Eugen Ruge’s Cabo de Gata is a demonstration of observational precision
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“I will rely on those oscillations of the mind that we call memory,” says the nameless narrator toward the start of Cabo de Gata, Eugen Ruge’s second novel. The conceit of the novel is as simple as a grade-school composition, complete with the cliché-classic prompt:
What did you do on vacation?
“I remember,” the narrator answers, I remember… I remember…” the narrator answers, the way a child would answer, but with a child you wouldn’t expect 107 pages (in translation by Anthea Bell, who gave the English-speaking world our version of Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald, and whose rendering of Ruge’s German into limpid, flowing English I have tried to quote extensively) of perspicacity and wit to follow.
The narrator recounts when, not long after Germany’s reunification, stifled by his “regular, mechanical lifestyle” — not to mention his manipulative ex-girlfriend; his girlfriend’s daughter, who still thinks he’s her father; uneasy dreams of his recently deceased mother; and (worst of all) the scourge of yuppies overrunning Berlin’s cafes — he dropped everything in his life and searched for someplace “warm in winter, at the same time inexpensive, and preferably can be reached traveling by land.” He eventually settled on Cabo de Gata (“The Cape of the Cat”) a national park and a fishing village in Andalusia, on the southern coast of Spain:
Andalusia not only sounded strange and far away, like the names of all those places that lay out of reach behind the Iron Curtain; it was, I thought, a fairy-tale place, an invention — until I saw it on the weather map of that Spanish newspaper, and then, when I read in my travel guide that Cabo de Gata was “the last romantic fishing village” in Andalusia, where the boats, said the guide, were “still brought up out of the water by a hand winch.” When I read that in the national park of Cabo de Gata you already felt “a breath of Africa,” I realized that this was the place I had been looking for.
Cabo de Gata turns out to be cold in the winter, and its fishermen have long since abandoned hand winches. Still, the narrator finds the place enchanting. He haggles for room and board and stays for one hundred and twenty-three days. Other travelers — fellow disaffected men — arrive and depart. The locals are initially standoffish, but they grow accustomed to him, even warm. He walks. He plays billiards. He tries to write. He meets a cat.
And that’s it. You’ve heard this before, I’m sure: a lonely white man hangs out in a foreign place; a writer writes about writing; a small, cute animal allows someone to discover deep wells of feeling within himself. A superabundance of precise observations brings Cabo de Gata out of the realm of the commonplace. For example, here, the narrator has seen a limping woman who reminds him of his old civics teacher:
She chanted in just the same soporific tone of complaint as she walked — slowly, slowly — between our rows of desks, announcing the basic laws of the dialectical method — making the pauses in the words long enough for you to go to sleep — as she asked the fundamental philosophical question for the hundredth time.
Can. Pause. The world. Pause. Be. Pause. Perceived?
Perception of the world is at the center of Ruge’s project in this book. Many are clever observations, how tassels on a yuppie’s loafer leap “like dachshund puppies,” or how food always seems to taste best at its place of origin. But mainly, for Ruge, perception seems to hinge on finding the harmony in contradictions:
I remember smells only when I am smelling them.
…although I am not a Christian all at once I felt it was intolerable for [a crucifix] to be so shamelessly exploited.
…the more difficult and laborious it subsequently became to extricate myself from that entanglement, the stranger my urge to do so became, until I was possessed by a positive mania for giving notice.
I entertained the admittedly philosophical rather than scientific idea that what Heisenberg described on the nuclear plane (to wit, the incomprehensibility in principle of the subject) is a quality immanent in the material, and one that consequently, indeed inevitably, must be continued in the visible world: it was impossible for me to find the right place. I liked this realization, and indeed it actually cheered rather than alarmed me.
Many of these contradictions emerge from the conflict between the narrator’s deep skepticism and the tentative wisps of spirituality beginning to stir in him. In a more mawkish book, gorgeous Andalusia would be the mainspring of his schmaltzy awakening to transcendence. Not in Cabo de Gata. The narrator is already offended by the crucifixes in Berlin, and he retains his skepticism in Andalusia, even after his fateful encounter with the cat. Nevertheless, the sunrise on the Sierra Nevada makes him think it’s “entirely absurd, positively deranged, to doubt the existence of God.”
Then the cat appears. She’s red: the color of another cat — the corpse of one, at least — the narrator came upon en route to Cabo de Gata; the color of his mother’s hair. In his dreams, he had seen his mother resurrected, which leads him to feel, if not wholly believe, that the cat is his mother. This fiction he creates absorbs him totally, until he reaches what feels like an epiphany, one that can’t be said in a cogent way, “for the words in which I wrote it down later seemed to me a very poor paraphrase of that cat’s message, and the poverty of my words seemed to be a part of that message in itself.”
Cabo de Gata’s depth is belied by the simplicity of its form. Of course, its apparent lack of artifice (“I remember… I remember… I remember…”) is just an artifice of another kind, but one, that brings us nearer to life — which is the goal of art, as George Eliot said. Memory, after all, is its own kind of fiction. If one can, in fact, perceive the world, it would be primarily through memory — thus through fiction.
The narrator’s claims of authenticity also allow Ruge to dip his toes into tropes: dreams his narrator had, and sunrises he admired, and novels he never finished writing. But who among us has not been startled by our dreams, or basked in the glory of the dawning sun, or tried to write a novel and failed? Ruge asks his readers to surrender to the experience, in much the same way his narrator learns to surrender, to exist within life’s harmonious contractions.