Reinhard Jirgl: Abschied von den Feinden

Jirgl, Reinhard (1998), Abschied von den Feinden, dtv
ISBN 3-432-12584-5

Abschied von den Feinden (Goodbye to the Enemies), not yet translated into English, is Reinhard Jirgl’s breakthrough novel. Published in 1995, it won two of the most important German literary prizes and established its author as one of the major and original voices of contemporary German literature. His work has three distinct and important predecessors in German language literature, each of which can be held accountable for one very important aspect of Jirgl’s dark and violent work. Those three are Thomas Bernhard, Uwe Johnson and Arno Schmidt; some of them more obviously influential for Jirgl’s oeuvre than others. This is not to say that Jirgl draws only from these three sources; of course he doesn’t, a writer who wields his language as deftly and powerfully as Jirgl does often draws from a multitude of sources, and not only from German sources at that. Chief, perhaps, among the Anglo-Saxon strand of influence, for example, are William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett, but among modern writers writing in German, I would place the three aforementioned novelists at the fore. We’ll return to that. Jirgl’s themes are restricted to a few areas of interest, like German history and the violence that people assault each other with, openly or in a less open manner. His 2000 novel Die Atlantische Mauer (The Atlantic Wall) for example, contains one of the most harrowing, most well-written depictions of rape I have ever had the displeasure to read, as well as a frighteningly precise outsider’s account of the workings of a bureaucracy.

Typically for Jirgl, it’s hard to grapple with the book, Jirgl is a slippery writer, offering several conflicting angles, down to a fundamental level. Abschied von den Feinden is a book deeply and explicitly invested in history, in questions of historical continuity and guilt; at the same time, it’s a textual machine. By cutting all the names from the text, reducing every character to a function, and every function to schematics, in combination with his typography and orthography, Jirgl suggests reading the book not as a historically involved book but as a textual artifact, as a book whose only level is exclusively textual, with history as one of many other textual elements, a game, in short, without responsibilities. These two levels are not coexisting, unconnected. Jirgl’s powerful use of language, his easy access to direct, even violent expression provides a strong link. Indeed, instead of subjugating history to a literary game, to a careless romp through the shelves, Jirgl goes the other way, he reconnects textuality to the gritty outside of history; his intense fiddling with words, typography and other gadgets serves just that purpose by locating the roots of the, often disturbing, acts he describes in the language they are described in. There are a few great writers who manage to create that link, one of those is Thomas Bernhard. Like Bernhard, Jirgl is an obsessive, like Bernhard, Jirgl creates a set of signs and topics and uses his work to explore them. Bernhard’s work can be put on a chart so that we see how certain topics are refined, developed, and how this is reflected in the language he uses to do this. As I said, the same applies to Jirgl.

Abschied von den Feinden traces a few characters through just over 40 years of German history; basically, we are looking at the lifespan of the German Democratic Republic, the socialist state on German soil, taken over by the other German state, the BRD, in 1990. Jirgl focuses on two inimical brothers and a woman both brothers courted at one time. The two brothers were left by their father, who fled into West Germany. Their mother was raped by government agents who wanted information from her about her supposed contacts to the imperialistic West, her kids taken away, practically orphaned. One of the most impressive sections of the book deals with the younger brother’s time in the orphanage. These sections are constructed with the imagery and language of German modernism, most significantly perhaps that of Hans Henny Jahnn, whose inestimable influence on German post-war avant-garde prose is traceable through major writers like Rolf-Dieter Brinkmann and Hubert Fichte, both of whom, in turn, have left their marks on Jirgl’s work. This may sound like namedropping but it’s actually a desperate attempt to render understandable the insane wealth of literary sources and references that are scattered through this amazing book. His writing is such that the literate reader automatically connects words, phrases and images with other books and texts. A metaphor containing an “Aster” calls to mind Benn’s famous early poem, just as, mentioning a “Tarnkappe” (magic cap or cloak of invisibility), to me, is almost as good as mentioning Christoph Meckel’s poem with the same title, and there’s innumerable smaller and larger ways in which texts surface and add depth to the book; just as in most cases of intertextuality, Jirgl, too, can be said to outsource meanings into the web of text he places his novel in. The specific context of Benn’s early poems, “set” in Germany before the first world war, is interesting to consider in relation to the modern history Jirgl looks at. I have absolutely no idea how the references, this incessant sounding for literary depths, this integral part of the novel would make it into a translation. I guess I’m lucky to speak the language.

To return to the two brothers. After a short time in the orphanage, they are taken in and raised by a pair of refugees, who were chased from what used to be German territories in the east, as people are wont to be chased in the turmoils of history. Since all this review stuff is created from memory (and my memory is awful), I will go ahead and admit I may be mixing the brothers up with another pair of orphans, who, however, only enter the story in its fringes. Structurally, the novel utilizes repetition a lot, thus, years after the father, leaving the two brothers’ mother, another man, the older brother, leaves a mother of two boys. Just like his father, he absconds to West Germany. We do not learn much about what happens to the two brothers once they are grown up. These years are regarded, for the most part, through the eyes of the woman I just mentioned. The two brothers appear, but as minor characters in the larger context of her life. The older brother is the quiet, shadowy presence in the West, whom she writes letters, partly as a defiance of the GDR establishment, the younger brother falls in love with her in the East, sleeps with her and is generally obsessed with her. That is about all that can be said about their history. The brothers are more important as narrative elements than as actual characters. The book is told via a complex arrangement of letters and monologues, and the two brothers’ voices provide the main tonal dynamic.

As to the woman, she is the person who sets everything in motion, who links all the characters, leading the story down from the environs of Rostock, a big city on the northeast coast of Germany, to East Berlin and back again. The story starts in a small town near Rostock (a very specific historical reference suggests this), the same town where the two brothers were raised by the elderly emigrant couple. There a woman’s dead body was found and an injured man who threw himself off a cliff. In a way, Abschied von den Feinden is about retracing the steps that led to her murder, about illuminating that homicide. Since this necessitates illuminating her background, Jirgl embarks on presenting a very memorable life to us, the life of a woman who did not fit the mold of GDR society. This very specific kind of misfit is a very well known part of GDR literature and life. There are literary characters all over the map such as Christa Wolf’s “Christa” from Nachdenken über Christa T. (translated into English; my review here), and the eponymous protagonist from Brigitte Reimann’s marvelous classic Franziska Linkerhand (not translated). Life in the GDR was beset, in a very un-communist manner, by all kinds of bourgeois prudery. Former citizens of the GDR pride themselves today on the easygoing manner with nakedness, for instance, that people in that country displayed, but below that was a strong and strict bourgeois moral code, especially as far as sexuality and more specifically, as far as promiscuity on the part of women was concerned. Very un-communistic, as I said. The woman in Jirgl’s book took what she needed, she slept with many men, especially after the older brother left her, she went to dances and took men home regularly. When a rich doctor, head of a government clinic, takes her home one night, she takes up with him and becomes his wife. She uses him, not in the way that cliché would have it, a woman marrying a rich man for money to live comfortably off the rest of her (married) life. She wants to study and to have the leisure and support to do it. Within the next years she proceeds to write a dissertation; it is in that process, however, that she has a falling-out with her husband.

For various reasons that I need not disclose here, he discards her and when she protests he has her thrown into a psychiatric ward, a punishment that will follow her for the rest of her life, because once pronounced, she finds it to be impossible to cleanse her name from something like that, even if those who pronounced the judgment have been discredited since. It is a general topic in Jirgl’s work but especially in Abschied von den Feinden: once you have been pronounced as outside of reasonable society, you tend to have trouble finding your way back in. Jirgl depicts madness as a classification created as a deposit of the irregular; she is thrown into the asylum not for medical but for private reasons, yet in a way, her punishment fits the institution; the fact that the judgment is upheld after 1990, with the threat of being put away continuously hanging above her, underscores this. Jirgl most effectively explores the inside/outside active in any society by giving a voice to the mob. This novel crawls with sounds and voices, and one of them, the most scathing and revealingly political, is that of the mob.
In the first chapter of E.P. Thompson’s seminal study The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson talks about the rise of the English working class as a political force, as a change from those times

when ‘the Mob’ did not organize itself in pursuit of its own ends but was called into spasmodic action by a faction […] to strengthen itself.

The mob in Abschied von den Feinden, the population of the small northeastern village, is hateful. Not in any special way, but in a way that anyone even fleetingly acquainted with German history will recognize. I’m sure it’s like this in every country, but this is my home turf, so excuse my myopia. These past 60something years we have expended a lot of time and energy convincing the world that we were called into action by some fringe faction instead of acknowledging that we took action, whoever represented us, politically. Once every dozen years something happens, however, that raises the specter of what happened then, that shows how we behave when we find the courage to behave as we really want to. After 1990, the signal event was when, in 1992, a mob burned the houses of asylum seekers in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, and many more citizens, up to 2000, stood nearby, watching the foreigners burn and flee, attacking the police, too. Because it’s not about obedience. It’s about doing the right thing, and, c’mon, we know someone needs to pay, Jews, foreigners, take your pick. It is this event that is recalled in the first of many instances that Jirgl lends a voice to the people, to the neighbors of the brothers, their adoptive parents and, at the end, to the woman.

Mentioning Lichtenhagen (alluding to it, rather, names are absent here, as I said) does not actually touch any of these people. There are no foreigners in the village, none of the protagonists is a foreigner. The Lichtenhagen incident is only meant to underscore a certain kind of thinking, a historical continuity, in East and West Germany. The most important German novelist writing on that topic is probably the magnificent Uwe Johnson. He, frequently called “Dichter beider Deutschland” (‘Both Germany’s Poet’), produced a couple of incredible novels about the exigencies of life in one half of Germany. He wasn’t just a superb writer, he was also an excellent reporter both on the mentality triggered by the insane bureaucracy in the GDR and on continuities in German culture. The people and characters that crowd Abschied von den Feinden could come straight from one of Johnson’s major novels. And like him, Jirgl clearly doesn’t like what he sees. The story of the woman and the two brothers drips with anger, venom, even. He pursues his subject with a dedication and an energy that is engaging and harrowing, which would not work half as well were Jirgl not the amazingly great writer that he is. In his actual writing, he demonstrates quite a few similarities to Arno Schmidt, the solitary literary hermit, who is perhaps best known for his experiments with typography and orthography. I will review one or two Schmidt novels within the next month so I wouldn’t want to shoot my load right now, but one of many tricks Schmidt pulls is dismembering words and phrases in a hunt for etymological roots and clues to meanings hidden in the weeds and the undergrowth of language. This is where Jirgl picks up. In a note that precedes Abschied von den Feinden, he warns his reader that he will encounter difficult and different kinds of typography and orthography to add further layers of signification. For example, he does not just use the word “und” (and), he also substitutes it variously by “u:”, “&”, “+” and others. He does not end an exclamation sentence with an exclamation mark, he starts it with it, not just that, he also inserts exclamation marks in the middle of them, for special emphasis. Jirgl uses punctuation as a tool to use not as a rule to obey.

In Abschied von den Feinden, unlike, for example, in the later novel Die Atlantische Mauer, Jirgl proceeds to explain himself. Any of these changes are lucid and self-explanatory, but Jirgl insists upon saddling the book with a four page discussion of the deeper meanings that some symbols add. Perusing this you’ll find that each change, for example the decision to represent the indefinite article “ein” (which doubles as a numeral) sometimes with the actual number “1”, is motivated and can be read as significant. The incredible thing here is that it doesn’t feel annoying and self-important as in Ander Monson’s novel; on the contrary. Yes, Jirgl’s additional notes do not help you read the novel if you read it for the first time. This is why they are in the back not in the front. Jirgl invites us to reread his book in the light of his notes. To see where he tells us that someone is, for instance “thin” and small details like this. Jirgl’s actual use of words, gadgets aside is impressive, astonishing, praiseworthy, and he does not need the tricks and these small experimental thingies, but what’s great about him is that he makes it look worth your while. Nothing looks extraneous or eccentric. Jirgl has made it a part of his work and what a magnificent, wonderful work it is. Much of his later work is contained in this dense book. There is Hundsnächte, of course, which is basically a sequel, but, as I said above, Jirgl is a man with obsessions and Abschied von den Feinden is his first utterly perfect result from his encounter with these obsessions. His writing will stay with you, his characters, phrases and scenes will haunt you. Reinhard Jirgl is a great writer.

I gotta say, though, it has to be a nightmare to translate. He works so much from within his language and culture, building this vibrant, raw bell-tower of sounds, that I have trouble seeing how that would be possible to translate. A translation would need a Jirgl (i.e. someone with Jirgl’s abilities) on the other side as well, for this to work. Yes, I like that. Jirgl as an enigma machine. But do read that book if you have the opportunity to do so. Or something else by Jirgl. He published a new novel this year. Pick him up now and when he wins the Nobel you can gloat.

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Poem of the Day

Tarnkappe
by Christoph Meckel

Da ich mich in den Nächten verlor,
Samt meinem kalten Tod, meiner unsteten Spur,
Meutert mein riesiger Schatten, er kann mich nicht finden,
Raunt mein lautloser Schatten, er möchte mich küssen,
Murmelt mein schwarzer Schatten, er möchte mich verdunkeln,
Ich soll zu ihm unter die Tarnkappe kommen.

Doch geborgen unter dem Schirm verfinsterter Monde
Geh ich auf Abenteuer und habe viel zu tun,
Ich muß mit meinem Namen leben lernen
Und mit meinem Alter hausieren gehn,
Ich muß für mein leeres Zimmer Blumen stehlen,
Denn mein Schutzengel kommt zu mir zum Abendessen.

Bertolt Brecht: War Primer

Brecht, Bertolt (1994), Kriegsfibel, Eulenspiegelverlag
ISBN 3-359-00173-7

“Here, Kunert, look at this, see whether it’s publishable…”, Bertolt Brecht, the titan of modern German drama asked a young acolyte of his. That acolyte was Günter Kunert, a major GDR poet, and he recalls the request and the manuscript in question in a memorable chapter in his great autobiography, Erwachsenenspiele (Games for Grownups), which is still one of the best books about the life of writers in the GDR. The manuscript were a few cardboard pages on which pictures and poems were pasted by hand. These are what later became the Kriegsfibel, published in 1955/56. It has been translated by John Willet as War Primer. Since you might know that I am wary of any poetry translations, I cannot vouch for this one, especially since I’ve never seen it. The German book, though, is one of my very favorite books. It’s a huge black chunk of a book, and I have never moved without it, it’s really a book that affects me like few others do, and this is kind of surprising since it’s a rather simple affair. It consists of 69-85 (depending on the edition) newspaper cutouts, usually photographs with the caption that the newspaper provided. There is a picture of an American soldier cradling a dead Japanese soldier, and a picture of actress Jane Wyman, her crotch hung with military medals, and pictures of German helmets and many more. Brecht assembled those in his years in exile, mostly while he lived in the US. The history of his sojourn in the US is well known, I assume.

Each newspaper cutout was accompanied by a brief poem, four lines, basically two couplets, truly Brechtian in diction, rhythm and music. Brecht was a prolific writer, he wrote countless poems, there’s much in his work that doesn’t withstand closer scrutiny, but Brecht can be powerful, and he frequently is. He is a writer who fuses bawdy and political issues within single poems, he writes complex yet accessible tracts about political situations. The poems in the Kriegsfibel show him at his best. These are angry poems, funny poems, bawdy poems, almost all of Brecht’s range is in there, reduced to simple couplets. These are poems against the war, but they try not to make people oppose war by telling sob stories, by trying to make them feel sorry for the victims of war. Brecht shouts at you, in a musical, elegant, funny way, but he does shout, because what he has to say is important, it needs to be said. He tells people to consider the consequences of their actions. He tells us that a group of soldiers did not lose the war when their helmets were shot off their heads but when they put them on. Simple truths, truisms perhaps, simplistic truths, even, but Brecht is not trying to be an authority, he’s not trying to force us to understand His Truth. Brecht wants to make us think. To make us more aware of our actions. Of things.

In his autobiography, Kunert tells us of his enthusiasm for Brecht’s manuscript and of the trouble that Brecht had publishing it. It was too dirty, too pacifistic and other things, to go over well with those in power. This was, after all, after June 1953. Brecht assembled and pushed it through to publication and the world is richer for it. Kriegsfibel is a book that can set you right. It’s a masterful work of art and a burning black meteor of a book. It will always be with me.

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Paolo Giordano: The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Giordano, Paolo (2009), The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Doubleday
[Translated by Shaun Whiteside]
ISBN 978-0-3856-16249

DSC_0650I’d really rather write a review of a book that I loved than of a book that I hated or felt indifferent to. I really don’t like to write negative reviews so I’ll try to keep this one here as short as possible. Paolo Giordano is the great young star of Italian letters. He won the Premio Strega for his debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers, the youngest winner of Italy’s most prestigious prize ever. He’s garnered praise from all kinds of writers and publications. So, I’m probably wrong, as with my resistance to Other Electricities. The book has been translated by Shaun Whiteside, but, my Italian being crappy, I can hardly judge the merits of his translation; I have no idea how certain stylistic quirks and peculiarities looked and sounded in the original Italian, so anything I may say about style may not reflect badly upon Giordano at all, but on Whiteside. The writing is, if we try to look at the positive side of it, clean and efficient, as is the whole book. The whole book, and this is certainly part of the intended effect, smells whitewashed, stinks of disinfectant and cleanliness. I’d almost expect an echo to return to me were I to shout at the book, it’s like a huge tiled room, words arranged nicely and in an orderly fashion, a few characters, picked for their symbolic and emotional possibilities, stacked neatly in a corner, and ideas for a few episodes in another. On the floor a few tidy schematics to make sense of it all.

Small wonder, then, that Paolo Giordano’s a physicist in his day job. Clean and precise work is what he spends his days with, writing is just a hobby, and according to Italian wiki he did not really publish before he put out his novel, so it basically represents the first full statement of his artistic vision and apparently he doesn’t have much of one. Giordano’s not a storyteller, the whole book is one long lifeless construction. Much of this may appear to be interesting, but rest assured, it’s not, his is a very dully old-fashioned idea of how a book should work. The Solitude of Prime Numbers is structured into seven chapters that chart the development of two somewhat disturbed individuals through their adolescence and the early years of their adulthood. Each chapter is basically dedicated to one or two events; the first is set in 1983, the last in 2007. The chapters are of uneven length, shortest in the beginning, where Giordano tries to win us over with a few vignettes that clearly strive for effect. As he gets into his characters, the chapters get longer (with a one or two very short chapters remaining) until the final chapter which is the longest, by far.

DSC_0651The structure is clearly meant to create an impression of loneliness, of discontinuity, and it reinforces a main theme of the book which is hinted at in the title. This is about

pairs of prime numbers that are close to one another, almost neighbors, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from really touching. […] If you have the patience to go on counting you’ll discover that these pairs gradually become rarer. You encounter increasingly isolated primes, lost in that silent, measured space made only of numbers, and you become aware of the distressing sense that the pairs encountered up until that point were an accidental fact, that their true fate is to remain alone […]. Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another.

So, you see, the chapters exemplify this central mathematical idea that helps power the book. I’m actually pretty sure that you can draw up a scheme that makes sense of how the chapters and episodes are arranged by aligning this with one mathematical idea or another. Most elements of the book strike me as readable in such a way and usually, I’m game for this kind of silliness but this time I just didn’t care. The book doesn’t make you care, really. The Solitude of Prime Numbers is one of those books that talk down to you, that bellow at you: feel this! It’s clever in such an obvious way that it takes all the fun out of checking up on its clever tricks. Everything is calculated for effect, there is not an ounce of superfluous fat on its bones, and reading should provide food, nourishment, it should carry weight of a sort, but there’s really nothing here. A clever boy’s clever games which, and this is probably among the worst things about this book, would not need to be a novel. This could equally well be a movie or something of that sort. Giordano uses words almost reluctantly, trying to get it all over with as soon as possible. The writing is impossibly flat in most places; unless Shaun Whiteside has bungled the translation, Giordano doesn’t much think about choice of words, if he finds a sentence that works on the level of direct denotation, he sticks with it, regardless of how it sounds etc. So the writing makes it hard to care, but the characters carry most of the load when it comes to the singular dullness of The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

DSC_0652The thing is, I generally choose my books well, the time I have to read books is limited, so most books I read are rather good. This explains why I have not read a book with such an amount of cliché ridden characters as The Solitude of Prime Numbers contains in many months. It’s really the book’s major weakness and downright appalling, in places. Where do we start with this? Why not with Alice, one of the two protagonists of the book. In the first chapter, Alice shits herself while skiing, tries to hide her shame, and, subsequently, has a skiing accident. Both protagonists represent a portion of the typical problems and prevalent illnesses of the typical teenager, with just the right bit of exaggeration to make the two characters exceptional and representative at the same time. Alice, for instance, is deeply ashamed of her body, since she’s scarred and disfigured by that accident; in response to her unease, she then becomes anorexic. Due to her eating disorder, she’s also incapable of bearing children which is a strain on her marriage later in her life. Her eating disorder is not about gaining control, as far as I see it. I think her character is built upon shame, a shame that manifests itself in her body, even the miscalculated shit in the first chapter is part of this theme. Her disorder is her way of combating that shame, re-making herself into someone acceptable. The book is really expertly built, all of Alice’s episodes are full of this topic, including tropes of rising and falling, of mobility. It’s not just general body image problems. She’s handicapped (this is the appropriate word, really, in the context of the novel), and this, as deviation, as loss, as aberration, is also reflected in much of the book, including the small chapter that describes how the accident came about. All of this, acquired in a freak accident, is projected into the character, made a key property of it. It’s weirdly reductionistic, but, unless we look, by way of contrast, at Mattia, the other protagonist, not distasteful yet.

Mattia’s main theme can be said to be guilt. His body is not often thematized. As a teenager, he takes to autoaggression, but, in a drastic feat of exaggeration, instead of cutting himself, savoring the pain, he rams sharp objects right through his hand. By this, he is not really handicapped, his is a life of the mind, he is a brilliant child who grows up to be a gifted, successful mathematician. The guilt arises first in his inability to save his sister, who is a bit slower than others, strange, possibly a bit autistic. A reviewer from the Independent called her “retarded” which, regardless of the questionable choice of word there, I don’t think she is, but the thing about the book is that it invites such readings, it’s really what the sister is for, she’s a foil to make Mattia’s decision plausible to leave her behind on a bench near a lake when he attends a party; a mistake as it turns out, because she apparently subsequently drowns in that lake. From then on Mattia sees plenty things to feel guilty and protective about, most important among those is probably Alice. But here’s the thing about the characters. They are such incredible clichés that you can reduce them to a higher level of abstraction and the story makes just as much sense. Mattia is a man, and Alice is a woman.

DSC_0649No, hear me out, I’m not saying this is a parable on anything (it probably is, but let’s not go there), but it certainly spreads actions and attributes according to well worn and deservedly old-fashioned attitudes. Gender appears to be the single most determining factor in the decision how to construct each character, and I’m not even talking about the anorectic girl. No, even as basic decisions as having the woman be the one whose problems are problems of the body and the man the one whose problems are problems of the mind, are clearly gender stereotyping. The woman’s career takes the back burner to her marriage, while the man is successful in his career, yet is dragged into the everyday reality by women. Women need counseling and help, men help. Men give sensible advice (eat more, so you’ll be able to bear children) women are too irrationally disturbed to listen to reason. See? And I had to scrape none of this off from some deeper meanings, this is basic surface stuff, in plain sight. This is how the book works. The author’s essentialist leanings, as far as gender is concerned, forms a peculiar alliance with the essentialist tendencies in his dealings with disorder, which he, in the ingenuous structure of the novel, has withdrawn from simple cause/effect scenarios. As a whole, it clearly uses minority characters for their minority value.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers is like a freak show, and Giordano’s its director and if Mattia’s character works better, is more believable than Alice, it’s because being a woman makes her more of a freak. Paolo Giordano hammers his points home, with little subtlety in the actual language used, but with great deftness as far as the construction of the book is concerned. Much of this book revolves around order, traditional order, narrative order, and for what it is, it is well wrought, but what it is is nothing that I consider commendable. Do not read this book. Do not buy it as a present.

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