SEVENTH STORY: The only page Ferdinand reads in the morning paper is that which his wife leaves open on the kitchen table before she goes to work. Naturally, he could chose to read any other page. Being the interested autodidact that he is, one might well expect him to be more selective about the whole business. What seems like mere passivity, though, in fact holds a purpose. “The jointly read page is the starting point of their evening conversation”, so the narrator tells us, and can we but be soothed by the image of the long-married couple, the school caretaker and the nurse that cares for the elderly, subtly taking care of their own relationship by igniting conversation?
Looking at “Chairs and Sentences” as if it were an image, this humble effort to connect is my punctum, as Roland Barthes called the contingent subjective focal point that arises in viewing a photograph. A poignant detail, perhaps imperceptible to anyone else, that stings me, pricks me, bruises me, even. The first reading of this sentence left me stirred. I thought I had finally come upon a real point of human connection amongst all the other stories that foreshadowed social links and emotional ties only to annihilate them at once.
FIRST STORY: Leopold bakes Palatschinken – which to a German sounds like “flat ham” if one doesn’t know how to say “pancake” in Austrian dialect – for his dog, who isn’t there. He follows Maria’s rules despite her absence. Imagines what he could have said to Tanja but never did. EIGHTH STORY: Leopold is renounced by his sister Elsbeth for inheriting the watch she so wanted. Each is trapped in a hopeless loneliness, nonetheless they part and remain parted. SECOND STORY: Simon first cheated on Siri with Lisa, and now vice versa. Siri and Simon seperate, Siri and her body seperate. Her legs won’t do as they are told. THIRD STORY: Toni the taxi driver frequents sex clubs on his own until he’s too ashamed and quits. FORTH STORY: Herta’s husband Karl died. On a blind date with Toni, she just observes him from afar and leaves. FIFTH STORY: Hermine’s husband Hermann died. She tries to grow tomatoes on his grave. SIXTH STORY: Franz remembers his youth, yet all its strong figures have vanished. First God and then his Grandfather. His wife Beate is just a person who lives in the same house.
The interconnectedness of the characters and their personal topographies in The Dog’s Place spans a net across all eight stories. Contrary to the logical bond this could effect, however, someone neatly cut through most of the connecting threads, leaving us with nothing but a few nodes and plenty of gaping holes. The Dog’s Place plays a dodgy trick on us, fobs us to believe what appears likely: that a dog’s place requires not only the place, but the dog, too. But it deftly does away with that common error, the notion that space is meant to be filled with something. Almost entirely devoid of drama, we are instead shown the characters’ inheritance of emptiness, death or loss. Their will to remedy is either weak or wanting, they might not even perceive their isolation as somehow deficient. It is what it is, and new days of the same kind keep rolling around.
Amidst these dreary scenes, Ferdinand disturbs the pattern. He reads to create common ground with Margit, to regularly re-establish a connection that would uphold their relationship. His children may have left, but Ferdinand has not been abandoned or left alone, neither is he a widower or out of work. I was – sarcasm unintended – comparatively optimistic about the set-up, indeed. Yet my punctum did not persist.
For though Ferdinand has learned to speak ‘proper’ German against the backdrop of a linguistically closed-off community and knows basic expressions in nine languages at that, he lacks an appreciative environment to act out his aptitude. He is in the truly unfortunate position of being a multi-lingual enthusiast of foreign cultures in a society that responds to immigration with apprehensive nationalism. Ferdinand is thusly caught in a double bind of language discrimitation: the knowledge of a foreign language is impressive, but only if it is Western, which by definition is fine and sophisticated. From that one is supposedly to infer that Balkan or Slavic languages are barbarian in contrast, a set-back from the progress humanity has made in aligning everything strange with a random set of Western cultural values.
Ferdinand adjusts to the discrimination by hiding both the material and cognitive traces that could expose his neutral openness. His experience has taught him not to dissent from prevailing opinions even if they are conflictive with his own. He has also learned that, should an attempt to speak his mind cause irritation, honesty can safely be cloaked with honesty. An exit strategy he is, regrettably, also forced to use in his conversation with Margit. “I won’t get myself killed”, she responds to the suggestion to visit Russia or the Balkan Peninsula. And Ferdinand? Settles, yet again: “It was only a joke”.
The punctum was thereby upended – the promising idea of co(mmunica|nnec)tion remains virtual, alas! Nonetheless, the shadow of my first emotional reaction continued to haunt me. “Chairs and Sentences” teems with communicative potential, it’s as clear as day that what Ferdinand wants to say is too momentous to suppress. This impulse he shares with almost every character in the node-and-hole-net. SECOND STORY: To minimise the chance of dying unexpectedly, Siri keeps an extensive, ever-growing list with all imaginable causes of death. EIGHTH STORY: Elsbeth writes out her frustration and hatred for her brother and burns the paper in her stove to regain mental balance. THIRD STORY: Toni writes a letter to put an end to his solitude. Herta answers him. FOURTH STORY: Before Karl died, Herta secretly wrote “I want to travel, I want to get out …”, hid the piece of paper and stayed home with Karl, who liked it that way.
The same isolated characters use the same therapy to alleviate stress. Stress? Not through work, since few of them work hard, or at all. It is rather the pressure that builds up from words being unsaid, feelings not shared and views never articulated. “[E]ach normal human being”, as Daniel Everett aptly simplified in Language: The Cultural Tool, “has a brain, belongs to a community with values, and needs to communicate, and the confluence of these states results in language”. If the negotiation of your mode of existence in a community requires the use of language, then what happens when you are detached from said community? And what, in Ferdinand’s case, if your preferred language turns out to be inappropriate? The answer hidden between the lines of The Dog’s Place is that then the use of language, no matter if it fits the community values or not, assumes a compensating function. That in using language privately you may at least negotiate your existence for and with yourself. And maybe most importantly that the act of putting something into writing approximates to what is usually a social manifestation of individual identity.
Ferdinand, equally, silences himself in his social interactions and is able to reach an equilibrium only through writing. Though it may appear as if by that he falls in line with the other characters, there is one notable exception: His words are neither variations of an approaching doom nor are they cries for help or messages of hate to be destroyed. In addition to “putting away the sentences” and “world piece” – which would already satisfy the requirements for the psychological stress relief – he adds “ACCOMPLISH”. And there I’m stung again, the punctum is back.
Writing is not just a plain way to equalise pressure but serves the formulation of a goal. It practically demands the completion of the chair-sentence analogy, to re-do the xenophobic worker’s analysis of his employment situation: “Because the sentences are always never put away, I have work”.
Ferdinand’s therapeutic effort exceeds that of his co-characters since it doesn’t seem to simply lighten the symptoms of a painful resignation but in lieu concretises a task (Aufgabe statt Aufgabe, if you can be persuaded to indulge in the rare pleasure of a German pun). As far as the logic of the text is concerned, the challenge is a fitting one for the protagonist. He might be timid, but he behaves like a fully-fledged translator. The narration of the entire story, though not technically in his creative responsibility, is shown through his lense and therefore coloured by his perception. In view of this it is much easier to see that even in the most mundane situations he is already translating away. In equating the amphibian with the wool mouse to signify a cluster of dust, as well as in juxtaposing the Austrian with the German grade descriptions, Ferdinand translates between two languages that are seemingly similar but in fact require a great deal of mediation. Without being conscious of it, he is completely emerged in the process of cultural translation. With this as a starting point, it isn’t difficult to imagine him replacing dominant sentences with ones that more aptly reflect reality. An honourable, touching resolution. Worthy of a punctum.
Agatha Frischmuth is a 2nd-year PhD student in Comparative Literature at the Free University of Berlin. She also writes online fiction reviews for the New York Journal of Books and has published in Verfreundungseffekt.
This month our guest literary curator Jen Calleja is hosting a performance and exhibition presenting multiple translations of a short story by author Anna Weidenholzer in forms including sound, ceramics, textiles, video, sculpture, photography, text, and even tattoos and recipes. The exhibition is on display in the ACF gallery from Tuesday 13 – Wednesday 21 October. The performance event, featuring a reading by Anna Weidenholzer, is on 20 October. Book here.