Lance Olsen’s new novel My Red Heaven follows a host of characters in Berlin over the course of one day in 1927. At times, Olsen’s prose tells of artistic creation or political agitation; at others, such as in the excerpt featured here, he gradually takes the reader into a more nightmarish space. In the midst of Modernism’s rise, Olsen pays homage to Modernist writing, even as he pushes onwards into haunting historical vistas. My Red Heaven will be released by Dzanc Books on January 21st.
chocolate : the heat of our thoughts
an excerpt from My Red Heaven
There is no need to compose any more poems, it strikes one of the passengers aboard that flight as he squints down at Berlin blanketing below.
Forests and lakes dwindle into canals and railroad tracks fissuring among factory smokestacks, warehouses, red-roofed housing blocks, the bunched commotion of Potsdamerplatz through silver haze.
There is no need to compose any more poems, it strikes him, because everything has already become a poem.
He sets a square of chocolate-covered marzipan on his tongue to reward himself for the insight. Flinches as the sugar tinfoils his molars. This is how as much as a kilo of the stuff disappears into him every day. Chocolate tastes, he wants to say, casting for a metaphor, like love. His pushy dentist ordered him to stop, warned him sugar is the reason his gums are red and swollen, the reason they bleed when he brushes, the reason his breath smells like cat turds and those creamy abscesses break out across the inside of his cheeks.
It has reached the point where he is anxious even to enter that idiot’s office, yet, after all, he is 177 centimeters tall, weighs seventy kilos. What numbers could better represent the ordinary?
Granted: his blood pressure is a bit high — yet whose isn’t, given knowledge?
Granted, as well: he produces throughout the course of a day perhaps more gas than strictly average, suffers from a growing bloat that compels him to loosen his belt buckle one notch by four every afternoon, another by bedtime.
(There are few greater pleasures than unfastening one’s trousers late in the evening and feeling one’s belly plump into itself again.)
Surely his vegetarianism offers a counterbalance to his well-deserved daily lapse into the paradise of cocoa, butter, vanilla, and almond paste.
And even that idiot dentist can’t uncover anything amiss with a hard-working burgher taking some simple pleasure in a teaspoon of sugar dunked into a glass of red wine, can he?
Remember, all said and done, those women on the Titanic, his friend Joseph once advised him.
They waved off the dessert cart.
The single engine on the nose of the Lufthansa Junkers powers back.
His friend Joseph begins outlining the morning beside him: There will be a car waiting. It will take us directly to our nine o’clock. All the party leaders will be there. Let us review our —
Do you know what I said to Putzi Hanfstaengl when he told me my mustache was unfashionable?
Your speech here last month was superb. Five thousand followers. There couldn’t be a better way to —
I told him: If it is not the fashion now, it soon will be.
He sets another chocolate-marzipan square on his tongue, flinches, waits for his friend to join him in an appreciative chortle.
And in the reddest city outside Moscow, Joseph pushes on. Five thousand. All we’ve got to do today is build on th —
What do you think of his proposal to use Sieg Heil as our rallying cry? Hanfstaengl says such shit worked wonders at Harvard football games. Charges the atmosphere. Gets those feelings of togetherness going. You know: one voice, one mind, and so forth.
This morning, his friend continues, we will also be speaking to a number of supporters who have — how does one say it? — have become comfortable with using their money as a bulwark against disorder.
We could repeat the phrase, say, twice. Sieg Heil. Sieg Heil. Like that.
We should no doubt consider —
Three times, of course, is another option.
I don’t believe I would want to commit one way or another without further reflection.
The exchange between the two men becomes invisible.
The first man pokes at his sore gums with his sore tongue. The second knows the first well enough to let him return to the present in his own time.
You’ve done a commendable job with preparations, Joseph, the first man starts up again. You know how much I appreciate your efforts. Through them we are accomplishing something important.
I’m no more than one of many mechanisms to bring about change. The Party is the fuel. You’re the heat of our thoughts.
I have a question for you.
By all means, Mein Führer.
I would ask you to take a moment to think before answering.
Do your teeth hurt when you eat chocolate?
The first man’s ears clog.
He opens his mouth to force a yawn.
Chin lowered, Joseph lets twenty seconds dissolve, answers: No. I can’t say they do.
Interesting. I’m progressively convinced three times is far better than two. That strikes me as the rhythm of hysteria.
Perhaps we could combine that with our salute.
You see: politics is precisely like religion, only honest. He seems to have a head on his shoulders, that Hanfstaengl. For a businessman and pianist, I mean, caught up in all that Christian bilge. Do you know what else it contains?
Chocolate. Caffeine, a stimulant. Good for the heart and brain. A vegetarian compound, I might add. Our animal friends remain free from harm. Don’t you think I’d look good before a crowd giving our salute while proclaiming our war cry?
I should mention the press will be joining us. No need to worry. We should consider them the keyboard upon which we play.
I like that. They pick the instrument. We pick the tune.
Another chocolate-covered marzipan square as the plane banks over the Spree, banks again, levels for its final descent from the east.
The first man watches the earth ease up to meet him.
Tear out Potsdamer and Anhalter railroad stations, and you have space for a three-mile-long avenue running from Tempelhof in the south to the Reichstag in the north. Two and a half times longer than the Champs Élysées. Twenty-three meters wider. At the far end a domed assembly hall sixteen times the size of St. Peter’s able to seat one hundred fifty thou —
He flinches, counts one, two, three, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, until the tinfoiling fades.
You know, Joseph, these are good times for us.
I can feel it in my blood, Mein Führer.
And thus we have a crucial duty before us: we must enjoy our enjoyment. May I take this occasion to offer a modicum of advice?
By all means.
One day you will die, Joseph. This is the sad truth of it all. And one day I shall. But on all the other days — and this is the part to keep in mind, always — on all the other days we shall not.