I first was exposed to Wolfgang Borchert in The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories, edited by Daniel Halpern. Borchert (1921-1947) was a German author and actor, who fought in World War II before succumbing to liver failure. Not only did he endure the horrors of war, but he also was imprisoned more than once for speaking against the Nazi regime. It’s little wonder that he was able to capture darkness and oppressiveness in his writing, and his brief story, “Do Stay, Giraffe” which was included in the anthology, immediately struck me with its intensity.
Within the work, Borchert portrays the meeting of a young man and a woman, who appears to be a prostitute, at an empty train station at night. The woman asks the man for a cigarette then solicits him to join her, teasing him that his long and lanky build reminds her of a giraffe. He does ultimately engage in an intimate encounter with the woman but leaves her company quickly, in a horrified state.
The story is written in such a way that the reader feels smothered by the environment. By establishing such a dark and oppressive atmosphere, Borchert creates a character that serves as an important supplement to the content of the story, which is spare in and of itself. Starting with the nameless individuals, to the woman’s “too red mouth in the pale face” looming in the darkness, the reader isn’t able to get their footing. Borchert continues this disconcerting imbalance through his portrayal of the train station. He writes
He stood on the wind-howling night-empty platform in the great greysooted moon-lonely hall. Empty stations at night are the end of the world, extinct, grown meaningless. And void. Void, void, void. But if you go further, you are lost.
…He stood at the end of the world. The cold white arc-lamps were merciless and made everything naked and doleful. But behind them grew a terrible darkness. No black was as black as the darkness round the white lamps of the night-empty platforms.
The mood here is sinister and mystical due to the repressive darkness. This gloom is made even bleaker by the contrast between the light and the blackness that extends beyond the lamps. To lend even more texture to the environment, the darkness is depicted as “dark-winged” and “threatening”, and the emptiness of the train station is credited with being able to cause one to “cry out like a drowning animal” (Borchert 98). The author ratchets up this unexpected character even more by using incredibly strong language to add more power to the darkness:
Then you are lost. For the darkness has a terrible voice. You cannot escape it and in a flash it has overwhelmed you. It assails you with memory—of the murder you committed yesterday. And it attacks you with foreknowledge—of the murder you’ll commit tomorrow. And it presses up a cry in you: unheard fish-cry of the solitary animal, overwhelmed by its own sea.
We’re confronted with the darkness as the keeper of secrets from our past and for the seemingly inescapable choices we’ll make in the future: the choices that lead us to death and grave injury to others. The darkness presses in on the male and female, as well as on the reader, in such a way that it is living and thus carries significant weight in the story, enough weight that it is a driving force of the piece.
Such a mystical and primitive description of the atmosphere leads the reader to know that this story will not end happily. This heaviness is used as momentum and appears to be a large factor in the young man’s departure. In the end of the piece, both characters are alone again in the darkness, which seems the most natural and obvious fit for this piece. Borchert writes:
Do stay, giraffe! Her mouth shimmered sick-red in her pale face.
But the giraffe stalked away across the pavement with hollow, echoing steps. And behind him the moon-grey street, falling silent again, returned to its petrified loneliness. The reptile-eyed windows looked dead, as though glazed with a milky film. The curtains, sleep-heavy secretly breathing eyelids, billowed gently. Dangled. Dangled, white, soft, and waved sorrowfully after him.
The shutter miaowed. And her breast was cold. When he looked round, behind the pane was a too red mouth. Giraffe, it wept.
Intentionally or not, Borchert was able to create a third character within this very short piece. The darkness, the oppressiveness, was solidified by the powerful descriptors the author used, and by having the darkness essentially force itself on the characters, it becomes not altogether human but something more sinister, strengthened more that it knows all of our poor choices we have made or will make.
Consider the extra characters in your own writing that aren’t necessarily blatant. What forces are acting in your work that you can draw out even more? Are there any descriptors that can be punched up the way Borchert does, by hyphenating for instance, or any ways that you can make your sentences more varied, short and sparse followed by long and detailed? Play around with each word to see how you can add a character or ratchet up the intensity of your piece.