“I haven’t had time to read up on Cortés,” says Bonny, one of the characters in Walter Abish’s new novel, Eclipse Fever. “Was he the good or the bad guy?” “Goodness, I suppose that depends entirely on your historical perspective,” says her Mexican companion. “My father maintains that history and fiction are interchangeable,” Bonny says. This idea informs much of Abish’s work. History, because it is narrated, is subjective and interpretative like fiction, and fiction cannot escape the didactic implications of history.
In each of Abish’s three novels, a foreigner, often the narrator or hero, interacts with an alien culture (Africa, Germany, Mexico) that has been affected by American development, acquisitiveness, indifference to history and tradition, and, as in Kafka, by social institutions—museums, foundations, unseen commercial empires that act on the dreamily passive or power less characters. These in turn attempt “to view and place [their] personal affairs in a literary context, as if this would endow them with a clear and richer meaning.”
The first paragraph of Abish’s first novel, Alphabetical Africa (1974), announced his interest in archaeology, foreignness, the erotic, and literary experiment, matters he continues to explore.
Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion:….Anyhow author apprehends Alva anatomically, affirmatively and also accurately.
The next chapter introduced words that begin with B, the third chapter C, and so on through Z and back again, a formal tour de force of which John Updike said, ” ‘a masterpiece of its kind’ does not seem too strong an accolade for a book apt to be the only one of its kind” (though one might think of related attempts by other free spirits like Georges Perec and Harry Mathews). In any case, Updike’s prediction proved correct where Abish is concerned; Alphabetical Africa seems to have ended his need for that particular kind of formal constraint.
Abish’s next novel, How German Is It, which won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner prize in 1981, was considerably less mannered. An expansion of an earlier story, “The English Garden,” it concerned the arrival of Ulrich Hargenau, an American of German descent, in a small German town, ostensibly to find the facts about the execution of his father in a plot against Hitler, and to answer for himself the question How German am I? To Ulrich in Würtenburg, things seem both new and somehow like the prewar Germany. The radio plays “old marches,…military bands, anything that will keep the past, the glorious German past from being effaced forever.” Is it Germany that we are seeing? Or is Germany (where Abish had at the time of writing never been) a place to stand, from which to look at ourselves? Are we all infected by the social defects called here German?
The novel is narrated with witty, deadpan solemnity, no quotation marks, and tiny chapters or long paragraphs with lots of white space …