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What's within


They are in me; I have them in me. Sometimes it feels as though I've eaten them. Assimilated them. And they've settled within me. Welcome, my savior, my intruder.

Why do I feel this way? Simply put: there's an organ in my body that hasn't always been there. I live with something I wasn't born with; it once belonged to another person. I know nothing about this person. I don't know who they were, and yet I have a part of them, of their flesh, in me. 

Not many people can say they've got someone else inside them. Pregnant people carry another human in them for nine, almost ten months. Sex offers a temporary opportunity to assimilate another person's organ – but from time to time, unfortunately, you have to take a break to do other things. Sometimes I feel like I'm pregnant, despite not knowing what pregnancy feels like. And then I go back to thinking: I've eaten them, devoured them, assimilated them.

Who do I mean when I use the pronoun them? The donor? The organ – the lung, the kidney, the liver? Perhaps both? All of them? A logical solution would be to invent a new pronoun for myself, for us. I no longer feel entirely myself.


A strange situation: a person dies on an intensive care ward. Several basic bodily functions, such as their breathing, are mechanically maintained until a decision is made as to whether their organs can be removed from their body, which is not yet decaying. Whether these organs can be harvested, as the English language would have it so bluntly.

In German, you refer to organs being removed for transplantation. But transplanted in turn is just Latin for grafted. It seems we need this botanical, agricultural metaphor. Transplanted organs find themselves in a new environment, a new container, another body. A body that it keeps alive, but also a body that allows the organ to live on. A win-win situation.


Sometimes I forget how I came to have another inside me. Sometimes it feels as though I've eaten them. Thanks to the highly interesting and still very instructional book Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture (1985)1 by the American anthropologist Marvin Harris, I know that cannibalism does not make economic sense for most societies, although human meat can be a good source of protein. It is impractical, very costly and dangerous to capture humans in order to eat them, as people tend, understandably, to retaliate against being eaten. Usually. What's more, farming humans is expensive: until they're eaten at some special feast, they're simply people who must also consume food so that they don't end up starved, emaciated dishes. In other words, they're competitors for food.

Spiritually speaking however, cannibalism can be worthwhile: if a drink made of my deceased ancestors' bone ash ensures that they're with me forever, and if I believe that the strength, intelligence and memory of the dead can be transferred to me, why shouldn't I drink the magic potion? Many societies practice, or used to practice related rituals, as Marvin Harris explains in detail. And doesn't even Christian culture, through church communion, engage with symbolic cannibalism? Take the Eucharist: Christians across the globe only had to invent transubstantiation in order to believe in the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.


At first, it doesn't seem so unreasonable to want to eat a person I love very much. I've felt the desire, a greed, even, to fully become the other person, to consume them entirely or to be entirely consumed. To disappear, to become the other, to have them in me forever. To keep them. I've wanted to eat almost everyone I've ever loved at times, to consume their sweetness, as if they were petit fours, with a cake fork, in small bites.

But I don't like meat that much. Besides – where can I possibly have read this? – human flesh tastes similar to pork. I stopped eating pork a long time ago, so I'd rather stay away from human meat, too. Another downside of such an irrevocable union is that the dearly beloved, belle à croquer, good enough to eat, would not survive being completely, or even partially, consumed. At least not in any conventional sense.

But I don't need to eat anyone anymore. I already have another in me. They are always there. I'm never alone. We are not alone.


I'm reminded of a novel by Slavenka Drakulić. It was originally published in Croatian, but because I read it over twenty years ago in Spanish, the title of the Spanish translation comes to mind first: El Sabor de un Hombre. If I were to translate it loosely into German – bearing in mind I'm no expert – I hit on: Wie ein Mensch schmeckt, or in English: The Taste of a Human. Another possibility: Der Geschmack eines Mannes, or The Taste of a Man. The official (and, in my opinion, unfitting) title of the German translation is Das Liebesopfer,2– The Victim of Love.

The story is about a Polish visiting literary scholar in New York City. Towards the end of her stay, which lasts only one hot summer, she kills and eats her Brazilian lover, an anthropologist who is also a visiting scholar. The protagonist encounters a practical problem: she cannot eat all of her lover, whose research – wait for it! – includes Oswald de Andrade's Manifesto Antropófago, or Cannibal Manifesto. A human body yields much more meat, depending on its size, than a small dorm fridge can hold. The literary scholar must dispose of large parts of her dead beloved in black bin bags, which she distributes around the city into overflowing waste containers.

When the novel came out in translation in 1997, literary critics speculated, understandably, whether the bloody story had something to do with the atrocities of the war in Yugoslavia.  But what perhaps not everyone was aware of at the time – or perhaps it wasn't yet known – was that the author Slavenka Drakulić had already had a kidney transplant by this time, namely from a deceased person. She later wrote a fascinating non-fiction book about her second kidney transplant, which she owed to an altruistic living donor in the USA.3My autocorrect suggests changing Lebendspende, living donor, to Lebensende, the end of life. No, I don't want to accept this suggested correction. No way. Quite the opposite!


And then, as is the way of things, while contemplating my own imagined cannibalism I come across an older Netflix comedy series called Santa Clarita Diet (2017-2019). An upbeat, energetic real estate agent with a helpful, attentive husband and a pubescent daughter becomes a friendly undead after eating an odd clam. From one day to the next, she must eat raw human flesh to survive. She devours only men. Bad men. She becomes – attention, sexual subtext alert! – a man-eater, very literally. With one exception: along with another infected, undead woman, she eats an extremely mean white female geriatric carer.


Sometimes I think: I'm so lucky! I'm together with the perfect lover. I carry them within me. They sustain me and let me live a little longer, and I sustain them. Oh, my beloved, about whom I know so little, almost nothing. An ideal projection surface, a blank page. You're always there. And I didn't need to eat you.


Once, somewhere deep in Anatolia, I met a healer who had been a classical physician in another life, a trauma surgeon. Without knowing me or having seen me before, she told me straight out that I'd had a liver transplant. She said she could see it in my face. She sensed it. It was written there.

She also said that the person who'd gifted me their organ, a piece of themselves, was a beautiful, strong human. She could see that, too.

I know, I thought. I can sense them, I have them in me. We're still here.

Master of Los Balbases: A verger's dream: Saints Cosmas and Damian performing a miraculous cure by transplantation of a leg.

According to legend, the Early Christian twin brothers Cosmas and Damian were healers who treated the sick free of charge. They even allegedly managed to perform a leg transplant.


©Linda Rosa Saal

David Wagner was born in 1971 in Andernach on the Rhine and made his debut in 2000 with the novel Meine nachtblaue Hose. His second novel Vier Äpfel followed in 2009 and was longlisted for that year's German Book Prize. In 2013, he was awarded the Leipzig Book Fair Prize for his book Leben and in 2014 the Best Foreign Novel of the Year Award of the People's Republic of China. He also received the Kranichstein Literature Prize in 2014 and was the inaugural Friedrich Dürrenmatt Visiting Professor of World Literature at the University of Bern. In 2019, he published Der vergessliche Riese, a novel about a forgetful father, which was awarded the Bavarian Book Prize. His collected Berlin stories Ich geh' so gern durch diese Stadt were published in 2023, followed by the novel Verkin in 2024. David Wagner's books have been translated into several languages. He lives in Berlin.

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