The Novellaist reviews SOUL OF WOOD

Soul of Wood

By Jakov Lind

Translated by Ralph Manheim

New York Review of Books, 2010
“Those who had no papers entitling them to live lined up to die.”

You may enter into the world of a book set during World War II expecting such declarations, if not always such painful concision. But this is a profound storyteller telling, in part, his own story — and this is a novella.

So concision is definitional. The tension between its concision and its vastly deep theme in fact animates Soul of Wood (Eine Seele aus Holz), Jakov Lind’s famous, masterfully dark novella, which is followed in the NYRB edition by six stories (concerning a cannibal, a Nazi priest, a mass murderer, cannibals again, the Devil, and a Christian Jew). Each is a great and grim entry in the heavy register of “World-War-II-truly-sucked” tales, but the titular novella plays longest and dirtiest in that hallowed ground between doing too little, narratively or poetically, and saying a few words too many, those words we’ve heard before.

Ergo it is its dry, throat-hoarseningly absurd opening line — not the madcap agony of the book’s wooden-legged antihero — that returns to haunt me. It’s so terribly logical: “Those who had no papers entitling them to live [the inversion, you need bureaucratic approval even to live, it can be gummed up in the works, pure Brazil…] lined up to die [the anti-catharsis, the giving-in/giving-over to nihilism…].”

If this is our door into the novella, what scene does it open onto? What happened? For one, World War II happened. That’s the greater, ultra-structural what-happened that informs the question driving the specific novella, which may be — “What happened to those who had no papers and still lived?” Or — “What happened to those whose papers were forged?”

The narrative opens on the parents of Anton Barth, a paralyzed Jewish boy, who are going off to die, leaving their son with his German caretaker, Wohlbrecht. The what-happened centers for a few pages on what will happen to Anton, the inertness of his body contrasting with his humanity, even in the eyes of Wohlbrecht, a jaded and/or addled veteran of the first Great War.

But this what-happened is a false one; the real question is closer to, “What happened to those whose papers were never in question?” I.e., how does one everyman-German deal with desperation during a war he didn’t ask for, with a sudden inversion of his relationship with his Jewish employers — with the prospect of collaboration?

The what-happened is thus tricky and highly propulsive: This novella is not a quiet meditation, za-zen, but a sort of literary bikram yoga.

Lind — a Jew who worked in Germany during the war, a humorist whose humor is so dark it’s arguably not even funny — had his own papers forged. Born Heinz Landwirth, he was variously Jan Overbeek and Jakov Chaklan, fictitiously good Germans; he lived more lives than most of us read about in our own. (Critic Anthony Rudolf, at Lind’s funeral, described Lind as “a coyote, a trickster.”)

So Lind occupies the very liminal space he writes about. His antihero is no natural-born villain; Wohlbrecht would get his ass kicked in Castle Wolfenstein. He’s a buffoon, a classic D-bag, and his antics occur in the name of money. We know right away that he’s going to send Anton up shit’s creek in order to steal the Barths’ house; we’re only waiting to see what sort of retribution God and the author have in store after the sending.

Of course, this is the first half of the twentieth century: There is no God, and — after some destitution and madness — Wohlbrecht becomes a senior official in a Vienna psychiatric “hospital” (again, the inversion of norms, comfort and death switching places), giving the final treatment to Jews by the dozens if not hundreds in between bouts of getting drunk with his boss.

I’m guessing this was a hard book to write.

It would be hard to read, were it not for Lind’s airtight prose, his rhythm (quick, ever quick), and his humor, the last of which seems as open to inspiration from monsters as from everymen.

It’s no surprise, then, that Lind populates his novella with scum so low they can’t muster true villainy, storm-tossed johns, receding from shadows so dark they threaten the imagination with absurdity (that word again), only to be saved by a startling, image-driven, everyman-on-war pronouncement —

Sayeth Wohlbrecht: “In wartime the midgets always disappear, same as happened in the first war, but when the war is over, they shoot out of the ground like lilies-of-the-valley, so sweet and pretty, with their tiny little feet and their tiny little hand and their big heads.”

A man with a wooden leg, screwing over his beloved paralyzed Jew in order to buy wartime midgets…

It is all a maniac race. The narrative reminds me of the Keystone Kops, ladders applied against banks of windows, with cops and robbers poking out of them successively, never chancing to see one another, until the final confrontation, innocently framed, as both dart to the water fountain to relieve a chase-heightened thirst. Scooby-Doo, with Nazis: Nazis chasing Wohlbrecht chasing the paralyzed Jew who can exonerate him, a Jew who has become a deer. A marvelous–sad setup and one that has to be paid off.

I won’t spoil the ending, but trust: It’s worth the price of admission. Then again, so is the book’s title alone —

I think of wood through the vampire’s heart, wood and the Green Lantern, “getting wood” and feeling odd about getting wood at odd times, wood as a final material for men after gold, silver, and bronze have been exhausted or un-earned — wood, Ahab, perhaps the only capitalist ever born with a soul…

The title is perfect: How many of us know the material strength, or any solid property of our souls? How many of us have been tested not just with war but with collaboration? Not just with paralysis but with an awakening-out-of-it? How many of us have felt simultaneously like cartoons and all-too-mortal, fleshy monkeys? How many of us (could any of us) avoid being among those Keystone Kops and robbers?

Of course, we must avoid being Nazis. Or even Ahabs — gnostic wanderers, doomed to push on with no fear — and with every fleeting thought of great Ahab against meekly evil Wohlbrecht, we hear Lind in command of his fallible, human creations — inside Wohlbrecht’s oath-uttering throat, on the tip of his scratchy stump.

What happened, what is the aleph-moment that flashes the blueprint of the entire thema, reveals the skeleton of the overall narrative? Is it the outbreak of the war? (Concision: March 13, 1938, the Nazis march into Austria. Sayeth Lind: “The war against the Jews began practically the next morning. By Saturday all of Vienna was one big swastika.”)

Or is the inciting incident — we return to this with every thought — “dancing skeletons” — “my Jew” — Wohlbrecht’s failure to deliver on his promise to take care of Anton? What is the answer to the question posed by those whose papers were never called into question? A moral failure, perhaps: One broken promise, one scheme failed leads to one failed life, one snapping of the mind like dry kindling in a strong fire — and the universe of the cartoon man crumbles, leaving behind only his real notions of obliteration. Scary stuff.

We all face Wohlbrecht’s choice and choose badly. As his more-extreme-than-ours hidden inclinations are pushed to the surface by poverty and desperation, then madness, then finally fear of death, so are our own. But we can emerge and choose wisely. The usual mirror, at bat’s-hell pace, out of control even in an out-of-control time and place. (Chronotrope: All of Europe’s madness, all the dangers of science and eugenics and statistics and population management, of control, theories of race — all unleashed in a half-decade, the monster slouching out of modernity, not just towards Bethlehem but towards every quiet holy place.)

The land is strange, the son of the land estranged to both his own love for Anton and his own disillusionment with the Reich, which he constantly feels but is too weak to do anything about, Wohlbrecht’s whimpering is not especially low, but somehow typical. (“You’re kidding, cried Wohlbrecht, whose imagination couldn’t keep pace.”)

And that’s the terror of the what-happened of this novella: How long does it take to sketch the potential moral failure of any modern human in the face of mechanized, massive evil? Not long. The length of a cartoon. And what a void it leaves behind, when the feature flickers on, cue epic strings, self-serious, long, bloated with supernumerary establishing shots and “well-drawn” characters who are somehow not cartoon-y enough to remind you of your own basest motives and wants, what a void —

Lind: “Without Nazis and madmen after me, survival seemed a dull, uninspiring project.”

Lind, moral thrill-seeker, anti-spy, cartoonist of the dark heart, reverse cannibal (“eat me,” “eat at Jake’s”). Worth the (psychically high) price of admission.

* * *

The Novellaist’s Column Note.

-Wythe Marschall can be found here.

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