Lotte’s Rats


In 1933 the brilliant scientist Liselotte Fröhm carried out an experiment with rats. She showed that, if a dopamine precursor were administered at the right moment, as few as 4 times, even with no food reward the rats could be trained to pull a lever ad infinitum, until eventually they died of starvation and exhaustion. If she had been less of an empiricist, or perhaps if she had been more of one, she might have recorded her observation that even when the dopamine reward was stopped the rats’ beady little eyes seemed to film over and remain transfixed on the lever.

Unfortunately for Dr Fröhm, a colleague had discovered that the rats had been bred by a Jewish-owned company and all her records were destroyed. “No wonder the rats behaved so stupidly,” her Professor, himself a Jew, berated her, “they’re fucking Jewish rats.”

Lotte spent the next six years working as a junior experimental psychologist for the pharmaceutical giant, B***r, conducting experiments to determine by how much cough linctus could be diluted before people noticed that it didn’t work. For a few months her old Professor, whose loud denouncement of Lotte had so far kept him his job, was able to do enough for her from a distance to ensure that some of the results of her cough mixture experiments were published in university papers. But when the great purge came later that year and he lost his post, all outlets for her work dried up.

Unaware that the Professor had been pulling strings for her, Lotte worked with more and more diligence, used larger and larger sample groups and more and more controls. Still nothing was published, and one day in 1939, exhausted, she felt dizzy, sat down; and within a minute she was dead from a massive heart attack.



The colleague who orchestrated Lotte’s downfall was Ilke Haneke. Ilke lacked Lotte’s patient ability to carry out painstaking experiments and obtain flawless results, but had a theoretician’s ability to keep one eye focused outside the lab, hooked up to the wider picture, and another eye tuned to the finest detail. Detail such as the provenance of a shipments of rats, tucked away in the corner of a consignment note where others might miss it. A wider picture in which an experiment with rats might be used to shape a woman’s future.

Dr Haneke ordered another consignment of rats, from suppliers in England, far fewer than Lotte had used but the eye she kept on the wider picture told her this was a trivial detail. She repeated the experiment on two groups of rats, with exactly the same results as Lotte had achieved. She wrote down every observation meticulously, concluding that, “even when no reward comes the rats’ glassy little eyes stare as if in awe, as though their belief in the source of hope cannot be shaken even to the point of death.”

Now Ilke is typing the last sentence in bold and repeating it, again in bold, on the title page of her notes, just below her name. She doesn’t hand the notes to her Professor. He doesn’t even know that she has carried on with Lotte’s experiment. He is a Jew and his time is very nearly over. It is a shame because he is a brilliant man, but that is the way of things. People and structures change, and success must rely on transferable skills. So instead of taking her notes back to the lab, she places them in a folder she has made for the purpose, pours herself a drink, and lies on her bed until it is time for the party.

There is nothing in Ilke’s bedroom except herself, and her intimacy with the finest details of her body and her mind. She can draw a map of the contours of her pleasure that is accurate to a watchmaker’s tolerances. She can locate every one of her desires on the folding layers of her conscious and subconscious. Now she has her eyes closed and traces the heat of the brandy down her gullet and into her belly where it merges with something else, something that has risen up from her viscera, pre-sensual and semi-formed. Not a taste, not a scent, not even electricity arcing in the gap before touch. It is a friend she thinks of as das unheimlich heimlich, the uncanny familiar. We might call it the awareness of possibility. It is the feeling we get the moment before we open a letter from someone we have known all our lives. It looks just like every letter they have ever sent, but das unheimlich heimlich already knows that it is a proposal of marriage.

Now, as the knowledge that she is about to dress for a party percolates through her, das unheimlich heimlich nudges Ilke in the belly and throws her back into an arching spasm that opens her throat with an involuntary cry that could almost have been a laugh. She opens her eyes and once again she is in her room that is filled with nothing, only it no longer feels like an empty nothing but a nothing of infinite possibility.

She turns her head and sees, on her bedside table, the only thing that she keeps in her room: a sleek, tapering, petrol blue parrot feather. Like a mote of dust that seeds ice within a cloud, it is a mote of colour in her blackness, seeding the rich landscapes of her success. She reaches for it and with one hand she holds it lightly on the dip between her breasts, not an inch too high or an inch too low, and she arches her back and her throat opens and lets out an involuntary cry that could never be mistaken for a laugh.


This is a moment, and moments should be seized. Ilke arranges the papers in the folder, so that the words typed in bold appear in the window she has cut, only slightly less centrally than her name. It is an unusual folder and she is not quite sure why she made it as she did; but the eye that she keeps on the wider picture picked out the patterns that she used as if it had caught the direction of the wind that dried it and made it blink.

The folder itself is made of plain cardboard, cut square with a window two thirds of the way up like any document wallet. She has covered the card with draftsman’s paper that she has taken into the forest and held over the trunk of an oak, rubbing the pattern of its bark all over with a wax crayon. This gives the folder a rather ancient look, a little like velum only dark and not so easy to place. In the top right hand corner she has painted in oils a rose that is on the verge of blooming into flower. It is the shape and colour of the garnet that nestles in the hollow of her neck.

Looking at the folder, Ilke feels almost giddy at its mawkish sentimentality, but she knows that it is perfect for the moment. The bark of the oak and a rose on the verge of bloom – images that are old but not too obvious, that pluck with just the right frequency at the sentiment of the volkische heart.

Ulli had been a prodigious swimmer until a riding accident had weakened her hip and she could no longer compete. Once she decided to be an actress she spent longer training in the pool than ever. At occasions like this, organized by her wealthy parents, she wears a constant smile because she knows that her teeth have a natural symmetry that it is becoming harder and harder for the rest of her body to maintain.

Ulli’s parents love her dearly, and although they are financiers they are glad to fill their parties with film makers and ugly women in the hope that the combination will work its alchemy for their daughter before it is too late.

Today they could almost burst with the anticipation of seeing Ulli’s smile broaden when they introduce her to their special guest, the newly appointed Minister for Propaganda, who is looking for healthy German faces to fill his screens with perfect German smiles. Imagine their despair when across the pool the reflection of the sunlight on a garnet hits their eyes and draws them to the perfectly shaped breasts and flawless hips of Ilke Haneke. Ilke throws her head back and lets out an effortless laugh that flashes enough of her teeth for them to know that Ulli’s last chance is lost. She will swim more and more, but her hip will teeter and finally fail, and she will spend her days swimming round and round in circles with her smile exposed like the baleen of a ridiculous whale.

Ulli loves Ilke dearly and has done since they were small girls. Not so much like a sister as the way that little girls love their ponies. She feels the delight of Ilke’s success, and seeks out her company, both the intimate moments when they talk and she encourages her friend, and the public moments when people crowd around Ilke and kiss Ulli on the cheek, congratulating her on what a wonderful friend she has. So of course Ulli has invited her best friend. Even if she had known what a moment it would present, even if das unheimlich heimlich had nudged her in the belly, she would still have invited Ilke, although she will spend the rest of her life swimming in circles like a ridiculous whale.


Ilke has closed her eyes in her bedroom and practised the movements of social ease so many times that there is no longer any hint of effort in her limbs. She seems to dance through the beautiful gardens and around the pool with a glass of champagne in one hand and the folder tucked under her arm, and the smile never leaves her face even though all the men are middle-aged and fat, and all the women are ugly, and she can’t imagine how much longer she can keep pirouetting amongst them before her tiresome friend discovers her and marches her off, lighting the way with that embarrassing fake smile.

As she turns the corner of the gazebo there is a kick in her belly as if something growing inside her has received its soul, and before she can wonder what it might be she sees him sitting in the shade of a canopy.

“Frau Schmidt, you must have a drink,” Ilke insists, placing her glass into the palm of an elderly lady and beaming, before turning in one movement and arriving at the edge of the canopy with the folder in both hands.

This is a moment, and moments are to be seized, she is saying to herself, but it is not what she is thinking. She is thinking that the Minister’s eyes have not moved once from the moment she caught sight of him, that they have remained fixed on the dip between her breasts where she was holding a parrot feather only hours before. Not an inch above, where the garnet glistens in the sun. Not an inch below, where the black silk sculpts her skin. He will not move his gaze. She cannot move hers.

“Herr Doktor Goebbels,” she says, the pause so slight that it may have been an artful syncopation, “I have something that may interest you.”

“Yes.” Still his eyes don’t move but Ilke feels the cold intelligence behind them. She knows that he has taken in the folder with its motifs of the bark and the rose, the bold type in its cutout window, every inch of her body, and what feels like every inch of her soul, but she has no idea which of them he means.

“Do you have a secretary I can leave this with?” she asks, holding out the folder.

“I will take it myself, Dr Haneke.” Now she feels his eyes exploring her, but she knows that they have already taken her in, and that he is running them over her now so that she will be aware of their movement, but she is already aware and her eyes do not follow his, because in her head she has followed them everywhere they are going, and invited them further. “Is it true?”

“Is what true, Herr Doktor Goebbels?”

“Is it true that rats can stare as though they are actually in awe of something?”

“Yes, it is true.”

“And in what way do they look in awe, Dr Haneke?”

“The angle of the head,” she feels herself demonstrating the slight retraction of the neck and tilting upwards of the head, “movement gone from the eyes,” she feels her eyes fixing themselves on his, “and almost a tremor that has nothing to do with weakness of the body.”

“Almost a tremor,” he repeats, brushing his hand on her throat as though he is examining the angle of her neck.

“Almost a tremor.”

Two days later the call came from the Ministry of Propaganda. Not from Goebbels himself, but from a secretary. Ilke felt heat like brandy in her throat when she heard the playful young voice explain that “Joseph” would like to see her about a job conducting an experiment. She could hear the pitch rise in the secretary’s voice as she said the word, “Joseph,” and she imagined him tickling her back with a parrot feather as she spoke, but she wouldn’t let annoyance show in her voice because this was the moment that she had to seize.


“What is it, liebe?” her father said, his eyes as wide as he could make them, as interested as a father could pretend to be in the random markings his daughter has made on an expensive piece of paper.

“It’s the bark of the jatoba tree, Puppi. It doesn’t grow in Germany,” the little girl explained.

“But we have wonderful oaks in the forest. We can get a piece of real bark.”

“I want real jatoba bark, Puppi. I don’t want oak bark. Everyone has oaks. 

On a trip to Vienna, Herr Haneke mentioned the incident to a friend who knew an explorer recently come back from Africa. The friend spoke to his friend, and several weeks later a package arrived addressed to Mädchen Ilke Haneke.

“Look at this!” her father said, his eyes wide in anticipation, “What can someone have sent for you, Liebe?”

The little girl tore at the package and all the while her father watched her, barely able to control his anticipation. Finally she ripped off the last piece of paper and saw the beautifully sawn piece of wood, with a shallow round of bark clinging to it like the rind of a würst. Ilke clapped her hands with delight. Her back arched and threw head back opening her throat that let out an involuntary cry of joy. She flung her arms around her father and showered his neck with kisses crying, “I love you, Puppi.”

Herr Haneke’s eyes filled with tears because he loved his daughter so much and he knew that he would give her anything she wanted as long as he lived.


Goebbels explains to Ilke that he would like her to repeat her experiment with people. His eyes are barely still and she can sense the excitement in his voice. It is as though the thrilled modulations of his tone are feeding her, painting in the colours of her future. Over and over as he speaks she hears him repeating the same phrase, “think of the power this would give us”.

It is unclear whether the “us” refers to Goebbels and the Führer, to the Ministry, or to the German people, but every time she hears it she imagines that it refers to her, to her and Joseph watching from a balcony as people dance for them without control. She sees herself looking down over the balcony with him into the pit and at first it gives her vertigo and then, as the voice repeats in her head, “the power”, “the power” it makes her giddy but with hunger rather than fear and she has to make herself concentrate on what he is saying before she sighs, but that doesn’t work because she still hears his voice, and she can feel a low moan rising in her throat and has to make herself cough.

For a while they talk about science and he listens as she explains to him about the effects of dopamine, and the things that may stimulate its production in the brain. He mentions possible chemical mass production and writes B***r in a margin of his notes, but it is clear that what interests him more is investigating the way that human activity can release dopamine naturally in the brain.

She will have a house, he explains, a giant schloss in the country, divided into four, with observation windows for her into every room. She will encourage the subjects, who will also be divided into four groups, to carry out a task. Nothing special. Not something that they would naturally like to do, but not something they will hate. When they perform the task, each group will be rewarded with a different possible dopamine stimulator. One group will be given physical exercises of just the right level of exertion; the second will be put together and encouraged to cheer as a rousing scene is acted out before them; the third will be treated to recordings of the most stirring motivational speeches from the Führer himself; and the fourth will be stimulated to orgasm. After several rounds of task and reward, the subjects will continue to be given tasks and the rewards will stop.

“Think of the power this will give us if it works,” Ilke says as she leaves, and feels every one of the points where spots of pleasure form as he smiles and his eyes follow her hungrily out of the room.


Ilke arrives at the schloss the day before the subjects. There are living quarters that she may use for the three months of the experiment that are three times the size of her apartment in München. She walks in bare feet so that she can feel the wood on her skin and imagines what it will be like when she owns a house of this size, and feels that it will not be very long until she knows. She places a few of her things in various rooms, but she leaves her bedroom bare except for a petrol-blue parrot feather on the bedside table that seeds the clouds of her future and creates rich tableaux on the empty walls around her.

For weeks the experiment goes well. Ilke sets each group the same task. She gives them a dresser that contains a woman’s clothing and she asks them to take it to pieces and burn the contents – not demolish, that would interfere with the exercise reward group, but take it to pieces nail by nail and dovetail by dovetail, and pick apart the seams of every garment. Once the task is completed she gives each group its reward.

Everything she needs is provided for her by runners from the Ministry, and still there is no sign of Joseph. Ilke won’t let herself believe that he has forgotten her. She knows how important the experiment is to him, and she remembers his eyes following her hungrily from the room, and the points of pleasure they brought to the surface of her skin that she feels them again already like the coloured contours of a map.

Finally it is time for Ilke to withdraw the rewards from the subjects of her experiment. The Daimler van pulls up as usual and two healthy looking youths take out the dresser, which they take to the speech rats, as Ilke calls them, the group rewarded with film of the Führer’s most rousing rally speeches.

Ilke stands at the gallery window overlooking the large room where piece by piece the ten citizens dismantle the dresser and every item of clothing it contains. She can see the way that from time to time they seem to be distracted from their task, flicking their eyes towards the giant screen where so far the film has appeared every time they have completed their task. She presses her hands firmer against the glass as the pile of cloth on the fire gets larger and the flame begins to catch. She feels the pressure fighting her back from the window and traces it through her arms and into her chest where it kicks and leaps and turns.

Think of the power this will give us his voice says over and over in her head as the cloth burns down, and she looks down at the figures dancing for her beneath them. She feels a giddiness at the height from which she is watching them, a giddiness that forms a chorus with the pressure building in her chest as the fire trickles away to nothing, and faces turn towards the screen on the wall.

 “Look at the power you have.” An iron strength presses her face to the glass and its cold sends ice into her stomach. Her back spasms and arches but its movement is checked.

“Look!” A hand thumps flat between her shoulder blades, forcing her chest into the glass. It releases her for a second until she feels weight tight against her, and his hand grabs for the front of her skirt forcing it up. Grasping for her in a frenzy until he finds her. The whole weight of his body pressing her to the glass, “Look at the power you have over them.”

She looks and still they are dancing for her, staring bewildered and wondering why the light on the screen will not come on. She hears the rip of the fabric merge with the hunger in his breath. As he loosens his hold on her and enters her, she throws her head back and her throat opens to let out an involuntary cry.

“Look at them dance for us!” she screams, “Look at them dance!”


Three days later, when they have observed the reactions of the final group, Joseph leads her to her study and sits her down. The gloss from their lovemaking is still on her brow and she can feel his eyes watch as a bead of sweat disappears into the hollow at the top of her blouse. For several minutes she follows his eyes before he speaks.

“The experiment no longer needs you, Ilke,” he says, “but I do.”

Ilke is silent. She wants to finish the experiment because she knows what it would mean if it were a success. But she doesn’t have the patience to care about the minutiae of endless repetitions. And she always has an eye on the bigger picture, which is moving on so quickly at the moment whilst she has stayed where she is for a month.

“I want you to come to Berlin and write speeches for me. Your experiment works. In this house you make the people dance. Now I want you to come to Berlin and make the nation dance.”

The house in Berlin is vast, and it takes Ilke half an hour to pad in her bare feet through the room. Feeling the wood on her skin she thinks of trees and of the bark of the jatoba tree, of throwing her arms around her father and crying with delight.

The house in Berlin is vast, but within weeks she has filled it with things: exquisite things and colourful things. If she sees something that intrigues her Joseph has it brought to her house and placed where she desires it; but she always leaves the bedroom empty.

It is night and the empty bedroom walls are blue in the moonlight. Earlier tonight Joseph has delivered the first of Ilke’s speeches. It was not appropriate for her to be there, but as soon as it was over he came to her and relived the glorious reaction of the crowd as he made love to her. Now, as she lies alone, she feels a knot in her belly that she does not recognise. Das unheimlich heimlich is nudging her, and she turns her head and sees the parrot feather, bluer than ever before in the blue of the moonlight; from it she tries to seed the colours of her future into images on her bedroom walls.

But tonight the images won’t come. She stops trying to make them because she knows that this is what das unheimlich heimlich is telling her. It will never be appropriate for her to listen to the speeches. She is in her beautiful, vast house, and the whole nation is dancing outside.



The Professor runs his hand over Lotte’s belly, drawing a wake in the smooth sheen of her skin. It seems to him as he studies her that she hasn’t aged a day since he met her when she was a graduate student nineteen years before, and he wonders if she thinks the same of him.

“I want this moment to be repeated again and again for ever,” Hans says to her, running his fingers again and again over the downy skin of her belly as if sympathetic magic might make it true.

“Things are perfect now,” Lotte says back to him, “I could wish for nothing more than that they always stay the same.”

They dress hurriedly. Lotte waits a minute or so after Hans has gone, and again it surprises her that she doesn’t wonder when they might stop having to keep up the pretence. She has never wondered. Things are perfect as they are and she wishes for them always to be the same.

She arrives at the interview room several minutes after him and looks at the two candidates for the junior research position sitting outside. One is a young man whom Lotte thinks looks rather like the Bauhaus Modernist van der Rohe, the other a young woman who reminds her of Garbo.

As Hans and Lotte discuss the candidates’ performance in great depth, wondering if they could ever work with a man who reminds them of Modernism, they look out of the window and see the two candidates exchanging pleasant conversation. The young man is pleased with himself because he has said something amusing, and the young woman’s back arches effortlessly and she throws back her head and lets out an involuntary cry, that Lotte is sure is a laugh, with such insouciance Lotte and Hans know at once that they want to work with her, and to carry on working with her for the rest of their lives.

They go out to the waiting room and shake Ilke by the hand, congratulating her on her appointment. The three of them smile. Then they break into a giggle. The young Modernist sits confused, sure that he hasn’t said anything quite so amusing. Lotte is so happy that she laughs uncontrollably and she cannot imagine a time when the three of them won’t be laughing together.


~ by yearzerowriters on December 16, 2009.

18 Responses to “Lotte’s Rats”

  1. This is Dan at the top of his form – subtle and allusive, yet chilling and menacing. It is so well imagined it reads as though it was history. It has quiet moments that heighten the tension, like a novel. Haunting.

  2. Dan, you go ahead and expand it into a novel. I simply can’t believe my eyes. I want this in book form.

    Your stuff is magic.

  3. Absolutely spectacular. This is perfection.

  4. I am really ambivalent about this piece – it’s very much my Kundera tribute – the mini chapters, and the detached style. I wrote it shortly after reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Sometimes I love it; sometimes I think it’s dross.

    Interesting you should mention novelising it. I don’t think I could add anything without ruining it. A film, though – yes – I can see it making a very nice screenplay. Hmm food for thought. Thank you

  5. The detached, almost matter-of-fact style works so well when you’re presenting these events as history – as it did in Agnieszka, when I had to check on Google that I hadn’t missed the BNP getting their first MP (a recurring nightmare of mine ever since I incurred the wrath of NF bootboys during an election in Clapham). It has far more impact on me than a more gothic style, where the horror is flagged up. (But maybe some fiction works better in print, and some works best on the Web? The Web seems to favour flash fiction and very short intense pieces; print is best for novels or anything that uses special typographical tricks or where presentation is important – kind of thing that is lost in e-books?)

    • Interesting – Oli and PD were having a chat about whta gets lost in eformat on his Nick Nolte thread. Banana had nightmares with the Alternative Poetry book and the back to front idea.

      You’re right – understated and matter of fact work better for horror – which is one reason I hope people don’t think I’m attempting horror with SKIN BOOK.

      • I missed that discussion, but I know Oli’s careful presentation loses out in the conversion to multiple e-book versions. And then there’s your own experiment with Skinbook, where the physicality of the declassified documents and the handwriting makes each copy unique.

  6. I feel that this is crying out for some more expansion. I thought it was a history piece when I started reading. It’s perfectly formed and reads like a factual work for the first half. Great imaginative piece, Dan. But someone, please think of the rats. 🙂

    • I’m intrigued people think this could be expanded – I wouldn’t have the first clue where to start – I think that may be the problem with it being so structured – I can’t see the slack.

      I CAN though, as I said, see how to make it into a screenplay – any takers for directing? Is Michael Hanneke free? And yes, Ilke was named after him

  7. If you were looking to expand this piece – and I accept that you’re not – I can see you having several interlinking story-lines about the Third Reich, of which this would be one? Each story would build on the themes of power, exploitation and betrayal. t’s a rich seam?

    • It is, yes. I think, to be honest – and Marc and I had a conversation about this – that I’m actually just not very good at understanding the way novels work, and how to write them. I’d want to make a series of interlinked shorts, and would feel it hang together very well – I’d get hideously lost if it were a novel, and it would become flabby.

  8. VERY ambitious, some wonderful images and use of device but also some convuluted & often puzzling — if not nonsensical — passages. You obviously have a srong command of ‘language’ but “…her teeth have a natural symmetry that it is becoming harder and harder for the rest of her body to maintain” [huh?] “Almost a tremor.” [pls tell me what it is], “…clapped her hands with delight…an involuntary cry of delight.” [why, if she clapped her hands in delight is the cry of joy involuntary?]. I loved the premise but perhaps you need to trim the fat and offer it to someone with a blue pencil. As something of an interloper here, I can only hope my comments are accepted in the spirit in which they were given.

    • Hi John, it’s lovely to see you – you’re no interloper you’re a fan of Pen’s 🙂 Ha- I wish you’d read SKIN BOOK rather than this piece 🙂

      Yes, a lot of the imagery is close to the edge of daftness, and only works if it doesn’t fall over – and only readers can tell me that! The generalpoint is very well taken. I could explain each instance (1. this mini-chapter is about asymmetry – in particular the asymmetry of Ulli’s body that stands for the imperfection Aryan ideoloy couldn’t tolerate (and is intended as a deliberate foil to Goebbels’ own physical asymmetry). The sentence itself relates to her hip problems – I thought the contrast with her smile would add comic pathos (as I said in an earlier comment this was written at a time I was aping Kundera too much)2. this is overwritten, yes – I think it makes sense though – the tense instability we feel that’s absolutely still but we know is about to become a falter? 3. You’re right, it’s the cry that’s involuntary not the joy – I was too obsessed with the imagery of Lacan and jouissance and overdid it.) but that’s not the point – the point is the cumulative weight, whcih mustn’t leave the reader feeling bludgeoned.

      Thank you 🙂

    • It’s a pleasure to have you here, John. Do help yourself to 13 Shadows by the way – the pdf will give you Sarah’s amazing cover art as well as the stories – SKIN BOOK is there in full – but you also get 3 of Pen’s

  9. oh keep it short keep it short!

    how often do we see short fiction pieces that are rooted with historical references? not often. it’s refreshing that it’s not a 400 pg deathwalk. (i’ve spent my life both escaping and attracted to WWII historical pieces and fiction alike.)

    and you mentioned it yourself, dan, that overwriting happens all too easily. in this shorter format, the story itself is compelling and it isn’t necessarily about the lengthy historical references and plotlines that characterize a long novel.


  10. I just linked this piece to a few people after being reminded of it by a completely unrelated (and very funny, to be honest) story involving Goebbels and rats, here

    And in the end I want to pat myself on the back SO much for sort-of-having-been-a-part in the writing of this story. Upon re-reading, it’s still great. Well done.

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