Übermütig: Sabine Heinlein’s “The Portrait of the Writer as a Rabbit”


We discovered Sabine Heinlein‘s “The Portrait of the Writer as a Rabbit”  in the  2014 Pushcart Prize XXXVIII- Best of the Small Presses. It was originally published in the venerable Iowa Review. Here is an excerpt:

“Unlike rabbits, the stereotypical German is stationary, predictable, and consistent. She plans ahead, stays close to home, and doesn’t risk awkward jumps. But rabbits and I—we are übermütig.

Composed of the German preposition über (beyond or above) and mütig, which derives from the noun Mut, or courage, übermütig is commonly translated as carefree, coltish, and slaphappy. But none of these translations captures the adjective’s condescending quality. A German who is overly courageous isn’t a hero. A German who fails to consider where her jumps will land her is conceited and presumptuous.

Rabbits and I live in the moment; we have a hair trigger and aim high. A truly happy rabbit doesn’t take into consideration the powerful strength of her springy hind legs. When she is exuberantly joyful, she puts on “binkies,” a series of Jerry Lewis jumps that land her in unforeseeable places. As a result, she bumps into walls and against chairs and slides across hardwood floors. Watching my pet rabbits do their binkies, the stereotypical German in me wants to call out, “Be careful! Don’t forget how strong your hind legs are! Don’t be übermütig!” But instead I stand back, applaud, and feel inspired.

The binkies are, of course, a form of joyous practice that saves lives in treacherous situations. With their unpredictable jumps and jolts and their ability to suddenly reverse direction, rabbits often manage to fool and escape their pursuers. A well-performed binky can be the difference between life and death.

Staying where I grew up would have killed me. My little Bavarian burrow was stultifying. I devoured the stories passing strangers brought to our home, but there were never enough.

My parents often called me übermütig as a child.

“You are übermütig!” My father would say when I jumped on the couch and ran around the fireplace, skidding on the tiled floor; when I let myself dangle from his elk trophies and climbed on the steel sculptures in the yard.

“This will end in tears!” my mother would warn. And often it did. Tears of embarrassment and anger, because whenever I did fall, my parents would say, “I told you so! You shouldn’t have been so übermütig!”

As a child I enjoyed digging and dangling, jumping and skidding, but hated the guilt it brought on. I wanted to free myself from my family’s fears and from Germany’s enervation. We rabbits are masters of escaping enclosures; if necessary we fit into the tightest spaces and can jump up to several times our height.”

The author got her pet rabbit Nils when she was sixteen, and took him with her when she relocated from her home in southern Germany to Hamburg. While she longed to move to New York, she hesitated on behalf of Nils, a “moody and sensitive rabbit” that might not survive a transatlantic journey; when her 11-year old rabbit died, her friends and family thought she over-reacted:

(In Germany, there are rules to everything. A relative’s death warrants one year of suffering; a dog’s death a week; and a rabbit’s death one day at the most.) But I felt as if with the rabbit, something inside me had died. I am my rabbit. My rabbit is I. There are few people I can understand and who can understand me, but rabbits and I can relate to each other.

She moves to New York:

After a couple of months in New York, I couldn’t stand my rabbitless life any longer. I was stuck and needed a teacher, a friend, a playmate. One rainy day I walked past a pet store in the East Village, where, confined to a small terrarium, sat a large, gray rabbit. The raindrops on the store’s window made the rabbit’s fur sparkle. Clearly, he must be a treasure, I thought. Hoping to make myself whole again, I bought the poor beast. In a spurt of hope—hope for a sunnier sky, a sunnier life—I named my first American rabbit Sunshine.

Heinlein’s perceptive, yet off-the-wall cross-cultural tale (viewed through a lagomorphic lens) follows. Looking for a veterinarian, she writes,

“Despite an abundance of ingenious stuff—duct tape and Goo Gone still blow my mind—a lot was still missing. There was no pet supply store or vet in my Brooklyn neighborhood, and it took me years to find things like needles and thread. See, we Germans are organized. Each town has at least one major department store within walking distance where one can find anything, from sewing material, cosmetics, and pet supplies, to clothes, cigarettes, books and Boston lettuce. The departments and their most common items are neatly listed on maps near the escalators. How is it possible that in the greatest city in the world one has to visit three or four different stores and neighborhoods to find the stuff one needs on a daily basis? How was it possible that on a Tuesday night at six pm. there wasn’t a single rabbit vet in all of New York who would see Sunshine?

“How was it possible that on a Tuesday night at six pm. there wasn’t a single rabbit vet in all of New York who would see Sunshine?” A sentence that serves as synecdoche for the disorienting immigrant experience, Heinlein goes on to write:

“It is not a coincidence that Americans lack an appropriate word for übermütig—and that Germans lack a translation for the English word reinvention.

Heinlein is the author of “Among Murderers: Life After Prison”, published by the University of California Press.

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