From Theresienstadt to Santa Teresa: The Inexpressible in the Last Novels of W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño

Tr@nsit Online

The designation “last novel” has a different meaning for Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald and for 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. That difference stems from the extent of the author’s personal awareness of what was coming.

From Theresienstadt to Santa Teresa: The Inexpressible in the Last Novels of W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño

Austerlitz was published in 2001; in December of the same year the author, aged 57, died suddenly in a car accident. Bolaño, on the other hand, suffered from liver failure and had grown accustomed to living with the notion of “the increasing likelihood of his imminent death” (as Ignacio Echevaria has put it). The progress of 2666, Bolaño’s ambitious macro-novel, coincided with the progress of the disease. As he neared the top of the liver transplant waiting list, he died in July 2003, aged 50. The novel was published posthumously a year later.

Consciously or not, nearing the end of their lives both authors, a German who had long lived in England and a Chilean who spent his youth in Mexico and then moved to Spain, felt that they should go straight to the “heart of darkness” in their next work. In the middle of the 1990s, when each of the two had already achieved considerable literary recognition and as the end of 20th century drew near, they took up subjects with a link to mass violence and death and created works of dark gravity which obsessively circle around a kind of black hole that gradually sucks in the characters and the readers. Both writers had to face the problem of the unrepresentable/inexpressible, of the impossible witness and of denied salvation.

Yet the ethical and narrative challenges facing Sebald and Bolaño were different. Sebald was provoked by stories of Jewish children saved just before the outbreak of the Second World War as part of the so-called Kindertransport. As a German and an academic, he was well aware that every attempt to write on the Holocaust, especially fiction, is a perilous task. How can one write a novel that sits between Adorno’s still-reverberating claim that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric and the appropriation of the theme by the mass media? And how can one achieve a genuine voice in the late 20th and early 21st century, that invisible limit when the generation of death camp survivors thins and, on the other hand, a brave new millennium looms, bearing collective traumas of its own? But if rights to the extreme traumatic experience are in question, what is left for a contemporary narrator? Sebald solves this problem by starting from the predominant invisibility of the Holocaust in the contemporary European landscape and everyday life, creating a parable about the crucial relationship between what we remember and what we see.

His protagonist, Austerlitz, is an art historian, preparing a major work on modern architecture which he never manages to finish. His obsession with vast European railway stations slowly brings back the suppressed memory of his travel on a Kindertransport train from Prague to London when he was just four years old. Saved from the disaster, he was brought up by a devout Methodist foster family without any knowledge of his own past and origins. His blocked early memory causes a painful feeling of personal disintegration, undermining his capacity for accomplishment. Austerlitz travels as a lunatic through an empty Europe, where the most beautiful railway stations are not just architectural masterpieces but also silent memorials to the deportation – only he still doesn’t see this. And no one around him seems to see it. There are no innocent railway tracks on the continent. The narrative continues as a quest in search of his mother, lost in the “exemplary” camp of Terezín (Theresienstadt), and his father, traces of whom disappear in Paris during the war.

The narration is non-linear, full of digressions, insightful analyses of architectural projects, silent contemplations of buildings and excavations, and trainspotting. But to convey the idea of the impossible witness, Sebald invents a special indirect first person narrative form. Austerlitz’s voice, his musings and confessions are “framed” by the voice of an unnamed narrator, Sebald’s alter ego in the book. Thus “said Austerlitz” becomes a repetitive refrain, a compositional marker in the text which otherwise has no chapters or even paragraphs. In the second half of the book, when Austerlitz descends into the bleak past of deportation and death camps, other voices are heard through his, and at one point we reach a triple construction: “so Vera recollected, said Austerlitz, Maximilian would tell the tale…” The mother’s voice remains unheard.

In spite of the high poeticism of the novel, its protagonist could be read also as a sort of Sherlock Holmes – a gifted observer, a detective of his own life who nevertheless has limited expertise, a strange autistic intelligence, as if from another world. He knows in detail the construction and ornamentation of dozens of buildings all over Europe but is ignorant about the Jewish cemetery in his own home’s backyard.

The great achievement of Sebald’s book is how it manages to convey the oblivion, the erasure, the painful absence of an unknown thing that is formative for the protagonist – and for the world. The abyss, the ‘unbearable lightness of being’ are captured before the secret is revealed in the middle of the book. The feeling of emptiness and of a void unfolds in some of the most crowded public spaces in various European cities. As if we, the mindless Europeans of today, are the ghosts.

This haunting effect of Sebald’s prose is also achieved, among other means, through a subtle intertextuality. For example, the presence of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu behind the text can be felt from the very beginning, in the waiting room of the Antwerp station, where the narrator meets Austerlitz for the first time. The waiting room is called Salle des pas perdus.

Subtle allusions are also made to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: the perfect round composition of the book, or the important figures of the messengers – those strange, shabby foreigners who prompt a sudden revelation and personal change.

For Austerlitz, this epiphany happens at the Liverpool Street Station in London. The accidental angel is a thin man in a snow-white turban and worn-out porter’s uniform sweeping rubbish from the platform. Austerlitz unconsciously follows him and finds himself in another space and time. The sublime sweeper disappears behind a curtain and Austerlitz enters the abandoned Ladies’ Waiting Room, which would be demolished only a few days later. Here waits his former self, the child he was when he first came to England with the Kindertransport. “I felt something rending within me, and a sense of shame and sorrow, or perhaps something quite different, something inexpressible because we have no words for it, just as I had no words all those years ago…”

This supremely genuine and emotional scene, in which he manages to catch a glimpse of the inexpressible, is nevertheless carefully staged. It is narrated in a theatrical mode: the heavy curtain is drawn and Austerlitz feels “like an actor who, upon making his entrance, has completely and irrevocably forgotten not only the lines he knew by heart but the very part he has so often played.” And a page later, the shadow of Samuel Beckett emerges for an instant, through the phrase “the endgame would be played.”

This scene in the very middle of the novel is the culmination of an involuntary memory whose work is anarchic, sensitive, unpredictable, triggered by chance and expressed in scattered images, sounds, “scraps of memory”. It is genuinely captivating and at the same time evokes the precious spirits of literary predecessors. From there, the effort of rationalization and investigation begins. And the book begins to read other books, you might say. Central to the second part is Austerlitz’s painful reading of the H.G. Adler volume on the Theresienstadt ghetto, fragments of which are re-narrated in such a way that the documentary starts to prevail over the fictional.

Thus the novel explores both traumatic involuntary memory and post-memory: the memory of people today, which is necessarily indirect, culturally mediated and pre-shaped. Austerlitz becomes a cultural hero of the dramatic revelation, because of but also in spite of all the cultural baggage that we carry throughout our lives.

Roberto Bolaño, for his part, became obsessed by a disaster that began in 1993, descriptions, analyses and interpretations of which would only appear later, many of them prompted by his novel. The most capacious of the five novels that make up 2666, “The Part about the Crimes”, is based on real events: more than a thousand cases of rape, torture and murder of young women in the vicinity of Ciudad Juárez, on the US-Mexican border. Femicide or feminicide, as this could be qualified (a term in progress, so to speak, designating gender-based murders involving sexual violence), has become part of everyday life to such an extent that the cases are not investigated but simply filed by the police and noted (if at all) on the last pages of yellow press newspapers. Initial suspicions of a serial killer, or possibly two, develop into a more complex picture of how the social contract in this rapidly growing industrial city is falling apart. A combination of organized crime, drug trade, ruthless machismo and the corruption (or sheer indifference) of the authorities unleashes hidden demons and opens the doors to a dictatorship of everyday cruelty, sadism and cynicism. Any family quarrel, any jealous scandal or break-up could end in a deadly fashion. Any man could become a killer and any woman a victim. And Santa Teresa (Bolaño’s fictional version of Ciudad Juárez) seems to encompass the whole world. The core of 2666 is an endless forensic description of corpses, more than 200 pages of women’s dead bodies, discovered one by one. The novel turns into a morgue, the reader into a coroner. After reading these pages one could ask whether sex after Santa Teresa isn’t barbaric.

A whole radical rethinking of sexuality in Bolaño’s work could be traced from the cheerful, flamboyant promiscuity of The Savage Detectives to the darkest side of desire in 2666. But this is another topic.

To cross the desert (his Santa Teresa has been slightly relocated, to the Sonoran desert) Bolaño needs a writer. His capacious novel is built of 5 separate novels, or parts, as he calls them. Though loosely connected, they are framed by the figure of Benno von Archimboldi, a post-war German writer, who fought on the Eastern front, then started to publish a number of enigmatic, compelling novels while choosing to hide behind an absurd pseudonym and live fully incognito. This was a rule he never broke, even when nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. From the very beginning, he hovers over the novel as a kind of deus absconditus (hidden god) and comes to light in the last novel, “The Part About Archimboldi”.

Just like Austerlitz, Archimboldi is not merely a name: it is a password, a time machine, a world in itself. Hans Reiter, a village boy, later adopts the name of a Renaissance painter almost by chance, before having seen any of his paintings. Reiter does this as a combination of artistic gesture and self-defense, not because he is trying to cover up war crimes. Yet the reader comes to see his innocent guilt towards the end of the book. Meanwhile, Bolaño consciously leaves a shadow of doubt with regards to the author’s past. The possible connections between writing and dictatorship form a question that permeates all Bolaño’s works.

But unlike Sebald (who has a whole interpolated essay on the name Austerlitz – from Napoleon to the real family name of Fred Astaire), Bolaño gives no explanations regarding Archimboldi. He leaves it just like that, to work almost subconsciously in the reader’s mind.

From Theresienstadt to Santa Teresa: The Inexpressible in the Last Novels of W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “The Earth”

In a broader sense, the allusion to Arcimboldo (as the painter is better known) is a conundrum, a puzzle, a test of our capacity to see beyond the visible. The potential this name has when it comes to 2666 as a whole could perhaps be best illustrated by “Earth” (1570) – one of Archimboldo’s composite portraits, part of his series “The Four Elements”. (By the way, this particular painting can now be seen in Vienna, in Akademie Galerie, as a prelude to “The Last Judgement” by Hieronymus Bosch.) “Earth” is a human portrait composed of mammals. This image is striking not just for the fusion of the human and the animalistic, with its tight squeezing together of skin and flesh of so many different sorts, but also with the mix of the domestic and the wild, of herbivores and predators. They all seem peacefully fused together, but a second glance reveals that the lion is depicted with an open mouth and the sheep next to him is just a fleece (both refer to the Habsburg dynasty, yet here the allegorical seems also quite literal). But most predatory in this composite face is the eye, which in fact is a wolf eating a mouse.

2666 is a composite novel, and reading it is like viewing an Arcimboldo painting, requiring a constant re-adjustment of the reader’s view, of the horizon of expectation. First, “The Part About the Critics” plays with the form of a cosmopolitan academic romance, which is also partly satire, and a masterly literary mystification. The second part, “The Part About Amalfitano”, is an existential novel of heroic failure against the backdrop of the desert university of Santa Teresa. Third, “The Part About Fate” is a noir whose protagonist is a black American journalist coming to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, who soon finds out that a darker sport is being practiced in the city.

Then, fourth, “The Part About the Crimes” goes directly into the eye of the beast with a ruthless forensic precision (ruthless also towards the reader). In every fragment we are confronted with bare death (to paraphrase Giorgio Agamben) – the next raped, strangled, burned female body, discarded at a dump, by the highway or in the desert. Victims of an undeclared war, of an abrupt collapse of civilization against which no place in the world has been insured, today less than ever.

Finally comes book five, “The Part About Archimboldi”, and both the text and the reader veer out of the desert and into the North Sea – the element of the young Hans Reiter (the future Archimboldi). The forensic hyperrealism of the previous part is followed by a narrative that begins like a tribute to (and parody of) the South American tradition of magical realism, which will then be killed on the Eastern front. This is where we learn of Archimboldi’s epiphany in a deserted Ukrainian village, where he finds and reads the diary of a Soviet Jew, possibly already dead. The diary is about its author’s adventures in Siberia and travels to the Far North, Stalin’s purges and a science fiction writer.

So it turns out that in order to endure all those pages of corpses, with their merciless effect of bare reality, the rest of the novel summons all of fiction’s possible resources. Various methods of world creation were needed so that we would be able to bear the world’s destruction in the nightmarish fourth part. Or, so that we could see how thin the boundary is and how close hell could be. Or (in keeping with the order of the novels) so that the permanent war against women, fought in many places at many times, comes before the Second World War.

A final point: both Austerlitz and 2666 suggest a global expansion of trauma. One of the final enigmatic images of Austerlitz is the enormous abyss of an abandoned South African diamond mine as contemplated by a descendant of European Jews who was saved by chance from the Holocaust: “The chasm into which no ray of light could penetrate was Jacobson’s image of the vanished past of his family and his people which, as he knows, can never be brought up from those depths again”. So the negative memorial to disaster could be anywhere; the chasm is the world.

Bolaño’s “The Part About the Crimes” concludes abruptly, uniting in one and the same paragraph the last murder case of 1997 and a celebration of the Christmas holidays. Beside the usual festivities, “some of these streets were completely dark, like black holes”. It seems it doesn’t matter if the coming New Year is 1998 or some far away, anti-utopian, devilish 2666. The apocalypse is already here, next door. On the last page, an old Archimboldi boards a plane to Mexico. The writer should be where the pain is.

Bilyana Kourtasheva is a postdoctoral researcher in theory and history of literature at the New Bulgarian University, Sofia, and a former Krzysztof Michalski Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM.

© Author / Transit Online