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Jovana Reisinger

Jovana Reisinger, born in Munich in 1989, is a writer and filmmaker. Her debut novel Keep Still (Still halten) was published in September 2017 by Verbrecher Verlag (Berlin) and describes the introspection of a nameless woman who is confronted with the impending death of her mother, the inheritance of the family house, and a groundbreaking anger. Her new novel Spitzenreiterinnen (Women-frontrunners), published in February 2021 by Verbrecher Verlag (Berlin), was nominated for the Bavarian Book Prize 2021. It is an episodic novel that centres on nine women who are trying to survive in a misogynistic world.

The Beautiful View

Translated by: Katy Derbyshire

The view was delightful, a view so beautiful it was downright sexy. The kind of view people dream of, a view that adorns brochures and catalogues for hotels and estate agents and pops up in adverts. If you’re sleeping up here, if you’re living up here, you must have made it. Up here, people are happy. They’ll never tire of looking at the view. They’re part of the ruling class. And the cynics and doubters and the fearful and insecure say: It’s so high up, there’s only one way from here – down and down into nothingness, onto concrete, onto the pretty garden, perhaps into the pool or the fruit and vegetable stall. But that’s just envy speaking. The view makes them dizzy.

The woman who stood by the window here every day, Tower A1, 49th floor, penthouse, 300sqm floor space, thought about neither her rise nor her fall. She always looked out, as if she cared about neither the past nor the future, as if all that mattered was now, the present, the loftiness of her own situation. There she stood, then, always dressed or at least wrapped in a silk robe, for more than a year. The woman – this much the others knew – was a beautiful woman. The woman who knew a lot was pretty, her style somewhere between European elegance and American brashness, between rich and very rich, between brave and bored, between lonely and independent; the lines were blurred. The woman’s contours and makeup grew ever less focused, less clear, less contoured, less distinct.

She grew invisible. She got lost between the panoramic windows and the world on the other side of them. Between the hours, the days, the loneliness and the new-found freedom, between all things being optional and nothing being compulsory, and inaction for lack of purpose. Where did she go? She knows the answer, no doubt; we don’t.

At the centre of the high-rise complex, composed of six towers walled off by a solid fence, is a well-tended garden with paths laid out for promenading, with roses and other flowers that spread their sweet scents throughout the seasons, a pool with 50-metre lanes, filled only for two months of the year, and a small shop with barely room for the customers to turn around. And four times a week, three scrawny women staff a makeshift-looking fruit and vegetable stall, selling fresh, shapely and tasty wares. The complex is guarded 24/7 – by a range of men in uniforms, patrolling between the entrances to the complex, the buildings and their base camps in the garden, by a range of cameras. Now and then, both the headsetted wardens and the cameras were well hidden. So how could the woman simply disappear? It was impossible. There had been no unnoticed breach, no secret absconsion. And yet the woman had managed to present the responsible parties with a riddle that appears insolvable

Suddenly, she was gone. Last seen, last heard, last noticed. There was an observed, perceived, recorded, saved last time for everything for this woman. Once she’d stopped talking politely to her neighbours, she stopped swimming in the pool every morning. Once she’d stopped swimming her lanes every day, she stopped eating breakfast in the neighbouring shopping mall. Once she’d stopped dining in the air-conditioned, European-styled café in the mall, she stopped buying huge amounts of fresh fruit at the stall and always being surprised at how cheap it was. Once she’d stopped buying fresh food, she stopped taking a walk outside the complex in the early evenings. Once she’d stopped walking her little routes in the evenings, she stopped occasionally going to bars. She no longer went to the cinema once a week, she no longer went to the opera once a month, she no longer went to the museum. The woman stopped. But what’s she doing now?

Where has she gone? She knows the answer, no doubt; we don’t.

Even before, she did nothing important. She led the abstract life of the nouveau riche abroad, no longer quite nouveau but really quite rich, with no obligations and no right to work. How good that sounded: no more work. How good that sounds: top apartment with a husband’s top pay and no more obligations. Plenty of time for herself. Plenty of money for herself. The woman long since stopped thinking about subsistence. She knew we aren’t what we work. Work doesn’t need to lend us meaning or identity. Our work doesn’t define us. Or does it? Who are we without work? What does society think of us when we don’t work? The woman knew a lot; she knew the answers to these questions, too. But she didn’t feel like sharing them. She no longer shared anything with anyone. She fell silent and dissolved into thin air.

The man standing here by the window enjoying the breath-taking view is baffled. There he stands in his nice suit, holding a steaming cup of coffee and looking out. Such a beautiful view. He strolls from one room to the next, walking as best he can along the window fronts. All-encompassing panoramic windows, floor-length, freshly cleaned, nice curtains for drawing, for they ruthlessly show the reality of all four directions, they show other towers, umpteen thousands of little houses, millions of cars a day, people on the hot streets of Beijing, uniformed people on bridges, uninformed people at other windows, here and there a bird circling, several birds, the sunsets, has anyone ever seen such sunsets? No one he knows, who’s taken a different path to him. The mountains, Beijing is encircled by mountains, and even they sometimes put in an appearance. Wow, he thinks to himself, but no longer enthusiastic, no longer excited about his success, no longer surprised that his life has gone this way; no, that wow was of a different nature – he simply hasn’t been home for a long time. He may have already got used to his life, his lifestyle, his pay, his wife’s disappearance. At least today, the coffee tastes good and he hasn’t yet tried to call his wife on her old number, which has been dead for a week. Her phone is the only thing that’s missing anyway. Her phone and her wedding ring.

The others were very upset. They still are. The husband is upset too, but he knows his wife, he loves his wife, he suspects his wife is at a remote spa hotel, a health cure, abroad, well-hidden to take a breath, to find herself, to waste lots of time and money, to teach him a lesson, to punish him, to snatch back a sense of power.

The woman knew a lot; she knew the answers to these questions, too. But she didn’t feel like sharing them. She no longer shared anything with anyone. She fell silent and dissolved into thin air.

The other wives grew scared for their security, the company’s spouse programme went crazy, a vanished wife, one of them! And things went crazy on the other side of the spouse programme; one of them had vanished, one of the wives they were supposed to keep entertained, to take care of so she didn’t tip over into depression, into melancholy, into isolation, so that her husband wouldn’t quit and they wouldn’t go back where they came from, so that the employment relationship wouldn’t end and leave scorched earth in its wake. Damn. Heads rolled that had nothing to do with the woman’s disappearance. But steps had to be taken; that’s part and parcel of such a case.

The man isn’t even thinking of quitting. The man ends his stroll around the penthouse, writes a love letter to his wife and puts it on the dining table, takes it in the bedroom and puts it on the bed; no, that might be a bit much, puts it on her desk, ha ha, a desk, what does she need that for, puts it on her dressing table, puts it on the kitchen table; no, that’s not right either, his wife doesn’t belong in the kitchen, she belongs out in the world; and so he puts the letter on the beautiful Chinese cabinet beside the front door, alongside a golden bowl holding the keys, and a photo of the two of them. Speaking of keys: Hers is in its usual place. The spare key is in the drawer. Her handbag, where’s that handbag he spent a fortune on? It’s hanging with the coats. He looks back at the silent apartment, gets in the lift, watches the door close and goes to the place where he’s the best, to work, the show must go on, and it’s as a show that he interprets his wife’s sudden disappearance, too.

No changes in her bank accounts, just as nothing changes in the apartment. How could it; he works hard every day and the cleaner, outrageously cheap but neat and tidy, makes sure every trace disappears anyway. Traces, that’s a good point; there are none. Not one. No camera, no security, no neighbour, no adjacent resident, none of their friends, no one has seen anything, heard anything, spoken to her, written to her. The evaluation was fast and thorough, every one of her last steps reconstructed systematically; she went out at 14:13 on a Sunday, six weeks ago. Took the lift, there’s video material of it, left the building, left the complex, passed the mall, all documented down to a T, walked around the neighbourhood, strolled in fact, as if she were calmness personified, bought a bubble tea and threw the empty cup in the bin only seven minutes later. She must have been thirsty, or greedy, or did she like it that much? The aimless walk was preceded by a phone call with her husband, at 14:01, who unfortunately had to inform her he wouldn’t be coming home yet after all, he might make it in the early evening, he’d take her out to a good restaurant or wherever she liked. Yes, wherever she liked, he assured her, but she said she didn’t know right now, she doesn’t have to know everything right away. The call ended, somewhere between disappointment and anger and resignation and helplessness and politeness and trust.

The walk apparently grew dull; she turned back at 14:44 and passed the guard at 15:00 and was in the lift of building A1 at 15:02 and in her own apartment on the 49th floor at 15:05. No outward changes were visible on the video material, no anomalies, no injuries, she was carrying nothing new, she wasn’t limping, didn’t look tousled or tattered, tearful or sad, everything seemed normal. The woman shut the door behind her and from that moment on, it was all over for her. Where has she gone?

The husband’s Sunday of six weeks ago was just as monotonous and normal. He sat in his office and worked, he talked and typed and shopped random jewellery with lots of gold and a couple of diamonds in his lunch break, because he knows that’s the done thing: giving an expensive gift to his sad, angry, disappointed, lonely wife and promising better times to come. This was his big chance, is his big chance. The life of his, of both their dreams. It has come true; just hold out a bit longer and all the suffering will have been worth it. His pension’s already phenomenal. In any case, he called his wife at lunchtime, once he had the collier in the bag, promised her dinner that evening, but called again around 21:30 to say dinner was off the table, and by then she didn’t pick up. He could sense her anger and sent a few consoling, cheering messages, all of which went unanswered. He knew that behaviour, used to let it unsettle him, but he also loved the constant uncertainty his wife caused him; she wasn’t just headily beautiful but also pretty headstrong. When he came home late, long after midnight, he took the precaution of going to the guest room to sleep the deep, gentle sleep of the unknowing, for by this point his wife was not, as he assumed, asleep in the master bedroom, but nowhere to be found. And because the husband acted with respect, he left his wife, who he wrongly imagined to be dozing or petulant or listless or mean, undisturbed by his arrival and undisturbed by his renewed departure to the office, presuming her lying in bed, watching TV, reading. And so it was that the hard-working husband only realized on Monday evening that his wife wasn’t in the apartment, contacted the police and things – the search for the missing woman, a foreigner, the panic at the office, the dismissals and accusations and the panic among their friends, his own concern – began to run their course.

And now? Well, the husband thinks his wife will be lying around somewhere pampering herself and will come back and everything will be fine again. He has at least learned his lesson, for he misses his wife and is sleeping badly, and bad sleep is a real motivation killer and leads to failure at work and in life in itself. And so he writes a diligent love letter to his wife every morning and places it somewhere else each day. And if the woman comes home, she’ll find not only one but many letters. There are 42 of them now. The husband clings to the letters, clings to the impossibility that his wife, a woman like her, could vanish in broad daylight in the middle of a fully monitored high-rise complex in one of the richest neighbourhoods of Beijing, simply dissolve into thin air, in 2019. The penthouse windows don’t open, there are no air ducts to crawl through, no trap doors, no holes, no damage. She couldn’t get out unnoticed. Could it be that she’d been hiding in her own flat from her own husband, for weeks?

The woman shut the door behind her and from that moment on, it was all over for her. Where has she gone?

Now, at this point, it’s important to note that there’s nothing to see and nothing to hear. Nothing, neither the noise from the streets nor the neighbours below them, no nature, no car horns, no screams, no birdsong. And while no sounds get in from outside, none get out from inside either. The husband, sparing no expense in this situation, has had a complicated surveillance system installed in the apartment and the place turned upside down. The cameras, which activate reliably on motion and transfer the images at the same time, live that is, to all the storage devices of his choice, grant him permanent access; no, insight. For what is motion-activated in one direction, can also be controlled by him at any time and from any place. But no matter what time of day he switches on the surveillance channel and looks at his beautiful, uninhabited interior, there’s no wife there. Not a soul in the apartment for 42 days, apart from his own.

The husband has just left the penthouse and is seated in the black car, being driven to work. His daily routine begins with this drive, ends with a drive, is determined by abstract schedules and corporate targets, by permanent distraction from his wife’s disappearance. Could she work the logistics – without her purse, her clothes, her passport? The last time she withdrew any cash was two weeks before her disappearance, such a small amount that she couldn’t bribe, grease, silence anyone. The husband arrives at the office and has no more time for such considerations, nose to the grindstone, straight down to work. He has no time to waste on his wife.

Back to that Sunday, six weeks ago. The woman entered the apartment at 15:05 and took off her coat, put her shoes on the shelf and went to the kitchen, fresh fruit juice. She sat down on the sofa in the living room, a few books spread before her that she found interesting but not gripping; she began to read one of them. As she read, she looked at her watch conspicuously often, growing increasingly frustrated. The strange dragging of time. She showered and looked at the naked woman’s body in the mirror of her perfect wardrobe, she dressed, fine and fancy; it would soon be time for dinner. Time dragged, also at the woman’s patience; she used up her last vestige of empathy and suddenly got angry. She got furiously angry. She was grabbed by such enormous anger that it tore her sheer in two. No. The woman kept her anger to herself. She applied moisturizer. She applied makeup. She looked at her beautiful hair and practiced her pretty smile. Where did she want to go today? Where should her husband take her to apologize? Which handbag, which shoes, which dress? She thought about it and walked around the penthouse and looked at the darkening world, no, that’s wrong, it wouldn’t get dark until later, it only grew dark inside her. She began to grow dark, the beauty, the radiance, the gentleness that emanated from the woman were swallowed up by gloom, by eerie shadow. That glance at the watch. It’s about time now, where is he? For days, oh, for weeks, they hadn’t spent an evening together, let alone a day. Jealousy? Anger. Resentment. Rage. The world grew so dark. Had they forecast a storm? The woman looked out; it was broad daylight. It grew cold, it grew close. That glance at the watch, activating the telephone, no message, of course, no, he wouldn’t call, wouldn’t whine, wouldn’t beg, she’d had enough of the shadow life. She was standing here, alive, ready, waiting. The woman was swallowed up. She was standing there, in the middle of her 300-sqm apartment, angry, so angry that it literally tore her to pieces.

Just like that.

Into razor-sharp, barbed, highly dangerous pieces. Perhaps they were explosive, perhaps toxic; they shot around the apartment, ready to injure, kill, destroy, but they didn’t attack. No, they sparkled enticingly, they were harmless, stayed silent.

And out of the pieces, a pointless, modern and expensive-looking sculpture formed, now standing on the floor by the window, with no mention of its creator.

The husband has seen the object but recognized nothing in its abstract, grotesque form, its deeply dark colouring and its smooth surface. He didn’t even know when the sculpture had come into his apartment. In his mind, he appreciated his wife’s taste, since she had obviously picked out the artwork and put it in an ideal place.

And he praised the sculpture’s art of fitting in so beautifully in the dream apartment, blending in. It’s not too obtrusive, doesn’t take up too much space, it’s pleasantly fresh, unfamiliar, up-to-date, so new, so dark, so appealing, so enticing, expressive, tempting. It integrates so well. Into the overall picture. A really captivating object, and it’s perfectly suited to symbolize its own market value. She really did well, his wife.