Raphaela Edelbauer: Entdecker: eine Poetik

Edelbauer, Raphaela (2017), Entdecker- Eine Poetik, Klever
ISBN 978-3-903110-13-7

Raphaela Edelbauer is the writer I am most excited to see at this year’s Bachmannpreis. The only book of hers I have read is the magnificent Entdecker – Eine Poetik, a book about writing that is filled, absolutely filled to the brim with unexpected images, with fresh words, with humor and brimming with insights and clarity. If you are a translator, you should absolutely sit down and translate this book. Edelbauer is among the younger writers in this competition, but her book is heads and shoulders above the work of many of her fellow competitors.

Entdecker draws on Edelbauer’s own prodigious sense of language, on a sense of story and narrative – tied into the languages of science and discovery. She moves from Humboldt to Wittgenstein and Auerbach with an ease that is almost depressing. The first section, a “beastiary,” reads a bit like Ken Liu’s Nebula-nominated story “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” but stripped of the genre ballast and transposed into Humboldtian spheres. Texts as animals – brilliantly conceived and executed with rare skill.

The second section, on minerals, begins as a disquisition on minerals, but immediately invents a character and his story to help explain how mining works. In doing so, Edelbauer assembles and disassembles this character – and the tools of storytelling themselves. Without ever sounding obnoxious or pretentious, she dives in and out of representation, offering a comment both on the language of science and the structure of narrative in the process. There are so many dry, constructed books making the rounds in English translation, intellectually interesting, but written without inspiration or power. Edelbauer is the exact opposite of that.

Since this is just supposed to be a brief note and not an analysis, I cannot go into details about the way she uses theories from Deleuze to Haraway and many others without ever namedropping any of them. Her makeshift protagonist turns into mineral, into machine, into text and back into narrative. He becomes object through the machinations of language, laid bare for all to see. Similarly, the chapter on cartography – like a long riff on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem and theories of narrative and cartographic and mental mapping, she tells bits of stories, reveals them as types, uses the language of science and the metaphors of fiction. There is depth and breadth to her writing, but it also works on a sentence by sentence basis. Open the book to any page and you’ll see excellent writing.

My favorite section is one towards the end called “Anatomy” – it’s the most fiction-like part of the book, and largely charts a trip through human anatomy – a literal trip. The protagonist’s travels and travails through the bends and shapes of the human body are told with a fresh eye to how these stories can or should be told. They also combine various ideas brought up earlier, from maps to gravitational theories. Some of this prose reads like a pastiche of 19th century writing, with the same focus on exclamations, and the same way of dealing with heightened emotions and imagined horrors. There’s a clever connection here by Edelbauer between style, and content and a smart way of connecting various origins of specific discourses, all while remaining engaging and readable.

I don’t know what she’ll do at the competition, how this will translate into a sustained piece of fiction, but I am extremely excited to find out!