Book Extracts
The Russian Passenger by Günter Ohnemus

San Francisco
At fifty the good Buddhist takes to the road, leaving all
his belongings behind. His sole possession is a begging
bowl. That’s fine. That’s how it should be, and that’s
probably how one ought to roam the world for the rest
of one’s days. My problem was, there were four million
dollars in my begging bowl and the Mafia were after
me. It was their money. They wanted it back, and they
also wanted the girl, the woman, who was with me:
Sonia Kovalevskaya.
That was around four months ago. Or four years or
four centuries. Or was it five months? Two years ago I
abandoned everything I owned. Or almost everything.
I moved out of the big flat I’d shared with
Ellen, with Ellen and the child, Ellen and our daughter.
With Ellen and Jessie. With Ellen. But that had
been for only a few years. Thereafter I spent twentytwo
years alone in that flat. Until, shortly after my
fiftieth birthday, I sold it all: the flat, the books, the
furniture, the record collection. Almost everything
apart from the things you need when you move into a
one-room flat.
I also threw away nearly all my personal stuff, letters,
photos and papers. And my birth certificate. Today I
couldn’t prove that I was ever born at all. I still have my
ID, of course, and my passport and some insurance
policies and a few other documents. They would probably
suffice to prove my existence. I also have my bank
papers. I’m not a poor man, even though I don’t use
the money in my account – or rather, I haven’t done so
yet. Contacting my bank might prove fatal.
What I found hardest of all was throwing away the
letters and photos and taking the books to a dealer. We
had a couple of thousand books, Ellen and I, and I’d
always thought life without books was impossible. I
haven’t owned a single one since my fiftieth birthday,
even though I’ve read a great deal these past two years.
I often have plenty of time to spare, waiting for a fare.
But now, when I’m through with a book, I simply leave
it lying in some café or dump it in a dustbin. Sometimes,
too, when I’ve finished a book, I offer it to my
passengers. They usually look quite disconcerted.
They’ve just paid for a ride in my cab and given me a
tip, large or small, and then I say thanks and hold a
book under their nose. It startles them every time. My
own reaction would probably be just as disconcerted.
I well remember the young woman I presented with
Marcel Proust’s Combray and Swann in Love two years
ago. I had first read Proust as a young man of twenty,
and now, more than thirty years later, I was giving them
to the prettyish, youngish woman I’d just driven from
Grünwald to Nymphenburg.
I’ve never read them, she said, taking the books. She
now looked prettier still. Most pretty women don’t
know they look still prettier when they’re holding a
copy of Swann in Love. But I do. I was reading Proust
when I met Ellen over thirty years ago. Or was it the
other way round, and had I just met Ellen when I
started to read Proust? Anyway, it was more or less contemporaneous.
I can’t recall which came first, but I do
know that pretty women look even prettier when
they’re holding a copy of Swann in Love. Even Ellen,
who couldn’t have been any prettier than she was,
looked prettier still. These books, I told the puzzled
young woman in the passenger seat beside me, are just
as good as they were thirty years ago, when I read them
for the first time.
She looked at me and said: You don’t look as if you
could have read books like these thirty years ago. I
mean, you don’t look old enough.
Oh, I said, I was an infant prodigy.
She smiled indulgently. Why should I read them?
she asked.
You always have to explain to the younger generation
precisely why they should do something. Above
all, why they ought to read some book or other.
Well, I said, looking at the cover of Combray, that’s
one of the best books ever written.
Maybe, she said, but what was it that appealed to you
particularly? Or who?
Oh, I said, the grandmother. And I told her how the
grandmother always removed the rose supports when
she walked through the garden, to allow the plants
to develop naturally. When I’d finished, I said: My
grandmother was just the same. She always did that
The fact is, my grandmother never did that. Being
perpetually worried about the health of every member
of the family, she would have found it quite natural to
support weak plants of any kind.
I’d told a downright lie. I lie quite often – several
times a day, I guess. On the other hand, it wasn’t really
a lie. One winter, when I was four or five years old, I
developed a high temperature and had to be taken to
the hospital by ambulance. The hospital was situated
in a mountain valley, and the approach road was so
steep and icy that the ambulance couldn’t make it.
One of the ambulance men was about to carry me
down, but my grandmother said to let her do it. She
took me on her lap, sat down on the frozen road, and
slid the last hundred yards. Well, that’s not so different
from someone who removes the supports from roses.
I like that bit about the rose supports, said the young
woman. Plants must grow strong by themselves.
She probably votes for the Greens.
I must read that, she said, like someone who might
well have decided not to. Swann in Love had a close
shave. I mean, if she hadn’t taken both books I would
probably have chucked it into a refuse bin on some
street corner.
The last thing I said to her was: There are plenty
more where they came from.
Strange that I should be writing all this. I’ve now
been on the run from the Mafia for weeks and months
on end. I don’t really have the time, and I’m sometimes
scared to death at night. No, I’m scared to death
most days – scared if someone in the street gives me
more than a passing stranger’s cursory glance. My
whole body stiffens as if in response to a shrilling alarm
bell, even though it probably doesn’t show at all on the
outside. Yes, it’s true, I don’t have much time left. I’m
running for my life, yet I’m sitting here writing about a
chance encounter. About a woman to whom I once
gave two books, and who may never have read them
and never will.
My time has run out, and that young woman is
merely someone from a time that no longer exists,
that’s been washed away while I sit here writing. It’s
been washed away by this nothingness that also keeps
me on the move through an ocean of time and fear
and suspense. There are no more dates, no weeks, no
months, no years. There are only these days that still
have names – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday
– nothing else, and here I sit in this hotel room, in
some hotel room in which it’s Monday or Wednesday,
and tomorrow I’ll be sitting in another hotel room in
which it may be Friday or Saturday. I sit in these rooms,
writing to stave off fear and this ocean of time that will
sooner or later wash me away.