Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Things As Not What They Seem" (on Aichinger's The Bound Man)

things as not what they seem

Ilse Aichinger The Bound Man and Other Stories, translated from the German by Eric Mosbacker (New York: The Noonday Press, 1956).

This past year the judges of The America Award for International Literature and I selected the Austrian writer Ilse Aichinger. Knowing of her advanced age, I had often checked on the internet to make sure that she was still living. But once the decision had been made, and we were preparing to announce the award, my assistant Pablo Capra, in attempting to obtain a picture of her, discovered of her death on November 11,. Sadly, we had to make another choice for that award.
       As a kind of memorial to her, I reread her small collection of stories, The Bound Man, published by The Noonday Press in 1956. There was only one copy available in the entire Los Angeles City Public Library system.

      These marvelous works are less “stories” than, in the manner of Kafka, parables and fables that often obliquely say something metaphorically rather than creating a realist narrative. The title story, for example, is about a man who awakens to discover that he has been bound with rope. A first he struggles to free himself, hardly believing that someone had intentionally tied him up in the manner in which they have: with the rope allowing his legs some free play, “and that round his body it was almost loose”; “His arms were tied to each other but not to his body, and had some free play too.”

     Finally he stands, and attempts to unknot the rope, but he cannot loosen it. Discovering he can walk, he goes forward, ultimately reaching a village where, to get enough money to eat, he advertises himself as “the bound man,” kneeling, standing up, jumping, and even turning cart-wheels for the spellbound audience.
     His fame grows, and eventually joins a circus where he becomes quite famous, particularly since he remains bound night and day, sleeping and performing. 
     Many of the other performers, however, want him to untie himself offstage, but he and the circus proprietor refuse that privilege, and some attempt to burn off or untie his rope, upon which they fired. His very identity depends now upon his lack of freedom. And despite his condition he has now learned to do spectacular things, including choking a caged wolf to death.
     The proprietor’s wife, however, is determined to free him, and when he about to kill another wolf, suddenly cuts his ropes. As the wolf comes toward him, he now unable to physically take on the wolf, and, instead, grabs a gun and shoots him, running off with both members of the crowd and circus-members at the chase. He escapes, but he is no longer a special being, and ultimately loses his memory of his previous history.
      This fable, of course, might be about any member of a totalitarian system, who despite the restrictions of the life is still able to do accomplish amazing things. Aichinger, herself a survivor of the Nazi invasion, might metaphorically be speaking of herself.
     “Story in a Mirror” is presented almost as a series of commands in which the reader is asked to imagine himself dead with ability to move backwards through life. Indeed the story of this imaginary being is told in reverse, from death to birth, similar in some respects to the Fitzgerald story, retold in David Fincher’s film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and just as in that tale the unwinding of life is almost the same in either direction.
     The lesser and more comic fable, “Moon Story” tells of a beautiful beauty queen, a girl so lovely that contest organizers want to proclaim her Miss Universe. But to do that, of course, they must at least pretend to look beyond earth for another contestant. In pretense to this award, they fly her and themselves to the moon, expecting, of course, no one to turn up and permitting them to award her the prize. But the plan backfires when the lovely Ophelia, sea-weed still clinging to her body, shows up. She is indeed more beautiful than the other, and being  lonely for so long is ready to travel to earth, leaving the earthling on the moon in her place.  
     The earth woman, however, refuses, but seeing how lonely and beautiful Ophelia really is, she renounces her title of Miss Universe and attempts suicide by jumping into a river. She is saved, but when asked why she has so acted, claims that it was because she is ugly. Once again, in this tale, reality is reversed.
     “Angel in the Night,” one of Aichinger’s most lovely stories, is about two sisters, the younger of whom rises early every morning and arrives places earlier than the elder, claiming to have seen things, such as marvelous angels, that her sister cannot. Indeed at one point, the elder sister, angered with her sibling’s imaginative claims, yells at her “They don’t exist! They don’t exist! You lied to me!” 
     Rather than argue against the elder, the younger remains quiet, submitting to her sister’s more literal and ordinary truth. Yet that night, the older sister realizes that in her denial she has destroyed something in her sister’s nature, and regrets her actions. In fact during a snowstorm she either dreams or actually does spot an angel, and when morning comes is ready to wake before her sister for a change and tell her what she has seen and felt. The sister, however, is not in her bed, and later find her outside beneath the new fallen snow.
      “Speech Under the Gallows,” one of the harshest works in this book, represents the words of a criminal about to hung who chastises his audience for their hypocritical piety. If nothing else, he argues, he knows what he is dying for, setting fires to their haystacks and stealing. 
      In these and other tales, Aichinger reveals worlds in reverse, showing us again and again that nothing is quite what it appears to be, suggesting that it is important to imagine another way to see everything.

Los Angeles, February 7, 2017