Over the years, Timon Karl Kaleyta has released four albums with his band Susanne Blech, written songs with Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre, and played hundreds of concerts. He studied in Bochum, Madrid, and Düsseldorf, founded the Institut für Zeitgenossenschaft IFZ (Institute for Contemporary Society) and published the non-fiction book Die 100 wichtigsten Dinge (The 100 Most Important Things) before coming to Berlin in 2015 – after financial ruin with music. By chance, he met Johann König and became his gallery manager, caretaker, and later personal assistant, before taking over as editor-in-chief of KÖNIG Magazine from 2017 to 2020.
Today, Kaleyta is a columnist, screen-writer, and most recently, he’s been writing novels. Here’s an excerpt from the final chapter of his award-winning debut, Die Geschichte eines einfachen Mannes (The Story of a Simple Man), published in April 2021.
And so now, with my teeth crumbling away under my fingers and my youth withering away, I stood in front of the void, pounding my fists against the wall. Once again, it felt as if an entire decade, no, as if two decades had passed me by in the past two or three years without taking any notice of me. My time, as was to be expected, was over.
In Berlin, I had tried for days to liberate my hands from their embarrassing softness, as if to once again resist my fate with every last ounce of strength. I had imagined that I could still change something in this manner, so I acquired sandpaper and rubbed my palms and fingertips on it every morning and evening: if my résumé didn’t tell the tale, then at least my hands would belie an energetic life full of work, perhaps lending me a decisive advantage. But no matter how much I worked on them, my hands remained as soft as they had always been. They were cursed, they stuck to me like inalienable bad luck, like a stigma impossible to shed, no matter how hard I tried. Why was it so damn difficult to escape fate?
Every day I left my tiny room a little more hopeless and discouraged, walking aimlessly through the streets of the capital, every day in a different direction, hoping that maybe something would happen, some twist of fate, something with which I could earn just a bit of money, to build courage on the one hand, but, above all, something to prevent me from hitting rock bottom, from becoming homeless, as I fitfully imagined in bed each evening.
I was willing to try anything. Once I even bought a daily newspaper to scour the job offerings in the classifieds, something I had always imagined as a child, but then realized that there were no such things any more. Weren’t even the simplest jobs on offer in exchange for a modest wage?
On my rambles through the city during that first week, I carried my numerous documents and diplomas from Bochum, Madrid, and Düsseldorf around with me all the time, thinking that if I had to spontaneously produce them somewhere, I could pull them out of the hat. But because I had simply put the documents into a plastic bag for lack of an alternative, and because I had once been caught in a heavy storm with it, the documents looked battered and tattered after only a few days, which only made my heart heavier. So I left them at home from then on; I would be able to hand them over later if something happened to come up.
For two days, I had eaten nothing. My reserves were completely used up, and I didn’t have a penny to my name, when I woke up one morning. I was hungry, almost maddeningly hungry. I tried to find something edible in the refrigerator of my roommates, so that I would not have to spend the day with a growling stomach. But apart from a few old hazelnuts in the bottom of the vegetable drawer, which had turned a bit gelatinous, I couldn’t find anything edible that wouldn’t have been culpably missed later. I popped the nuts into my mouth and swallowed them without chewing. I set off for the day with shaky legs and the beginnings of dizziness.
To make matters worse, it was a Sunday, and the rent would be due the very next day. I was drifting through the streets with my head down kicking pebbles in front of me, when suddenly, having almost given up hope again, I found myself standing before a towering bunker complex, in front of which a white marble sculpture as tall as a house had been erected. It represented something abstract, an intangible form that nevertheless fascinated me. Excitedly, I took a few steps around the building and discovered the entrance, a large, heavy, wide-open door made of dark wood, which pointed the way invitingly into a radiantly shining interior, from which a dazzling light streamed out. I waited a few moments to see if perhaps people would come in or go out, if I could learn anything about the place that way. I wanted to go inside this white, wanted to see what it was all about. I had been standing there for a few minutes, when suddenly, there was a loud noise, a swelling scream from inside the building, a loud, passionate cursing. It was the deep, angry rumble of a male voice that was roaring in rage.
“I’ve had enough!” I heard. “Get out of here. You’ve done enough damage!”
I could hear every word, crystal clear, and was startled to see a hunched
man in perhaps his mid-twenties scurrying out of the doorway. He cried bitterly, cupping his hands over his face before turning around once more to shout something unintelligible back into the building, then running away as fast as his feet would carry him. He stumbled and fell onto the sidewalk, but got right back up and kept running. Spellbound, I watched the spectacle, and when the crippled man was several dozen meters away from the building, a portly man in fine garb came hurrying after him through the large entrance door. He stopped in the doorway, holding himself there with one hand, raising his fist in the air and shouting angrily after the young fellow:
“You’re nothing. A nobody!”
I didn’t dare move an inch, wanting to remain undetected, but the man noticed me and his expression turned into a professional smile—he beckoned me to him.
“Come, come on in!” he called out to me. “Have no fear. We are open!”
There was no one else around, so he could only have meant me. I went towards him, anxious and fearful.
“Don’t be bothered by what just happened,” he said jokingly.
I was now standing directly in front of him.
“Go on. Come inside!” he said.
“But... what... what is there here?” I asked uncertainly.
The man looked at me, irritated.
“What is there here?” he asked, as if I had asked something outrageous.
I nodded sheepishly as he let out a loud laugh in his superbly tailored suit. I couldn’t help but feel an almost superhuman admiration for this man.
“There’s something here for everyone, you understand? For everyone who is ready for something new…” he said. “And what that might mean, you’ll have to find out for yourself.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but because I didn’t want to expose myself, I stepped into the building without asking any further questions. After my eyes had adjusted to the dazzling light, I could finally see what this place was all about. On the snow-white walls hung the most colorful, glowing, and by far the most beautiful artworks I had ever laid eyes on. So colorful were they, almost garish, that I had to squint in order to distinguish one from another. Their colors were all in a jumble, swirling into a single entity, an artwork that was shining and beaming in all directions: here a golden sculpture, there a figure covered in diamonds and polished metal surfaces blinding me with its nobility—and in-between, neon-illuminated letters and lights from a thousand rainbows.
Overwhelmed, only now did I discover the price tags placed underneath each work of art—one hundred thousand, two hundred thousand, three hundred thousand, one million euros! It was the exact opposite of my windowless room, my miserable dwelling, which embodied nothing but poverty and in which I had been vegetating like an animal for two months now, surrounded by dreariness and loneliness.
Here everything was clean, immaculately beautiful. I would have laid down on the floor right away, I would have eaten off it, if only I had something to eat. I surveyed the premises as if walking through a lucid dream, intimidated to the core when the gentleman at my back called out to me.
“Go downstairs. But careful! It’s really, really dark down there. And a little dangerous…”
I turned towards him.
“But…” I said, “It’s so beautiful here upstairs. I want to stay…”
“Trust me,” he said more authoritatively. “Or…” he paused, “do you really have a choice?”
I shook my head.
A young lady at the reception, who was talking on the phone with a cautious voice in a language I didn’t recognize, showed me the way with a simple gesture, and as I slowly descended the stairs, I heard a rumbling that grew louder with each step, as the light grew dimmer and dimmer. I descended for what felt like an eternity, it must have been fifteen meters, deeper and deeper, so that I thought I would never arrive. I stepped through a heavy curtain to find myself standing in the middle of a gigantic vault, at the end of which images flickered on a screen to deafening music. Only the light of the projection hinted at how the room might look; under my feet and in front of my eyes everything was black. The repetitive music, the thump of the bass, and a few lurid synthesizer melodies took complete possession of me. Everything was blurry, I could hardly focus on anything, not only because the long descent had robbed me of my last bit of strength; little by little, I began to recognize shapes. Human bodies in wild animal-like embraces, lost in each other, doing inhuman things, penetrating each other, piercing each other and then falling apart again, as if some strange, grim power was toying with them like tiny figurines.
The music glared, louder and louder, from second to second; the images on the screen sucked me in as if these bodies, whose faces I could not make out and who had lost every defining feature, were beckoning me to move and merge with them. I took a careful step towards the huge screen, then I went faster and faster until I was running blindly towards it.
A body pushed itself out of the anthropomorphic mass into the foreground, floating with his head bowed directly towards the camera. He raised his head, revealing his face, which consisted of nothing but a single pair of eyes. He looked directly into the camera, I noticed, or rather he was looking at me, motioning for me to join him and the others, and so I quickened my steps once again. I then stumbled and fell, my left knee having given way to hypoglycemia. I picked myself up again and ran until I stood directly in front of the screen, perceiving only snippets of color. The music was glaring so loudly by now that it drowned out everything around me. It would take just one more step, one more tiny step, for me to enter the screen and be freed from all my agonies, mingling with these bodies forever.
I lifted my left leg as best I could, took a step forward, and fainted.
© Excerpt from Timon Karl Kaleyta’s novel "Die Geschichte eines einfachen Mannes"
© Image Jan Philip Welchering