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Welcome to Moor

The Dog King

by Christoph Ransmayr, translated by John E. Woods
Knopf, 355 pp., $24.00

Moor is a village, one of a cluster of villages encircled by mountains, presumably in Germany. There used to be a spa resort on the shores of its lake, and some hotels still survive in a state of disrepair. Moor has also been famous for its high-grade granite, and latterly the quarry was worked by slave laborers from a nearby camp. (Seeking to be helpful, the blurb of The Dog King tells us that we may recognize Mauthausen.) The war is over, and Moor has been occupied successively by Siberian troops, a French Moroccan battery, and a regiment of Scottish Highlanders. And finally, as the story begins, by American troops under the command of a Major Elliot from Oklahoma. Major Elliot has principles (the inhabitants of Moor think him crazy), and is determined to keep the wickedness of the locals (no more guilty than anyone else in the defeated country, less guilty than some) ever fresh in their minds. On the terraces of the old quarry he has conscripted the village’s stonemasons to cut a huge inscription, ceremoniously unveiled, reading:

HERE

ELEVEN THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED SEVENTY-THREE

PEOPLE LIE DEAD

SLAIN BY THE INHABITANTS OF THIS LAND

WELCOME TO MOOR

(Less than a tenth, we note, of those estimated to have died in Mauthausen.)

All machinery, including factories, power station, and railroad tracks, is destroyed or taken away, and the outraged people of Moor are ordered to become shepherds, farmers, and diggers of asparagus. This is done in the mysterious name of “Stellamour,” attributed to a high-court justice, Lyndon Porter Stellamour, from Poughkeepsie, apparently the architect of “the Peace of Oranienburg.” Stellamour, “the sole and true name of retribution,” whose image, “a portrait of a smiling bald man, was available in all sizes; it adorned posters, was hung on gates, sometimes took the form of a huge mural covering the entire firewall of some burned-out factory or barracks.”

Moreover the Major requires that four times a year the men of Moor observe strict rituals of remembrance, dressing up as Jews, Gypsies, Communists, POWs, and “race defilers,” and reenacting scenes from photographs of the camp he has unearthed. All this must be carried out as authentically as possible—in striped fatigues bearing triangles, Stars of David, and so on—in the chill of winter and the heat of summer. In doleful procession, the “prisoners” carry loads of stones from the quarry on their backs. But Elliot, who has been known to drive round his fief in a Studebaker throwing chocolates and licorice to the children, isn’t a cruel man; the actors, if they choose to, can provide themselves with stones made of papier-mâché or bundles of rags or newspapers. And, unlike the half-naked figures in the old photographs, they are allowed blankets and old military coats.

The occupation appears to be permanent. At one point we hear that twenty-three years have passed since the end of the war, and two thirds of the way through the novel, in the third decade of the Peace of Oranienburg, an atomic bomb is dropped on Nagoya (sic, not Nagasaki), and the war against Japan is over. There follows one of the book’s set pieces. In the city of Brand in the lowlands, the command center of the occupation, a festival is mounted to celebrate “the Peace of Japan”: Brand is represented as a miniature America, with electric light everywhere, food in abundance, jeeps and limousines, department stores, mannequins in shop windows, movie palaces, emblematic of the grosser side of that blessed land dreamed of by refugees, by vanquished and victors alike, across Europe.

Thus the story is set in a parallel or alternative world, the once-favorite device of science-fiction writers. Christoph Ransmayr’s first novel, The Last World (forgivably referred to as “The Last Word” in a publisher’s handout), features two parallel worlds, that of modern-day Rome and that of Tomi (Tomis), on the Black Sea, early in the first century. Cotta, a young Roman, leaves for Tomi in search of the poet Ovid, living there in exile, banished, Ransmayr suggests, because his Metamorphoses ran counter to the immutability of the Roman state and the emperor’s authority. The theory suits Ransmayr’s book, and no one has yet come up with a satisfactory explanation for Augustus’s displeasure. Ovid himself is not to be found, but the town is full of legendary figures from his poem, or their doubles. The butcher, by name Tereus, is married to Procne (later, with Procne’s mutilated sister Philomela, they turn into birds); the gravedigger Thies (cf. Dis, Pluto) has a fiancée, only intermittently present, called Proserpina; a deaf-mute weaver bears the name Arachne; a maidservant, Echo, repeats the last words she has heard. There is a playfulness here, missing from the new and harsher novel, and the pleasure of meeting myths as they go about their business. Tomi overshadows Rome, where there are telephones and gossip columns, border guards and sharpshooters in watchtowers, and yet, when the emperor dies, the senate proclaims him a god. At times an apparent anomaly or irrelevance—like the brief, inconsequent appearance of a frigate, Argo, piloted by one Jason—seems to suggest that some larger significance is intended, but we never learn what it is.

In The Dog King such questions are more insistent and the lack of answers more vexatious.

Major Elliot and his unit withdraw to the lowlands, and in a further affront to the inhabitants of Moor he appoints as his successor a former slave laborer, Ambras, the only man he has come to trust. Ambras takes over a derelict villa and populates it with a pack of savage dogs, hence the hated name, the Dog King. In turn he appoints as his bodyguard and chauffeur (he has inherited the Major’s Studebaker) the former blacksmith’s son, Bering, born during Moor’s one and only night of bombing, shortly before the armistice and the inception of the Peace of Oranienburg. The novel’s third main character is Lily, five years older than Bering, a refugee from “the rubble wastelands” of Vienna, who leads a charmed life as she travels the countryside on a mule, collecting buried weapons and trading souvenirs—iron crosses, enemy helmets, rusty daggers—at army bases in exchange for melons and bananas, coffee, nylons, and cigarette lighters, which she sells to the people of Moor.

The army giveth, the army taketh away.” The High Command rules that Moor and its district are to be turned into a maneuver ground, the final humiliation for the locals:

What are they supposed to be training for now? It worked after all, Nagoi…. What’s the name of that place where they won?… Blew half of Japan sky-high and say, that’s it, they were the last, they’re all taken care of, peace and quiet now—and the next day they turn the lake country, the mountains all around, into a shooting range, because they want to go on practicing….

And the people of Moor are to be forcibly resettled in the lowlands. “And us? Us idiots can gather up our things, gather ‘em up just like in war, and vamoose, one, two, three.” The surviving machinery at the quarry is to be shipped to Brazil, and the Dog King, Bering, and Lily are assigned to accompany it.

It should be said that Ransmayr is an uningratiating writer and has no use for the clichés of contemporary fiction; sex, for instance, is absent, without being conspicuously so, and likewise overt psychologizing, a meretricious luxury which finds no place among the hard-pressed denizens of this bleak, quasi-allegorical landscape. His most striking achievement, well matched by the translator, is in describing Moor itself, the lake, the rocks, the snow and ice and mud.

Viewed by clear weather from across the expanse of water, the quarry’s terraces looked simply like bright, monstrous steps leading from the clouds down to the shore. And up there, somewhere high above the top of this giant granite stairway, high above dust clouds from the blasting, sagging roofs of the barracks by the gravel works, and any traces of all the agonies that had been suffered on the Blind Shore of the lake—high above it all, the wilderness began.

Rising above the quarry, mightier than all else that could be seen of the world from Moor, were the mountains. Every rock0slide that poured down out of those icy regions to be lost in its own dust, every gorge, every opening on a ravine with its swarm of jackdaws, led deeper into a labyrinth of stone where all light transformed itself into ash-gray shadows and blue shadows and polychrome shadows of inorganic nature.

And the most instantly engaging passages concern Major Elliot and his methods of rubbing the inhabitants’ noses in their old wickedness. These episodes might have come from one of Günter Grass’s earlier novels, and resemble the phantasmagoric scenes of Grass’s Dog Years, surreal and yet grimly realistic.

The problem stems from the air of parable that hangs over the book. Not that there is anything illegitimate or repugnant about parable (rather the contrary), but we want a parable, however obscure its import seems to be, to “work out” in the end. When we more or less willingly suspend disbelief for the moment—however long the moment—it is in the expectation that belief of some kind will eventually resume, that the apparently arbitrary will resolve into sense. So much in The Dog King, while soliciting interpretation, remains arbitrary. At an early age Bering vocalizes only in the tongues of birds, and seems about to metamorphose into a chicken, à la Ovid or, in more modern terms, magic realism: the baby clucks like a laying hen and from his cradle “were stretched little white fingers cramped into claws.” He soon grows out of this affinity, though later it gives rise to a lyrical passage:

He hears the whistle of the kingfisher and the husky whir of the startled wren. When he grows drowsy listening to the chatter of chimney swallows or the monotone territorial song of titmice, he is awakened sometimes by the metallic alarm call of a yellowhammer. He is not deceived by the starlings, those grand frauds that can imitate the cry of a kestrel and the lament of an owl as easily as the song of a thrush or a blackbird—and this spring, unlike those of years past, he often hears a nightingale, too, which always begins its mad stanzas with a melancholy fluting.

In manhood Bering suffers a progressive darkening of his vision, described vividly and at some length. He is treated at the “Big Hospital” in Brand by a Doc Morrison, one of Lily’s useful contacts, who likens the symptoms to the mushroom cloud over Nagoya, diagnoses the trouble as Morbus Kitahara, named after a Japanese eye specialist, and assures Bering that in time it will disappear of its own accord. So it does. And that’s that. Was it a symbolic blindness, an eye for an eye, a temporary punishment for once having shot a marauding skinhead? Is there an allusion to the “blind trains,” cattle cars without windows or markings, which used to bring prisoners to the quarry? It must surely bear some weighty implication; the novel’s German title is Morbus Kitahara.

Why do the three of them finally go off to Brazil? They could as well, if not better, set out for the moon. It is true that the word “Brazil” has been sounded on and off. Lily is known as “the Brazilian,” but only because the refugees from Vienna lifted their spirits on the way by chanting “Brazil. We’re headed for Brazil!” and when they end up in snow-covered Moor the five-year-old Lily runs around shouting “Brazil! Brazil! We’re here, we’re in Brazil!” The bits and pieces of machinery (“a load of junk,” the local people reckon) which the three accompany to Brazil are said to comprise a belated payment to a Brazilian general (more accurately a former tenente) whose twenty thousand soldiers had fought on the side of the Allies, and who now runs a quarry on Brazil’s Atlantic coast yielding green granite quite as fine as Moor’s ever was.

The first, brief, chapter of the novel tells of three dead bodies lying in the Brazilian wilderness, two male and the other female. Since we generally prefer the end of a story to come at the end, this is no powerful incentive to read on. But wait, the last pages indicate that the female body is not Lily’s but that of a native woman who escorted the three adventurers on an outing to the Ilha do Cão, Dog Island, in former times a prison guarded by bloodhounds. Always the most sensible person in evidence, a youthful and cheerful version of Mother Courage, Lily sees that Dog Island is no part of her “Brazil,” and promptly gets a lift back to the mainland with some convenient fishermen. The deaths of Bering and the Dog King, and of their guide, are arbitrary, accidental, if perhaps less fortuitous in the case of Ambras, tortured by his old wounds, who imagines he is back in the prison camp at Moor.

So Brazil or “Brazil” could be thought the thread on which past and present, events and characters and emotions, are strung, were it not too flimsy to support the weight of Ransmayr’s atmospheric intensities and tours de force. The case for the defense might have it that we should lie back and enjoy, feel vaguely intrigued, thrilled, or disturbed, that we should cultivate what Keats called “negative capability,” and rest in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The advice, meant to liberate the spirit, isn’t easy to follow these days, except in the presence of considerable and unambiguous encouragement. It seems there is something stubborn in us that longs for what Keats deplored in poetry, “a palpable design,” and feels cheated without it.

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