Educational tours into impermanence
In this extraordinarily crafted book, Judith Schalansky turns to lost things and impermanence, telling stories about loss, phantom pain, the sunken, the extinct.
By Holger Moos
Naturally, Judith Schalansky’s latest work Verzeichnis einiger Verluste [Inventory of a number of losses] is not an account with any aspirations to completeness. How could it be, given that the world of things past is much larger and more unfamiliar than the world of all that currently exists. We only ever see bits and pieces, even in the present, and especially in the past. In this, Schalansky is humbler than other writers, who have often penned monumental works to capture the past: Think of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries or Walter Kempowski’s collective diary Swansong.
In an illuminating preface that is well worth reading, Schalansky lays out the theoretical framework for the stories that follow. She believes that it takes a lifetime to get used to being among those who are left: “Ultimately, everything that is still here is simply what’s left over.” Even worse: “Every object [is] invariably already garbage”, and the earth “a heap of rubble of a bygone future.”
Inventory of individual lossesSchalansky believes that being able to forget is at least as important as remembering. For without forgetting, we are caught in the “echo chamber” of our memories – like “that Californian woman who can bring to mind every single day since 5 February 1980 without the use of any mnemonics” Even if, similar to the ark, every archive strives for completeness, ordering the past is invariably an even more important principle of memory. Preservation or recollection without the ordering, structuring force of forgetting, Schalansky explains, is doomed to be meaningless.
It is at this very point that the link between memory and power comes into play. For in any society, in particular totalitarian ones, those in power strive to dictate the interpretation of the past – and thus of remembering and forgetting –, true to the maxim: “Those who want to control the future must eradicate the past.” A striking example are book burnings, which mankind has seen multiple times throughout its history. In preserving what’s been lost, Schalansky, of course, has something else in mind; what matters to her is not so much interpreting the past but making us aware of it. Gaps, in particular, are capable of fuelling the imagination. Ultimately, readers are left with a suspicion that the difference between presence and absence may well be marginal.
The 12 pieces following the preface differ greatly with regards to both content and form. They’re an inventory of individual losses. At times, they lead us far away from the lost item itself. Among the starting points of Schalansky’s literary exploratory tours are the extinct Caspian tiger, a sunken pacific atoll, Sappho’s love songs, Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “The Port of Greifswald”, lost in a fire, the destroyed encyclopaedic universe of an eccentric hermit in Ticino and the torn-down Palace of the Republic in Berlin.
“We only know how to dance”The arts sections are full of praise. The book made it onto public broadcaster SWR’s top list for December, the jury praising the pieces as “literary loss accounts, world and self explorations”. In the ZEIT newspaper, Juliane Liebert calls the book a “cabinet of curiosities of things absent”, and to Andrea Köhler of Neue Zürcher Zeitung NZZ newspaper, it is “lament, memory store and testament all at once”. Andreas Platthaus of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung FAZ newspaper was also impressed by its design and structure: While the texts are very heterogeneous, they all have the same length, namely 16 pages.
The ZEIT attests Schalansky an old-fashioned, somewhat brittle undertone that condenses the world and then unfurls it again in long, artfully interleaved sentences. Occasionally, this mannerism makes reading some of the pieces a little challenging. Here and there, dark matter turns into a bit too much dark murmuring. Nevertheless, this beautifully crafted book allows us to undertake unique educational tours into impermanence. At one point, Schalansky imagines paradise, in the form of the sunken atoll of Tuanaki, whose people describe themselves as follows: “We don’t know how to kill. We only know how to dance.”
Schalansky, Judith: Verzeichnis einiger Verluste
Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2018. 252 S.
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