. Some say to themselves 'Isn't that the chariot of the Norse guy? Isn't that Thor?'
Tearing the commercial from its book and leaving the sheet like a banknote on the hall dresser, I heave my three sacks, the rucksack, the knapsack and the coalsack, onto my back and leave the house, setting off in the general direction of Austria.
I will not tell you about the tin mines, the ponies, or the whiskey sponges. I will not tell you about the barmaid, the lucky horse-shoe, or the Bremen zoo spider house. There is no room here, although it would be amusing, to speak of my participation in the mayoral contest at Nymmingen or my stay with the hermits of the Heppelberg. I will gloss over my horrible discovery of an electrocuted telephone repair man at Schloss Rudigen and keep for another occasion the extraordinary reception I was given by the residents of Zeugthein, who mistook me for a long-expected government inspector. None of this need concern you. However, I will pause here to mark with a white stone the dear memory of Miss Elsa-X, the charming young lady I met in the town of Y-Bad, because I have every reason to think her the most wonderful companion of my life, and to regret her death as my single greatest misfortune (and -- it goes without saying -- hers).
Ah, Miss Elsa-X! I will not remember your poor pinched, drowned face, for I cannot bear it. No, I will remember us running through corn fields in summer's longest, happiest days, running hand in hand through orchards, the falcon flying above us, the pony trotting along behind. I stop to sever the gigantic head of a sunflower and pin it to your bosom, even although it sags and almost blocks you entirely from my view. We laugh as you play peek-a-boo behind the huge dead flower head. You are teasing me, Miss Elsa-X, then spreading your arms, inviting me to fall into your bosom, if only I can get past the bloom, which has become quite frightening and is making a sort of moaning sound as I crush it against your full young breasts. And then it is up to the hay loft with the three of us, me, the flower and you, Miss Elsa-X, with the falcon and the pony waiting in the shade for our labours to end! And truly this is the happiness of the world, the foreverness of now, Miss Elsa-X! For even if you are gone, and I have only the dried yellow skeleton of the flower to comfort me, folded in a sappy mess into my knapsack, still moaning with its frankly quite horrible flower moans, nonetheless I have this memory to water, to tend, and to grow. When I reach Holger Hiller I will tell him about you, Miss Elsa-X! I will tell him how you loved to hum the tunes from his first solo album, 'A Bunch of Foulness in the Pit'. I will tell him how we wept together as, dragging our fingers in the lake, we read again the lyrics to 'Oben Im Eck'. I will tell him that your last words were of him, even as you lay like a suffocating mermaid on the shore; for you told me that I must continue, even without you, continue with the falcon and the flower and the pony, continue with the knapsack and the rucksack and the coalsack, continue until I might complete the quest.
I will not speak of the hail blizzards or the faceless ones. I will not speak of death with his iced dagger fingers. I will not speak of the harrowing of Valdoggerel or the screechdemons of Molgaddar. I am clasping my head, Miss Elsa-X, trying to remember the sweet smile you gave me, even pale and pinched by the lakeside, with the sword sinking still in the grip of the terrible hand. I am trying not to think of your sweet blonde tresses surrounding the face of a skull, or your resting place in the wattle hut up by the quartz crags. I am pushing out of my mind the sight of old Eggar in the thunderstorm, hobbling along the ridge and dragging your corpse behind him. Bump! Bump! Bump!
No! No! No! No! Demons pursue me, and my blue waistcoat is spattered with your sacred blood!
But I know you are with me now, Elsa. You have come back from the underworld to witness my moment of glory. For here I am in Graz. Certainly I look like an old man now, a derelict, a beggar. Certainly the falcon is just a feather in my hat now, and the pony is a hide I wrap around me when I sleep in a ditch. Certainly the sunflower is a handful of seeds in the bottom of my rucksack, and the coal sack is a sort of shabby coat, and the knapsack's stick has snapped. But I know that you are still with me as I approach my goal, my moment, the end of my quest, approach the gate to the funicular attraction where Holger Hiller works, pay the funny hunchback in the green ticket box, push the rusty turnstile, and take my place on the steeply-inclined open-sided train.
Soon we will begin. It will be cold in the angled tunnel inside the mountain. I will wrap the pony hide around me, tuck the coal sack close. I will take time to enjoy the ride, feasting my eyes on the strange exhibits, bathed in green light, that spring to life in each cranny as we pass. To the left, the ascension of the goatboy on the glacier. To the right, the cradles containing the twelve digger dwarves. Accompanied by tales we have know since childhood, we will climb deeper and deeper into the heart of the mountain. When there is no more track, and a thin old man asks all to alight, I will stand on the platform under the dripping stalactites and, instead of crossing to the opposite platform for the descent, follow him up the crumbling, dark path that leads to the control box.
And there in the heart of the mountain he will finally, unmistakably be, sitting at his green levers, unsurprised to see me. As I warm my hands at an orange two-barred electric fire, he will put aside the small wooden religious figure he is whittling, pull a lever, stand up, and, with mittened arthritic old man's fingers, rummage on a high shelf for the two round film cannisters containing the master tapes to his greatest album, the record that will ensure his belated, unstoppable acclaim, guarantee his permanent place on Mount Parnassus. As he puts the precious music into my hands, knowing that from this moment on destiny must run like a model train, and nothing can fail, and all will come to pass, Holger Hiller will whisper to me the title of his last record.
'The Owl of Minerva'.