Happy Anniversary!

Star-Telegram:

Witnesses say that police arrived at about 1 a.m. at the Rainbow Lounge on South Jennings Street and arrested seven people. They said one of those arrested suffered a fractured skull during the takedown and is at a Fort Worth hospital. (…)
The raid happened to be on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York which began on the night of June 28, 1969, as a protest by gays against police harassment and helped trigger the modern U.S. gay rights movement.

It makes you sick, doesn’t it? In related news, I was in Heidelberg last weekend, visiting the old folks, and happened upon a demonstration against violent police. Apparently a young African student, who was in Heidelberg to complete his doctorate in mathematics, was searched by the police, restrained when he protested and hit in the face so hard that he had to be hospitalized for five days. Police says he was intoxicated and violent. Friends say he’s one of the gentlest guys they’ve ever seen, and he was on his way home from a long evening in the University library.

Elias Canetti: The Voices of Marrakesh

Canetti, Elias (2005), Die Stimmen von Marrakesch, Fischer
ISBN 978-3-596-22103-5

In the decade after the second world war, Elias Canetti,winner of the Nobel prize for Literature in 1981, was then a somewhat unknown expatriate writer living in London, a man born in Bulgaria, who was raised in Switzerland and Austria and became a writer in the 1930s, just before the Nazis bundled existing forces and convictions in Germany and Austria and took power. In 1938, he left Austria and went to live in England, where he met many people; two of his friends, about to shoot a film in Morocco, invited him to come along. So, in 1954, Canetti joined a film crew and traveled to Marrakesh in Morocco. Over a decade later, in 1967 he published Die Stimmen von Marrakesch: Aufzeichnungen nach einer Reise, (translated into English by J.A. Underwood as The Voices of Marrakesch (Marion Boyars Publishers)) his travel account of that journey. The book, which describes an immersion into a palpably alien culture, is remarkably short at about a hundred pages. It consists of fourteen short chapters, several as short as three pages, each of which seems independent of the others, creating the impression of loosely connected stories, interlinked by a general sense of chronology and build, but these links are not necessary to understand and interpret each, let’s call them: vignette. These are short, concise description of a certain aspect of Marrakesh, of a certain event, smell or sound, of a certain person or group that the narrator met.

I admit, I have not always been the greatest of fan of Mr. Canetti’s work. When I first read it, I have found his autobiography, published in three volumes from 1977 to 1985, somewhat overlong, rambling and self-indulgent, although fascinating and full of arresting episodes and images. I have come round to it in the meantime, appreciating it for the masterpiece it is. I am still not convinced by much in his major philosophical non-fiction work, the massive (and certainly brilliant) Masse und Macht, published in 1960. I cannot, however, find fault with Die Stimmen von Marrakesch. Each of its chapters is written with a precision and economy of means that makes them less like reportage than like prose poems. In the few pages over which Canetti has spread his account, there is enough material to fuel books twice as long. At the same time, reading it, one doesn’t feel the economy, the book has a sumptuous, easy feeling to it, evoking the Suks and mosques of Marrakesh, its merchants, mendiants and its mad people. All of this is structured by an emotional and spiritual hunger, an openness to shock, to violence, to the Other, that is directly transmitted to the reader, who cannot put down this slim book until he has devoured every last page and then puts it away, deeply moved and in deep thought. At least that’s what happened to me.

There are many concerns in Die Stimmen von Marrakesch, but the most central one, as in all travel accounts, is the yearning to understand this alien country, to read it in a way so it makes sense to you. Canetti differs from many writers in that he doesn’t want to understand it, he doesn’t learn the language or get a translator whom he drags around with him on his tours through the narrow and dusty streets of Marrakesh. At one point he outright declares his preference to hear speeches, prayers and entreaties with his bare ear, so to say, to hear the sounds, the raw emotions as they are rasped through the vocal chords of the natives. That said, Canetti speaks French and English perfectly, and most natives can understand and speak French, so his communication with the natives, inasmuch as food and similarly important issues are concerned, is not impeded in a significant manner. His decision not to learn Arabic only concerns his observations, his scrutiny of his environment. He may not be driven by a wish to understand, but his eye is that of a classic ethnologist, and Marrakesh is his village. Nothing enters or leaves this village except him and others like him.

This immobility is encapsulated in his account of a destitute and clearly desperate woman at a bar, who is being pimped out to rich and ugly men by her lover. The men need to be ugly so his jealousy is not awakened. She gets beaten if she recoils from sex and she gets beaten if she takes pleasure in it. Meanwhile, her lover has his own income as the gay lover of the son of a local potentate. This son has had to leave the country at the behest of his father and the strange couple is thus left to their own devices, which mostly means a live in poverty. He won’t leave, and she can’t. Canetti’s village is in a state of stasis and even though foreigners pass through and can even become part of it all, the city has an internal logic all its own: everything points back to Marrakesh. Canetti, in passing, mentions money, touches upon issues of wealth and poverty, implies exploitative mechanisms, hints at problems brewing beneath the surface, but hints they remain. Canetti’s book isn’t a journalistic account of a country and it neither possesses nor aspires to possession of a journalistic or even scientific precision.

In these accounts there is always a danger, to an extent inescapably, of colonizing the alien, the strange country, to read it in terms of your anatomy tables and take heed not of the country as it meets you, but to read it only in terms of difference, to remark upon that which is strange, with reference to one’s own everyday givens. Many of these accounts go even further than that: by not reflecting one’s own situation, situatedness, they colonize everything off the self-established norm as deviant. One luminous, problematic example of such a writing is Goethe’s massive, brilliant account of his travel to Italy, which implicitly treats women, effeminate men and similar ‘deviants’ as symptoms of the foreign country. In Die Stimmen von Marrakesch Canetti shows himself quite aware of this problem, quite aware, too, of the alterity of that other country. Aware of the anatomical function of language, of the interpretative and defining power of translation, Canetti decides to skip language. With an enormous spiritual appetite, he opens himself up to the sounds of Marrakesh.

There are the noises of begging children, chiding, playing, laughing, begging, even instructing him how to perform a religious ritual. There is a madwoman on a balcony, who whispers to him, words in different shades the tone of which he fails to read in a consistent manner. The chapter that is about her shows a progression from bare listening to an effort to understand, which makes him, in the end, read her as a madwoman. The interconnectedness of some processes of thinking and the establishment of certain categories is demonstrated by chapters like this, where we see Canetti’s thoughts move from gentle questing, questioning, to a full interrogation. Whenever he enters this last state, he either starts to categorize people in a way that he, quite obviously, is himself uneasy to do, but which may be, to an extent, inevitable, or, as in a later chapter, he is moved to disgust by what he readily recognizes as his own morals (and there is quite a bit of patronizing inherent in the explicit stating of this, too).

None of these are flaws of this, really, flawless book. These are flaws inherent in the process, and it’s one of the book’s main strengths that it provides a structure and a context for these flaws that it makes them part of its rhetorical thrust and construction. The titular voices appear and reappear in different contexts (a screaming camel in the powerful first chapter that is dragged to be slaughtered is another memorable one), but as the book progresses, we find that they gravitate around two centers. One is belief, the other is fear. Belief is always present in that country, which wears its convictions on its sleeve. There is the belief in God, transmitted through public prayers and through numerous beggars who repeat the word Allah, all day, chanting themselves into a trance. All this, Canetti feels, is powered by a general belief in the power of the word. When he discovers a corner of the town where the story tellers gather a large following around them, and the writers sit stoically, waiting for people to service with their pen, he is profoundly humbled. His mistrust in language, in words, well-funded though it may be, appears to make him a coward, compared to these people who throw their words into the air, or rather: their voices. His emigrant’s voice, filtered through several layers of language, is hidden, artificial, his tongue divulges its truths only with care, bit by bit, as evidenced by the temporal distance between the journey and the publication of this highly artificial book, which, as the title also tells us, is an account after a journey. Not of, not during, no, after. As if he needed the time to render the unspoken, unspeakable, into literature.

Fear certainly plays a role in this. The two central chapters are not about Marrakesh proper, they are about the Jewish community in the city, in the mellah. Canetti is astonished by the fact that Marrakesh is a Jewish melting pot, where Jews from all nations live, peacefully, side by side. The mellah, the Jewish quarter, is a colorful, rich island of Jewishness in a Muslim country. One of the most powerful descriptions in the book is in the first of the two chapters handling the mellah. Canetti describes the Jews he sees sitting by the road and describes how they all watch foreigners, unobtrusively, carefully. The merchants among them possibly in the hope of finding customers, but that is not the main reason, Canetti decides. These people are afraid, their whole existence is governed by the need to be careful, to live in a way that doesn’t challenge the natives and keeps them safe. This story is one that we have heard many times over, by Jews from all over the world. Fear is all over the map, in Die Stimmen von Marrakesh, Canetti’s account of that town at a certain, pivotal point in its history, but it is a way of life in the mellah. Is the publication, in 1967, at an important point in the history of modern Israel, when its Arabic neighbors attacked the young Jewish state for the second time in a few years, accidental? Canetti describes the pride and happiness of Marrakesh’s jews not for being respected and/or equals but for not being persecuted. The fear, the care, that the Jews along the street in the mellah manifest, is something that marked Jews all around the world.

In the end, their fear and their beliefs (well-known to Canetti as they are) and the other citizens’ beliefs, alien and beguiling, full of a confidence that Canetti can only envy them, all these are equally important to the construction of this marvelous book. It turns out that the hunger and appetite behind it, and the unspeakable things Canetti found, were in need of the precision and poetical prowess that Canetti brought to his travel accounts. Although I did not want this book to end, it appears to be in such a perfect equilibrium, that I could not wish it to be any longer. It’s perfect. Read it.

*

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. I really need it :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Flayed without hope

James Wright: Saint Judas

When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

.

Marcel Beyer: Kaltenburg

Beyer, Marcel (2008), Kaltenburg, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-41920-5

Educational books have always been popular, and there are different varieties of these kinds of texts. There are books, for example from which you learn things, although not always correct things. Most historical novels are written that way, Michael Crichton (whose name, my paperback of Jurassic Park informs me, “rhymes with frighten”) built himself a career out of this, so has the diligently dull (or dully diligent?) Richard Powers etc. These books hand you a large amount of information (not always correct (I’m looking at you, Michael)) that you may not have come by otherwise. Then there are books that concentrate upon being insightful, making you see knowledge in a different way. There are vastly more of those around, because that group contains both novels that rely upon the reader’s knowledge of a topic and those from which you learn things). Marcel Beyer’s latest novel, Kaltenburg, longlisted for last year’s Deutscher Buchpreis, is a strange fellow in that it is both a book that imparts knowledge to its readers, in a rather exotic area of expertise; it is also insightful, but in a completely different area. Beyer’s trick here, basically, is to talk about one topic but hinting at another that may or may not be connected with the first thing, and the longer the novel goes on, the clearer the reader sees the underlying theme, until, at the end, he’s completely caught up in Beyer’s ruminations and thinking. This is a masterful novel, by a great writer. Kaltenburg is easily the best contemporary German novel I have read in years (and I gather you remember me swooning over Trojanow’s work), by a writer who is completely and utterly in control of his craft.

Kaltenburg is narrated by an elderly ornithologist named Hermann Funk, a retired professor, who is living in Dresden. One day he is visited by a translator who asks him for advice and information. She is preparing for a conference and wants to learn ornithologist terms both in English and in German. We don’t know how she came up with Funk’s name, or why he agreed to do it; as a retired professor he certainly didn’t need any money. As we enter the book, their discussion has been underway for a while, we’re basically catching up. The whole novel is written from a first person perspective, except when Funk tells us about events that he hasn’t witnessed himself. He then launches into a seeming third person narrative, but it is still his voice we’re hearing, although it may not always be transparently so. The structure of the narrative is highly complex, Beyer constantly shifts gears. Sometimes it’s a plain q & a dialogue between Funk and the woman, sometimes Funk digresses and talks for a while. It’s important to note that, even in the middle of what may seem like a conventional narrative, small asides tell us that we are still in the interview, especially when he steps aside to let the translator ask a question, and yes, it’s a stepping aside; sometimes her questions can only be inferred through odd remarks and phrases, sometimes we don’t get any hints, but the nature of such a dialogue suggests that things have been left out. These comments of mine may sound extraneous but much of this novel is concerned with gazes and domination and I consider it a brilliant idea of Beyer’s to reproduce several of his ideas on, let’s call it: a formal level, as well.

Funk’s monologues are highly associative, partly modeled upon the example of Proust’s memoire involontaire. From birds he segues into personal anecdotes with birds and then, more and more, into reminiscences of his life as a student and companion of Ludwig Kaltenburg, the world famous ethologist, ornithologist and zoologist. It is in one of those reminiscences that we enter the discussion, quickly learning the basic historical parameters of the novel. Funk and his parents had lived in Posen (then Germany, after WWII Poland) at the same time that Kaltenburg, a Vienna native, had. Funk’s parents had encouraged his early love for animals in general and birds in special, putting him into contact with two students of Kaltenburg’s (who, at the same time, were soldiers in the Wehrmacht), one who went on to become a famous artist and one who went on to become a famous documentary filmmaker. Early we learn that an event unknown to young Hermann had sundered Hermann’s parents and Kaltenburg who used to be a regular visitor to the Funk household. As the war drew to a close, both the Funks and Kaltenburg moved to Dresden. In the Dresden firebombings in February 1945, Funk’s parents died. The account of the disastrous night is the single most moving part of the book (many reviewers have been put off by the fact that much of the book does not go down the same sentimental road, but the mechanism of the novel makes this necessary (more on this in a minute)). We then loosely, by no means strictly chronologically, rather in leaps and bounds and rebounds, follow Kaltenburg’s career.

That career takes up again at the University of Leipzig (near Dresden) where he took a chair shortly after the war until, in the 1970s, Kaltenburg left the GDR for West Germany where he published books that made his international fame, books that left his academic turf and contrived to make general statements about human behavior. At this point, the account of Kaltenburg’s career ends, the novel returns to the present and leaves Funk and the translator to wrap things up. Although this is not quite correct: actually, the book is preceded by a prologue of sorts that starts with the end of Kaltenburg’s life, with him missing the birds he left behind when he moved to West Germany, with the controversy that erupted over his most famous books. So, even before we enter the narrative proper, Beyer tells us where we’ll end up and takes thus any direct suspense out of the book, only to replace it by a tension of sorts. The book works like a mystery without any murder, but we the readers still want to understand how things are connected, how the controversy about his late books ties in with the rather harmless and slow assemblage of anecdotes about his time in Dresden; additional suspense is derived from the constant hints at what happened in Posen and from the dark undercurrent below the light banter about birds. If, unlike me, you have a working memory, you may learn quite a bit about birds, ornithology and related areas. A huge part of the book appears to have no other purpose than to lecture you about different domestic birds, bird classifications and how to behave in the company of birds. To read these parts in that way only, perhaps with a few additional thoughts about the hints to Funk’s personal history and past events in Posen, would be a gross mistake, however.

We not only learn about birds, but rather, as I said, about bird classifications and related issues. We learn about the scientific gaze, about the workings of a scientific mind, about his work with living specimen, all these aspects are not simply explained to us, but shown, and repeated time and again. Beyer works hard to make us understand the parameters of this thinking, only to deliver a punch to the guts at the end by showing the consequences of applying such a thinking to humans. There are many atheists I know who think not believing in God is a “daring” (that word is so prolific among a certain segment of reactionary atheists that it starts to lose meaning) gesture that constitutes an ethics all of itself in a way. It doesn’t. What Adorno called the instrumentelle Vernunft has shown its dirty mug during the Third Reich but it has not been invented by Nazis, it and its destructive, anti-human thrust is inherent in much scientific thought before and after that. To anatomize a human being, to subject it to a normed and implicitly contemptuous gaze, that is always problematic, this we know, and it is one of the major points of Kaltenburg. It is a frequent mistake of books that grapple with the Third Reich and its heritage for post-war Germany (including hundreds of thousands of Nazis at universities, in the courts and in political parties) to achieve their effects through making their readers feel guilty. This is not at all how Kaltenburg works, it does not slam sad images of the Shoah etc at its readers at all. It wants its readers to understand, not to weep.

Understand who it is, among others, that was killed in the Dresden firebombings, understand, also, the continuities in German culture, understand what, in seemingly innocuous thinking, is problematic and what kind of thinking could lead to which results. None of this is obvious and none of this is hammered into its readers. It assumes that its readers are well read in German history, cultural and political. I know a surprising amount of people, Germans and British especially, who run their mouth about German history without having read or understood even a modicum of what Beyer presupposes in his book. You need not bone up on German history in order to read this book; I do recommend, however, to look up all the historical names and references that are dropped in the book. Wiki the cities and the names and you’ll be fine, but I do recommend this. As for other things: some readers will see (the introductory section about Kaltenburg’s late career does hint at this quite directly), some won’t, that the character of Ludwig Kaltenburg is a thinly veiled depiction of Konrad Lorenz. The artist mentioned above has his real counterpart in the legendary artist Joseph Beuys and the documentary filmmaker has his in Heinz Sielmann. Konrad Lorenz’s actual career is dissimilar in a few aspects but Beyer, instead of concentrating on the continuities of the Third Reich in West Germany which are all too obvious, he depicts those in the GDR (not absolving West Germany, on the contrary).

Of necessity this review contains only a rough account of the riches of Kaltenburg. There are many aspects, as the opposition of art and barbarism, the role of Proust’s suite of novels, the behavior of birds and the petty everyday murder of them. Much of this would fit in the overall reading of the book I have suggested, some would not. Marcel Beyer has written a multi-layered book that is unlike any other novel I have ever read. His nuanced approach to the topic that contains a harsh, unmitigated indictment without resorting to guilt and shock, the incredibly complex construction of his narrative, it’s really beyond words. It’s really a joke that he did not make the shortlist of the Deutscher Buchpreis, but a veritable hack like Ingo Schulze did. Beyer’s novel should win every prize available.

*

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)