25 November 2011

The Silent Angel (Heinrich Böll)

As noted by W. G. Sebald in his book of literary criticism On the Natural History of Destruction, Heinrich Böll's The Silent Angel was one of only a handful of postwar novels that depicted the aftermath of intensive carpet bombing leveled against Germany in the second world war. Though written early in Böll's career, the novel was not published in his lifetime due to the subject matter that was perceived by his publisher as unpalatable to the German public. Isn't it inappropriate to dwell on a topic that brings home the very episodes one wanted to forget? After so much destruction and suffering, is it not perhaps best to move on to cheery stories?

Böll described the wasteland of war-torn Germany right after the end of the bombings. Amid this tortured landscape the characters moved like zombies, traumatized by their experiences and haunted by relentless hunger. The lack of food and shelter consigned the majority of the citizens to the status of refugees. They lived only to survive hunger, scrounging for the rare bread and provisions that came at high prices.

At the start of the novel, Hans, a German soldier who lacked proper identification, stumbled into a hospital and was offered a bread loaf by a nun working there. The reader was given a first taste of the novel's subject.

   Quickly he broke off a large piece of the bread. His chin trembled and he felt the muscles of his mouth and jaws twitch. Then he buried his teeth in the soft, uneven place where the bread had been broken, and bit in. The loaf was old, at least four or five days old, perhaps even older, plain brown bread bearing some bakery's red paper label; but it tasted so sweet. He bit in even more deeply, taking the leathery, brown crust into his mouth as well; then he seized the loaf in his hands and tore off a new piece. While he ate with his right hand he held the loaf fast in his left, as if someone might come and try to take it from him, and he saw his hand lying on the bread, thin and dirty, with a deep scratch that was soiled and scabbed. (6)

There was pathetic beauty in the way Hans noted both the sweetness and the stale condition of the bread. The act of biting and chewing acquired a strong sense of concretion particularly when juxtaposed with the soiled and scabbed hand holding the bread. The attention paid to the color of the crust and the paper label seemed to celebrate the bread's providential existence.

It was notable that Hans was not only concerned with satisfying his hunger but with securing his identification papers. That he should lose his identity in the rubble and ruins, together with the experience of seeing his hometown burnt to the ground and his loved ones perish, made for a victim who almost didn't have anything more to lose.

Physical hunger and destroyed landscapes of the city inhabited the tissues of the novel. Hunger (and destruction) was so pervasive as to go beyond the realm of the physical. It crossed the threshold of the characters' physical state, to become the hunger of their souls, the debilitating poverty of spirit. It became the very fires in their belly that drove them to resist that very same hunger.

HIS HEART KEPT on pounding. He was still thinking about the bread, and his heartbeat was like the gently painful yet pleasant throbbing of a wound: a large, raw spot in his chest, his heart. (84)

   In the distance, beyond the community gardens, jutting high above the railway embankment, he saw the charred ruins of the city, a dark, ragged silhouette—he felt a deep, piercing pain and pulled the window closed again. Now, within, it was dim and quiet once more, shut off from the chirping of the birds. he now understood why she hadn't wanted to open the window. (64-65)

Hunger and ruins were likened to a gaping wound in (to) the heart, a source of pain. For the characters, hunger was a constant reminder that they were still alive. It was the very backdrop of the book, which at its center was a love story with a subplot of a family drama. Yet the plot was almost sketchy and directionless as to reflect the chaos of the cityscape.

Böll was able to illuminate a time that was barely recorded, even consciously avoided, according to Sebald—erased from memory, sanitized and repressed by German writers. It was not a popular subject but it was necessary to keep a record of destruction of cities and its effects on men and women. Sebald found in The Silent Angel not only an important subject but a quality of writing that he felt approached the gravity of the subject. For a general sense of this kind of writing, I'll quote from a previous post on a novel by Gert Ledig:

Sebald's essay ["Air War and Literature"] takes to task the postwar German writers for failing to record the destruction wrought by wars. For Sebald, the books of Ledig, as well as that of Heinrich Böll and Peter Weiss, among others, are a rare exception to this apparent defect in the German letters. Sebald champions the kind of novels that speak plainly and precisely, and with unpretentious objectivity, as opposed to novels full of "aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects." He favors the concrete and documentary style of writing over the abstract and imaginary. For Sebald, accounts of suffering must be commensurate to the magnitude of the human loss; these are the kind of novels worth writing about in the face of total destruction.

In The Silent Angel, the imaginary was given up in favor of the imaginative.

The curtains had been pulled open, and in the large, black window frames stood the fantasylike image of the ruins: smoke-blackened flanks of buildings, cracked gables that seemed about to fall—overgrown mounds that had been ripped apart a second time, leaving only a few spots where the green was mossy and peaceful. . . . (91-92)

The above passage described the image of the ruins as "fantasylike" but the real view of destruction made the image un-fantasylike. The qualification of the smoke-blackened, cracked, overgrown, and ripped objects could not deny the direct harms inflicted to the people on the ground.

Likewise, Böll's similes and imagery were purposefully constructed. An open piano in a corner "stood like a monster with a thousand false teeth" (39). In a particular ruin could be seen "only naked destruction, desolate and terribly empty, as if the breath of the bomb still hung in the air" (86). That lingering "breath of the bomb" was sufficient to convey the utter "nakedness" of the damage.

A most powerful description of destruction was that of the silent statues in a church.

   His gaze remained below: the altar was buried in debris, the choir stalls had been toppled by the blast. He saw their broad brown backs inclined in what seemed sarcastic prayer. The lower rank of saints on the columns showed gaps as well: abraded torsos and flayed stone, hideous in its mutilation and painfully deformed, as if it once had been alive. He was struck by the demonic grotesqueness. A few faces grimaced like furious cripples because they lacked an ear or a chin, or because strange cracks deformed them; others were headless, and the stone stumps of their necks thrust up horribly from their bodies. Equally disturbing were those who lacked hands. They almost seemed to bleed, silently imploring, and a baroque plaster statue was oddly split, almost cracked like an egg: the pale plaster face of the saint was undamaged, the narrow, melancholy face of a Jesuit, but its chest and belly were ripped open. The plaster had trickled down—it lay in whitish flakes at the base of the figure—and from the dark hollow of the belly straw spilled forth, saturated with hardened plaster. (119-120)

There's no ambiguity here as to why the mutilation of the statues displayed a "demonic grotesqueness". There's also no mystery as to who it was the personified stone ("as if it once had been alive") stood for. This posthumous horror was probably one of the most indirect and one of the most graphic descriptions of the aftermath of a night of "successful" bombing run a reader will encounter in fiction. The sickening image of desecration reminded me of a scene at the end of José Saramago's Blindness, where a group of blind men and women made their way to a church where the "blind" statues of saints seemed to mock their tragic condition.

Despite the depressing, vivid images in the novel, the reader could not fail to detect the deep sense of the novelist's humanity. He did not reduce his characters to virtual zombies. Instead, the novelist kept intact their human strengths and failings. His genuine compassion was evident in his nontrivial portraits of the human casualties of war.

Amid the the piles of debris in the city, the white powder chalk and plaster, signs of renewal of vegetation started to shoot up from the ground. From these bleak surroundings, Böll's beautiful prose was able to yield a comforting quality of tenderness, like the love story at its center. The words had lightness and softness, like sweet bread. It was not really all black smoke and white dust:

   He stood up, walked quietly over to the door, and opened it cautiously. Light was coming from the kitchen. The old, blue coat that she had draped over the windowpane let large, yellow beams of light in through its tattered holes, and the rays fell onto the debris in the hall: the axe blade gleamed somewhere and he saw the dark logs, their split surfaces glowing yellowly. He approached slowly and now he could see her. He realized he'd never seen her like this before. She was lying on the couch with her legs drawn up, wrapped in a large, red blanket, reading. He saw her from behind. Her long, damply shining hair seemed darker, tinged with red; it fell across the arm of the couch. A lamp stood beside her, and the stove was lit. A pack of cigarettes lay on the table, together with a jar of marmalade, a loaf of bread that had been cut into, and beside it the knife with its loose, black handle. . . . (130-131)

The colors and sheen (blue, yellow, gleamed, dark, glowing yellowly, red, damply shining, darker, tinged with red, black) were so lovingly spread over this description of domestic setting and minutiae (coat, windowpane, axe blade, logs, couch, blanket, "book", hair, lamp, stove, cigarettes, marmalade, bread, knife handle) as to drum up the characters' expectations of a return to peaceful, normal circumstances. There was a flicker of love in that passage, a sense that all was not lost. The sense that hunger (physical, spiritual) does not go unfulfilled. The intermittent pangs of hunger only served as their amulet.

This review is for German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy's Literary Life. The Silent Angel (trans. Breon Mitchell) was also a selection of Literature and War Readalong 2011.

21 November 2011

Night Fish (Kristine Ong Muslim)

Night Fish is a 13-poem chapbook written in the language of a hypothetical (future) reality. It opens with the title poem, submerging the reader in a world without landmass. Everything that once stood on high ground is reduced to the level of the sea. Despite the uncertainties accompanying a watery life, humans learn to adapt (“Everyone will learn to paddle towards the nonexistent shores.”) and form an aquatic community, an emergent race of water people. Kristine Ong Muslim, the poet behind these lines, has imagined an alternate environmental habitat in which sea level rise is the state of nature and adaptation to an extreme environment is the way of life: "The sound of oars cutting the water clean will be the most familiar sound in the universe."

The universe of Muslim's poems exists, as another poem ("Hypergraphia") puts it, in some “watery city of typography”. It is a city where the boundaries are fluid and meanings dissolve at the edges of bodies of water. "Hypergraphia" is a poem about a lake which "opens its doors the way a detective pries and yanks wooden floor" to find the murder weapon(!):

Sometimes, this door is mishandled and someone drowns. Sometimes, too, it allows grief to run its course, gets a novel written by some stranger inside that glass lakehouse. Lake water laps at the shore, gravel and silt sliding in and out. A watery city of typography. All the pebbles are letters desperately forming into words. The handwriting is not quite legible yet.

Grief is taken as inspiration for novel writing. The interfacing between shore pebbles (land) and lake water straddles writing and grief. The lake as possibly the liquid symbol of tears. The land trying to make sense of the murder or drowning in the lake, its source of sorrow.

A key poem that acquaints the reader to a general idea of the whole collection is “Heat Stroke”, a condition where moisture has left and hellish grief has triumphed. It is in direct contradiction to the watery city, this time the severe heat wave razes the landscape. It is also again an elegy for someone who may have died: "what remains and what we remember is / someone else's absence, the slam of the doors."

The poem then provides a way to read its contents, a way to cope with the rising temperature and the sense of death all around, through its own navigation of heat:

We ultimately learn to slice impressions,
separate them according to texture.
Smooth-skinned on top. Rusty underneath.
Grit and cruelty crammed in the middle.
Heat presents itself in the form of waves
melting the world away. Squandering nothing.

This poem, like everything in Night Fish, is very brief, and each rereading reveals an ambivalent voice of a prophet. When language and image liquefy in short lines, meanings condense in a small space, “squandering nothing”. Every image, every texture ("smooth-skinned", "rusty", "grit and cruelty") is contained in the simulacrum of transience, meanings arising from grief brought about by floods and heat waves, extreme conditions that challenge the homeostasis of the human organism.

The rest of the poems display a consistent interest in night times, bodies of water, and desert-like environments. They evoke the edgy atmosphere of noir science fiction, through nocturnal meditations, not in a speculative mood but in terse meditations about an altered future landscape and the place of man in it.

The structure of the lines – in prose or short clipped lines – usually enact the very ideas they profess. The self-reference gives way not to a metafictional consciousness but to an awareness of the limitations imposed by the fictional artifice. (I tend to emphasize 'fiction' in these poems, perhaps a way to underscore the essentially narrative content in Night Fish.) For example, the way the last line fades out at the end of the second poem (“Night Swimmer”) – "Sometimes, one plunge is enough / to cut the water clean, the splash / merely an afterthought" – trails like an afterthought itself. The final stop is an inevitable punctuation of a thought that meandered beyond boundaries. Similarly, the end of "Art", the penultimate poem, gives itself away when it declares that art is not "[s]ome flimsy rowboat that can be disassembled into exactly nine pieces". A puzzle that alludes to the nine full stops in the poem, corners that don't exactly define its boundaries. In fact each piece, sentence, or line resists the kind of objective deconstruction that puts a poem in a box (or bowl) resting on the table. Hence, "Art is repulsion floating in a bowl of soup. / Sometimes, it is the soup."

The primordial liquid in which Muslim's poetry is soaked in is the puzzle (or riddle) of existing in a mirror world. An ecological interpretation of the poems can be: that they are cautionary poems – not in a hard-science fiction way – that give us hope that poets will not give up and will ensure that poetry will still be written when the worst of climate events runs its course. Poetry, in fact, appears as a viable strategy to adapt to climate change. Even if the lines can be disturbing or unsettling, they can teach us ecological resilience and resistance. As with any literary hypothesis, this interpretation is valid only in the imagination.

Another theme of Muslim's that one could detect in some of these poems is that of stray souls and "random ghosts". But that is another work of fiction.


This cold has taught me
about the nature of souls.

Although I have known
a long time ago that the body
is meant to be a sieve for
the soul fermenting inside,

I am still surprised by the fog
of breath coming out of my mouth.
So dense. It seems that I am not the only one
who is exhaling in this frozen yard.

Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of We Bury the Landscapea collection of flash fiction and prose poems – and the upcoming poetry collection Insomnia (Medulla Publishing, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Boston Review and Southword, among many publications. I received an e-galley of Night Fish from the author.

18 November 2011

Rock Crystal (Adalbert Stifter)

Rock Crystal: A Christmas Tale by the Bohemian-born Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868) was a novella marked by purity of prose, naturalism, and portents. It was first published in the original German in 1843, and appeared in translation, by Elizabeth Mayer and the poet Marianne Moore, a century later (1945). Despite the onset of holiday cheer that pervaded the start of the tale, the reader could detect that something would go wrong.

   Among the high mountains of our country there is a little village with a small but needle-fine church spire. Conspicuous above the green of abundant fruit-trees, this spire—because the slates are painted vermilion—can be seen far and wide against the faint blue of the mountains. The hamlet nestles in the very center of a fairly wide valley that is an almost perfect ellipse. Besides the church, a schoolhouse and a parish house, there are a few stately homes around a square with four linden-trees and a stone cross in the center. [...] In the valley and scattered along the mountain-sides are many little huts of a sort common to such regions—whose inhabitants belong to the village [...] Even more distant huts, hidden away in the mountains, cannot be seen from the valley; the people rarely come down among their fellow-parishioners; often, indeed, are obliged to keep their dead with them over the winter till they can bring them to the valley for burial after the snow has melted.

The above passage was clipped from the extended opening of the book, a slow sequence of scenes that gradually expand to contain the traditional Christmas festivities, culture, natural cycles, social structure, and topography of the village of Gschaid and its neighboring village of Millsdorf. The way the passage culminated on the fact of the dead staying at home for the long winter signalled a dark tone to the fable-like simplicity of the tale. The landscape and mountain communities were exquisitely evoked in sinuous sentences. Something had to upset the balance of beauty.

It took some time of lingering on the natural and cultural landscape before the story alighted on the central characters and story line. A shoemaker from Gschaid married a dyer's daughter from Millsdorf. They had a son and a daughter. Something happened on Christmas eve that will affect the whole family's relationship to their extended family and to the whole community.

Although the background of the story was Christian, a valuable lesson imparted by this fairy tale for adults and young adults was not wholly religious but of the universal human variety. It was partly about how a time of crisis or calamity became the very thing that could make a community realize that everyone is equal in grief. Nature could teach a tightly knit community to accept people who were from another place, outsiders who were different from them in several respects.

This is a heart-winning story that could leave a lump in one's throat. The prose was rock crystal clear. It could render something out of nothing, like the following description of silence which had the concreteness and precision of poetry:

   They stood still, but heard nothing. They stood a little longer, but there was nothing to be heard, not a single sound, not the faintest except their breathing; indeed, in the stillness reigning, it was as if they could hear the snow falling on their very eyelashes. 

Read as part of German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Lizzy (Lizzy's Literary Life). My copy was the 1965 revised edition from Pantheon Books, with illustrations by Josef Scharl. It was reissued, without the illustrations, by Pushkin Press and New York Review Books.

09 November 2011

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (Heinrich Böll)

Someone must have slandered Katharina Blum for, one morning, without having done anything wrong, she was brought in for questioning by the police. But no, it appears the police were questioning Miss Blum for her involvement with a man who stayed in her place the previous night. The man was accused of murder, most wanted by the authorities, and by all indications, it looked like she helped him escape the police stakeout around her place. At the outset this looked like a simple crime investigation, but Heinrich Böll, a writer who has now gained my readership (thanks to German Literature Month), framed a twisted narrative about the willful distortions of the truth to sensationalize a piece of news. It's a lethal piece of writing that questioned the absolute freedom granted to press. In the present 'civilized' world where libel was, by broader consensus, increasingly considered taboo and contrary to the ideals of press freedom, Böll sought to interrogate that very ideal in his depiction of a woman held hostage by the media's manipulation of truth. I suspect only a few radical writers could get away with a controversial subject like this, subject that concerned itself with ethics, the handling of truth, and the disintegration of one's cherished values. Böll was one of these writers who grappled with human institutions, systems, and structures, and developed a prognosis on the fallibility of that system to protect human rights, the nakedness of the individual amid an onslaught of systematic lies and deceptions broadcast boldface on the news.

The novel's manner of telling gave it a journalistic flavor, well-fitted to its subject matter. The supposedly objective report however was distracted by the many asides and satirical portraits that made the narrator just as guilty of passionate subjectivity like the characters in his story. This omnipresent narrator, a self-aware and self-conscious individual, was a manipulative one himself. He knew all the facts and he gradually doled out the information to the reader in a blow-by-blow round-the-clock account of events. The short chapters, some so short they ran for less than a page, were ticking seconds of a clock that made an hour of suspense with well-timed revelations. (I intended to say ticking seconds of a bomb but the bomb detonated early on, by page 9, and the earlier events were told only to expand on this explosion, picking up the still cutting shrapnel, to backtrack and map the events leading to this act of violence.) The narrative went forward and backward, making for a dynamic plot movement, like the impeded streamflow of the drainage or blocked tributary, which the narrator adopted at the beginning (and alluded to throughout the text) as the "conduction" framework of his story. The subtitle - How violence develops and where it can lead - prefigured a cause-and-effect method but did not really give indication of the reverse engineering it followed to disclose the flowering of Miss Blum's criminal intent. Here's the passage of page 9:
The first facts to be presented are brutal: on Wednesday, February 20, 1974, on the eve of the traditional opening of Carnival, a young woman of twenty-seven leaves her apartment in a certain city at about 6:45 P.M. to attend a dance at a private home.
   Four days later, after a dramatic—there is no getting around the word (and here we have an example of the various levels that permit the stream to flow)—turn of events, on Sunday evening at almost the same hour (to be precise, at about 7:04 P.M.) she rings the front door bell at the home of Walter Moeding, Crime Commissioner, who is at that moment engaged, for professional rather than private reasons, in disguising himself as a sheikh, and she declares to the startled Moeding that at about 12:15 noon that day she shot and killed Werner Tötges, reporter, in her apartment, and would the Commissioner kindly give instructions for her front door to be broken down and the reporter to be "removed"; for her part, she has spent the hours between 12:15 noon and 7:00 P.M. roaming around town in search of a remorse that she has failed to find; furthermore, she requests that she be arrested, she would like to be where her "dear Ludwig" is.

The lost honor of Katharina Blum was a consequence of a series of defamatory articles against her. These articles denigrated every aspect of her life which up to this point can be considered exemplary owing to her professionalism, hard work, and a strong sense of independence. The novel slowly built a case on "how violence develops and where it can lead" by building a case on how one incorrect or inappropriate word is a matter of honor and dishonor, on how distortion of words can be fatal. The novel itself flowed in a stream of measured and precise wording that tended to question, meta-fictionally, the constituent words that the characters spouted, the very constituent words of the text. There's already a clear example in the above passage: "dramatic—there is no getting around the word".

This appeal to precise wording - to the exactness of meaning, to the elimination of ambiguity - was also evident in the way Katharina Blum insisted on the exact words to be used in her statement (pp. 29-30).

The prolonged nature of the interrogation was explained by the fact that Katharina Blum was remarkably meticulous in checking the entire wording and in having every sentence read aloud to her as it was committed to the record. For example, the advances mentioned in the foregoing paragraph [of the novel, i.e., "often the men had had too much to drink and made advances to me"] were first recorded as "amorous," the original wording being that "the gentlemen became amorous," which Katharina Blum indignantly rejected. A regular argument as to definition ensued between her and the public prosecutors, and between her and Beizmenne, with Katharina asserting that "becoming amorous" implied reciprocity whereas "advances" were a one-sided affair, which they had invariably been. Upon her questioners observing that surely this wasn't that important and it would be her fault if the interrogation lasted longer than usual, she said she would not sign any deposition containing the word "amorous" instead of "advances." For her the difference was of crucial significance, and one of the reasons why she had separated from her husband was that he had never been amorous but had consistently made advances.

That paragraph alone underscored not only the semantic concerns and word choice but also the uncompromising and intelligent character of Blum and her physical attractiveness. The economy of words in this novel was a product of the novelist's self-same desire to convey using the best words the clearest expression of one's vision. Other passages in the novel sustained this tendency to grope, or fumble is perhaps the more proper term, for the word or words that will accurately describe what one truly meant. Conversely, Böll expertly delineated the damning antithesis - the perversion of the words' meanings to suit the base predisposition toward the sensationalism of news.
In differentiating the "shades", the nuances and the subtleties, in the German words and finding equivalents in English that would draw out the same contextual effect, translator Leila Vennewitz must be commended. She had brought out a translation with a distinct voice for the "obtrusive" journalist-narrator and a good ear for what must have been slippery German idioms.

Originally published in German in 1974, this short novel explicitly dealt with the modern dilemmas of the individual that Franz Kafka stipulated in The Trial. The apparent illusion of liberty was manifest in the gradual ruin of Katharina Blum's reputation and the invasion of her privacy, by the press and by the state (through wiretapping). The issues raised by Böll, in a thinly disguised satirical voice, were still "newsworthy". It retained its contemporary feel. The "social function of Art", itself made the subject of a joke at the end of the novel, was relevant whenever absolutes (like freedom of the press) were erroneously promoted in perverted forms (like perverted freedoms of expression and of speech: gutter News holding sway over the public).

I live in a place where listening to the radio in the morning, any morning, will invariably make one hear of a barrage of disparaging remarks and insults by one broadcaster railing against one politician and then extolling the virtues of another, in a manner that made it grossly apparent that he was on the payroll of the second politician. That the integrity of media practitioners can be sold like cold cakes was taken for granted. For me then, the province of this book was here and today. Raising questions about the absolute "freedom of the press", Böll was deliberately treading the line of moral scruples. He had a position on the matter, and it was not the middle ground. There was no question where his sympathy, his exacting sympathy, lay.

Another view at Tony's Reading List here.

06 November 2011

The Shooting Gallery (Tsushima Yūko)

By default, three things at least define the literary career of Tsushima Yūko (b. 1947). The first is that her real name is Tsushima Satoko. The second is that she is the daughter of the novelist Dazai Osamu who killed himself when she was just one year old. The third, and the most significant, is that she's an accomplished writer herself, a multi-awarded literary figure in Japan. With Kōno Taeko, Tsushima blazes as the foremost female short story writer in Japan, a prolific and consistent teller of subtle stories concerning human relationships. Like Kōno, the majority of her works remains untranslated. At least three books of hers have made it in English so far: the short story selection The Shooting Gallery (1988) and the novels Child of Fortune (1983) and Woman Running in the Mountains (1991). All were handled by translator Geraldine Harcourt. The two novels were originally published in Japanese in 1978 and 1980 while the short stories appeared in the period 1973-1984. It is puzzling (but maybe not) that no recent book of hers has appeared in English – in French, for example, nine titles already came out – given that she is a considerable talent, her stories displaying a diversity of approaches that are hard to categorize into a single style.

The eight stories in her only collection in English are about the aftermaths of (or preludes to) a divorce from a lover or family. It reveals a writer concerned with gender disparities and with a woman's search for freedom. Tsushima's female protagonists are confronted with situations they either want to understand or, having failed to do so, they want to escape from. In their stubbornness and liberal attitudes they can be considered rebels of the time. The characters are almost exclusively single mothers, divorced or separated partners, or single women who tenaciously face their lot in life and dream of something better. What is exemplary in Tsushima is the unique chameleon-like style she deploys in story after story. The writing is clear and transparent, without any apparent tricks and obscurities, and yet the whole composition exhibits a strong sense of both familiarity to and estrangement from the narrative intent. Consider the opening of "The Silent Traders" in which a single mother begins her narrative straightforwardly, only to defamiliarize it with her unexplained fear.

   There was a cat in the wood. Not such an odd thing, really: wildcats, pumas, and lions all come from the same family and even a tabby shouldn't be out of place. But the sight was unsettling. What was the creature doing there? When I say 'wood', I'm talking about Rikugien, an Edo-period landscape garden in my neighbourhood. Perhaps 'wood' isn't quite the right word, but the old park's trees – relics of the past amid the city's modern buildings – are so overgrown that the pathways skirting its walls are dark and forbidding even by day. It does give the impression of a wood; there's no other word for it. And the cat, I should explain, didn't look wild. It was just a kitten, two or three months old, white with black patches. It didn't look at all ferocious – in fact it was a dear little thing. There was nothing to fear. And yet I was taken aback, and I tensed as the kitten bristled and glared in my direction.

With this nest of stray cats in the background, Tsushima tells of an imagined transaction (the 'silent trade') between the narrator's two practically fatherless children and a cat. The children previously met their father six months before but it was a rather awkward reunion. The mother is thinking of a beneficial exchange between her children (who will leave food for the cat) and this same cat who could act as a "father figure" to them whenever he visits to eat his fill. This mutual trade she likens to an ancient transaction that is ideal but then is always accompanied by primal fear.

There are tales of mountain men and villagers who traded a year's haul of linden bark for a gallon and a half of rice in hard cakes. No villager could deal openly with the lone mountain men; so great was their fear of each other, in fact, that they avoided coming face to face. Yet when a bargain was struck, it could not have been done more skilfully. The trading was over in a flash, before either man had time to catch sight of the other or hear his voice. I think everyone wishes privately that bargains could be made like that. Though there would always be the fear of attack, or discovery by one's own side.

Such is the mother's wild imagination that she makes a leap from this trade of old to the current situation of her children. Their lack of a "human father" impels her to enact a similar trade in her mind, a beneficial one but also attended by fear.

   The children leave food on the balcony. And in return the cat provides them with a father. How's that for a bargain? Once a year, male cats procreate; in other words, they become fathers. They become [fathers] ad nauseam. But these fathers don't care how many children they have – they don't even notice that they are fathers. Yet the existence of offspring makes them so. Fathers who don't know their own children. Among humans, it seems there's an understanding that a man only becomes a father when he recognises the child as his own; but that's a very narrow view. Why do we allow the male to divide children arbitrarily into two kinds, recognised and unrecognised? Wouldn't it be enough for the child to choose a father when necessary from among suitable males? If the children decide that the tom that climbs up to their balcony is their father, it shouldn't cause him any inconvenience. A father looks in on two of his children from the balcony every night. The two human children faithfully leave out food to make it so. He comes late, when they are fast asleep, and they never see him or hear his cries. It's enough that they know in the morning that he's been. In their dreams, the children are hugged to their cat-father's breast.

In the above passage, the mother mentions the word "father" almost a dozen times, as if the very scenario she painted vividly in her mind already makes it a feasible trade, that the cat would be a substitute for her children's absent father. The other stories in the selection also cling to this idea of looking for suitable substitutes (or metaphors) or of creating ones. The finding of these substitutes-metaphors, usually some kind of animal (mythical or legendary or not), is often the objective of the characters, the very task they are trying to complete. In "The Chrysanthemum Beetle", the kikumushi beetle is the central metaphor of the story, in fact the beetle supplies a back story, making for a story within a story. It is an old ghost story that is then dissected by the characters through the lens of their personal interpretations of it. In the title story, the single mother of two young boys imagines herself as a golden dragon ("one day my back will sprout a pair of lance-shaped wings which will begin to beat, my body will visibly expand, and when the metamorphosis is complete I'll be a dragon that ascends spiralling to the heavens") to divert herself from boredom and perhaps to forget her difficult situation of raising her children. The soaring dragon is a projection of her desire for complete freedom and independence which are now undercut in part by her caring for her two boys all by herself.

It can be said that an essential itinerary of these stories, stories of self-discovery in some ways, is teasing out these overt metaphors, underlining the substitutions, the surrogate images that will fully describe the characters' petrified condition and thus release them from being mystified by their own boredom and discontent. The characters are seeking to unmask their avatars which will bring them to a more complete description of their states and thus toward a diagnosis of their afflictions. Their chosen avatars may or may not save them, the characters, who were somehow aware of their wishful thinking, but at least there is satisfaction to be had in knowing their lives at this point have meanings insofar as metaphors and details, both tangible and mystical, reflect their stories.

Aside from this tendency toward marked symbolism, another brilliant aspect of Tsushima's fiction is her remarkable structuring of stories. The stories seem to be composed of discrete "acts", as in a drama, where each succeeding act is seemingly disconnected to the previous. The recombined parts at the end of a reading do not always produce a neat puzzle-fit whole. Rather, the enjambment of disparate scenes create and reinforce surface tension as the plot jumps from one area of concern to another. Instead of relying on the limited rationality of decoding the sequence of dynamic scenes, Tsushima seems to encourage a multiple reading of her setups, that is, looking not only for substitutes and masks and symbols, but for the justification itself of the story's fragmentary expansion, teasing out the very seams in her sketched outline. At the level of the sentence or paragraph or broken chapter, this appeal for unbounded rationality can be spontaneous and immediate and unsettling. The beginning of "Clearing the Thickets", the story with the most unreliable narrator in the selection, illustrates these transitions.

   The door opened and a red colour appeared. A clear, dazzling red. The young woman stared in admiration at the dress, whose wearer she knew.
   In an art class once – years ago, in high school – a classmate had selected a tube from a box of oil paints and shown it to her grandly: 'This colour is produced by crushing a certain exceedingly rare species of insect and working it into a chemical base.' It was, she understood, a very expensive pigment, and although she wasn't sure whether to believe the story of its source, the squeeze of red on the palette certainly suggested an insect's body fluid. Although clear, it had a choking viscosity. A beautiful colour, there was no doubt about that. But she expected that once on canvas it would turn heavy and sombre beside the other tints. It's so rich I wouldn't know how to handle it, she had thought. She was even aware of an odour like an ant-lion fly's.
   The dress was the same red. A light material, perhaps, for its triangle of skirt billowed coolly. It had no buttons, ribbons, or other trimmings. It suited the slender wearer well.

The narrator's awareness of the color red proceeds first from the color itself before identifying it as the young woman's dress. From the red dress, it moves to her recollection of the same shade of red in her high school art class, the supposed 'origin' and manufacture of that specific color, before going back to the red dress in question. The shifts in focus at the outset already signal a structural treatment of the story, for a few more paragraphs into it, the speaker branches off into an entirely new direction – a lengthy flashback, memory, daydream, or dream – another territory, another tale that does not organically derive from the first. This second act is about a woman's slow and tiring progress clearing out the grass weeds in the lawn with her gossiping mother and sister. It's a complete about-face from the red-colored dress, almost making for a diptych. It is a most strange story that otherwise wears its strangeness very lightly. As in the rest of The Shooting Gallery, the story is lucid, precise in its telling but approaches a state of hallucination via its procession of startling proxies and metaphors. Unlike the oil paint, the prose is not choking heavy and viscous. Yet this anthology of Tsushima's is the same rich red: a beautiful and stunning pigment of imagination.

An autobiographical essay by Tsushima can be read here

02 November 2011

Visitation (Jenny Erpenbeck)

The visitation is of ghosts. Early in the book, they appear matter-of-factly. It must be said that the term 'ghosts' could be applied here to both the dead and the living. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between the two. Throughout the novel, the haunting of both is persistent.

The unknown fisherman holds out his hand and she helps him climb out of the rocking boat and then lets his hand go again. Only when he holds out his hand to her a second time does she understand that he wants her to lead him further. Halfway up the slope where the earth is no longer quite so dark and the grass is drier, there will surely be a place for her and the fisherman, whose hair is so wet that the water is dripping to his shoulders and running down his arms all the way to where his fingers are intertwined with hers. Only now, when she is looking for a good spot to sit down with him, does it strike her how many people there are all around her in this bit of woods, and everywhere there might be an attractive spot to rest, someone is already sitting or standing, some are reclining in the shade, asleep, others are having their evening meal, and yet others are leaning against a tree, smoking and blowing rings in the air. It's no doubt because all these people are so quiet that she didn't notice them before. In a sunny spot under the big oak tree the kind of grass she likes is growing, tall, dry grass, tuft after tuft of it, and when she kneels down there and draws the fisherman down beside her, the others finally begin to move, they put their sandwiches, apples and hard-boiled eggs back in their baskets, fold up their blankets and calmly rise to their feet, while the ones who are leaning against the tree trunks now toss their cigarettes on the ground and crush the stubs beneath the soles of their shoes. One at a time, all of them turn to walk back up the slope, leaving behind this place without addressing a single word or even a wave to Klara and her fisherman. The fisherman lays his head in the lap of the mayor's youngest and as yet unmarried daughter, and she begins to dry his wet lock of hair with her skirt. On the far side of the oak tree directly behind her, two last silent visitors to this bit of woods whom she had overlooked now rise to their feet and leave as well. [9-10]

The novel is a tale of a house by the lake in a German woodland area. The main character is Time, who moonlights as Death. Other characters include History and Memory. The page count is small, but the writing is dense with innovative manipulations of language. The story – there's no story – covers a century of racial abuses and prejudices. The plot is linear enough but the delivery is sophisticated. It drives home the point that all human beings are dispensable. If the poet Wisława Szymborska is to write a novel, I would imagine she will produce something like Jenny Erpenbeck's. In Susan Bernofsky's translation, Erpenbeck's prose has the clarity and cadence of a poem. The theme and style also reminds one of the midsection of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the cruel chapter called "Time Passes". That is precisely what the main character does in the novel. He passes. The narrative proceeds in bursts of prose poetry. It holds a candle to the accumulation of private and public memories. I read this in speed read mode – a bad idea. I could have read slowly and listened hard to the music and differentiated the notes soaring above the words. The music is playing the whole time in the background. The musical translation reads and flows well. It's very good, awesome even, but I imagine the original is a nasty beast. It is recommended for those interested in poetry and German history (or just history) and great original writing.

I read Visitation for the German Literature Month hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy's Literary Life. An excerpt of Visitation can be seen here. Other links: interviews with the writer and translator. Also, Bernofsky's blog, Translationista, is a great resource on translation, of German literature and otherwise.