Saturday, July 14, 2012

Writers on Dance: Herta Muller (1)

Herta Muller's most recent book published in English, The Hunger Angel, was titled in her original German Everything I Possess, I Carry with Me," or Atemschaukel.  When I saw Muller read in May, I hadn't read the work, but I do remember that a woman beside me asked Muller why the title was changed so dramatically. Frustratingly, I don't remember her answer, but I remember how her eyes lit up with the question, and now I suspect, after reading the devastating and powerful book, it's because the original title fits so well.  The main character, Leo, does carry all he possess and all that possesses him: memory, a gramophone case, strange objects given him from those who know him, stories and songs of his childhood, a book on existence titled Physics and You, and as the novel progresses, confusion about what constitutes "home" and ultimately, what counts as love.  

 By re-titling the translation book The Hunger Angel, the subjection and starvation the ethnic German-Romanians endured in the work camp, and there is also the beautiful combination of  both the body and flight, but by focusing the title on hunger, the focus feels as if the book is about oppression rather than the self-recognition and displacement that is so pivotal in Everything I Possess, I Carry with Me.  Or maybe it's the Gramophone case I love, which Leo uses as a suitcase.

Two dance scenes take place in the book among the camp members.  They are ridden with lice and scarred with their work assignments and have become "skinandbones" (I love this combining of words to get the feel of the German dialect) but the members have a zither and drums and the singer Loni Mich.  This is from pages 139-140 in my translation.  It is brutal and shows the body-song that survives and resists through dance:

The couples stumble awkwardly through the song, hopping like birds trying to land in a heavy wind.  Trudi Pelikan says we're no longer capable of walking anyway, all we can do is dance, were nothing but quilted jackets filled with sloshing water and clattering bones, weaker than the drumbeats.  To prove her point, she offers me a list of Latin secrets from the sick barrack.

Polyarthritis.  Myocarditis. Hepatitis.  Encephalitis.  Pellagra.  Slit-mouth dystrophy, called monkey-skull face.  Dystrophy with stiff cold hold hands, called rooster claw.  Dementia.  Tetanus. Typhus. Eczema. Sciatica. Tuberculosis.  Then dysentery with bright bloody stools, boils, ulcers, muscular atrophy, dry skin with scabies, shriveled gums with decayed and missing teeth.  Trudi doesn't mention frostbite, doesn't talk about the brick-red skin and angular white patches that turn dark brown at the first spring warmth and are already showing on the faces of the people dancing.  And because I don't say anything or ask anything, nothing at all, Trudi Pelikan pinches my arm hard and says:

From New Books in German

Sailor leave your dreaming

Don't think about your home

All winter long, Trudi is speaking through the singing--the dead are stacked up in the back courtyard and shoveled over with snow, and left there for a few days until they're frozen hard enough.  And then the gravediggers, who she says are lazy louts, chop the corpses into pieces so they don't have to dig a grave, just a hole. 

I listen carefully to Trudi Pelikan and start to feel that I've caught a little bit of each of her Latin secrets.  The music makes death come alive, he locks arms with you and sways to the rhythm.

Muller, Herta.  The Hunger Angel.  Trans. Philip Boehm.  New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company.  2012.

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