Thursday, March 18, 2010

NYRB Challenge #24: Soul of Wood. . .

Soul of Wood by Jakov Lind, translated by Ralph Manheim, consists of the title novella and six other short stories all of which share the author's unique style of nervously energetic prose, balanced between the comic and the nightmarish. The writing disturbs because the background to these stories is the Second World War and the Holocaust, and yet Death has a cleverly macabre sense of humour. And even in the midst of war and tragedy - or perhaps because of it - opportunists, sadists, and hypocrites are flourishing.

And so we read stories such as "Journey Through the Night" where a traveller on a train to Paris discovers his fellow passenger is a cannibal who makes a convincing argument as to why he should willingly become his next meal . Or "The Judgement" in which a convicted murderer waiting for his execution uses his last request to see his father in the hopes that he can allow himself one last victim. My favourite in the collection is the quirky "The Window", in which an unhappy man makes a strange bargain with the neighbour he has been watching in the apartment window across the street. They agree to meet in a bar but the man turns out to be someone rather unusual. How can you resist a story with this opening sentence: "When her behind left him cold he knew it was all up with love."

The title novella is a disturbing tale about Wohlbrecht, a man with a wooden leg, who hides a disabled Jewish child in a secluded cabin after his parents have been sent to a concentration camp. Wohlbrecht does it out of greed but when he fails to sell the parents' apartment for his expected price, he ends up in an asylum spying on doctors giving lethal injections to patients. After the war, in order to ingratiate themselves with the Allies and avoid imprisonment, he becomes part of a race to find the boy and take the credit for his survival. But what has happened to the boy in the meantime? As in many of the other stories, the narrative conjures up mad, almost mythological hallucinations, and tosses them into a horrific history that unnerves while it fascinates.

I am very glad to have been introduced to the writing of Jakov Lind whose own life story is as extraordinary as anything he has written. He was born in Vienna into a Jewish family, escaped to Holland during the war where he changed his name and then ended up back in Germany working as a courier for a Nazi shipping department. The introduction quotes Lind on this incredible dual identity:

As Jan Gerrit Overbeek, I felt safe for the first time. It is crazy, walking around freely when one really should be sitting in a concentration camp. Crazy, perhaps, but a craziness that made me content, and happy.

Open Letter Press has recently published two novels by Jakov Lind in translation. I have Landscape in Concrete already on my shelves and I will be getting a copy of Ergo as well. Lind is definitely a unique and talented writer that I want to read more of.

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