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Swan River

Translated from the German by Megan Ewing

“Swan River” is excerpted from Out of the Sugar Factory (Two Lines Press, 2023).

– I wanted to ask you again about Capital.

– Yes, it’s such an interesting story. I bought the first volume on Leipzig’s Karl-Heine-Straße. It was the financial crisis, so around 2007, 2008, and I was living with Roman on Lütznerstraße at the time. I wrote during the day, and in the evenings, because of the extreme cold, we went to the pub.

– Did you all heat with coal?

– Yes, the coal was delivered in the fall and dumped into the basement through a small ground-level window from the street.

– Did you find that easy, the heating?

– The procedure was familiar to me from childhood. We heated with wood. And from fires in the forest. We had often done that as children, we lit all kinds of things on fire—mattresses, tires, plastic plates, plywood. But with the coal I was always afraid. It wasn’t a very reasonable fear because our windows were super leaky and so fresh air always came through the cracks, but I was very afraid of closing the oven door too early and poisoning myself.

– Did you read Capital during that time in Leipzig?

C. throws me a brief glance, then he guides my hand with the pear to his mouth and bites wordlessly.

– Some chapters, the first chapters on use value and exchange value and so on. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that all roads led me back there. In the chapter on the modern theory of colonization, he mentions a Brit named Wakefield, who developed a theory in response to the question of how to produce wage laborers in the colonies. The problem, in a nutshell, was that there was so much free land in the overseas territories—free land in quotation marks, desert, Wakefield writes—and anyone who came overseas from Europe could set up on their own and cultivate some land and so forth. Everyone could accumulate for themselves as independent producers instead of performing wage labor for a third party. So, in his theory of colonization, Wakefield attempts to answer the question of how these dependencies can be established to secure the capitalists their labor force. And interestingly, Marx doesn’t discuss slavery or the question of what it means that the plantation economy existed at the same time as the capitalist economic system.

– He writes in an earlier passage that “the veiled slavery of wage laborers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal.”

– And the social anthropologist Sidney Mintz writes of an irritation that befalls him when he sees the sugar cane fields and the white sugar in his cup. Not in any technical sense because of the transformation, but because in the simultaneous sight of the sugar cane and the refined sugar a riddle or secret reveals itself—the mystery, he writes, that sugar production connects strangers across time and space. After all, sugar was historically produced on plantations but consumed in Europe, including by European wage laborers.

– Sugar is a motif or riddle that has come up time and again for me in recent years. I had a piece of paper above my desk with what I call “Dream 3” by Ellen West, a patient treated at Sanatorium Bellevue for her enormous appetite. She dreamed that she jumped through a ship’s hatch into the water while traveling overseas. A student she once loved and her husband both try to revive her. Finally, “she ate a lot of chocolates and packed her bags.”


Last night, on a balcony above the Limmatquai, someone explained that capitalism is dependent on divisions that are always implemented anew and consolidated, even deepened—the division of the overseas slave and the European proletarian, of citizen and undocumented person, of the merely sick and the invalid, the division of the exploited in the metropole from colonial subjects, of the man as a factory worker from the woman as a machine of reproduction (as Federici has it), because this is the only way the system can maintain itself in the face of the glaring discrepancy between the promises of capitalism and its actual, miserable conditions.


Downstairs on the street a police car drives at walking pace alongside the lazy river toward Central. Someone shows up with a bottle of wine, and C., who arrived late and then leaned in the doorway seeming unconcerned, now says as far as he knows there was also discussion in the literature about primary accumulation as the accumulation of differences and divisions.

At that moment, I step forward, or maybe I just mean to. I pull a pear out of my coat pocket and offer it to him.

The fruit gleams in the light of the streetlamps.

That’s all I have, I whisper, it’s a good pear, take it already. C. throws me a brief glance, then he guides my hand with the pear to his mouth and bites wordlessly.


O chevalier, so great is my delicious wickedness


Once, in late August, after an evening meal, I climbed a hill above Zurich with some people, the lime trees up there dark, behind our backs the floodlights of the airport. We sat down on the little wall, our shoulders sometimes touching in the darkness, and now, in memory, I see the tiny cars accelerating over the Hardbrücke. How quickly time passes.


Another time, we’re watching the beginning of the new year from the Käferberg; heads craned back, we watch the rockets, while around us children holding their parents’ hands stumble over the uneven meadow.


Then a night in a bar in Germany with an American programmer who talks about Arnold Schönberg, Shawnberg, he says. Later, the walk through dark, deserted streets. The bright apartment blocks on Manteuffelstraße like icy cuboids, craggy peaks rising into the frosty darkness. The warmth inside an American sweatshirt. When I wake up in the late morning, the rooms are as bright as day can be.


In January after my thirtieth birthday, I lie for days in the sparsely furnished Berlin room that I have sublet for a few weeks, reading magazines. The temperature has dropped well below zero, and day and night I wear the same wool sweater I bought five or six years earlier for a few euros on Knochenhauerstraße in Bremen. When I walk over the Spree to Ostbahnhof to buy bread and juice and slices of pizza at Ditsch, I hear the sound of ice floes bumping against each other and then drifting apart again. At night I dream.

It does not begin spontaneously, the career of a thief.

I camp out unnoticed in the city; hardly anyone knows I’m here. The probability that I will meet an acquaintance or a friend by chance on the short route to the Ostbahnhof is small. Just once I venture to the Volksbühne, where I see a play about love. An actor runs alone in a circle on an almost empty stage. No one in the subway; always the same cold wind in Köpenicker Straße, I push the snow in front of me with my shoes, eat a sausage from the vending machine on Heinrich-Heine-Straße.

On one of those clear, ice-cold nights, A. stands in front of the pharmacy on Hermannplatz and waits. As we walk together on Karl-Marx-Straße, I try to quote Poe from memory: For some months I had been ill in health, but was now convalescent. He had also—says A.—been ill until recently and had read American essays over Christmas. He had also dreamed: we wore wreaths, we walked long halls. Behind us, five international painting students sat on a sofa smoking joints. There were bouquets of flowers on the counters. Late at night, I return to my room, take off all my clothes, and immediately fall asleep.


I know a place—I write to C.—I am standing there, at the edge of a clearing where a bunch of golden horses graze, and when they gallop past me, startled by the sound of a quail in the bushes, I jump out from between the trees, grab one of the large animals by its golden mane, and swing myself onto its back. Yellow-feathered saffron finches accompany us on our way through the woods, and I’m already looking forward to supper.


I am constantly having these conversations with C., in my head, starting one conversation after another with him, always new conversations even when I’m still half asleep. This morning, when I woke up, the sky was already very bright with a bit of haze, and on top of it, the smoke from the chimneys of the houses opposite. I started reading a book by Peter Kurzeck. It begins with him at the end of January 1984, moving out of the home of the woman he lived with and her daughter. He moves into a room in Frankfurt, and in the middle of this room is a piano, a locked piano, and he tries to sleep there. A storage room, he writes, where I tried to sleep like a stranger. With caution. Temporarily. In the third person, so to speak, and then I thought: I also just need to write everything down, for C., everything, the weather and the morning light from the direction of the lake and how the outline of the hill at some point becomes visible through the haze. And it was such a beautiful day outside, so bright, like everything was starting over again. That would be enough for me. I’d be ready for anything.


When the Air France plane leaves the airport and climbs into the weatherless area of the atmosphere, the brightness penetrates the cabin so abruptly that my neighbor, looking out the window, covers his eyes with a silent cry. Although we should know perfectly well, he says with his hands still protectively over his eyes, we forget the sun shines constantly at ten thousand meters. Just a few moments ago, he was watching the airport workers standing around in the rain on the tarmac of Milano-Malpensa using their glow sticks, those luminous instruments they use to show the planes the way. He had drunk a coffee at a café bar in the coolly lit terminal and watched the travelers who, step by step, approached their destinations with their suitcases and travel equipment. On this morning he found them all pronouncedly ugly—their haircuts, indeed their whole manner of existence, as well as their way of moving through these halls, the presumption with which they traveled, and the ugliest of all, he says, of course, naturally, seemed to be himself when, just before boarding the plane, he bent over a sink and looked in the mirror. And now this light, he says, laughing almost noiselessly, this stable blue. Then, as he turns to me, I see that he has cool, light eyes.

The plane is already on approach to the Aéroport Nantes Atlantique when he quietly remarks that he had hoped for a cloudless day; he would have liked to have seen this region from the air—the course of the Loire, the western departments, perhaps some islands. In the summer of 1849, an editor of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Freiligrath, sent a letter to Karl Marx when the latter was already in France and production of the newspaper had ceased. If he was not mistaken, my neighbor says, Freiligrath informed Marx in his letter that a certain Dr. Daniels considered the department of Morbihan—to which the French government wanted to banish Marx—to be “the most unhealthy strip of France, muddy and fever-breathing: the Pontine marshes of Brittany.” If he, Marx, obeyed the order, Freiligrath wrote, he would almost certainly come down with malaria, so it would be better if he went to England.

How beautifully this man with the cool, light eyes talks about the marshes, I think, while the flight attendants move down the rows and prepare the cabin for landing. Whatever he were to ask me now, I would say yes, I would sign onto anything, sign over everything, I would follow him anywhere, even to the department of Morbihan.

In the bibliography of the first volume of Capital, two works by E. G. Wakefield: the two-volume England and America, published in 1833, which Marx mockingly quotes in the twenty-fifth chapter on the theory of colonization, and the 1849 publication A View of the Art of Colonization. Also, there’s a note that an edition of Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was published with a commentary by Wakefield.

And in the preface to his paper “Facts Relating to the Punishment of Death in the Metropolis,” Wakefield writes that the majority of the facts and all the scenes of horror depicted on the following pages were gained from his own observation from May 1827 to May 1830 during his imprisonment in Newgate, the great London prison, and terra incognita. (“Ah, this is exactly how the imagination envisions prison in times of barbarism,” Flora Tristan noted in 1840 after her visit to Newgate in the Promenades dans Londres, which she later renamed La ville monstre. She reported a lack of daylight—only slowly did one’s eyes get used to the darkness in the cells.) I had the opportunity, Wakefield explains in the second chapter, “Nurseries of Crime,” to survey more than one hundred thieves ranging from ages eight to fourteen about the direct causes that made them become thieves.

It does not begin spontaneously, the career of a thief, he writes. At the beginning there is seduction—in the form of food, for example, or other pleasures—and an experienced thief sometimes shells out up to ten pounds in a few days in order to corrupt a boy by taking him to the playhouse, allowing him to eat and drink extravagantly from the bakery, grocery, and pub. An even more effective form of seduction was the early arousal and gratification of sexual desire by women who collaborated with the thieves and whispered to the intoxicated boys that stealing fruit was the only way to continue this life of unbridled debauchery. Soon, writes Wakefield, the young thief will prefer idleness and luxury to work and simple meals. He leaves his seductress, “his original seducer, with whom he is no longer willing to share his plunder.”


Ellen West in front of a bowl filled with twenty oranges. Me on the balcony above the Limmat, pear in hand, still willing to share the fruit.


Early morning, still dark, then the first light off the lake. “That was the first very cold night of the year,” they say on the radio. Sitting yesterday evening with Natalie at the big window at Piazza: she wore beautiful woven earrings made of small beads, fried cutlets were brought from the kitchen. Now and then someone came inside, hood pulled deep over the face, eyes reddened by the cold. At some point I walked home—Zurlindenstraße, Brahmsstraße, nary a soul—then fell asleep immediately.


Wakefield writes of John Williams, a twenty-three-year-old man sentenced to death in Newgate for theft. Williams climbs up the pipe of a cistern on the morning of December 19, 1827, the day of his execution—perhaps, as some speculate, to drown himself in the cistern, but much more likely because he still hopes to escape his sentence this way. Williams falls into the cobbled courtyard and seriously injures his legs. Although everyone knows he is to be hanged that very day, a doctor tends to him carefully. As he is carried to the gallows, the blood begins to flow from his wounds again: it is clear to see.


Around noon, a phone call with A. Seagulls circle above the flat roof of the neighboring house. The heat makes the air shimmer. I say how the report on the conditions in Newgate and the implications of the death penalty ends with the chapter “Transportation to the Colonies.” In the majority of cases, death sentences were not carried out; instead, the convicts were shipped to the colonies, to New South Wales, to Van Diemen’s Land.

Although we should know perfectly well, he says with his hands still protectively over his eyes, we forget the sun shines constantly at ten thousand meters.

The prisoners of Newgate awaiting such a transfer were housed separately from the other inmates, Wakefield writes, and they were more carefree, more cheerful: reports from the colonies—where the value of human labor exceeded any price and thus every convict transferred from the motherland was practically courted—those reports, which circulated among the prisoners, resounded with promise. And time and again, he said, he had seen with his own eyes in Newgate how someone, after learning he was to be taken to the colonies, suddenly recovered, developed an appetite, exhibited cheerfulness.


Around four in the morning I wake up, and outside is an orange light, everything strangely illuminated, and I think of how the blast furnaces of the Tevershall pit turn the sky red at night in Lady Chatterley and of the glow above the crater of Stromboli in summer a few years ago, but then I see that snow has fallen and reflects the light.

I would like—I write that very night to C.—to invite you to dinner. I can be a generous hostess; I’ll serve three courses, and at the end I’ll offer cheese and fresh figs. Or we can direct ourselves, chatting and smoking, to the papaya tree, where I will separate the ripest fruit directly from the stem of the plant and open it with a longitudinal cut, revealing the black seeds surrounded by bright, sweet flesh to be removed with a spoon.


American lawyers say, “Strike that!” in court in order to withdraw a previously uttered question or statement that pushes the boundaries of what is permissible to say.

How far out on a limb I have let myself go with these declarations, my invitations to C., for whom a pear seems to be nothing more than a thing hanging on a branch or lying in a green box in the supermarket.

Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume two, 1967: his survey of prisoners during his time in Newgate is what led Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796–1862) to devote himself to emigration to the Antipodes. In the colonies, writes Marx, Wakefield discovered that the capitalist needs the worker as a complement; thus, Mr. Peel, who brings to the banks of the Swan River in New Holland investment capital of fifty thousand pounds and three hundred persons of the working class—men, women, and children, who shortly after their arrival disperse into the wide, promising country—is urgently dependent on those who can draw his water from the river.

When Mr. Peel, writes Wakefield, reaches Cockburn Sound with the provisions brought from England, he is, with some difficulty, just able to find laborers to place these goods under a shelter, but finding no one willing to undertake their onward transportation, the things remain there until they are spoiled; the tent rots. “Unhappy Mr. Peel, who provided for everything but the export of English manufacturing conditions to the Swan River!” Because a cotton gin is a machine for spinning cotton, Marx writes, it becomes capital only in certain relations. Voilà: capital is not a thing but a social relation between persons mediated by things.


Through the courtyard of the prison walks a boy between eight and fourteen years old, two burning candles in his hands. In the windows stand the thieves, awaiting their transfer. John Williams lays his hands around the cistern pipe. On the shores of the Indian Ocean, Mr. Peel’s tent slowly rots.

Whatever he were to ask me now, I would say yes, I would sign onto anything, sign over everything, I would follow him anywhere, even to the department of Morbihan.

And Wakefield. On the morning of March 6, 1826, he arrives at the Albion Inn in Manchester, gives himself the alias Captain Wilson, has breakfast with his brother and his servant—a Frenchman—buys a secondhand green carriage, and sets off with his companions at two in the morning for Liverpool. Once there, they will lure fifteen-year-old Ellen Turner, heiress and only child of William Turner of Shrigley Park, into their carriage under false pretenses, transport her to Scotland. At Gretna Green, Wakefield will marry her for her fortune.


In The Newgate Calendar, where—among the bigamists and adulterers, Wakefield, kidnapper of maidens—Ann Marrow is also to be found, pilloried in 1777 for pretending to be a man, marrying three women, and taking their money and valuables. The contempt of the crowd, it says in the calendar, in particular of the female members, is so great that Marrow is pilloried (presumably with stones and rubbish) violently enough that she loses her eyesight, permanently.

My awkward remarks when someone asks me on the street outside Mars Bar what I’m working on:
LOVE etc.


Last night I was drafting another message to C.—I say to A.—but I kept falling asleep, and when I woke up hours later, it was already light. I lay at the window and watched how the snow driven by the wind rushed toward me at high speed, as if the flakes were silently assaulting me, as if they were all bearers of one and the same message which they were going to repeat urgently until at last I deciphered it.

How Don Diego de Zama, royal official in the service of the Spanish Empire, contemplates nature in the Asunción area according to Benedetto in 1790. Gentle, he says, and childlike; he runs the risk of being captured by Nature and brought to deceptive, long-echoing thoughts, especially in those moments of languor when he is just barely awake.

At that moment—I say to A.—looking out at the neighboring house and the snow-covered fields, I thought about nature—its discoverers and subjugators, about nature as woman, about woman between man and nature—and I realized that I have to abandon the quail and the tropical tortoises, those old-fashioned images of a humid and sultry wilderness; that I cannot fall back on them to describe to C. the place to which I want to lure him.


I race through England in a carriage. I hear the sound of the horses’ shod hooves hurrying through the night, see the back of the French coachman on his seat. I open my coat, then my jeans, and run my hand between my legs into the warmth, to the warm origin of the world, as a painter whose work I studied extensively called it; it grows quite pleasurable, I egg myself on, whip myself up, goad myself, looking on as this all comes to crisis; I let myself go, through all of England I let myself go, and everything we pass is mine—the houses and the streets; the automobiles and the animals; the neon lights on the façades of the main streets; the playhouses, fruit stands, and cake shops of the country; the outgoing ships; the great oceans—I give myself everything, can give myself everything now, everything is subject to me, but especially the Frenchman who guides the horses, my little French servant, even though I’m only fifteen, what did you all think?


In two years, I’ll marry a rich neighbor. And in four years, I’ll be dead.