Strittmatter, Thomas (1990), Raabe Baikal, Diogenes
[English translation: Strittmatter, Thomas (1997), Raven, Chatto & Windus
Translated by Ian Mitchell
[French translation: Strittmatter, Thomas (1994), Le Corbeau du lac Baïkal, Albin Michel
Translated by Nicole Casanova
This is an odd book, by Thomas Strittmatter, a writer who has been almost forgotten by now, but who, upon publication of Raabe Baikal, this strangely beguiling novel, was on the cusp of becoming one of Germany’s most famous and most praised writers. Between his first play, published when he was only 20 years old, and his premature death at 33, he wrote several plays, a novel, short prose, and won 7 prizes. His first play, Viehjud Levi, remains one of the sharpest, best written texts about the Third Reich by a writer of his generation and it was made into a critically acclaimed movie in 1999. Praise and acclaim for Strittmatter’s work was loud and persuasive enough to engender a translation of Raabe Baikal into English as Raven (by Ian Mitchell, published by Chatto & Windus, paperback published by Vintage) and into French as Le Corbeau du lac Baïkal (by Nicole Casanova, published by Albin Michel), and it died down quickly enough for both translations to fall out of print almost immediately. This is a shame, because Raabe Baikal is a great book, which borrows from all corners of literary history, but is convincingly original in its own right; it is a generous, fair, compelling read, suffused by clear thinking, but at the same time not a difficult read at all. It’s inconceivable for me why this book isn’t more famous or more widely read. I urge each and every one of you to read this book. It may be out of print, but second hand copies are available, and there’s always the chance of the NYRB classics imprint taking pity upon this languishing masterpiece, and getting it back in print, onto shelves and into the hearts of a multitude of readers. Because that is where this book belongs.
If you heard me yap on about Raabe Baikal at the end of this episode of bookbabble, please accept my heartfelt apology. I misrepresented it. It had been some time since I’d read it, and only retained a very distorted memory of the book. It is nothing like I made it sound, but it is a very good book nonetheless. A better book, actually, than I made it seem. Now that I reread it, I was struck by the marvels of subtlety that Strittmatter accomplishes in this book. They are marvels partly because the book, at times, seems rather raw and a bit crude. Strittmatter makes heavy use of repetition, not necessarily of words, but of motifs, and as we move from page to page, we sometimes get the feeling of jumping from one thick slab to another: the book’s dynamic is established less by its plot and more by these slabs of motifs, that keep recurring in flimsy disguises. But, we soon find, these are slabs of ice, rather than anything else and below them gapes the ice-cold death. Strittmatter, despite the funny, picaresque mood of most of the book, is fundamentally serious about his ideas, and his narrative is propelled by necessity rather than whimsy. If he keeps returning to the same ideas, it’s because they matter, because they constitute identities, and a sense of self, of belonging, of personal dignity. Behind every character of Raabe Baikal, an abyss gapes, and this imminent destruction, the looming shadow of nothingness informs all of their actions. Fear, unconsciously, compels them from day to day, from word to word, and from one action to the next. Some sit still, they rest, and we see how they are swallowed up by a diffuse darkness.
That the book doesn’t feel dark, that it is actually a funny and entertaining read, is due to the protagonist of the book, the eponymous Raabe (Raven), who gained this nickname because he looks just like a raven and because “there’s something dark about him” (his fellow students think). Raabe is a wide-eyed innocent, who believes all kinds of lies and tales, who takes everything in stride, whether it’s death, sordid sexualities or serious crime. The openness of his gaze opens up the world of Strittmatter’s novel. The book isn’t narrated by Raabe, but the narrator often leans heavily either on Raabe’s view of the world or on Taubmann’s, another innocent. While Raabe’s innocence is that of a boy, and can, at times, give way to small cruelties and pettiness, to the irritations and the irritable demeanor of the young at heart, Taubmann is an older man, who is much more serene and more thoroughly innocent. While Raabe’s journey in the book is one of discovery, an attempt to understand the world and his role in it, Taubmann doesn’t attempt to bring order to the world, he is content to state its mysterious and complicated nature. Raabe isn’t averse to retaliating against one of his fellow students by taking a dump in that student’s bed, whereas Taubmann accepts other people’s cruelty as one of many odd facts of the world around him, and offers a deep gratitude for every kind act accorded to him. Loss and sadness will overwhelm both in the end, and both will seek means to cope with it. Raabe’s act is an act of emancipation, at the same time a fulfillment of his education and a step away from his past.
It is this final act, this stepping out into the world of adults, that tells us, more than anything, that Raabe Baikal takes up position smack in the middle of the tradition of the Bildungsroman, fusing different kinds of references, from classical sources like Goethe and Gottfried Keller to more modern ones like Jean Genet’s work. I called the book ‘odd’ and it does contain a lot of unusual elements, but the basic structure is quite strict and traditional. It is, without a doubt, a Bildungsroman, or rather, it’s one long Bildungsroman, with numerous smaller specimen of the genre assembled to form a more complex image of his time and society, like a prism. The story starts in a boarding school; once an élite establishment, now full of mediocre students (“Raabe der Mittelmäßige!”, (Raven the mediocre!), one of Strittmatter’s characters calls the protagonist at one point), it tries to keep its students safe and attempts, if not to make of them future scholars and genii, then to enable them to take up with the world without getting hurt. After school, the kids will all take jobs in the real world, becoming hairdressers, stone masons and cooks. But the longest section by far is the one dealing with the school. The surrealistic, dense atmosphere of the boarding school owes much to Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, but transposed into a context where Walser’s pervasive irony is out of place, and Walser’s fine, subtle, dreamy sketches are supplanted by crude (yet complex) images. In the first chapter, the students are made to watch a cow give birth. Unfortunately, the mother dies in the process, in a lake of blood, deeply traumatizing all the students. Death, often violent, is shown to be part of the fabric of growing up, as killing animals and hurting other people becomes inevitable and a necessary part of all the student’s future experiences. In this, Strittmatter’s book shares links with many other texts, specifically, I think, with books like Beat Sterchi’s Blösch (translated by Michael Hofmann into English as The Cow), and in many ways, with Franz Innerhofer’s debut Schöne Tage ( translated by Anselm Hollo into English as Beautiful Days).
But Strittmatter takes care not to stage this violence as a rite of passage, it is not enshrined as socially sanctioned ritual and the necessity isn’t inescapable. Raabe learns to use violence, as he learns to use other tools. In Raabe’s journey, structural violence, and metaphorical become palpable and real, they have to, because Raabe is unable to comprehend structural violence, he needs to be shown, it needs to be demonstrated to him. Thomas Strittmatter makes it impossible for us to mystify and to intellectualize deeply invasive and violent processes of the moderns world, as they are reflected even in words and art. We cannot evade cruelty and the darkness by moving into the realm of words. Strittmatter, through Raabe’s wide-eyed experience, drags it out into the open, where it is now endowed with shape and color. Red blood, the odd sound of a breaking neck, the soft fur of a shaking victim, these are real. Raabe Baikal‘s characters are all living on the periphery of society, and the impact that this status has on their experiences is encapsulated in these small episodes, which combine actual violence, i.e. violence that can be experienced by everyone, with the representative, slightly surreal kind of violence that has a very real impact on the book’s characters. This is a difficult balancing act, but Strittmatter never lapses into pathologizing his characters, or exoticizing their experience on the margins.
The danger of doing that is particularly strong in a work like this one, which makes heavy use of the surreal, of the magical realist mode of storytelling. Drawing both from the Döblin tradition that ran strong in post-war fiction in German, and from the popular and populist kind of writing of 19th century realist fiction (especially the early work of Wilhelm Raabe (click here for a review)), his characters always seem more like caricatures, like oddballs, rather than real, flesh-and-blood people. This is exacerbated by the fact that they are almost never referred to by their names. Instead, we know them largely through their nicknames. A deaf man is called Taubmann, i.e. “deaf man”, a fat boy who likes to pretend he’s sick and feverish is called Fieber, i.e. “fever”, a girl who looks like a stereotypical bimbo, soft-spoken and handed around by men like an object is called Opfer, i.e. victim. But, the dark undercurrent of the book is about identities and popular prejudice, as well as hierarchies of power, and Strittmatter is incredibly careful in his use of these crude (or seemingly crude) elements. His characters are never really defined as persons, they gain substance through their actions, and through a juxtaposition of different kinds of characters who might seem to share a common identity vis-à-vis socially accepted prejudice. The way he fleshes his characters out and lends them some definition, within a clearly defined and understood cultural framework, in order to outline their role, place in society as it is (while clearly critical of the static nature of this situation), is an interesting contrast to the Bildungsroman antecedents of Raabe Baikal.
The Bildungsroman is notorious for cementing the status quo. The most important and most famous novel of the genre, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, has always been criticized for supporting a bourgeois class, inimical to real art, blind to any kind of fringe, a club that does not accept any but those who are born into it. Even shortly after publication, the novel spawned a great amount of books and texts written to oppose Goethe’s ideas and writing, from Novalis’ only novel to Robert Walser’s aforementioned one. It is in this critical tradition that Strittmatter writes as well, but he makes more use of the basic tropes and structure of the genre than many of his predecessors; this novel displays a deep understanding of the inevitability of some structures, of dichotomies. He doesn’t turn a blind eye to these realities and the reason for that may be that he writes in the wake of Jean Genet’s stunning body of work. For all the books and references I mentioned, Genet is probably the most important and defining one. Strittmatter’s connection of themes like criminality, sexuality, especially homosexuality, of the obscurity of desire, cannot be read divested from Genet’s work, especially the prose. In Querelle de Brest, Genet writes “À l’idee de mer et de meurtre, s’ajoute naturellement l’idee d’amour ou de voluptés – et plutôt, d’amour contre nature.” This book is written at a turning point in his work, where the sexual openness of the debut changes into a brutal embracing of stereotypical depictions of deviant sexuality and associations of it with crime and violence. As Genet’s work increasingly reflects pressures and dominant social narratives, his language starts to pick up phrases and clichés, and his work, both novels and plays, grow increasingly darker.
This is one of the legacies that Raabe Baikal attempts to live up to. It’s crudeness represents the attempt to precisely render the dominant discourse without falling for it, without buying into it, or letting his readers buy into it. If the explanations above seem a bit confused, it’s because the novel is full of paradoxes, adopts paradox as an artistic principle, which makes it hard to say anything about the book that isn’t also wrong. This is an ambitious kind of writing, and Strittmatter isn’t, at this point in his life, quite ready to pull it off perfectly. There’s much that strikes an off note, much that seems a bit labored, and we the reader are, at times, exasperated with this young, pressing writer, so obsessed with death, desire and darkness. But the book is never less than entertaining and fascinating. If it falls short, it falls short of its own potential. It’s still a masterpiece, a very, very good book that you’d be a fool to miss. If you’re easily offended by frank literary depictions of boyish sexuality, shitting on the bed or murder of innocent animals and people, maybe you should give the book a pass. If not, don’t hesitate. And tell me what you thought of it.
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