The Naked Eye
An eye on film, affixed to an unconscious body. The eye sees nothing for the camera has already robbed it of vision. The gaze of the nameless lens licks the floor like a detective without grammar. A doll, another doll, a stuffed animal, a vase, cacti, a television, electrical cords, a basket, the corner of a sofa, a bit of rug, tea-biscuit crumbs, sugar cubes, an old family photograph. The photograph shows a girl looking up and to the side; there’s nothing there. The girl’s one eye grows larger and larger as the focus changes, more and more blurred—now it resembles a speck on a sheet of paper. Who will be able to guess, later on, that this speck was once an eye? The camera slowly retreats. Beside an overturned sofa, a cabinet is standing upside-down. It isn’t possible to reconstruct a story from this landscape of ruins.
In this film I saw you for the first time. One year before, I was attending high school in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, which was often still referred to by this name. In the eyes of the teachers, I was the pupil with the iron blouse. My grades were unrivalled. That spring our school received a letter from the German Democratic Republic inviting us to send one student to an International Youth Conference to be held in Berlin. The organizers were hoping to hear an authentic report on the topic “Vietnam As a Victim of American Imperialism.” The principal of our school had good contacts in the GDR and had been there himself. He’d told us several times about his visit to Berlin and a certain “Pergamon Museum.” “Pergamon” sounded like the name of a migratory bird, and it amused us to picture the Berlin skies with this bird flapping around in them. The teachers held a special meeting and ended up choosing me. The essays I wrote were generally lucid, and I also had the voice of a crane, which was why I’d often been chosen to speak at sports festivals or receptions for official visitors. Besides, I probably gave the impression of being difficult to seduce.
It was my first time on an airplane. I was looking forward to the trip, and it never occurred to me that I might be in any danger. But as the faces of my family and friends who’d brought me to the airport were slightly distorted with fear, I began to feel concerned. Maybe there was something they’d hidden from me so I wouldn’t be scared. But what could it be? I had no idea how the mechanism of an airplane functioned, but I was nonetheless convinced that my airplane was in perfect working order. I had never before set foot in such a large, hard, spotlessly clean vehicle. My older brother’s motorcycle, for example, was nothing but a rusty ox full of dents and scratches. Who knew if it still had all its screws. Compared to this motorcycle the Interflug airplane, which no doubt had “Made in Germany” stamped on it somewhere, appeared to me completely trustworthy.
After I fastened my seatbelt and pulled it snug, I felt a great sense of relief. From this point on, anything that might happen would no longer be my responsibility. I drank my ration of water and fell asleep. Now and then I felt the cold window pressing against my left temple and woke up.
In Berlin I was met by two young men. At first I was a bit surprised because they looked just like Americans. But then they greeted me in Russian, which was reassuring. “Welcome! How was your journey with our Interflug?” One of them took my suitcase from me. He appeared to be rather horrified, no doubt because it was unexpectedly light. The other one was trying to insert his index and middle fingers into the front pocket of his jeans, but in reality there was no pocket. At the same time, he was looking at the buttons of my white blouse. When our eyes met, he grinned. In certain streets in Saigon there were ill-mannered youths who grinned like this. They wore jeans manufactured in Thailand or the GDR and spent the whole day observing the passersby instead of going to work. I wondered whether this man really was a Party member. Our eyes met once more, and this time he smiled in a more respectable way.
Berlin was an enormous trade show of old palaces. If a sort of inflation exists that applies to ruins, it must look something like this. Such magnificent buildings repeated over and over ad nauseum look ostentatious and disconnected. Despite the grandeur of its architecture, though, the city couldn’t be prosperous, for there were no delicacies anywhere on the streets: no stands selling noodle soup, no fruit markets or coconut vendors. You couldn’t smell any food at all. My uncle had said to me before my departure: “Too bad you aren’t going to Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Bulgaria would have been tasty, too. But Germany!” At first I was somewhat aggrieved to hear these words from my flippant uncle, yet perhaps he was right. The Hungarians and Czechs, he explained, knew how to produce good peppers and were excellent cooks. And in Bulgaria you could not only eat good cucumbers, tomatoes, and yoghurt, you also had your choice of excellent hot and cold springs for bathing. My uncle owned a fat, brown Czech motorcycle that he’d bought from the army and repaired himself. He polished it regularly and was quite proud of it. My older brother, however, would say disparagingly to his friends: “Just look! It’s our uncle’s fat Czech Buddha!” My uncle in turn despised the old, tiny Honda moped my brother had bought secondhand at the market. He thought it was effeminate.
My talk was scheduled for the following day. I was then invited to spend another five nights at the hotel. I had never seen such a gigantic hotel. It was like a beehive with innumerable windows—from the outside you couldn’t tell if the windows were open or shut. I remembered a different uncle who’d studied agricultural technology here and then died soon after returning home. Next to the hotel, an enormous statue of an onion blossom rose into the air. The sphere at its tip gleamed like the roof of a Thai temple. “This tower is forty-four meters higher than the Eiffel Tower,” said one of my young hosts. And the other added, laughing: “But its root is short.” “Have you ever been to Paris?” I asked. Both of them shook their heads from side to side in unison. Then all three of us burst out laughing without knowing why.
The woman working at the hotel’s reception desk looked like the principal of a school. While giving me the key she explained something in German which one of the two men immediately translated into Russian for me. “A Russian rock band will be performing tonight at the hotel restaurant. Free of charge. Perhaps you’d like to go.” He pointed down the dim corridor where the restaurant was apparently located. Then we arranged to meet the following day. My chaperones wanted to pick me up at the hotel at nine in the morning and bring me to the conference site. I was hungry. As soon as the two of them had disappeared through the hotel’s front door, I hurried to the restaurant. It was still closed. “Opening times 6:00 – 10:00 p.m.” Even a luxurious hotel restaurant here couldn’t afford to serve meals for more than four hours a day. The distribution of foodstuffs in this country seemed not to be functioning optimally. I went to my room, which looked tidy, swept, mopped, and polished. It smelled of unfamiliar chemicals.
I took my manuscript out of my suitcase. Although I had practiced with my Russian teacher every day for a week reading my essay aloud, suddenly I couldn’t remember a single line of it. I read the whole thing aloud to myself once through. In a foreign country, even my own handwriting looked questionable.
At exactly six I left my room to go to the restaurant. The door to the restaurant was no longer locked, but there wasn’t a single customer inside. After a while an ill-humored waiter brought me a bilingual menu, Russian and German. He never returned so I got up and went to the kitchen to look for him. Among the large shiny silver pots and vessels I saw the waiter reading a magazine. “I would like to order soup and a salad,” I said in Russian. “We have such things nyet.” “So what do you have?” “Steak.” “I don’t want to eat meat. Can I order just potatoes?” The waiter got up and disappeared out back. I wasn’t sure whether to read this as hope or resignation with regard to the potatoes.
A man with narrow hips who looked like a sailor appeared on the stage and began tuning his electric guitar. He was wearing green bellbottoms and a tight, frivolously shiny polyester shirt with a sunflower pattern. He stamped his feet, possibly to keep the cables that were lying on the stage like a family of snakes from wrapping around his legs. His shoes were narrow, pointed and the same shade of white as the sweet tofu served for dessert in China. Yet another black-haired musician appeared. He looked exactly like Nikita from my illustrated language textbook. “Is Nikita home?” “No, he is not home.” So where has Nikita gone if he’s no longer at home? Did he go to Germany like me? “When is he coming home?” “I don’t know.” The practice sentences from my textbook were slipping back into my head. I always got good grades in Russian, but there was one grammatical rule to which I had a physical aversion: the genitive of negation. A person who was absent was no longer allowed to exist in the nominative case, as though he were no longer a subject.
There still wasn’t a single other guest in the restaurant. Nikita was glancing about absent-mindedly, and one of his glances swept past me. I was only a piece of furniture like a chair or table. Yet another man in a brown shirt came on stage and put his electric bass under his arm. My little brother would have been excited to see this concert. He once tore down the poster of Sputnik our father had given him and in its place put up a poster of a sweaty rock band posing beneath a colorful shower of lights.
The musicians finished their sound check and went backstage. My potatoes still didn’t come. Perhaps they, too, had already been transformed into the inedible genitive on account of their absence.
The restaurant seemed strangely familiar. It resembled a government reception hall in Saigon. If it hadn’t been for the absence of food, I’d almost have felt at home. Soon a large group of Russian tourists sat down, and an air of merriment filled the room.
The potatoes still didn’t come. Instead of the waiter, a reindeer appeared before me. The reindeer was knitted into the sweater of a young man whose blond hair grew down to his shoulders. “May I join you?” he asked me in Russian with an unusual accent. I’d scarcely nodded before he was sitting beside me. “Where are you from?” He was using the familiar form of address even though we didn’t yet know each other. “Vietnam.” He gave a downy smile and replied that he was from Bochum. I hadn’t even asked where he was from, and I’d never before heard the name “Bochum.” It sounded more like a cough than the name of a town. “Is Bochum near Berlin?” “Around six hours by train, I think.” “That means it’s on the Czech border.” “No, the closest border is Holland, I think.” Of course I knew there was a country called Holland, but the map of Europe in my head was full of blank spots. I could see Russia and Poland clearly, but everything that lay to the west of Berlin was blurry because a sandy desert wind was blowing there. France, too, had to be somewhere. That country had enjoyed our hospitality for a while and therefore was covered in history classes. My great-grandparents on my mother’s side supposedly spoke French, and my mother and several of my school friends felt a vague longing for this country.
The young man ordered vodka for us. I had never before drunk wine, but I’d tried vodka a few times already because my father brought some home now and then as a gift from the Party. Once he showed us the label on the vodka bottle and remarked: “The ending of Stolichnaya is feminine, just like the ending of Moskovskaya.” “Why are they feminine?” “Because vodka is feminine.” “Does it never happen that vodka is given a masculine name?” “Once. The Gorbachev family, who fled to Berlin in 1921 during the revolution, manufactured a vodka sold under the name Wodka Gorbatschow.” “Why was the secretary general of the Communist Party running away from the revolution?” “It wasn’t him, it was someone else.” “So why did this other Gorbachev flee the revolution?” “Because he was very rich and egotistical and didn’t want to share his fortune with others.” “Why did he choose Berlin?” “I don’t know.”
The student from Bochum was named Jörg. For the past year he’d been studying Russian literature in Moscow. Now, on his return journey, he wanted to have a look at “East Berlin.” Why did he say East Berlin and not simply Berlin? At this moment it occurred to me that this “Bochum” might perhaps be situated in the zone occupied by the Americans. My heart, which was already beating quite audibly on account of the vodka, began to beat even faster and louder. “Are your parents already asleep up in their hotel room?” he asked me. “They’re at home in Saigon.” “Did you come to Berlin all on your own?!” “Do I look so young? There are women my age who have children already.” Jörg looked at me in surprise, finished his vodka without a word and ordered another glass. I regretted what I’d just said and added: “Of course, that’s the exception. Women try to get married as late as possible and usually only give birth to a single child. This is our modern notion of population control, which I find quite sensible.” But Jörg seemed utterly uninterested in Vietnamese politics; instead he was gazing attentively at the seam of my white blouse. The waiter who had not brought me a single potato brought us one vodka after the other. Perhaps all the potatoes had turned into vodka. In the First and Third Worlds, it was common political practice to use alcohol and other drugs to numb the population so that people wouldn’t notice their hunger. Yet here I was in the Second World. Why was I getting only vodka and not potatoes?
Jörg started to talk about the Pergamon Museum. I wanted to ask if there really was a bird called Pergamon, but his tongue moved ever more slowly and clumsily. Unable to understand him, I began to get bored. “I’m going to bed,” I told him. He seized my right arm with tong-like fingers and hastily whispered in my ear: “Tomorrow we’re going to Bochum together.” “Most certainly not,” I replied. Jörg pressed his lips against my earlobe and asked: “Don’t you want freedom?” His breath was a vodka ghost. “Why are you talking about freedom? What does freedom have to do with Bochum?” Suddenly electricity shook the air around us. The bass and the electric guitar filled the room with the sound of a gigantic construction site, and the prelude to “Katyusha” began. I saw Jörg’s mouth opening and closing. He was no doubt saying something, but his words were immediately ground to dust by the electric sounds. I said that I couldn’t hear a thing, but I couldn’t even hear the words from my own mouth. We continued our vehement discussion without hearing each other. The large red cloth hanging above the stage displayed the Russian words “Peace to the World.” The letters began to stand out more and more against the background until they dissolved in a blur. When the song was over, I could hear only the sound of my own heart pounding. I remembered that this was the first time in my life I’d ever been to a foreign country. And now a strange man from the enemy half of the world was filling my ears with incomprehensible words. To keep my heart from beating even faster and leaping out of my mouth, I picked up my glass and gulped down what remained of my vodka. Jörg said, his tongue reeling, “It’s such a shame that a woman of your talents is living in the East.” “I was invited to Berlin, not Bochum.” It wasn’t easy to argue against Bochum since I didn’t know anything about this city. Perhaps it was possible to assert that Bochum lacked revolutionary, world-historical importance, or that it had never produced a famous writer who was known even in Vietnam. “Why don’t you want to come with me?” Red spiderwebs stretched across Jörg’s eyes. The musicians began to play again, this time sentimentally. “In my opinion, life has no meaning if I don’t like the food.” “You’ll get used to it right away.” “I don’t speak German.” “It won’t take you long to learn.” Since I didn’t know what else to say, I simply cried out: “I want to go home! Home! Home!” This much I still remember. I heard the lead singer from the band raise his voice to sing: “Rossia, Rossia, Rossia, my homeland!” And the powerful waves of the melody swallowed up my consciousness.