Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

NBCC Featured Review

By Eric Banks

Beginning today, Critical Mass will regularly feature an exemplary review by a National Book Critics Circle member critic. Here, from Open Letters: A Monthly Arts and Letters Review, NBCC member Karen Vanuska reviews Jakov Lind’s Landscape in Concrete.

The bigger the war, the greater the number of books about it. No matter how you define big – lives lost, cost, population displacement, devastation to infrastructure – World War II tops the list. Nonfiction tomes aside, over the last sixty years World War II has inspired a plenitude of fiction. From Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum to the works of Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll, from the relatively recent discovery and publication of the works of Irène Némirovsky to a post-War generation of works such as Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River and William T. Vollmann’s National Book Award winner Europe Central, the stories keep coming. And now, there’s another class of World War II fiction – novels that were published, praised, and forgotten primarily because they happened to be works in translation and failed to receive much attention on this side of the Atlantic. Thanks to the University of Rochester’s (euphoniously named) press Open Letter, Landscape in Concrete by Jakov Lind has returned to the dim light of center stage.  

In the 1970s, Jakov Lind switched from writing in German to English, which, oddly enough, seems to account for his dip into obscurity. Lind was prominent enough to have his travelogue The Trip to Jerusalem quoted by Saul Bellow in a 1976 New Yorker essay; but his English-language books never received that sort of attention. His first book, published in German in 1962, was a surprise hit of a story collection, Soul of Wood, and will be reissued later this year by NYRB Classics. Landscape in Concrete, his second book, was published in German in 1963, subsequently translated into English by Ralph Mannheim for release here in 1966. Later this year Open Letter will reissue another of Lind’s acclaimed German novels, Ergo. Somehow, as Open Letter publisher Chad Post jokes in the publicity letter that accompanies copies of Landscape in Concrete, 2009 has become “The Year of Jakov Lind.”

Heinz Jakov Landwirth was born in Vienna in 1927. In 1939, he was sent as part of the Kindertransport to the Netherlands to prepare for kibbutz life in Palestine. He survived the war by going underground and reemerging as a Dutch merchant seaman. Amazingly, he spent the war working on barges in Germany. According to Anthony Rudolf’s eulogy at Lind’s funeral in 2007, Lind said “it was safer for a Jew to be in Germany in the mouth of the beast than in Holland, between the teeth.” After living for a short time in Palestine, Lind returned to Vienna, then finally settled in London where he lived from 1954 till his death. Anthony Rudolf described Lind as one of his last personal heroes, and continued:

He was a coyote, a trickster. He enjoyed hashish and the rest. A wicked smile played around his mouth, while witty aphorisms and deep insights tripped off his lips. He emanated strength – and an electric intelligence that we all wanted to emulate.

For those interested in learning more about Lind, he left behind an autobiography, Counting My Steps. It was received indifferently, and a New Yorker critic opined, “the book is less interesting when Lind is talking about Lind than when he forgets himself and offers such vignettes of Nazi-occupied Europe as the unsuspecting, meticulous Dutch Jews tidying up their apartments before being deported…” Thankfully, Landscape in Concrete suffers from no such failings: its brutal and vulnerable German characters fight less against the enemy than amongst themselves and, in so doing, exhume the disintegrating cadaver of German power.

While Gunter Grass and Ursula Hegi chose dwarfs to tell their stories of Germany during World War II, Lind chose a giant for Landscape in Concrete – this is six-foot-two, three hundred pound Gauthier Bachmann. And in fate’s typical twist (or perhaps it’s just a case of Lind channeling that inner trickster of his), Bachmann is a giant with a miniature mind.

Bachmann is much more eloquent than other enfeebled narrators like Faulkner’s oft-cited Benjy; he’s not mentally retarded, though he shares the naiveté of the brain damaged. He is instead a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; his brain is trying to protect him by keeping at bay the human degradation and mutilation he’s witnessed as a sergeant in the German army. The battle at Voroshenko, where Bachmann’s entire unit literally drowned in mud, especially haunts him, echoes of which can be found in this excerpt from the novel’s stunning opening paragraph:

Bachmann was heavy and shapeless, like the blanket of clouds that covered the fields. His lips were as dry as the bark of the trees, his stomach as empty as the plains. He saw only what thrust itself into his field of vision: the pointed fingers of thin branches, the green hair that welled from the ground, brown pustules that seemed to be made of earth, entrails that looked like roots. Hunger made him as light as a feather. This was the beginning of his fifth week in the Ardennes. Something had to happen – and it would have to be soon. Where there are fields, there have to be people, and where there are people, army camps can’t be far away. The thought of army camps full of brisk and sturdy soldiers twisted his mouth into a smile.

It is an unquiet mind that turns branches into fingers, grass into green hair, soil into pustules, and roots into entrails. And then, all that ugliness disappears at the thought of “brisk and sturdy soldiers,” and Bachmann smiles. This was before the days when PTSD had become a medical diagnosis; German army doctors have simply declared Bachmann “unfit for duty.” In a move that will make readers shake their heads in pity and amazement, Bachmann appeals their decision and escapes to find a German fighting unit he can join – any one would do – and that is how he has come to wander through the Ardennes. Why would he do this? Because, like the good soldier he’s been trained to be, the lack of a gun and a mission rob him of his identity.

As Bachmann wanders through the Ardennes, a man pops out of a hole “no bigger than a fox’s burrow.” Scared out of his mind, Bachmann thinks he’s a mole. “Me a mole? Are you crazy? I’m a German,” answers the man named Schnotz. I’m not sure if the double meanings of mole in German coincide as nicely as they do in English, but this is Lind’s forte – moments where humor, like the Phantom’s mask, hides a darker side. (A similar moment of wordplay occurs later in the novel when Bachman meets a character named Hjalmar Halftan who calls himself a genius – a reference to Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s President of the Reichsbank and one of only three Germans acquitted during the Nuremburg trials; Schacht received a genius-score, the highest of all his Nuremburg codefendants, on a German version of an IQ test administered by an American psychologist.) Schnotz has deserted his nearby unit after it was discovered he’d poisoned a Belgian civilian kitchen worker. He assumes that Bachmann is a deserter as well, and does not know what to make of his tale that he’s trying to find a unit and get back to the fighting.

It takes a while, but Bachmann finally stumbles on the solution: if he returns Schnotz the deserter back to his unit, he’ll be rewarded with a spot in that unit. After an outright slapstick scene where Bachmann defeats Schnotz in a battle over “who gets the goose liver for dessert,” Bachmann delivers Schnotz to Commander Von Goritz. Bachman, while explaining why he wants to return to battle, provides evidence of his deranged state when he announces that God supports his mission because He has said, “Your comrades are dead, so this time you must try and see if you can’t succeed in dying.” Von Goritz rewards this “unfortunate battlefield victim” with the unenviable position of number #1 shooter on a firing squad. Desperate to gain favor by following orders, even when he thinks the blindfolded saboteur looks “strikingly like Schnotz,” he convinces himself to follow orders:

He aimed below the left shoulder blade. I can’t do more than that. If he doesn’t die at the first shot, it’s the end of my career. Murz is bound to report it. Fire! somebody cried. Bachmann pressed the trigger. He lowered his rifle and went pale with fear: The others hadn’t even raised theirs. The six of them were staring at him without a word.

You said fire, Bachmann stammered.

I? Murz asked. I said fire? I was only telling the boy here he looked tired. Now look what you’ve done.

It turns out that Murz and Commander Von Goritz have set up the naïve giant Bachmann, who, even as they’re hustling him out of town to the train station to report to a unit in Narvik, doesn’t suspect he’s been duped and feels terrible guilt over killing Schnotz:

The gate stood wide open. Once outside, he began to run, he ran faster and faster and suddenly stopped to sniff at the air or listen to silent voices – as Schnotz had done. As if the dead man’s soul had gone into him and taken its place with everything that had already died inside him.

The aroma of roast potatoes and fried sausages was wafted over the countryside, bringing the water to his mouth. But no Schnotz stuck his nose out of the earth. Nothing crossed his path. Along the highway, columns of vehicles and artillery were heading for the front. He watched them and the tears came to his eyes.

Another misbegotten clash with violence and poor Bachmann yearns more than ever to return to the simple life of a soldier who has a spot in a column.

Twisted humor is the engine that drives this plot. Additionally, Lind’s portrayal of Bachman is so accomplished that the reader does not feel tempted to laugh at Bachmann, only the crazy and sad things his does. Instead of throwing the characters into Voroshenko-type battles, as you’d expect in World War II novels, Lind makes the violence quite personal. Everyone has axes to grind that have little to do with the politics of wartime Germany and everything to do with vendettas. Nowhere is this more apparent than the curl of the next plot coil.

Bachmann arrives in Narvik and meets a man with a commander’s presence, the Norwegian Hjalmar Halftan. Over dinner, Bachmann becomes lost in a kind of spell when Halftan toasts to him by saying “Yes, you are a man, skoal!”

A man. I’m a man. Man. How lovely that sounds. Every single letter smelled of jasmine. To be a man. He was stirred, intoxicated. It was as pretty as a Christmas Eve and sweet as glazed apples. It takes a perfect stranger, practically at the end of the world, at the North Pole, to tell me what I’d almost forgotten. I am a man.

Halftan gets an idea and suggests they go for a little ride. Bachmann, still under the spell of his epiphany, follows. While Bachmann might be in a haze, the reader isn’t and, with growing unease we turn the pages and watch with horror as once again Bachmann ends up with a gun in his hand and follows the wrong orders. Bachmann sees the madness that has overtaken his mission and admits that it’s time to drop his appeal, get out of the army, pick up his girlfriend Helga and take her home to meet his mother. You’d be wise to remember the tales of The Brothers Grimm at this point – happy endings usually elude the Germans.

When big-breasted Helga joins the cast, the novel turns unexpectedly bawdy, yet less funny. In fact, she takes over much of the show and Bachmann becomes the quiet boyfriend sitting in the shadows. When a brawl breaks out in the bar, Bachmann steps reluctantly into action, but thankfully his fists don’t have the killing power of his gun. Helga’s point of view obscures the plot; it feels as though someone’s turned on the fog machine and you can only see the characters in silhouette. Perhaps Lind has started his goodbyes to the reader too early. When, for a brief moment, we learn the outcome of Bachmann’s decision to drop his quest to rejoin the Army, things feel familiar again and you can almost hear Lind’s maniacal laugh out of the darkness. Then there’s an uncomfortable scene where Helga strangles her landlord, Frau Gram, when Gram tries to evict her for bringing Bachmann home for some late night sex:

I’m the giant, Helga screamed, I’m the giant. You’ve got it coming to you! Then she squeezed her [Frau Gram’s] neck until a little slow stream flowed from her lips. As soon as Helga saw the blood, she let go, jumped up, threw a few articles of clothing into a bag and ran down the stairs. In the house door stood Bachman, a big sinister shadow.

Helga is by no means a gentle giant being duped into murder; she’s yet another character who runs amok in the violence of war. An air raid begins after Bachmann’s arrival and in the wake of its devastation Bachman declares that he and Helga have emerged from their hiding place into a new Paradise and “the gray ocean of an extinguished landscape made them feel happy.” But their happiness is fleeting and their fall, like that of Adam and Eve, occurs amidst Eden-like images full of snakes, green eyes and blood-red flowers. Bachmann runs from Paradise. He heads East to continue his quest to find his regiment. Unfortunately, whether dead or alive, he’s locked in an eternal battle with concrete memories he’ll never defeat.

“There is a plague called man.” This epigraph from Lind opens Landscape in Concrete, and there’s nothing obscure about its meaning. War is ultimately just another virus variation in the plague that is man. Seeing the word plague brings to mind Camus’ iconic novel and I was struck by its similarities to Landscape in Concrete. In spite of the violence Bachmann witnessed and participated in, he kept fighting to pursue his mission rather than accept the fate that others tried to force on him, just as many of doctors and townspeople of Oran ultimately band together in the face of the plague’s devastation. In both novel’s, characters survive through an admixture of cleverness and brutality. Yet a strain of raucous humor runs through Landscape in Concrete, sparing readers from drowning in the muck of war, affected by the story, but not consumed by it – an excellent vantage to ponder and reflect.