German Dolls

In Words Without Borders, a translation of Pedro Rosa Mendes’ German Dolls:

“German Dolls” takes Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) to Berlin. It is a text about memories–false and inaccurate, as memories always are–and how they interfere with the places we inhabit, the places we best know by getting lost in them (in the sense of choosing to vanish into them). Pessoa grew up in Durban and wrote his first poems in English. Apart from two trips from Portugal to South Africa, he rarely traveled, and so far as I know was never in Berlin. But his invention of identities, like different layers of one’s self–the heteronymus–has everything to do with a city, Berlin, that hides its true identity, and its memories, behind names that are recognizable only from the inside. To a stranger, they lead nowhere. I wanted to work on a metamorphosis of the Poet into a dog. Pessoa used more than seventy heteronyms, some of them discovered only recently by scholars studying his handwritten papers. It made sense to me to imagine Pessoa as a Stasi agent, playing a game with a city, and a society, where everyone could spy on everyone, living a double life and reporting to a “master”–a Poet, let’s say, or a demiurge–who had the key to everyone’s true identity.–Pedro Rosa Mendes

Berlin is lost,

(he said, licking the back of his hand)

lost on the map. It’s a tropical city in exile. Or in hibernation. The only tropical city in the north of Europe.

(licking slowly, very slowly)

It gets cold here. By chance, it gets extremely cold in this land. Once a year-in the winter. Isn’t that incredible? That’s not normal in the tropics. Snow. Every year, this chill. Have you ever been frostbitten? Implacable.

(there is a thermometer outside the window. it shows seventeen below zero)

The chill is a dog that doesn’t bark. It installs itself. You have a sense that the cold is eating away your bones. You try to melt the pain, but you feel your extremities turning to stone. The mercury finally bites into the nape of your neck. You lose the ability to move.