Empty Hearts

Juli Zeh

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Empty Hearts, the newly translated satirical thriller from Juli Zeh. In the recent future in Germany amid a populist movement, Britta is a successful entrepreneur, running a suicide prevention company. But her business hides a darker operation, supplying terrorist organizations with lost causes to recruit as suicide bombers. But when a bombing occurs via someone else, and a mysterious investor appears, she fears her career might be compromised.

Knut and Janina come over at five.

The weather’s splendid. For several days now, the sun has shown the kind of strength you would hardly have thought it capable of after a typical Braunschweig winter and the drizzly first weeks of spring. The light lies like pale yellow chiffon on the smooth surfaces of the furniture, sparkles in the glasses on the table, penetrates into the remotest dust-free corners. Three times a week, Britta has Henry, a young man from Laos, make the house spick-and-span. Unfortunately, the picture windows always exhibit a couple of smudges that Henry has missed.

With the children, daily routines have changed somewhat. Before, the adults would have met at dusk for the first aperitifs, not in broad daylight for dinner. But that’s normal, it’s the same for all of them, the whole army of parents with only children. Britta used to work until midnight, sleep until noon, and ingest the first solid food of the day in the early afternoon, when Babak, no morning person himself, would come to the office with something—usually a sandwich—for her to eat. The arrival of baby Vera seven years ago put an end to all that. Only sometimes Britta still feels a slight dizziness and something akin to alarm, symptoms of existential jet lag.

“This mess keeps falling apart,” Richard calls from the kitchen, addressing no one in particular. Out in the hallway, Britta accepts the bottle of red wine that Knut has brought, a nice gesture, even though they have a whole cellar full of Luis Felipe Edwards Cabernet Sauvignon, a 2020 Chilean she and Richard like and have grown used to. She’ll regift Knut’s Rioja, a bottle with a ribbon around its neck, when the opportunity arises.

“Sticky fingers.” Richard laughs as he raises his gummy hands in the air and greets his guests with his elbows. “I’m following the recipe exactly, but the stuff still looks like biowaste.”

Before him lie shreds of seaweed and clumps of gooey rice, the results of his wrapping experiments. Richard has got it into his head to make his own sushi this evening, and Britta never interferes in such plans. The kitchen is Richard’s domain. She’ll keep the guests entertained and make sure the children
eat something, it really doesn’t matter what, by seven o’clock or so.

“Man, it looks great. We’ll get some flat spoons and eat it directly off your granite countertop,” says Knut.

It’s actually polished concrete, but Britta keeps her mouth shut. Knut’s kind of a wimp and probably not even particularly intelligent, but Britta likes him anyway, because he’s good-humored and because his daughter, Cora, gets along so well with Vera. Seven years ago, Janina and Britta met at baby swim class, each with a screaming bundle on her arm; after that first day, they spent many a long, sluggish afternoon together. At first, they’d indulge in reciprocal venting about their troubles; later, they’d enjoy an hour or two of relative peace by the side of a play area while the two little girls kept themselves busy. This play-date friendship has even withstood their decision to send Cora and Vera to different schools. While Knut and Janina’s daughter goes to a children’s music school where piano lessons are compulsory and smartphones prohibited, Vera is receiving a normal, Silicon Valley–influenced education, and is certainly no worse off for it. Cora’s practicing “Faster, Faster, Little Snail” on the xylophone; Vera has just written her first program, which causes a fish to swim back and forth across her computer screen and snap at a baited hook when it’s dropped into the water.

The two girls have already disappeared into Vera’s room, while the adults are still occupied with standing around, which is apparently a phase that must be endured at every such gathering. You lean in a doorway or support yourself with both hands on the back of a chair and laugh in one another’s faces until everyone is finally relaxed enough to sit down. Britta’s house has a spacious living-and-dining area with big, glazed
windows; nevertheless, everybody always squeezes into the kitchen and insists on sitting at the much-too small breakfast table. She’s given up wanting to do anything about this.

Britta pricks up one ear and aims it at Vera’s room across the hall until she hears the usual Mega-Melanie sounds. The girls are wholly in love with Vera’s Mega-Mall, a multilevel plastic monstrosity that has Wi-Fi, several electronic screens, and a programmable sound track. When Cora comes for a visit,
she always brings some of her Glotzis, cuddly little aliens with three big eyes, currently all the rage. They constitute the driving force of a complex Martian attack on the Mega-Mall, which must be repulsed by Mega-Melanie, Mega-Martin, and their Mega-Friends. Most of the time, after various complications, the members of Mega-SWAT start shooting wildly in all directions, killing not only the Glotzis but also all the customers in the Mega-Mall. Then the adults hear dramatic music and synchronized whoops of “Collateral damage!”

While the Edwards is breathing in the decanter, Britta opens the refrigerator and takes a moment or two to enjoy the sight of perfectly presented food. A stick of butter in a glass butter dish. Little vegetarian sausages, two eggplants, three tomatoes, a pitcher of milk. She takes out two different bottles of beer and hands each of the men his favorite. She opens a bottle of prosecco for Janina and herself.

“How was the showing?”


Janina clinks glasses but doesn’t drink from hers, puts it down, and straightens her upswept hairdo. With her flowered dress and romantic coiffure, she presents a stark contrast to Britta, who wears her light hair straight and chin-length and prefers plain pants in gray or pale blue and tops that appear inexpensive except to a practiced eye. All the same, looking at Janina gives Britta pleasure. When Janina had her daughter, she was in her early twenties—having children while you’re still young is back in style these days—and it often seems to Britta as though her younger friend comes not only from another decade, but also from a different planet. Janina is comfortable adapting to circumstances, whether it’s a matter of her wardrobe or her hairstyle, her tiny apartment, her family, or her girlish dreams. For the past few weeks, she and Knut have been looking for a house in the country, a project that strikes Britta as rather absurd. She herself has known for fifteen years that big cities are passé, but also that provincial life cannot remedy metropolitan mania, since no evil can be cured by its opposite. Towns of medium size and medium importance, towns that obey the laws of pragmatism down to the smallest detail—those are the urban centers most appropriate to the twenty-first century. They have everything, but not too much of anything, enough of a few things, and in the midst of all that, affordable housing, wide streets, and architecture that leaves you alone.

Years before, while the people she knew were still busy renovating old farmhouses in Brandenburg and growing organic tomatoes, Britta used the first income from The Bridge to buy a house in a peaceful neighborhood in Braunschweig. A concrete cube with a lot of glass, practical, roomy, easy to clean, just like Braunschweig itself—straight lines, smooth surfaces, doubt-free. So completely thought through that each piece of furniture has only one possible location. There’s a cellar, a child’s room, a guest room, a sufficient number of bathrooms and storage spaces, a low-maintenance garden, and built-in household electronics that regulate room temperature, make coffee at scheduled times, and sound a warning when the refrigerator door stays open too long. Britta loves her house. If you have no desire to indulge in any self-deception about the times you live in, then polished concrete is exactly what you can still love.

“To be totally honest, I think we’ve found it.” Janina raises her prosecco glass and clinks with the others again, and this time she drinks too. Her enthusiasm fascinates Britta. Janina loves peeling paint on old wooden doors, wheelbarrows planted with colorful flowers, and a big sheepskin rug in front of the fireplace. An anachronism that cries out to heaven. Complete ignorance of the fact that things have changed.

“The old people who own it just moved out. It was awful for them, leaving their house. All their lives, it was their home.”

“So why do they want to sell it?”

“Not want to, have to. Out there, once you’re old, you’re not very well protected anymore.”

“Old folks? Protected?” says Richard. By now, three more or less complete maki rolls are lying before him, slightly curved, like dog shit. “What’s this about, palliative real estate?”

Britta laughs. She loves him for his quick wit, and she loves laughing at Janina’s house-buying plans.

“Admit it,” Britta says. “It’s a perfectly run-down old dump, probably with wood stoves and straw mattresses, and when you want hot water, you put a kettle on the boil. Impossible to clean, because dust is constantly drifting down from the ceiling. And fat spiders in every corner.”

“Sounds about right,” says Knut, laughing good-naturedly.

“O-kaayyy.” Richard stretches out the word in a tone that’s supposed to mean, “No accounting for taste.”
“The house is fabulous,” Janina reiterates. “You have to come out with us sometime and see it. Cora’s all enchanted. Imagine, she could keep a horse out there.”

“Does Manufactum have horses in its catalog?” asks Richard.

“Seriously, it’s just what we want. No electronics, wooden floors, clay plaster walls. A big garden with old trees. We’ll invite you out and build a bonfire.”

“Wearing full-body hazmat suits to ward off the ticks,” says Britta. “So how much is this going to cost?”

Slightly exaggerating her discomfort at this question, Janina makes a face.

“Too much,” says Knut. “But we’ve decided not to think about that.”

“An outstanding financial strategy,” Richard jokes. At this point, he’s moved on to portioning out the pressed rice for the nigiri and is slowly gaining control of the sushi situation. Everyone present knows that Knut and Janina can’t afford a house, or even a garden shed, regardless of whether the government’s negative interest rate policy is extended indefinitely. As a playwright, Knut’s still waiting for his breakthrough, and Janina’s start-up, which she calls “Typewriter,” and which offers secretarial services for writers, painters, and other freelancers, suffers from the fact that her clients have no more money than Janina and Knut themselves. Nevertheless, what they do have can suffice for the three of them to live a modest life, assuming that someday Knut becomes an earner, but the whole process will require time to develop. That Janina, in spite of this, is on the lookout for a house in the country strikes Britta as both touching and courageous. She decides to set aside her antipathy to self-constructed idylls and to let Janina know, as soon as possible, that if she has problems with the bank, then she, Britta, can help with the initial funding. Janina is, after all, her best friend, and besides, Britta has more money than she knows what to do with. The Bridge has done so well in the past year, what with Frexit, Free Flanders, and Catalonia First!, that now it’s high time for her to start paying attention to financial strategies again. As she refills the prosecco glasses and opens two more beers, she makes a mental note to discuss her options with Babak tomorrow.

Britta emerges from her thoughts to find that Richard has already produced sixteen little rectangular blocks of rice. The topic of conversation has shifted from houses to something about politics. While Knut stares spellbound at his phone screen, Britta stands up and removes a bowl of last night’s pasta and a couple of veggie sausages from the refrigerator. She knows few people who don’t feel awkward taking out their smartphone nowadays. Whoever does so undaunted either has permanent employment or votes for the CCC, the Concerned Citizens’ Crusade. Knut fits into neither of those categories, and yet he reads the “Snaps” posted by Regula Freyer and her associates. Years before, Babak developed a hack that allowed smartphone users to delete factory-installed apps. He passed the tool on to Britta and Richard, but Knut didn’t want it.

“The CCC is introducing Efficiency Package Number Five,” says Knut. He looks around, as though all present must now express an opinion in turn. “After it’s in place, there’ll be no more regional inquiry commissions or parliamentary advisory boards or oversight committees.”

Janina clears her throat. If this sound doesn’t induce Knut to restrain himself, then either he didn’t hear it or didn’t understand it.

“Do they want to do away with federalism altogether now?”

“It’s possible,” answers Richard serenely. “I wouldn’t put anything past these CCC nutcases.”

Britta gently shoves him and his sushi rollers to one side, puts the induction wok on the stove, and pours in a little oil and the pasta; then, while that’s heating, she chops the veggie sausages into small pieces.

“They’re giving the whole country a makeover.”

“That’s what they ran on doing. Lean and fit, into the future.”

“Remind me, what kind of committees were those?” Janina asks.

“The budget cuts they’re making, the amounts of money they’re saving, are certainly enormous.” Knut looks at his phone again. “It’s the taxpayers’ money, after all.”

Britta doesn’t believe that Knut has ever in his life paid taxes.

“In actual fact, nobody knows what we need federalism for,” Janina says.

“None of us voted Concerned Citizens,” says Richard. “So what are we even talking about?”

“Efficiency Package Number Five,” Knut persists.

Britta is slowly getting irritated. Even though she is, for professional reasons, forced to keep up with politics, however superficially, she thinks people have no obligation to speak about politics in their private lives. It’s all too obvious that Knut has yet to understand that politics is like the weather: it happens, whether you watch it or not; your attention makes no difference; and only idiots complain about it. She has a dim memory of having felt differently, once upon a time. She sees herself standing in a voting booth and marking her ballot with great conviction. She knows that in days gone by she would discuss the question of whom to vote for with other people, and she remembers that the answer seemed important to her. She’s no longer so sure exactly when that was; definitely before the refugee crisis, Brexit, and Trump, and long before the second financial crisis and the meteoric rise of the Concerned Citizens’ Crusade. In another time.

“Collateral damage!” The jubilant voices come from the children’s room, accompanied by Mega-Music, which stamps loudly across the hall.

“Calm down in there!” Janina calls out. “Your dinner’s almost ready!”
When Britta adds the sausage to the wok, the concoction begins to hiss. She stirs the ingredients thoroughly and switches on the exhaust hood over the stove.

“That smells pretty damn tasty,” says Knut.

“I’m almost ready too.” Richard opens some vacuum packs, takes out pieces of raw fish, and garnishes his sushi-rice blocks with them. Square plates are already on the table, along with pairs of chopsticks resting on little porcelain holders and bowls of soy sauce, pickled ginger, and wasabi paste.

“The hellacious part is, nobody has any idea what might come of all this,” Knut says, returning to his topic. “I mean, the CCC simply won’t do, that much is clear. But just for an example, who would have thought at the time that idiots like Trump and Putin would put an end to the Syrian war? That’s some post-factual politics.”

Britta hates expressions like “post-factual” and “post-truth” and “post-reality.”

For years they’ve been flooding blogs and media outlets, which use them to make stupid people feel that actual political analysis is going on. As if politics were ever “factual.” What was factual? Absolutism? Imperialism? National Socialism, the Cold War, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, or September 11? Britta has a great appetite for the truth. And the truth is that it’s been years since anyone has known what
to think.

With Knut still absorbed in scrolling on his smartphone, Britta turns on some music to signal that the conversation is over. Molly Richter’s soft voice fills the room. This singer is the phenom of the season. Twelve years old, buzz-cut hair, the body and clothes of a little scamp, and a voice like Josephine Baker.

Full Hands Empty Hearts / It’s a Suicide World Baby.

Britta opens a can of peeled tomatoes and pours them into the wok. The hissing turns to bubbling, and the sautéed sausage pieces and pasta disappear in the red liquid. She mashes the tomatoes with the tip of her cooking spoon until the mixture takes on a mushy consistency. A cup of cream turns the red into a brownish pink and the mush into sauce. The children call the result “sausage goulash,” a dish they both love.

“Looks good.” Knut is standing next to her. He dips a spoon in the wok and tries some. “Tasty.”

“Five minutes to sushi,” says Richard. “Sushi is for the eye, this here is for the belly.” Knut holds out a square plate to Britta. “Much too good for the children.” She exchanges a look with Richard, who rolls his eyes but smiles, and so she doles out a portion of goulash. Janina appears with two more plates—one for herself, one for Britta—takes some spoons from a drawer, and sits at the table.

“Vera, Cora,” Richard calls. “Your parents are eating up your sausage!”

“So, everyone dead?” asks Janina, tousling the girls’ hair as they come running into the kitchen, carrying Mega-Melanie, Mega-Martin, and two Glotzis. They place them next to their plates before they fall upon the sausage goulash. Richard divides the sushi and sashimi into equal portions, places them on wooden boards, and serves them. The food looks better than expected; everyone claps and yells and calls out “Arigato!” before starting to eat everything indiscriminately, sausage and pasta and raw fish. Britta jumps up from her chair because she’s forgotten the wine. They clink glasses yet again and the Edwards tastes fantastic, even though it pairs well with neither the sushi nor the goulash. The general mood is buoyant—a really nice evening.

There are strawberries for dessert, picked by Vera with her own hands in the neighbors’ garden. Everyone gets a small portion. Britta watches Janina turn down sugar and whipped cream and smiles silently to herself. It’s a good thing that problems are, at least to some extent, equitably distributed. Britta often considers herself a bad mother because she secretly loves her work more than her family. On the other hand, she can eat whatever she wants.

At seven forty-five, Vera—as she does every evening—wants to watch an episode of her favorite series on Netflix. A little drone named “Featherweight,” which has escaped from its owner, helps a girl solve everyday problems.

While Vera and Cora stare at the screen, Janina and Knut have already begun to thank their hosts and to propose some ideas for a reciprocal invitation. Britta and Richard assure them that they need no help cleaning up, that it’s been a super-nice evening, and that they’ll gladly drop over to their place with Vera for a meal sometime—or maybe it would be better to go to the park for a cookout, because Knut and Janina’s apartment is pretty small and, as Britta secretly thinks, not particularly clean either.

“Wow! Awesome!” cries Vera in the living room.

“Collateral damage!” Cora shouts gleefully.

That sounds too violent for Featherweight. Britta, followed by the others, crosses the hall.

The girls have switched to television mode, one of the few things that Britta rigorously forbids. Television is out of the question. She’s about to launch into a scolding rant, but she’s distracted by what she sees on the screen. The eight o’clock news.

“What the hell is that?” she whispers, or rather hears herself whisper, for her lips have moved without her say-so.

The others have stopped in the doorway, still discussing the proposed cookout. Britta’s standing in the middle of the room, by chance exactly in the center of the star-shaped rug pattern, looking at the TV. Washed-out images, a forty-five-second report, the first half of which she’s already missed. Nonetheless, she grasps the situation at once. Black uniforms, operations officers speaking into two-way radios, circling helicopters, tear gas, flash grenades, the works. If she’s not completely mistaken, the culprit, who has been brought to the ground, is wearing an explosive belt, but the picture quality is very bad, like a cell phone video taken from a great distance.

Britta’s knees get weak, and she flops onto an armchair. The girls are tussling on the couch. Richard cries, “Turn off that blasted television, right now!” Janina says, “We’re leaving!” Knut has likewise stepped in front of the television set; he’s looking at the news anchor, a woman, part of the whole cheesy eight-o’clock shtick, including a candy-colored suit and blow-dried hair, how amazing that this hasn’t stopped, that it simply goes on and on, as though absolutely nothing has changed in the past twenty years. Terror attack, says the anchor. Leipzig/Halle Airport, cargo area, attackers thwarted at the last moment. One suspect dead, the other in custody. Thus far no indication of what group, if any, is responsible; ongoing investigation; information blackout. Britta has the impression that she’s taking part in some surreal film. Any second now, the woman will take off her mask and turn into Featherweight, or in any case, that’s Britta’s hope.

“What’s wrong?” asks Knut.

The newscast has moved on to another story, this one about a new, genetically modified plant, due to be patented soon: a corn-pumpkin hybrid, extremely large, extremely nutritious, and possibly the end of hunger in the Third World, as the spokespersons for the government and Google maintain at a joint press conference.

“Oh, nothing.”

“They were shooting everywhere, it was really cool, the guys in black had flash crenades and smoke bombs and giant guns.”

“Mama, was that a SWAT team? Or the secret servant?”

“Grenades,” says Knut. “And secret service. And shooting everywhere isn’t cool.”

Britta surreptitiously reaches into her pocket, takes out her smartphone, and unlocks it; when she realizes that Knut has seen her, she puts the device away again.

“What’s the matter, sweetie?” calls Richard from the kitchen. “Is it one of your patients?”

Richard and the others know that occasionally one of The Bridge’s clients “does something stupid,” as Britta puts it. When that happens, she acts devastated for a couple of days, while the other three strive to console her, assuring her that she bears no guilt, reminding her that her therapeutic success rate is higher than ninety percent. “They’re just people,” Richard usually says in such cases. “You can try to help them, but there’s only so much you can do.”

“I thought so for a second, but I was wrong,” says Britta.

“Kids, we’re going now,” says Knut. “Cora, where are your Glotzis? Put your shoes on.”

About what she saw with her own eyes, Britta can speak to no one. Except to Babak. If she could, she’d call him up at once. Ask him for facts. He must have gone through the available information quite thoroughly by now. Then again, she needs, urgently needs, time to think; her head’s about to explode.

Instead, she must bid farewell to her guests and put Vera to bed. After that, Richard will want to drink one more glass of wine and engage in a detailed discussion of the evening with Knut and Janina. Their house-buying plans. Their disastrous jobs. Britta’s thoughts are on a roller coaster in her head, but she pulls herself together, stands up, smiles at Knut, takes the wriggling Vera by an arm—at seven years old, she’s already quite a heavy little person—thinks, Cargo area, why the cargo area, and says things like “Stop it now, no drama, you promised,” while they stand around a little longer in the hallway until Knut and Janina have got themselves organized, thanked their hosts for the third time, and said good-bye as often; until Cora is finally dressed and ready; and until the unwieldy family unit has been maneuvered out the door. Who comes up with the idea of attacking pieces of luggage? Because they’re easier to get to? So long, so long, the automobile starts, it could really use another visit to the car wash, they wave until their visitors have disappeared around the next corner.

Richard goes to the kitchen to clean up; Britta goes to the bathroom with Vera. Once visitors have left, she’s always tormented by the urge to clean the whole place immediately, top to bottom. Henry’s coming tomorrow; the thought soothes her. Everything’s organized, everything’s taken care of. When she sees her face in the mirror, she feels nauseated.

Not now, she thinks, please, and the nausea goes away. How had the authorities arrived on the scene so fast and so heavily equipped? Who shot the video and gave it to the media? Why did one suspect survive?

She and Vera are in negotiations about the length of time, in minutes, prescribed for the little girl’s toothbrushing when Britta’s phone rings. Unknown number. She accepts the call and admonishes herself to speak softly. The bathroom and the kitchen share a wall, and Richard might hear her.

“Good evening,” she says.

“Who is it?” Richard calls from the other side of the wall.

“Babak!” she calls back.

“Best regards!” calls Richard.

“Just take it easy,” says Babak.

“Have you found out anything?”

“Found out what?” asks Vera, her mouth full of toothpaste.

“Let me talk to Babak for a minute,” says Britta. “It’s about business.

“No talking, not now. I’m calling to tell you to stay calm. This probably has nothing at all to do with us.”

“Didn’t you see that—”

“Of course, it’s possible I saw a suicide belt, but I’m not certain. The news reports aren’t clear. Stay calm, spend your evening with your family, don’t log on to the Internet. Everything the same as usual. Okay? We’ll talk tomorrow.”


“Until morning, then.”

“I’ve definitely brushed enough now.” Vera spits out toothpaste foam and runs into the kitchen. “Night, Papa! Kisses!” she says, and darts across the hall to her room. Britta follows more slowly, taking deep breaths, and feels professionalism flowing back into her body, like the effect of a mild drug. In the kitchen, Richard has again turned on some music, and she can hear Molly’s voice through the wall. Full Hands Empty Hearts / It’s a Suicide World Baby.


From Empty Hearts by Juli Zeh. Used with the permission of the publisher, Doubleday. Copyright © 2019 by Juli Zeh.

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