A Ghost Story
Alexander Pechmann’s book is a journey to 1920s London: a world of clairvoyants, opium-smoking princesses and Chinese drug lords.
By Holger Moos
For all those who don’t feel like reading yet another contemporary German novel that is set in Berlin and/or traces the psycho-social issues of our contemporaries, what could be better than getting away from this sometimes narrow-minded world in Alexander Pechmann’s novel Die Nebelkrähe [The Hooded Crow]?
The book takes readers to another time, another country, but rather than indulging in escapism, it asks the big questions. And while based on a true story, it goes far beyond the reality that can be seen and told, like any good novel, and refuses to provide unequivocal, and thus false, answers.
messages from the beyondRight from the start, readers find themselves in the world of Peter Vane, a young world war veteran who is now studying mathematics. It is no accident that his name is a homophone for vain. He is haunted by his experiences at the front lines of World War I. In dreams and hallucinations, his comrade in arms Finley appears to him, a man Vane lost track of after Finley was stretchered off the battlefield with a mangled hand. Enquiries after the end of the war have remained unsuccessful. Pechmann subsequently refuses to make Vane’s post-traumatic stress disorder a subject of discussion – after all, the term didn’t even exist back then. Instead, the author decides to go down a different route:
Finley had given Vane the mysterious daguerreotype of a girl. Now Vane keeps hearing a girl’s voice whispering a name to him: Lily. Shaken, he is soon introduced to the world of parapsychology by a fellow student; they visit the London Spiritualist Alliance, a society for the study of parapsychological phenomena. Vane ends up attending seances with a well-known medium named Hester Dowden, an Irishwoman who helps him communicate with a ghost: none other than Oscar Wilde himself.
Vane, the mathematician, remains doubtful about the presumed hocus-pocus. Yet despite his scepticism, he is strongly attracted to a glamorous young woman named Dolly who not only chauffeurs him to his seances but also takes him along on side trips to see drug lord Brilliant (Billy) Chang and stock up on her supply. She turns out to be Dorothy Wilde, one of the writer’s nieces.
The gift of illusionSubsequent events lead the two of them to Mary Mabel Cosgrove aka Princess Chan Toon aka Princess Arakan. Aside from being an opium addict, she also spins them a yarn about an allegedly unpublished work by Oscar Wilde. What’s more, she establishes an unexpected connection with Finley, Vane’s missing comrade in arms.
Alexander Pechmann is an expert in English literature of the 19th and early 20th century. Using the records of Hester Dowden, an actual historical character whose writings mention receiving messages from Oscar Wilde as well as the presence of a “Mr. V”, he paints a wild, atmospherically convincing story. As gripping as a ghost story, the novel is enriched with contemplations on science and its limits as well as on truth, illusion and lies – a complex balancing act that Dolly sums up as follows: “If illusion gives us something that reality can’t, it is a gift we should be grateful for.” A remark that likely would have appealed to Oscar Wilde’s ghost as well.
echmann, Alexander: Die Nebelkrähe
Göttingen: Steidl, 2019. 176 S.