November 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
Title: The Sleep of the Righteous
Author: Wolfgang Hilbig
Translator: Isabel Fargo Cole
Publisher: Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 931883 47 4
In his introduction to Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous, the Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai wrote: “Many have thought and have said about him that because his fate and writerly art are so closely tied with Communist East Germany, Hilbig is just little more than a kind of chronicler of East Germany, a pale Kafkaist…” Krasznahorkai goes on to take what was perhaps originally intended as criticism and prove it to be the very thing that is most noteworthy about Hilbig’s writing. Hilbig, who was born in 1941 and died in 2007, was uniquely suited to write about Communist East Germany (also known as the German Democratic Republic) which was was founded and dissolved within his lifetime.
Fiction parallels real life. Raised by his widowed mother and maternal grandfather, Hilbig grew up fatherless in a coal town in the Thuringia region of Germany. There he received the full GDR experience – military service; working as a factory stoker; joining and being kicked out of a government sponsored writers’ group; interrogated by the Stasi; and finally leaving for the West on a one year Visa. He would travel back and forth between East and West – both physically and in his writing – for the rest of his life.
The world Hilbig describes in the seven short stories collected in The Sleep of the Righteous, brutal and bleak, read as part autobiography, part dystopian fiction. These linked stories are all told in the first person by the same unnamed narrator. Readers follow the boy as he grows into a man. Escape, the underground and disappearing are reoccurring themes. In the third story, titled “Coming”, the adolescent boy runs away. He is fatherless, a common state in post-war Germany. This boy – in the throes of puberty – flees the attentions of the women who’ve dominated his life. Their voices follow him like a Greek chorus, lamenting their helplessness and the behavior of the males in their lives. “The lake! they screamed, I’m going to throw myself into the lake! I’ll throw myself into the lake right this minute!”
“What pained them so was my apathy, which I took almost to the point of invisibility: I hunched speechless in some seat in the flat’s periphery, and my contours grew fainter and fainter.”
Every night, after the house has gone to sleep, the adolescent escapes to the lake of the women’s laments. The prose grows earthier and denser. The story’s entire tone changes –
“And suddenly I recalled a great mudhole, right in the center of the island, where we had sunned ourselves as children.
I recalled the sinful sense of well-being that came over me when I stripped off my clothes to stretch out in the thick black mud that filled the bottom of the hollow. It was grainy slurry of coal slack and sand in burnt-smelling water, whose surface, when smooth, showed yellow striations of sulfur…the oblong hole held the whole of my body, I ceased to move and waited until at last stillness came over me. Eyes nearly shut, I stared up into the sky whose rim was ablaze, and where the sun, straight above me, was an indistinct circle of white heat from which now and then, a drop seemed to fall… and a yellow cloud, nearly white, seemed to draw near this sun, touching the edge of its glaring gorge and beginning to melt.”
Most of The Sleep of the Righteous seems to be an attempt by Hilbig to understand his relationship to these women – aunts, mother, grandmother, wife, former lover – who dominate these stories. The few male figures are depicted as distant, often sinister. In the story from which the book takes its title the young boy is forced by his mother to share a bed with his grandfather. The two males sleep fitfully, one of them guilty (we are never told which) of murder. In “The Memories” a much older narrator recalls the boiler room stoker named Gunsch with whom he briefly worked the night shift. Gunsch is described as a modern German god of fire, grimy faced and inscrutable. In “The Dark Man’, the narrator is approached and confronted by a Stasi informer who reveals that he has for years been intercepting the narrator’s erotic correspondence with a former lover. The story is strange and surreal. The eventual outcome violent.
Strange and surreal describes Hilbig’s writing in general. All of the stories are set in a single town over a period covering decades – instilling the place with a lonely mysticism. The Sleep of the Righteous is a series of vignettes which together create a concrete sense of the period. The stories are gritty, roman noirs minus the criminal element. Calling them Kafkaesque (perhaps the most overused descriptor in literary criticism) isn’t entirely accurate. These stories have much more in common with the plain speaking narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Hilbig doesn’t push at the borders of possibilities like Kafka, or even Pynchon. He moves within them. And yet… Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation of the prose is slightly awkward in that it lacks any stylistic tics or flourishes. The use of the hyphen and the odd syntax result in hard, choppy sentences. Hilbig combines a romantic sensibility and understanding of harsh reality.
The factories were closed, keys rusting in distant safes in Munich or Dortmund until they were sold to a demolition firm. If they were lucky, and not yet too old, they might find a job driving one of the long distance freight trains transporting rolls of pink toilet papers or tins of condensed milk from Munich to Leipzig. – And looking ahead, they shuddered to think of their sons who went about with shaved heads, in combat boots and black bomber jackets, staring with alcohol in their eyes into a future that was none…
What anger and impotence the narrator might feel remains beneath the surface in these stories, residual paranoia and oppression left over from a former life under the Stasi.
In the second part of the collection the perspective shifts and expands. The child’s curiosity has been worn away by adult experience. The narrator returns to the town which has remained mostly unchanged in appearance, growing only emptier. The remaining inhabitants go about their business as if still being monitored by the Stasi. A certain level of fear has become normal, comforting because it is familiar.
What had spun out of control was my wife’s rage; she regarded us both, my mother and me, as people who were devoid of independence, eternally anxious to do everything right, and who for that very reason, because they were constantly trying to hide, to avoid reproaches… because they had no desires or questions… because they skulked about the house as though under some tyranny from which a devastating verdict might come at any moment – for that very reason did every possible thing wrong. – You people show no initiative, my wife said, all you’ve learned is how to wait for orders, you have no sense of self, and that’s why you can’t enjoy life in this little house of mine…
Dystopian has long been used to describe stories that fall within the genre of sci-fi or fantasy. Most dystopian authors insert a fantastical element into their narratives, designed to distract readers from the factual and familiar. And so they include elaborate death matches involving adolescents broadcast for public entertainment, the outside threat of zombies or of machines seizing control and enslaving the human race. Even Margaret Atwood included the laboratory engineered evolution of the human species in her Madd Addam trilogy. All are designed to allow readers to make distinctions between the book they are reading and world in which they live. It’s a sleight of hand drawing attention away from the recognizable components of a degrading society that every dystopian vision shares: a scarcity of resources, the collapse of the environment, poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth, the suppression of free speech, racial violence and existence under a police state. Hilbig, in contrast, includes nothing that might distract. As Krasznahorkai wrote, he was a chronicler of East Germany – a place that technically no longer exists. But that’s not entirely accurate either. More than a simple chronicler, Wolfgang Hilbig was also a witness.
October 21, 2015 § Leave a comment
This week’s review can be found over at The Rumpus. Soundcheck: Tales from the Balkan Conflict is a book of short stories by Galician author & journalist Miguel-Anxo Murado, translated by Jonathan Dunne. This War of Mine is a computer survival game based on the Siege of Sarajevo. Each compliments the other – forcing readers (and players) to re-evaluate the way we think about war. Arguably in more realistic ways than we’re used to. CLICK on the cover to learn more:
Note: This War of Mine was created by the game company 11 bit studios. They’re currently developing a new version of the game which ups the ante even further by adding children to the group of survivors. I talk about the original game in the review – here’s a link to the homepage and trailer (you’ll need to scroll down) for This War of Mine: The Little Ones. No release date yet, as far as I can tell.
The Turnip Princess & Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth (Maria Tatar, translator)
March 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
Title: The Turnip Princess & Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales
Author: Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth
Translator: Maria Tatar
Publisher: Penguin Classics, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 0 14 310742 2
There was once a farmer, and he had two sons…
One day a prince lost his way in the woods…
A farmer had three sons…
Three young men, a tailor, a miller, and a soldier, found themselves lost in the woods one day…
A nobleman had three daughters, each more beautiful than the next…
This is how fairy tales begin. Not with “once upon a time”, but with individuals standing on an empty stage patiently waiting to be told what to do next. Because fairy tales are essentially about the completion of tasks, even when the hero or heroine has no idea what that might lead to. The underlying moral of most fairy tales is – do as you’re told and good things will follow.
Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth was a contemporary of the Brothers Grimm. Like them he collected folk tales, employing a scientific method and focusing on a specific region of Bavaria known as the Upper Palatinate. He used questionnaires and carefully recorded the dialect, customs and costumes of the people he interviewed. His work was much admired during his lifetime, but seems to have disappeared after his death. Until 2009 when Erika Eichenseer (a Bavarian author, storyteller & poet) discovered 500 unpublished works in a Bavarian archive.
The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales translates 72 of these newly discovered stories into English. The book divides them into six categories: Tales of Magic and Romance, Enchanted Animals, Otherworldly Creatures, Legends, Tall Tales and Anecdotes and Tales About Nature. And they are quite unlike anything you might have encountered in the past. Yes, there are some familiar themes – such as dancing princesses, a miniature child (“the size of a thumb”) and enchanted toads. But in Von Schönwerth’s versions the Prince is often the one who needs saving; soldiers carry guns, not swords; the toad is just as likely to be a Princess and even after the hero saves the day he doesn’t always get the girl.
What you realize as you read is how spare, fragmentary and contradictory these tales actually are. The Three-Legged Goats (found in Part 2: Enchanted Animals) begins –
“Three young men, a tailor, a miller, and a soldier, found themselves lost in the woods one day. It was growing dark, and they still could not find a way out. The tailor decided to climb to the top of a tree, and from there he could see a light in the distance. He started walking in that direction, without saying a word to his companions, until he reached a castle. The first room he entered had nothing in it but three-legged goats and cats. Some of the cats were playing the fiddle on the tables and benches; others were dancing to the tunes. The tailor was hungry, so he ate some food. Once he was done, he stuffed his pockets with good things to eat and went back to give some food to his companions. After the tailor returned, the miller also climbed the tree, saw the light, found the castle, and discovered everything the tailor had found.”
At this point the soldier follows in the footsteps of his two companions and the tailor and miller disappear – never to be mentioned again. The story goes on to tell how the soldier breaks the enchantment on the castle, marries the princess and then journeys home to tell his parents the good news. And where traditional fairy tales might end, this one is just getting started: his wife, discovering he is poor, spurns him. She disappears and the soldier is forced to search for her. While searching he encounters three thieves, from whom he steals three magical items. He uses these three items to find his princess and win her back. And even after all he has done the Princess still questions her father, the King, as to whether she should keep the soldier as her husband. “What should I do? Should I choose a new broom or take back the old one?”
The Three-Legged Goats, like many of the stories in this collection, appears to be a compilation of several fairy tales into one. Which makes sense when you consider that Von Schönwerth’s purpose when setting down these tales was to faithfully record the oral history of those he interviewed. These stories were transcribed in the telling – not copied from books. They changed and evolved over time. And so it’s not implausible that two or three may have eventually merged together and been condensed into one. Or that a story which began one way would end in another. This results in very different narratives than most of us are accustomed to.
Maria Tatar makes some interesting choices in her translation. Three soldiers, we are told, have “finished their tour of duty”. When a huntsman asks three giants if they are planning to free a princess, the giants growl “From her wealth, anyhow.” There are more guns mentioned than I remember in The Brothers Grimm. Von Schönwerth lived from 1810-1886, so the modernity of the language and references is not entirely misplaced. But it is definitely unexpected and at times jarring – which might have more to do with my expectations of what a fairy tale is than the quality of the translation.
Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, Andrew Lang (of the Blue, Red & Green Fairybooks, etc.) and Walk Disney have – for better or worse – shaped most of our expectations of what a fairy tale should be. It is easy to forget that folk tales are just another form of folk art – and that folk art is primitive by definition. The stories in The Turnip Princess range from one to five pages in length, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for embellishment. But it is the stripped-down, primitive nature – the potential in these stories of what they can become – which makes this collection so exciting. Consider the literary impact of Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast, Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretel. The plots & characters have become archetypal. Their influence can be detected (whether overt or subtle) in many contemporary works of fiction. What, then, might a new generation of writers make of Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth’s stories? Of a girl who becomes a snake when her stepmother casts her into a lake? Or a Prince who is kidnapped by a mermaid? Or a beautiful maiden freed from a turnip? Erika Eichenseer’s discovery has created new possibilities… new opportunities.
February 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
Title: The Scatter Here Is Too Great
Author: Bilal Tanweer
Publisher: Harper Collins, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0062 3044 1 4
A spider web crack is a series of hairline fractures spreading out from a central point of impact. Bilal Tanweer makes this image the motif for his short story collection The Scatter Here Is Too Great. The central point of impact is a bomb blast at the Karachi Train Station in Pakistan. All the stories, eight total, radiate out from and connect back to that one point in time.
Tanweer takes a “community” approach to the event. His characters are as interconnected as his stories; appearing, re-appearing and interacting with one another throughout the book; jumping from one story to the next; telling us about their lives before and after the explosion; gradually revealing their thoughts and feelings in first person narratives (with the exception of one story which is told in the third person present tense). All the narrators are male, predominantly young and speak in voices which veer from self-conscious vulnerability to the cocky arrogance peculiar to young men.
More succinctly: these people, who we expect to be no more than a group of strangers whose collective bad karma has resulted in them being at the wrong place at the wrong time, know each other. For example: there is an elderly man, a Communist poet, who passes through several different stories. In one he recites his poetry on the bus and is derided by other passengers. Later we will see him again, on another bus, though the eyes of the troubled boy he sits beside and talks to. In yet another story we recognize him as the narrator’s grandfather, and then as another narrator’s the father, and then he has a brief cameo as the friend of the main character’s father seen from a distance. Sadeq, the boy on the bus befriended by the poet, narrates more than one chapter and over time describes to us what is a remarkably depressing life for one whose only advanced into his early 20’s. Through his story we are linked to another young man who was his childhood friend. And in this way, one thread at a time, we learn about the victims of the bombing. So that when the time comes to tend to the survivors and collect the dead, we have an understanding exactly who each of them is and was in that moment of impact.
Unhelpfully for the purposes of this review, my favorite story is the one that takes place in the weeks after the explosion. The narrator is worried about his brother Akbar, a first responder who develops PTSD as a result of the carnage he confronts in the aftermath of the blast. Akbar is convinced he saw Gog & Magog walking among the bodies of the dead. “If you don’t already know about Gog and Magog, their arrival was supposed to mark the coming of the end of the world… They will bring strife and disharmony and, ultimately the apocalypse to the world.” Akbar’s brother eventually tracks down Gog & Magog and, while they aren’t exactly what they appeared to be, we learn that “what appears strange and complex becomes even stranger and more complicated once you begin to investigate it. That’s the true nature of the world.”
That is Bilal Tanweer’s super power as an author. He has a talent for creating beautiful & strange imagery out of life’s banalities. He’s willing to spend time on the insignificant things we all notice and just as quickly forget. Like a plastic bag blowing in the wind.
My eyes were following the blue plastic bag that floated in between the onrushing cars. It curved sideways, rose and cruised and hung in the air, and finally ran into the path of a pedestrian who slapped it with the back of his hand and pushed it over the edge of the bridge. It limped over it and spiraled like a tiny tornado.
Because, when you think about those men & women entering the Twin Towers on 9/11, or boarding trains in London on 7/11, or riding a bus in Syria on a Sunday morning – they were all having normal, ordinary, even boring, days. Until suddenly they weren’t. Tanweer skillfully conveys the individual’s sense of normalcy leading up to a catastrophic event, which is so unfathomable to the reader who already possesses the knowledge of what is about to happen, and then allows the environment to degenerate into the chaos and confusion that must inevitably follow.
The Scatter Here is Too Great was on the shortlist for the DSC Prize. It was not selected as the final winner by the Shadow or actual juries – mostly because despite its ambition (or perhaps because of it) the book has integral flaws. The most obvious is how the voices of all the young men blend together as the book progresses. Less obvious, but ultimately more distracting, is how it works too hard at being a “concept” novel. The opening image of the spiderweb crack is an intriguing one, particularly as the story centers on a bomb blast, and so you want it to fall into place naturally. But Tanweer felt the need to insert (what I guess you could call) an element of metafiction: a writer who pops up to provide a sidebar commentary on what is happening and why. Tanweer doesn’t seem to fully trust his reader. He’s created this writer to explain the structural and creative process… and to a point it succeeds. I was surprised at how well all the stories fit together and played their part in the author’s greater narrative plan. But I didn’t see it until it was explained. And, like that blue plastic bag, I forgot about it just as quickly. One of the highest praises we as a society give to an artist is to say that he or she “makes it look easy”. While The Scatter Here Is Too Great delivers moments of promise, in the end Tanweer succeeds in making it look unaccountably hard.
April 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
Some interests spring fully formed from within, sending us off on a mission to gather information. I find that my obsessions more often evolve. I find myself returning to the same subject at completely random intervals, unintentionally or even unknowingly, until a gradual immersion occurs over time. In this way I began reading Sartre in high school because I was (and remain) obsessed with pandemic literature – of which The Plague is a brilliant example. My introduction to Borges came later via a sous chef in North Carolina who, after coming out to ask how I’d like my ostrich prepared, joined a friend and I for drinks. The discussion turned to books and the next morning I found his card on my windshield. “Ficciones” Borges written on the back. A year or two later Italo Calvino’s The Nonexistant Knight & The Cloven Viscount was passed around my circle of friends – though, thinking back, it seems impossible that I hadn’t already read If On A Winter’s Knight A Traveler. As for Oulipo, I can’t remember where I first heard that name. Perhaps Electrico W? Or the Three Percent Podcast? But Surrealism as a literary movement, separate from a visual one, came to my attention through a very specific (and completely unlikely) source – the Japanese author Kawamata Chiaki.
Only in the last month did I start connecting all those books to the French College of ‘Pataphysics; a shadowy (and willfully nebulous) institution which came into being at the same time as Surrealism, and would go on to spawn Oulipo.
The Conductor and Other Tales is the one and only book of fiction written by Jean Ferry – a French filmmaker, script doctor and surrealist author whose most lasting literary achievement was his critical analysis of the French literary icon and personality Raymond Roussel.* It is a collection of short stories – some only a few paragraphs in length – dealing with the fears and anxieties that are a basic ingredient in the human psyche. They are the stuff we deal with in nightmares (normal nightmares, not the horror shows of Wes Craven’s and George Romero’s slumber). Ferry was enmeshed with the Surrealists – exhaustion, sleep and/or dreams are mentioned by almost all his narrators. And the stories, themselves, resemble dreams – or rather, the kinds of puzzles and wordplay which surrealists love and have long represented as dreams. Think of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (aka -“This is not a pipe”). Surrealism, as does everything eventually, becomes a “type” – and these stories by Jean Ferry are of a type. But, in my opinion, they represent the best of that type.
The Conductor, the story for which the collection is named and onto which André Breton lavished praise, deals with a common nightmare scenario. The narrator is a conductor on a train that never stops. Everyone – the passengers, engine crew, attendants – are trapped. There is an unlimited supply of coal and tracks, and enough food so that no one goes hungry. But no one can disembark. Ever. The conductor remembers a time when the train did stops in stations, but that seems to have been a long time ago. He can’t recall why or when things changed. He goes on to talk about how he and the passengers have come to accept the situation, the mental adjustments they have made in order to do so. Always the conductor addresses the reader directly – making you feel as if you are sitting beside him in the engine car. As if you, too, are trapped on the train with him. The Conductor bears all the hallmarks of classic Twilight Zone episodes. So much so that I actually researched online whether Ferry had ever written one himself (he had not).
My Aquarium is a strange little story. The aquarium it refers to is filled with little creatures which are the physical embodiment of the narrators’s suicidal thoughts. He keeps them imprisoned in a box and feeds them like pets, hoping they will never escape. Like most of the stories in The Conductor and Other Tales, it is short. At under one page, it’s an unintentional precursor to flash fiction.
The Society Tiger – perhaps Ferry’s most famous short story and one of the earliest to be translated – is the name of the vaudeville act featured in the story. A woman appears in the theater between acts, escorted to her seat by a companion: a tiger dressed in evening clothes and standing erect like a man. The two take their seats in a box visible to the entire audience and the tiger proceeds to perform the affectations of a gentleman. The narrator hates The Society Tiger – for he alone realizes that the beast is always on the edge of breaking his mental restraints and attacking the audience. It is a deeply disturbing story (particularly the ending) that seems to sympathize with the tiger.
You probably noticed a pattern emerging. Many of these stories are structured like jokes: the obvious set-up, a slight misdirection and then the punchline. Some are very funny. Some disturbing. Here, for example, is the entire text of The Chinese Astrologer:
The Chinese Astrologer wears out his years calculating the date of his death. Until dawn each night he amasses signs, figures. He ages, becomes a stranger to his fellows; but his calculations advance. He reaches his goal. Astrology will reveal the date of his death. Then, one morning, the brush falls from his fingers. From loneliness, from fatigue, perhaps from regret, he dies. He had but one sum left to perform.
Allow me to liken the Chinese astrologer to the intellectual who died of exhaustion at a young age for, on top of a draining, harassing, and poorly paid day job, he put his every spare moment toward preparing a monumental and definitive critical edition of Lefargue’s The Right to Be Lazy.
Edward Gauvin’s translation is wonderful – written in a way which is chatty, informal and friendly. He’s kept the prose contemporary in tone, though some of the ideas and stereotypes Ferry puts forward are dated. The narrators are all storytellers and Gauvin has achieve the effect of making us feel as if we are listening to, instead of reading, the stories. He seems to be very familiar with Ferry and his fellows – not only contributing a translator’s note to the edition, but publishing numerous online articles here and here. Oh, and remember this?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the physical book, itself, is charming. Wakefield Press (based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and not affiliated, to my knowledge, with the Australian publisher of the same name) is a small, independent publishing house that understands the value of a well-made product. Their books are relatively small (4-1/2″ x 7″) paperback editions with tastefully subdued covers and details such as french flaps, patterned endpapers, black & white illustrations (in the case of The Conductor and Other Tales drawn by Claude Ballaré) and beautiful formatting. Objects to be coveted by any self-respecting bibliophiles. And Wakefield seems to specialize in books by members/friends of the College of ‘Pataphysics. I recently bought both Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting a Place In Paris and A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan. I’ve been meaning to read something by Perec for ages – he was a character in Chiaki’s novel. Mac Orlan I’ve never heard of, but I’m almost finished with his book. Needless to say, it is wonderful.
Publisher: Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 939663 01 6
*It speaks volumes that most of my readers are at this point in the post thinking – who is Raymond Roussel? You will not find that answer here. I recommend trying here.