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from the July 2015 issue

Rickshaw Diaries

August 27, 2014
Lucky Punch

My second novel Deutscher Meister is about how the professional boxer Heinrich Trollmann beat the Nazis; it was published by Hoffmann und Campe in 2014. As I was writing the last chapter, researching liver punches, those ending in K.O. and those not, and how differently and yet specifically to the liver punch the recipients fall, and what kind of pain they feel, and how liver punches take effect on the inside, in anatomical terms, I worked out where a person’s K.O. button is and how it gets pressed, and I suddenly remembered an experience I hadn’t previously understood, at the 2004 Oktoberfest, and it was instantly clear to me that I must have hit my opponent in the liver at the time.

To pre-empt any accusations—it was his own fault. To begin with, anyone wearing such a provocative pair of lederhosen, blatantly highlighting and emphasizing the genital area by means of all kinds of decorative embroidery, flaps, and buttons, is asking for trouble and shouldn’t be surprised to get it. Secondly, had he stayed home and not gone to the Oktoberfest I wouldn’t have been able to knock him out, and thirdly, if he hadn’t touched me without asking I wouldn’t even have thought of teaching him a lesson, because God knows I had better things to do, namely earning my living with the hard work of driving a rickshaw.

Hard work until late at night. The tents closed, the people came flooding out. The entire Esperantoplatz at Munich’s main rail station was full of people, some of them standing around and continuing their drinking while the others swayed and wobbled around without the slightest coordination, and there I was in the midst of it all. I’ve got passengers in my rickshaw; in my case the passengers sit at the front and I push them, cycling stop-and-go around broken glass and between the crowds, people making unexpected movements because of the alcohol, and there’s plenty of shouting and noise. My passengers are beyond caring, the man’s eyes glazed over, practically in a coma and showing almost no reactions, the woman mistreating him, demanding sex on the spot, hardly capable of waiting, and suddenly there’s a pair of strange hands on my back. They’re placed over my kidneys, making full contact, then they feel their way down, then they run up and down my sides, and I stop and take my right hand off the handlebar.

The handlebar is attached to the passenger seat, so I have to apply pressure on the left when I brake and let go on the right. I apply pressure with my left hand, raise my right elbow, take a deep breath, open my mouth wide and turn around with a yell of “Go to hell, jerk-off!” and with a good deal of momentum. I turn with as much momentum as I can summon in this physically unstable situation and with my ridiculously low body weight, I turn above all with evil intent, I feel like really hurting the offender, the worse the better, I turn around to him with my elbow raised and momentum and evil intent, and it works out very well that I’m rather short, which means the tip of my elbow happens to hit the right side of his torso, directly below his ribs, right on his liver in other words, and happens to hit him at exactly the right angle. Great. All I see is the lederhosen guy taking a vertical fall.

It must have been the liver, there’s no other explanation, because had I hit him anywhere else but the liver I would never have had the strength to knock him to the ground so that he landed on his ass, his legs tangled beneath him, and then tipped over entirely and stayed down, holding his belly and writhing with pain. The sexually provocative lederhosen clamored for a kick but that wasn’t possible in all the hubbub and with the passengers in my rickshaw.

Now that I know how my blow to his liver cut off the lederhosen-wearer’s connection to his legs, of which he subsequently lost all control, and how the blood supply to his inner organs simultaneously dropped to almost zero and thereby caused a dramatic sense of dizziness while the brain retained complete clarity, and what fearsome pain he suffered, how every single fiber of the dense, intricate network of nerves encasing his liver switched instantly to the highest possible state of pain, only to remain in that state, paralyzed by the shock effect, and transmitted that pain without interruption around the entire abdominal cavity where a feeling of being ripped to shreds came about through continued explosions that could not be localized—now that I can imagine all this, I think that the evildoer was probably sufficiently punished by the blow to his liver and didn’t require that additional kick in the lederhosen. With regard to my novel, however, I might add that boxers don’t attack from behind and blows with the elbow are banned, and that the boxers have to declare their willingness to fight in writing beforehand, because in the ring, between the ropes, things are considerably more civilized than at the Oktoberfest.


May 5, 2011
I Saw Günter Grass

Last year I saw Günter Grass while I was waiting for customers with my rickshaw at Pariser Platz. Dressed in corduroy and smoking a pipe, Grass came out of the Academy of Arts and walked toward Unter den Linden, immersed in conversation with another gentleman. Grass walked very slowly, the mental effort forcing him to stop now and then. While his interlocutor lapped up his every word, Grass’s shoulders sagged. I considered approaching Grass. “Herr Grass, may I ask, would you grant me the honor of driving you some of your way in my rickshaw?” Then Grass would have sat in the same kind of rickshaw as was used in the film adaptation of his story “The Call of the Toad,” and I would have trumped all my colleagues in our internal celebrity passenger competition by a mile. However, controversial discussions would have been possible in view of such famous passengers as . . . and just as I was thinking this, Grass, now exactly parallel to me, stopped walking once again. He took the pipe out of his mouth, his expression darkened, and then he performed a hand movement with the pipe, sweeping everything away. He gripped the bowl of the pipe between thumb and forefinger, splayed out the other three fingers, and sliced a tight horizontal semicircle in the air with the back of his hand. The gesture was so radical, the pipe commanding such respect, the motion sweeping everything away so fully, including my consideration, that I abandoned it that very moment and resorted instead to following the two gentlemen with my eyes, so as not to miss anything of these possibly significant moments in literary history. Perhaps this conversation between Grass and the other gentleman would make its way into Grass’s diaries, and then I could later boast of having been a witness at least. Thus, I was immersed in the sight of Günter Grass’s corduroy-clad back—he had just passed the red carpet outside the Hotel Adlon and was now vanishing between other passers-by—when, as if from nowhere, a man called out from the back seat of my rickshaw, “That’s Grass over there! Quick, step on it! Overtake him, drive past him!!! I want to see Grass!” I pedaled off, knowing full well the customer wouldn’t get his money’s worth. Grass had not continued along Unter den Linden, you see, but had turned right onto Wilhelmstraße. He had walked between the bollards with which the British Embassy had blocked off the road since the Iraq War, not for pedestrians or cyclists, but certainly for cars and rickshaws. I braked. There we stood behind the bollards, unable to continue and watching Grass edging away at a snail’s pace. My customer couldn’t quite face chasing after Grass on foot. Dumbfounded, he climbed out of the rickshaw, watched the slouching, pipe-smoking corduroy suit walk away, and repeated over and over again, “I just missed Günter Grass, I missed Günter Grass, I missed Günter Grass . . . ”


July 20, 2010
Pledge of Allegiance

It’s eighty-two degrees and there’s a tiny breath of breeze and a few frills of cloud in the sky. I’ve brought two ladies up Unter den Linden and I cycle through the Brandenburg Gate and find the square on the other side, namely Eighteenth of March Square (where Seventeenth of June Street begins), blocked off by red and white barriers, behind which police officers in bullet-proof vests are planted every five yards to secure the cordon. Beneath the trees on the northwestern side are police vehicles, one alongside the next, a corral of wagons around the pledge ceremony. A public pledge of allegiance by recruits, from which the public is excluded. Blocked roads, security zones, access routes. From the corner of Behrenstraße and Ebertstraße, along the northern half of the Tiergarten park all the way to the station, everything’s chockablock. They’ve been putting up the barriers and the tribune in front of the Reichstag for a week. For a week the place has been crawling with military and normal police and soldiers, all acting like there was nothing at all going on in their nervous to-ing and fro-ing.

A helicopter pulls up, the two ladies pull off, and I pull over into the shade. A fellow rickshaw driver is resting there, too, and he can’t understand with the best will in the world why the recruits’ pledge of allegiance isn’t part of a torch-lit nighttime parade and why premilitary training hasn’t been reintroduced to schools like it was in East Germany.

“Say,” I ask him, because he ought to know; he was in the National People’s Army, “do you think an army that has to be protected from the people by the police in its own country, do you think you can win a war with an army like that?”

“Forget the army—I know something better.”

I try to forget the army, thinking of how earlier, just before I drove off with the two ladies, our senior political ranter declared in a tone of the most sober objectivity that he couldn’t imagine this world without armies and weapons, he was certain it wouldn’t work, and how another colleague, from whom we expected precisely this behavior, imitated the senior political ranter: “That shows very well how successful capitalist propaganda is—it works so efficiently that you can’t even imagine anything as obvious, simple, and wonderful as that.”

I resist the capitalist propaganda and imagine this world without armies and weapons, in actual fact an obvious, simple, and wonderful thought, while my colleague straightens up next to me. When he’s waiting for customers he always sprawls along the length of his rickshaw, his feet on the saddle, ass on the backrest, but now he sits upright and beams from ear to ear. “I had a celebrity passenger yesterday!”

He tells me there was a tourist around sixty standing among all the others outside the Reichstag yesterday, waiting for someone, and he must have been bored so he, the tourist, came up and talked to him, my colleague. The tourist pointed at the half-finished tribune for the pledge of allegiance and asked what was going on.

“It’s not easy to forget the army,” I interject, and he says:

“That’s why they’re making all this fuss.”

Anyway, he tells me, he answered the tourist: “That’s where the recruits have to swear they’re prepared to give their lives for the fatherland and oil profits.” And so they’d got into conversation, in English, makeshift English—the tourist was Dutch—and he, my colleague, didn’t hold back his opinions on the military and the inscription above the entrance to the Reichstag building—Dem deutschen Volke: To the German people. The Dutch tourist sympathized with him and his views, he tells me, and remarked in an aside that his great-uncle once set fire to the building and that his name was misspelt on the sign. Then the woman he was waiting for arrived and they took a short ride in the rickshaw.

“Woooooow, that’s amazing!”

“Yeah, it was the great-nephew of Marinus van der Lubbe!”

“I can’t match up to that with my old onion-peeler Günter.”

We talk about the Reichstag fire and regret that it didn’t work out back then, and especially that they caught Marinus van der Lubbe and murdered him and arrested four others along with him. To say nothing of the consequences. Aside from that, we note that a lot of our colleagues haven’t bothered working today because of the pledge of allegiance. And seeing as we can’t envisage ever doing anything like what Marinus van der Lubbe pulled off back then, we pack it in for the day and go home.


March 6, 2011
You Can’t Imagine

You can’t imagine what hard work it is! Even just the weight, and that’s not all by any means—the rickshaw (depending on the model, 130 to 300 pounds), tools, floor pump, food supplies (average daily ration: four pounds of pasta with sauce, two pounds of nuts, one pound of chocolate, ten pints of water or other drinks), blankets, customers (statistical average: two adults = 350 pounds), shopping bags and boxes, children between 0 and 18 years (on their laps), small, medium, and large stuffed suitcases, dogs, strollers, wheelchairs, laptops, briefcases, tripods, film cameras. It soon adds up to six to nine hundred pounds, if not a thousand. Add to that the terrible state of Berlin’s roads. Our number one tourist street, the boulevard Unter den Linden, has potholes so big you can take a bath in them when it rains. You have to realize that every bump in the road surface, in physics terms, is resistance against the direction of movement, an attack on making progress, a setback that has to be compensated with double the physical effort. The state of the rickshaw also influences how long you can stick it out, when the point comes at which you simply can’t do it any more.

Then you have to stop or take a break. A rickshaw in a poor state of repair has a lot of friction, and friction saps your energy. For example, a wonky wheel costs several times the energy you need if the wheel’s straight. Of course, we take care of our rickshaws and keep the friction as low as possible. We can’t eliminate it entirely though; friction is always there, all of life is one big friction, and the friction in the air is wind. Just think of parachutes and sails: these are the forces that we have to not only stand up to but also progress against, and wind is usually blowing in the other direction. Sometimes gusts of wind force us to stop in the middle of the road. Then we wipe the wind-cold sweat from our brows and have to start off again, have to overcome the inertia of mass anew to get into motion from a standstill and to pedal on against the air drag.

Yet we suffer enough on the wonderfully windless days too. What a mistake to think Berlin is a flat city. Remember that weight, poor street surfaces, and that notorious friction amplify one another in the most ruthless manner. As a result, even weak gradients barely noticeable on a normal bicycle make themselves felt all too painfully as a backward and downward drag. Gravity reigns triumphant. The start of Stülerstrasse, the middle of Rhododendronallee, the end of Bremer Weg—awful, awful, awful.

All this added up (and under these circumstances, perhaps also problematic customers), all this you have to try and imagine if you want to know how hard the work really is. Over the winter we have to strap ourselves into training devices for at least three hours a day so that we don’t collapse when the season comes around. But then again, we can’t imagine either how anyone can stand to sit in an office all day long.

“Schriftstellerin und Rikschafahrerin” first published on the website © Stephanie Bart. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Katy Derbyshire. All rights reserved.

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