Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 28
‘Pardon me? A detestable word? A word with a dark history? … I realize that the word has a bad reputation, that it has been so seriously abused that one can hardly use it nowadays … But could we not try to rid the word of its bad connotations? Give it back a sort of purity?’
The word is Heimat, ‘Homeland’, and the speaker is Zygmunt Rogalla, master weaver both of rugs and of the narrative of Siegfried Lenz’s epic fable, The Heritage, whose original title, literally translated, was The Homeland Museum, and whose theme is the creation of a vast gulf between Germany’s past and present: a gulf created by the unscrupulous use of the sense of home, roots and history to justify and legitimize xenophobia, tyranny and the dread syntax of ethnic purity. The Nazis dirtied many words, but Siegfried Lenz is not willing to leave it at that. The Heritage is, among many other things, an attempt to rescue the past from its exploiters: a fable of reclamation, the very writing of which is a kind of heroism, and which reveals Lenz as being a good deal more optimistic than his narrator. For the novel begins when Rogalla deliberately burns down the irreplaceable museum in which, for most of his life, he has nurtured the relics of his homeland’s past, in order, as we finally learn, ‘to bring the collected witnesses … into safety … from which they would never again issue forth, but where they could never again be exploited for this cause or that.’ This seems like a deeply pessimistic conclusion; but then again, ‘in our memory things lead a purer existence,’ and through Zygmunt Rogalla’s feat of total recall, history, the lost homeland, is indeed restored to us, neither sentimentalized nor distorted, made neither quaint nor risible; the heritage is given back its innocence.
Siegfried Lenz’s novel is a colossal achievement in every sense. It contains a seemingly endless parade of striking images, vivid detail and characters who seem mythical and larger than life precisely because they are so beautifully rooted in real life. We meet Jan Rogalla, Zygmunt’s father, the elixir man, closeted in his laboratory like a German José Arcadio Buendia, dreaming of inventing a universal panacea, half-asphyxiating his family with his vapour clouds and trying to sell the Russian Army a potion which prevents funk on the battle-field; the jailbird Eugen Lavrenz who knows a story for each one of his homeland’s ninety-two lakes; and Zygmunt’s blood brother, Conny Karrasch, who as a child was fond of sabotaging history plays; and Zygmunt’s Uncle Adam, digging for relics in the local peat bogs, who grows up to believe the homeland idea is ‘nothing but the sanctuary of arrogance’, and whose transformation, after the war, into an unlikely recruit to the ranks of nostalgia is one of the book’s few unconvincing notes. (Another is the too-coincidental chapter in which Conny discovers the racially impure past of a local Nazi by bumping into his long-lost brother at a horse fair.)
The homeland of The Heritage is called Masuria, and is made as real to us, in these pages, as Grass’s Kashubia. Good news, incidentally, for all fans of that marvellous trinity of pagan gods, Perkunos, Pikollos and Potrimpos: having presided over the outrageous comedy of Grass’s Danzig novels, they have now turned up in Lenz’s pages, to preside over wedding rituals in which people’s shoes are hidden but vast numbers of hats are brought out and displayed, in which train-loads of Polish geese are dive-bombed by the Luftwaffe, and a vest made from the hair of a hound called Hoggo is capable of warning its wearer of imminent danger, because all the hair stands up on end. It’s true to say that the prevailing mood of The Heritage is more sombre than Grass ever gets, however. Which is not to say it’s less memorable: I defy anyone who reads the description of Lucknow in the last, dark days of the Second World War to get it out of their heads: ‘The horses bucked and sank knee-deep into the drifts … One wagon after another lurched off the road … People were pinned underneath, loads landed in the snow … the cracking of whips was drowned out by shouts … Ah, all those losses, that long trail of ruins and lost possessions! You could trace the fortunes of the refugees by the goods they left behind.’
I see that the English-language edition has been ‘shortened with the co-operation of the author’; perhaps this accounts for the occasional jerkiness of the story-line, and for certain unsolved mysteries, such as why Zygmunt calls Conny ‘the great Konrad Karrasch’ without ever really justifying the epithet. It seems a shame to have gone at this book with scissors; it feels like being in a museum from which some of the exhibits have been arbitrarily removed.
The book has survived the surgery, however. It remains a genuinely fabulous tale, another demonstration of the fact that the fable is now the central, the most vital form in Western literature; and it should be read by anyone who takes pleasure in entering a world so beautifully and completely realized that, for all its apparent alienness, it rapidly becomes our own.
In Berlin, they even exhibit walls in the museums. In East Berlin’s Pergamum Museum, the astonished visitor is faced with huge Roman triumphal arches and a vast segment of the walls of Babylon, containing the blue-and-gold-tiled Ishtar Gate. Walls and gates: antiquity prefiguring the city’s partitioned present. Berlin wears German history in the form of a concrete and wire scar, ‘the only structure on earth,’ as Peter Schneider says, ‘apart from the Great Wall of China, that can be seen from the moon with the naked eye.’
I was told, in West Berlin, the story of the couple who got divorced and decided, instead of selling the marital home and moving to new addresses, that they would build a wall. The house was sliced in two from top to bottom and the couple still live in it, on either side of the new partition, more or less ignoring each other’s existence. Berliners, it seems, like telling each other parables of the city and swearing that they are true stories. Mr Schneider’s book The Wall Jumper is full of such truths.
The Wall Jumper is described on its title page as a novel. If it is a novel, it is trying very hard not to look like one. It purports to be an account by a West Berlin writer, an anonymous ‘I’ whom it is impossible not to identify with Peter Schneider, of his attempt to write a novel about the Berlin Wall; of his relationship with and vision of the divided city in which he has lived for twenty years; and of his friendships with three East Berliners, two of whom, Robert and Lena, now live in the West, while the third, Pommerer, is still in the East. It is a book about the invisible walls as well as visible ones: ‘It will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads,’ Schneider writes, ‘than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.’
Robert and Pommerer tell the nameless narrator a number of ‘Wall stories’. About Kabe, who jumped the Wall fifteen times, apparently for no reason except that, like Everest, it was there: ‘Sometimes it’s so quiet in the apartment and so grey and cloudy outside and nothing’s happening and I think to myself: Hey, let’s go and jump the Wall again.’ About the three moviegoers, Lutz and the two Willys, who jumped the Wall to see Western movies and then jumped back East again after the show. About Michael Gartenschläger, who found a way to dismantle the robot mines he called his ‘22,000 comrades’. These stories are marvellous, balanced between the mythic and the plausible, boundary-walking tales that create, in very few words, the unreal reality of Berlin.
Schneider is excellent, too, at describing ‘the Wall in our heads’. To East Berliners, even those settled in the West, like Robert and Lena, everything on both sides of the Wall seems ‘pre-programmed, monitored, controlled’. A demonstration in the streets, an ice-hockey game between the USA and the Soviet Union, newscasts about Afghanistan, all prove the point. Lena also hates irony. It seems to her to be a kind of trick.
But Schneider is nothing if not even-handed, and he analyses his own ‘delusion’ as well as his friends’. His Western belief in spontaneity, personal initiative, free choice is, as he knows, no more or less real than the beliefs of Robert and Lena. This even-handedness is vital; it is what prevents The Wall Jumper from turning into a mere tract.
Perhaps the best things in the book are Schnei
The trouble with The Wall Jumper is that Peter Schneider will not let it take off. He can describe, he can analyse, he can evoke place, he can create mythic images and credible characters; but he scarcely ever lets the fiction rip. The result is a maddening book: maddening because of the hints it contains of the book it might have been. The narrator tells us at one point that he thinks he has found the story he is looking for, the story of a boundary-walker, a ‘man who feels at home only on the border.’ And he goes on: ‘If the philosopher is right that a joke is always an epitaph for a feeling that has died, the boundary-walker’s story must turn out to be a comedy.’ I wish we had had that story. There’s not much comedy in The Wall Jumper, although there is the odd good, bleak gag (‘You know the Russian formula for concrete: a third cement, a third sand, a third microphone.’) And we never really get the boundary-walker’s tale.
So, finally, The Wall Jumper remains unsatisfying, in spite of all the good things it contains. The casual, random tone, the distrust of the narrative, undermines all the intelligence, all the image-making, all the evocative anecdotes. I was, however, pleased to learn that even after the East German authorities had banned all sports that might lead to border crossing—scuba diving, ballooning, etc.—the human impulse to rise to such challenges has resulted in the availability of excellently improvised, homemade diving masks.
Of all the opposed pairs of ideas by which human beings have sought to understand themselves, perhaps the oldest and deepest-rooted are the eternally warring myths of stasis and of metamorphosis. Stasis, the dream of eternity, of a fixed order in human affairs, is the favoured myth of tyrants; metamorphosis, the knowledge that nothing holds its form, is the driving force of art.
We do not know why Augustus Caesar banished Ovid to a lifetime of bitter exile in Tomis on the shores of the Black Sea, but the destruction of the great author of the Metamorphoses by the Emperor-God can be seen as one battle in the war of the myths for which they stood. It is one of the great paradoxes of this war that the Sword wins almost all the battles, but the Pen eventually rewrites all these victories as defeats. Which is not, of course, much consolation for the author in the ruin of his life; not even when, like Ovid, he is proud and defiant enough to end his masterpiece with the words:
But through this Work
I will live on and
lift myself high above the stars
and my Name
will be Indestructible.
Christoph Ransmayr’s The Last World is a reimagining of the smashing of Ovid, a parable of the ability of art to survive the breaking of the artist. It takes place in a hybrid time in which the Empire of the Caesars holds sway over a rusting iron city visited by travelling movie projectionists and the occasional clattering bus. The city, de-Latinized, has changed from Tomis to Tomi, and its people are dirt-poor, often brutal peasants leading narrow, violent lives. But they are also figures from the legends around which Ovid wove his Metamorphoses. Arachne and Echo are here; Tereus is the local butcher, and the bloody story of his rape and mutilation of his sister-in-law Philomela is re-enacted in Tomi’s mean streets.
Ransmayr’s time-jumbling may seem excessively tricksy to some readers, but it’s no more than a literary version of the common theatrical device of playing the classics in modern dress. Ransmayr is suggesting that we live in a debased, rotting, rusting time (a time after the death of art, perhaps); a time in which the only possibilities that remain to us are these harshly unpoetic shreds of old poetic glories. Like the citizens of Tomi, we are the rotten echoes of our pasts. Even our stories can only be crude effigies of the great works of long ago.
A young Roman, Cotta, comes to Tomi in search of Ovid. In Ransmayr’s version, the poet is banished because he begins a public oration, standing in front of a ‘bouquet of microphones’, by omitting the usual verbal genuflections to the Emperor, and simply saying ‘Citizens of Rome’. This Ovid is an accidental democrat, who responds to his banishment by burning his masterpiece, the Metamorphoses. (The ‘real’ Ovid probably did burn his book, but it wasn’t the only copy.) Ransmayr calls him throughout by his surname, Naso, and suggests that this was a nickname given him on account of his big nose, thus placing him in a long tradition of big-nosed tragic (and comic) heroes including Cyrano and Pinocchio. But the poet remains off-stage throughout the novel except for one brief, phantom appearance. Cotta finds only his traces, the marks he has left upon his rock-hard, barren world of exile and defeat.
Cotta is a young dissident, one of a group known as fugitives of the state, who hopes to rediscover the Metamorphoses, which is, for him, the ultimate dissident work. He finds no book, but discovers its imprint on everyone he meets. One of Tomi’s inhabitants remembers all Naso’s stories of transformations of living beings into stones; another recalls only his visions of flight, of people turning into birds. The travelling projectionist shows movies in which more Ovidian tales are recounted. And the very lives of the people, too, have been infected by the great book. The Fama of this story is not the Ovidian goddess of rumours, but she is an incessant gossip, and her son Battus does turn, one day, to stone, just like the shepherd of that name in the Metamorphoses who could not keep Mercury’s secrets.
Ransmayr’s book is distinguished by the lyricism with which it explores the world’s ugliness, but dissatisfactions creep in. The trouble with his method is that the reader works out what’s going on long before the protagonist, Cotta; so that when at length Cotta understands that Naso has transformed ‘this barren, craggy coast … into his coast, these barbarians … into his characters’, and thus gained his immortality, you can’t help being irritated that it’s taken him so long to come up with so little.
Behind The Last World there stands a far greater work of literature; behind Christoph Ransmayr, a fine novelist, there stands one of the most important figures in the whole of literature. Too much of the power of this novel is borrowed; too much depends on the intimate network of allusions and references that connect the two works. (There’s a twenty-five-page ‘Ovidian repertory’ at the back of the book to help non-classical readers pick some of these up.) This web becomes a trap; it ties down the characters and prevents them from coming fully to life. It is a brilliantly clever artifice, and full of the pain of rejected art, but it is more stone than bird.
As for Ransmayr’s vision of art conquering defeat by remaking the world in its own image, one can celebrate its optimism, while continuing to feel more concerned about Publius Ovidius Naso, banished from his own people, buried by a strange sea in an unknown grave. Art can look after itself. Artists, even the highest and finest of all, can be crushed effortlessly at any old tyrant’s whim.
MAURICE SENDAK AND WILHELM GRIMM
In 1816, Wilhelm Grimm wrote a most unusual letter of condolence to a young girl whose mother had just died. It begins with a lush Romantic passage suggesting that it is easier for flowers, floating down a stream, to ‘kiss’, or for birds to fly over mountains to meet each other, than it is for human beings to come together. ‘But
The subject of the story is death: death as an ever-present fact of life. Of the two central characters to whom we are introduced at the start, one, the mother, is a widow, while the other, the daughter, is the sole survivor of many children, who has only survived, or so her mother believes, because she has a guardian angel. They live—where else?—in a village at the edge of the forest; and death is approaching them in the form of a war: clouds of smoke, cannon fire, wicked men. Not knowing how to save her daughter, the mother sends her into the forest with a piece of cake. ‘Wait three days and come home; God in his mercy will show you the way.’ But God seems not to oblige, and the little girl gets terribly lost.
At length, however, she comes upon a small house, in which she is cared for by St Joseph and by her guardian angel, who is a little girl just like herself, only with blonde hair. And after three days the guardian angel guides her back through the forest to her village, but not before St Joseph has given her a rosebud and a promise: ‘When this blooms, you will be with me again.’ She finds the village much changed, and her mother grown ancient; for in the world outside the forest, thirty years have passed in the three days between her entry into the forest (her ‘death’) and her return (or ‘resurrection’). That night, the mother and daughter die together in their sleep, ‘and between them lay St Joseph’s rose in full bloom.’ It is a part of the small miracle of this story that death becomes a happy ending, an act or pact of love.
Other author's books:
- Midnight's ChildrenThe Satanic VersesShameJoseph Anton: A MemoirLuka and the Fire of LifeStep Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002The Enchantress of FlorenceEast, West: Stories
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