Saturday, March 14, 2009

Landscape in Concrete (A Review)

By Jakov Lind
Translated by Ralph Manheim
Open Letter Press

190 pages
March 31, 2009

Herr Bachman, do I look like a monster? Does a monster look like me? No, and I'm not a bureaucrat either. I'm a human being myself, and, as the poet said, nothing human is alien to me.

The first thing we learn about "Jakov Lind" in Joshua Cohen's introduction is that the author of this 1963 novella (written in German) was, in fact, a man of many names, as well as something of a cipher. He was known, in the records of several long-dead regimes, by at least three other pseudonyms, which Cohen interprets as a sign of "trauma." That is, the inability to ever know oneself as a singular individual, despite Lind's several published autobiographies which are also our only sources of information about him. When Hitler's annexation of his native Austria shattered his close-knit Jewish family, young Heinz Jakov Landwirth was sent with a sister on the Kindertransport to the Netherlands. Infuriated at what he perceived to be the "complacency" of the Dutch Jews, "Jan Overbeek" eventually went underground as a bargeman. After a bout of clap from a prostitute, Overbeek found new work as a personal courier for the German Institute for Metallurgical Research of the Imperial Air Ministry of Traffic. (Posing as a Nazi is really an unconscious act, Lind later said, one merely "nods and obeys, one adapts.") In 1945, "Jakov Chaklan," Palestinian Jew (!), left for Israel, where life on a kibbutz merely annoyed him, as did religion. He then made his way back to London, where he would remain until his death in 2007. Throughout his life, "Jakov Lind" would hold many occupations, including photographer, fruit-picker, air-traffic controller, actor, private detective, journalist, and literary/film agent. He was married twice.

Landscape in Concrete, Lind's famous tale of tragedy and absurdity, concerns one Gauthier Bachman, a giant oaf of a German soldier who is also the sole survivor of a regiment that got drowned in mud. He is subsequently declared mentally unfit to serve. But Bachman's ardent determination to support the Fatherland's war effort is undiminished and, having been released/escaped from a Polish sanitarium, he has now begun a quest to locate and join any regiment willing to take him. Along the way, however, instead of an idealized mission of duty and purpose, he is repeatedly abused, manipulated, and humiliated into acting in ways contrary to both his nature and (supposedly) that of civilized society. From Peter von Göritz, the stylish homosexual sergeant, to murderous psychopath Hjalmar Halftan and lecherous police chief Heinz-Otto Muschel, a dominant running theme is the corruption of power and the frightening ways in which authority figures can use it to influence their subordinates. (Similarly, in Stanley Krubrick's film Dr. Strangelove, it is unanimously agreed that Colonel Jack Ripper has gone completely nuts, yet no one seems to question the psychological health of General Buck Turgidson, who delights in spectacularly destructive military action.) "[A]fter all," says Cohen, "the Holocaust was legal, as are most wars." In other words, as Landscape in Concrete also makes quite clear, the definition of sanity and criminal behavior depends purely on context.

The perversion of language and distortion of meaning in Landscape in Concrete is also reminiscent of Joseph Heller's 1961 novel Catch-22 (also about World War II). Both books explore the illogical madness of war and the cognitive dissonance inherent to its various acts of institutionalized horror. Heller's hero Yossarian is told that, in order to be discharged from duty he must be proven mentally unfit (like Bachman). Unfortunately, the very act of trying to be discharged is indicative of a sound mind, as no normal human being would ever want to go into combat. Likewise, when Bachman begs to be reinstated despite his many issues, he is told that
A war can only be fought with sound men. The highest demands are made on every individual, it takes nerves of steel. We have to do things that may not be to our liking. Yes, sometimes we have to do violence to our own nature. Most of the duties a war imposes on us, Sergeant Bachman, are revolting, let's face it, insane, and yet the soldier who performs them has to fully responsible.
The collapse of solid meaning in language is visualized through Bachman's distaste for the chaos of trees, rocks, and mountains, as well as his desire for the natural landscape to be transformed into one of concrete: flattened, paved-over, bombed to oblivion. All he wants to do is serve his nation and obey his orders, but it is this naive yearning that is gradually transforming him into a monster at the hands of others.

Though undeniably thought-provoking, Landscape in Concrete is also a very intense tale that can be difficult to read. I was even forced to skip a couple of pages during the scene in which Halftan has Bachman murder a family simply because it got so gruesome. Overall, Lind is certainly a talented writer whose narrative shifts smoothly between horror and pitch black humor. A common literary criticism is that a particular book could have been shorter; here, however, I feel that Landscape in Concrete probably should have been longer, especially given the comparatively weak third act where I felt the storyline became rather confused. (What was the deal with the lesbian-landlord-gynecologist? That weird little subplot just had me going, "WTF?") Landscape in Concrete is nevertheless an important literary addition to library of World War II and Holocaust writings, as it forces the reader to both sympathize with and revile a hapless protagonist-turned-"criminal" and demands that we examine within ourselves that same capacity for mindless, befuddled obedience.

Also recommended: Victor Serge's Unforgiving Years and Tod Strasser's The Wave. There is a contemporary Dutch novel by Christian Jungersen called The Exception that also deals with similar themes, but according to this review, it's not very good. (I still do plan on reading it, so stay tuned for that one.)


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