Translated from the German by Jen Calleja
(New York, NY: Other Press, 2017)
I am a “tobacco chipper.” Two days ago, I had never heard the term, but according to Gregor Hens in Nicotine, it is someone who can smoke on occasion and never develop an addiction. I rarely smoke now, but when I was younger, I did smoke periodically. My friends it seemed were often smokers, so at work when they stepped outside for a cigarette break, I joined them. When I used to travel, I smoked because bumming a cigarette or asking for a light seemed the easiest way to strike up a conversation with a stranger. And back in the days when smoking was still permissible in bars, a cigarette always complimented a good gin and tonic. But in all the times I lit up, I could walk away without craving more. Addiction never sank its venomous teeth into me, and therefore, I never understood how forcefully it could consume someone – until now.
Hens’s motivation for writing Nicotine was self-serving. After numerous attempts to quit smoking, he wanted to try something new, a different approach, one that might prevent another relapse. He explains, “I’ve decided that this time I’ll write my way out of my addiction by telling its story.” While he may have written it to quell his inner demons, in doing so he did a fantastic job of navigating his reader through both the physical and psychological labyrinths of addiction.
His addiction began before his birth and was arguably well established before his first drag. His parents smoked heavily. He describes long distance car rides in the winter with the windows rolled up and his parents chain smoking. When he was five or six, he is uncertain which, he begged his mother to permit him to set off rockets with his brothers to ring in the New Year. In order to light one, his mother handed him her cigarette: “I accepted it with a reverence that was felt perhaps more truly and deeply than the humble spirit required of me a few years later at my First Communion.” For him it was a religious experience, a rite of passage, and as a result it constitutes his first memory “that fuses into a story.”
Several times throughout his life he quits, and when he does he become more active. He runs, hikes in the mountains, swims, and rides his bike. Once, he managed to avoid smoking for eight years, but a bad biking accident sent him reeling. After all those years, after all the healing his lungs had done, he was still susceptible, his addiction too compelling. And so he walked into a bar, bought a pack of cigarettes, took a drag and “cried with happiness.”
Addiction, for someone who had never experienced it, can be an abstract concept. Therefore, I found Hens’s dissection of a cigarette to be the most intriguing part of his narrative. It was something tangible, something I could physically see. Having quit smoking for what Hens hopes is the last time, he goes out into the street and bums a cigarette from a young woman. He does not plan to smoke it. His intention is more complex:
I will dismantle this cigarette and my whole past smoking behavior along with it, I think to myself. By dissecting the cigarette into its individual parts I will expose it, I will make a trusted object into an alien one, perhaps even alienating one. That is what I resolve to do.
When I smoked, I virtually always smoked what the person next to me offered. Rarely did I buy cigarettes for myself. As result, I paid little attention to what was on market. Of course, when I traveled it was always fun to try a local brand, but even then I didn’t educate myself on the various options that were available. Not once did I compare the tobacco from one cigarette to the next. To me they all looked and tasted the same. But apparently I was seriously mistaken. As for the construction of a cigarette, I never gave it any thought. My ignorance perhaps explains why Hens’s breakdown of the cigarette enthralls me. He weighs the tobacco, discusses some of the additives that can be found in it, and he explains the function of each element of the cigarette.
Towards the end of Nicotine, Hens writes, “Sometimes I imagine there’s an overlay or function on Google Maps that would show me all the places I’ve ever smoked.” To this I can relate. I remember faces that handed me cigarettes in the most far flung places, I remember obscure bars where I drank a beer and wrote in my journal, and I remember the balconies on which I had some of the best conversations. But my reasons for remembering differ greatly from those of Hens. My memory has latched onto these moments because the places themselves, the experiences surrounding a particular cigarette, were special. Hens remembers because
Every cigarette that I’ve ever smoked served a purpose – they were a signal, medication, a stimulant or a sedative, they were a plaything, an accessory, a fetish object, something to help pass the time, a memory aid, a communication tool or an object of meditation. Sometimes they were all of these things at once.
To these reasons I cannot relate, but that is okay, because the strength of Hens’s narrative is that by the end, I understand exactly what he means. His writing is so vivid that for fleeting moments throughout the book I feel the same need pulling me that compelled Hens to repeatedly reach for a cigarette.
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Elizabeth Jaeger has recently earned an MFA degree in creative writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her essays and fiction have been published in Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer.