Soul of Wood by Jakov Lind is a late addition German Literature Month (well, technically only my review is late as I did read it in November). During Spanish Lit Month I located a forgotten copy of The Family of Pascal Duarte by Camilo Jose Cela after a review by Stu at Winstonsdad reminded I might own it. Soul of Wood comes from the same neglected pile of books shivering in a corner of my attic, united only by the fact that I have picked them up without knowing anything about their authors. This time I proactively searched for anything originally written in German and unearthed the Austrian exile Lind’s first collection in a 1964 translation by Ralph Manheim (though in an edition published in 1985 by Methuen). I have since discovered that Lind has been subject to a recent revival, with Soul of Wood (the same translation) available from New York Review of Books and two other titles reprinted by Open Letter – though this does make my ignorance even more shameful.
Lind was born in Vienna in 1927 and survived the Second World War by adopting a Dutch identity. Afterwards he lived for some time in Israel but later moved to England, writing his early books in German and then later in English. Soul of Wood was his first publication in 1962 – the titular novella taking up around half the book, with a further six stories following. Soul of Wood tells of German war vetreran’s attempt to hide a Jewish paralytic, Anton Barth, from the Nazis, but of the other stories only one deals directly with the Holocaust. All are told with a macabre humour and flashes of surrealism.
Lind is a master at sudden shifts of tone within his stories. It is difficult to imagine a more solemn opening sentence than:
“Those who had no papers entitling them to live lined up to die.”
Yet, as soon as Lind has dealt movingly with Barth’s parents’ death, we find Barth being placed in a crate marked “Caution Do Not Drop – Fragile” by his protector, Wohlbrecht, “wedged in between the preserved fruit (guaranteed nutritious), the cans of sardines and the loaves of bread.” An argument with the cab driver follows as Wohlbrecht attempts to get Barth to the safety of the countryside. Soon the bleak realism of the beginning is left behind as Barth describes his childhood:
“When I came into the world I was nothing but a head…When I was five, my neck grew, when I was six, my shoulders, when I was seven, my right and left arm; by the time I was nine I had hands. Barth has hands, the newspaper screamed. They sold standing room outside my windows.”
By the tale’s end we are not far from farce as various Nazis attempt to locate Barth (who, having miraculously gained full movement, is living wild in the woods) as proof of their anti-Nazi sympathies, all intending to claim they have saved him. If this makes Lind sound like one of those writers who is entertaining and inventive from page to page but lacks coherence, this is not the case. Soul of Wood has a clear moral centre, exploring the dynamic between good and evil actions, the focus being on Wohlbrecht rather than Barth. The fact that Barth’s father is a doctor, and that Wohlbrecht spends some time in an insane asylum further add to the story’s unity.
Lind’s ability to carefully construct his narratives can be seen to even greater effect in the short stories that follow. Though only the final story, ‘Resurrection’, relates directly to the Holocaust (it is about two men sharing a hiding place), death is never far away. In ‘Journey through the Night’ the narrator finds himself locked in a railway carriage with a man who intends to kill him:
“Very slowly he opened the little suitcase. He took out the mallet and closed the suitcase. He held the mallet in his hand.
Well, how about it?”
In ‘The Judgement’ a murderer asks to see his father one last time before he faces execution; in ‘Hurrah for Freedom’ a medical student, Leonard, finds himself invited to spend the night with a family of naked cannibals. Yet, even within this world where death seems to be waiting to meet us round every corner, characters retain a certain amount of good humour, as is shown above, and when Leonard flees the flesh-eaters:
“The naked Balthasars waved after him, long after he had vanished in the woods.”
Jakov Lind is yet another delightful find of German Literature Month. It makes me wonder what other instinctive acquisitions await upstairs.