‘Monsters Like Us’ by Ulrike Almut Sandig: An Excerpt
What is it like to be young and broken in a country that is on the brink of collapse? This is what acclaimed poet and sound artist Ulrike Almut Sandig shows us in her debut novel, through the story of old friends Ruth and Viktor in the last days of Communist East Germany. The two central characters are inseparable since kindergarten, but they are forced to go their different ways to escape their difficult childhood: Ruth into music and the life of a professional musician; Viktor into violence and a neo-Nazi gang. Monsters Like Us is a story of families, a story of abuse, a story about the search for redemption and the ways it takes shape over generations. More than anything, it is about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and who we want to be. Bold, brutal, and lyrical, this is a coming-of-age novel that charts the hidden violence of the world we live in today.
Forthcoming in March 2022
Pre-order Monsters like Us here.
On Saturday mornings Pap came into our room in his striped pyjamas and lay down with my brother on his bed. They lay on their backs, side by side, Pap with his arms crossed under his head and Fly with his messy crewcut resting on Pap’s upper arm. They were looking at the cracks in the ceiling and carrying on a conversation under their breath. I caught very little as I was jumping about on my mattress and Mother was shovelling the cold ashes from that morning out of the grate. I cannot remember ever being cold.
There was only one occasion I really was cold: after the skating. From somewhere or other Mother had procured some white ice skates for me; wearing them I felt myself standing upright as if on a knife blade, not like in Fly’s worn out ice-hockey boots, where the blades always leant lopsided on the ice. I had stood straight as a dye on the local pond enjoying the upright position, while my mother was chatting with a neighbour. The snow from the night before still hung in the trees on the bank and the older kids from the village were playing ice hockey in the middle of the pond. Laughter and shouting, they passed the puck back and forth between them, every so often helping themselves to beer from a crate in the boot of a Trabi they had driven right out onto the ice. The lid of the boot was propped open and, in spite of the cold, the stink of petrol wafted over to my mother and me—probably there was a couple on the back seat snogging in the warmth of the running engine.
The puck made a noise that came back to mind much later, at the Sydney Opera House, when a clarinettist was playing a tricky solo, one without notes and structured only by the clicking of his keys, creating a sound that cut as dryly through the dark interior walls of his instrument as the puck over the cloudy white ice. To this day, woodwind instruments always come to mind when think about ice hockey.
When my mother had finished her conversation, she took me by the mitten and finally, finally, it was time. There was quite a crowd. With stiff movements, more running than gliding, I moved along beside her. Steam rose out of our mouths. My mother turned and circled around me smoothly, talking to me non-stop. If I didn’t want to miss what she was telling me, I had to listen all the time. No, I used to be much better at it, she said, but not at your age. That’s not bad, Ruth! But careful, not over there, two girls drowned here last year. Didn’t you know that? Concentrate, a pirouette, like that—and then that! When we got back to the edge of the pond, the youngsters had finished their game, the Trabi was just setting off, followed by the laughter of the group that trotted off the ice behind it. When my mother took off my skates, I started to wail. My feet and hands were stiff and smarted as if they were really on a knife edge. Mechanically, I trotted after my mother, across the large meadow, the cow bridge, past the football field and down the Straße der Jugend. I was yelping with pain When we got home, she pushed me into the bathroom and filled the sink with lukewarm water. Ow, Ow, you’re scalding me, I whimpered as I slipped my hands into the water. It just seems like that, Mother reassured me. It’s the difference in temperature. Fly and I were the only ones in the family she spoke to like adults. She spoke to Pap as if she were a child herself. That was how it was with us, Voitto.
The chores associated with heating were divided by age. I fetched wood, my older brother got the coal. Once a year the coal van came and poured a black mountain into our yard, higher, much higher than Fly’s protruding ears. It took him three afternoons to shovel the coal into the shed, while my mother kept going up to the window and muttering: He’ll never do it, he’s way too small. And Pap explained, He’s a boy. He’ll do it. Ruth, go and get the wood.
The logs lay next to the washhouse in a storeroom without any lights. Cobwebs hung in the door frame. The bigger I got, the lower I had to bend so as not to get them in my hair. As I picked up the logs in the darkness, I could hear from outside the sounds of Fly throwing coal into the coal shed. Later, in the evening, he would sit at the supper table with his face smeared with coal dust that only made his eyes shine even more seriously. I wanted to shovel coal too.
In the endless evenings of my childhood, my mother would sit by our beds at bedtime and wrestle with some inner demon. But then she would play us songs on her recorder. Another, one more, my brother and I shouted, and my mother would give a pained smile and say she couldn’t play and more. When she was out of the room, I could still feet her soft skin on my forehead and cheeks, and I could still hear clumsy recorder melody ringing in my ears.
Once I dreamt that my mother had a bald patch like Pap. Bald with a balustrade, Fly would have said, from the song, because of the sparse ring of hair at the back of his head and at the sides, but he did not come into this dream. Our parents looked so similar to one another that I could hardly tell them apart. Mother was sitting in the middle of the nursery with her head lowered while Pap was lecturing her. I watched for a while and thought she was grumpy because Pap was talking so much, which was normally her prerogative. Then I looked at his hands. Pap was standing next to my mother; then he took a chisel and split the edges of her bald patch. She cracked like a coconut at Christmas, and my mother held her skull in her hands, and cried and cried.