Cigarette smoke snuck into clothes and wreathed tables, chairs, and walls of the bar in Neukölln, Berlin’s old working-class neighbourhood, now home to many of the city’s Turkish and Lebanese immigrants who are being pushed further and further south, north and west as expanding gentrification annexes their former territory. There was a rebroadcast of the boxing match between Wladimir Klitschko and Jean-Marc Mormeck that night and this was the best place to be. Surprise: boxing’s still a popular sport in Germany. Maybe the name Klitschko has something to do with it. Or maybe not.
Boxing was a sport much loved by workers before corruption, doping and flouted rules relegated it to the category of blood sport for the lumpenproletariat with cable TV, thereby giving it its present bad name. It was not always thus. In the first half of the twentieth century even the vanguard movements of Dadaism and Futurism were attracted to boxing because of the sculptural qualities of the crude physical clash – which leaves little room for intellectual frivolity – and its indisputably popular character. Arthur Cravan, Francis Picabia and Sergei Eisenstein were keen on the sport and, in 1925, Brecht began to work on a never-finished biography of the boxer Paul Samson-Körner (also painted by Jakob Steinhardt), which was to be titled The Human Fighting Machine (Die menschliche Kampfmaschine). He also wrote a short story which he called The Uppercut (Der Kinnhaken). Suhrkamp published these works in 1995 with the title Der Kinnhaken und andere Box- und Sportgeschichten. I discovered all this when I was working on a thesis about Brecht, which is of absolutely no interest to anyone: “too historical”, “too political”. I’ll probably have to submit it to the gnawing criticism of the rodent family. That is if Spanish universities still exist in three years’ time.
Wladimir Klitschko is an interesting guy. His story is told in a recent documentary by Sebastian Dehnhardt (2011), simply titled Klitschko. Born in 1976 in Semipalatinsk, a port city of the then Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan where his father – a Soviet Air Force officer who later took part in the cleaning operations after the Chernobyl disaster – had been posted, Wladimir Klitschko is fluent in four languages (Ukrainian, Russian, German and English), an avowed chess enthusiast and, since 2001, holder of a PhD from the University of Kiev. Indeed, many boxers wonder why the Klitschko brothers – Wladimir’s brother Vitali is also a successful boxer – get into the ring when they could choose from many other careers.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when many elite sportsmen and members of the armed forces slid easily into the ranks of the mafia, the Klitschkos emigrated to Germany. In Hamburg they faced the whole range of stumbling blocks that any immigrant has to battle with but resumed their sporting careers. In the heavyweight division, the Ukrainian Volodymyr Volodymyrovych Klychko who thenceforth used the German version of his name, has been one of the most successful pros in the history of boxing. The night I was watching, Wladimir Klitschko had entered the ring sixty times and won fifty-six matches, forty-nine by knockout. He’d promised to beat Mormeck and notch up the fiftieth knockout of his career.
For all his undeniable achievements, the word is that the style of the Ukrainian – reputed to be one of the last representatives of classical boxing – doesn’t impress the Americans, who say he’s too “technical” and “slow”. Klitschko is level-headed. He’s not prone to fits of anger and neither is he brutal with his opponent. He mostly keeps him at arm’s length and relies on his strong point, an amazing “granite” jab. Nothing spectacular, say the Americans, but that might be out of envy too since his romantic conquests include the actresses Yvonne Catterfield, Alena Gerber and Hayden Panettierre, and the Czech model Karolina Kurková.
Fifty thousand people have flocked to the Düsseldorf Arena to see the match. All the betting is on Klitschko. Jean-Marc Mormeck, a Guadalupe-born Frenchman is shorter and lighter, although more agile as a result, which could complicate things for Klitschko. Mormeck is known for his aggressive style and has also been successful: thirty-six victories (21 knockouts) and only four defeats. Mormeck, in black trunks, is the first to enter the ring, followed by Wladimir Klitschko in his robe and red trunks. Now the chatter stops. “Let’s get ready to rumble.” The bell rings. First round. Mormeck tries to get as near as possible to Klitschko, to hit him close up and from below, as would seem logical for a boxer of his size fighting somebody like Klitschko, who’s keeping him at bay. Here’s Klitschko, the Ukrainian emigrant, fighting Mormeck the Antillean emigrant and here am I, the Catalan emigrant surrounded by Turkish and Arab emigrants, plus some others I can’t identify.
What a sight I am, sitting here fiddling with my glass of beer and fiddling with all the problems I’ve got in my head. According to José Ignacio Wert, the Spanish Minister for Education and Sports, those of us who’ve ended up in these parts of the world aren’t proper Spanish emigrants but Latin American descendents of Spaniards who obtained citizenship thanks to the Law of Historic Memory (it all fits!). A friend of mine assures me that if things keep going like this we’ll be sent to the firing squad for high treason if we return. It would seem, in any case, that we’re not a great loss.
There was a slight kerfuffle in the media a few months ago but, since then, no one remembers that we exist. When you’re an emigrant, hardly anyone is interested. No one cares about you in the host country and no one cares about you in the country you left. We’re men and women without a homeland, Spanish nationals for administrative purposes only, hirelings wandering round Europe: Germany today, Austria or Switzerland tomorrow, and who knows where the day after tomorrow. How one might have friends like this, have a partner like this, form a family like this might be a fleeting news item with a coy headline recalling a film of the late-Franco era denatured of all human experience. But we’re not their problem anymore. We’re someone else’s problem.
I look up. Second round. I’d say this isn’t going to last long. Most of Klitschko’s fights end before the sixth round. Klitschko’s on the attack. Mormeck’s hanging in quite well. Berlin. You’ve all seen it in culture and fashion supplements. But not the Bosnian who picks up cigarette butts in Alexanderplatz. Or the unemployed Hartz IV beneficiaries hanging round the door of my local supermarket drinking beer and cheap vodka at ten in the morning. Or the Turkish woman, whose husband punched her and broke her nose, looking fearfully out of the window. Or the Eastern European prostitutes who take up their positions around Hackescher Markt every weekend. Their stories are of no interest to the media either. They’re history’s losers and those of us who’ve recently joined them go to the end of the queue.
In the amorality of capitalism, the alternatives for an emigrant are virtually reduced to cynicism or melancholy. You’re obliged to do things that weigh on your conscience, maybe for years, obliged not to tell the whole truth, to lie to your family, your friends, your landlord, the authorities and whoever else because, when you’re an immigrant, you don’t have many points of support. Your family and friends aren’t here. The Spaniards haven’t formed any kind of community of immigrants. Turks, Russians, Jews, Greeks, Chileans and the English have their own clubs, cafes, cultural associations and radio stations. They publish their own newspapers. The Spaniards, of course, look upon all this communal activity with the utmost disdain. They’re living in the glorious past and their glorious footballing present, and they don’t need any more than that. And they buy El País and El Mundo. They usually fill the void with booze, drugs, gambling and prostitution, more or less openly or more or less secretly, whatever, as long as they can keep their minds busy till the next lousy job brings in a bit of cash to keep going.
Who wants to read this stuff? It’s depressing. It doesn’t interest journalists who’d have to write it, or the media that would have to publish it, or the readers who’d have to read it. Better to roll out the young liberal professionals with bulky CVs – who, later, when you get to know them, only speak four of the five languages they claim, and then “riding roughshod” as my dad would say, not to mention their spelling and grammatical mistakes in their own – the ones who always look good in photos, who never have back problems or migraines, the “digital bohemians” as they’re now called, who will triumph in other lands and right now. I read in El País that they value social “meritocracy” and want to import it here, and the sooner the better. They don’t even think they’re immigrants. Klitschko’s pitiless and a well-aimed punch makes Mormeck stagger and fall. Mormeck gets up and the fight goes on. Third round.
Things are livening up. It’s all Mormeck can do to take Klitschko’s blows, like a sack of potatoes, blows from above, blows in the ribs, one, another and yet another, like an emigrant who spends most of the week staggering from one feeling to a totally opposite one. There are days when you dream of (better said, long for) a new life, making a clean break, having a second chance. In any case, you’re glad you’re not there. I remember all the people who made things difficult for me when I was at university, the lecturers, the scholarship holders and even the administrative staff (where would they be now?), people with no merit at all, most of them opportunists. I imagine their present situation and think: Schadenfreude. Better you than me. That’s how it is.
All of us here have these thoughts at some time or another, however mean they might be. Mormeck’s getting pissed off and edgy. There are days when you’re so dejected you just want to stay at home. All the clichés about southern Europe, the routine racism in the Bürgeramt, in the Finanzamt, people glaring at you in the metro, in the street, the idea that you can’t help the people you’ve left behind, still battling to keep going back home.
Klitschko’s taken advantage of the fact that Mormeck’s leaving himself open. Mormeck’s weakening. The end of the affair, as the commentator yells, is nigh. A few weeks ago, a volunteer from some NGO (I don’t recall which) asking for a donation in Alexanderplatz was surprised when I didn’t dig into my pocket to contribute a few coins because she opined, judging from my appearance, that although I come from a country in crisis things can’t be that bad and, after all, there’s always somebody worse off than me. Maybe the troika will have to bring us down to Liberia’s poverty levels so we can be worthy of the compassion of the liberal left in the industrialised world. Maybe they’ll even toss a few coins in our box, a quick way of getting rid of a bad conscience about not doing anything for the rest of the year and not even being properly informed about what’s going on around them. All in all, Germany is a tolerant but not open country, the complete opposite of Spain which is an open but not tolerant country.
Ours is not a fortunate generation. Some people say that when things start improving (when?) they’ll call us back. But why are we supposed to go back? It’s difficult to describe the mixture of rage, frustration and impotence. Those who aren’t in total despair feel hopeless. León Felipe wrote in exile something that is much in my mind these days:
Yours is the
and the gun.
Mine is the ancient voice of the land
and you leave me bare and roaming the world.
But I leave you mute …
And how will you harvest the wheat
and feed the fire
if I take the song?
So what about us? Have we taken it? Did we have it before? If we did have it, did it matter to anyone? Does it matter to anyone if we take it now? What shall we do with it, if we can do something with it? To write, Adorno once said, is to send messages in a bottle and today’s ocean is called Internet. Who knows. “I feel that my spiritual powers have fully matured and that I can write”, Pushkin wrote from exile, before he finished Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin. But, the way things are, is anyone interested in all this? It’s all the same and it’s all different. It’s all confused, anyhow, because things aren’t that bad for me but they’re not that good either and, of course, they’re better than they are for lots of people back home and here I am now in Berlin and here we have Klitschko and Mormeck in Düsseldorf, Catalonia, Ukraine, Guadalupe and the whole world out there, the three of us in Germany and me sitting here thinking about writing things that in all probability nobody will read, wondering whether it’s worth writing them, if someone will read them, and there is Klitschko, all muscle, pure physical power, trying to floor Mormeck and, in doing so, breaks his defence and, one jab, two, three very quick jabs and Mormeck’s done for, drops to the floor and it’s history: knockout number fifty for the Ukrainian. Good for Klitschko. I down the dregs of my beer, pay, put on my coat and leave.
Tomorrow’s another day. You fall, you get up. The struggle goes on.