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Peyton Harvey

Not a Home, But a Mere Frame: ‘An Untouched House’ by Willem Frederik Hermans

An Untouched HouseIn An Untouched House (115 pages; Archipelago), Willem Frederik Hermans presents a lucid, exhilarating account of a Dutch partisan in the waning months of World War II. Hermans, a premier and prolific author in the Netherlands, penned the novella in 1951, but only now has it received an English translation courtesy of David Colmer.

The story opens during the final moments of the World War II, with the theme of isolation permeating the narrative. Herman writes, “I didn’t look back. There was nobody in front of me…. I looked back at the others. No one was close enough to ask for water.” A sense of confusion abounds as our nameless narrator finds himself unable to communicate with his fellow soldiers: “Within our band of partisans, made up of Bulgarians, Czechs, Hungarians and Romanians, there wasn’t a single person I could understand.”

His battalion enters a spa town, where he comes across an abandoned luxurious house, replete with amenities, but bereft of human life. This is his escape from conflict, where he can “pretend like the war never existed.” He makes himself at home, takes a bath, and falls asleep, only to be awoken by Nazis ringing the doorbell in search of lodging. The interloper manages to convince them that he is the owner of the house with deft, casual dishonesty.

The next morning he wakes convinced of the lie he imparted on his German visitors: “I the son of the house woke up the next morning to general quiet thinking: I have always lived here. This is my home.”

There is an eerie vacuity to the descriptions of the narrator’s surroundings: “Then I would walk up and down, touching objects without investigating them. On medicine bottles and compacts, on handkerchiefs, and on the edge of the sheets were names I didn’t try to pronounce.”

Throughout the book, the protagonist refuses to allocate names to the other characters, and instead only gives them titles: the colonel, the Spaniard, the Germans. They are not individuals in his eyes; their identities are wrapped up entirely in their countries of origin or military ranking.

Although he is the protagonist, our narrator proves passive and the action of the plot is acted upon him. He makes few decisions. His choice to inhabit the house is the end result of aimless wandering rather than an active search. He soon discovers there is no escape. The architecture of the story reaches its apex as the whirlpool of action spins toward this previously unattended and innocuous building.

The narrator describes the increasingly disturbing events with a detached, passionless voice:

“I could clearly see the dead woman. I sat down next to her on the bed and felt her face with my fingertips. It was now cold. I stuck my hand under her coat, under her skirt, and laid it on her thigh. Cold, a thing, water and proteins, something chemists have studied, nothing more.”

The narrator possesses only the silhouette of morality, attached to nothing, a vagabond of land and virtue. In the end, his actions prove nearly as cruel as the Nazis themselves. The vastness of World War II becomes a microcosm within this singular building. The house thus feels like not a home, but a mere frame, lacking any moral edifice.

Although An Untouched House is brief, it is worth pacing oneself and absorbing its remarkable density. Hermans is the architect of a masterful story –– concise but expansive in vision.

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Emerging from the Fog: ‘America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience’

America, We Call Your NameThe first image we encounter in America, We Call Your Name: Poetry of Resistance and Resilience (203 pages; Sixteen Rivers Press) is that of Lady Liberty in the midst of a grey fog; it’s unclear as to whether she is receding or emerging.

The editors have stated that the impetus for this anthology was a desire to help unify the country after the 2016 Presidential Election. The Trump Administration symbolizes the oppression that these poets are resisting; the collection acknowledges that the election woke up many people who had grown politically complacent.

For this anthology, Sixteen Rivers Press, a shared work-collective of Northern California poets, gathered material from writers of numerous backgrounds and eras. To produce a democratic work that responds to the “cultural, moral, and political rifts that now divide our country,” they sought “poems of resistance and resilience, witness and vision, that embody what it means to be a citizen in a time when our democracy is threatened.”

From Virgil and Dante and Shakespeare to Pablo Neruda, Po Chu-I, and Thursday’s just posted “Poem-a-Day,” the vast array of voices is inspiring. Many of these poems touch on themes of land, belonging, and truth, yet the spirit of resistance imbues every selection , no matter the era—although it is disheartening that we are still asking the same questions without finding any lasting answers. America, We Call Your Name reminds us that the conviction of resistance is timeless and inevitable.

Frank Bidart’s poem “Mourning where we thought we were” arrives early in the collection:

therefore, thank you Lord/
Whose Bounty Proceeds by Paradox,/
For showing us we have failed to change.

 This despondent sentiment lingers through many of the poems. In “Money,” Jane Mead asks, How did the earth come to belong to humans?

But it wasn’t possible –by then the water didn’t belong to the salmon anymore, by then
The water didn’t belong the river.
The water didn’t belong to the water.

Like the layers of a geological formation, the questions these poems ask exist in sedimentary sympathy. Centuries before our current moment, Dante also wrote in the spirit of resistance. The anthology features an excerpt of Dante’s Paradiso – from the moment in the epic trilogy when he faces exile from Heaven.

You shall leave behind all you most dearly love/
and that shall be the arrow first loosed from the exile’s bow.

These words are already poignant within the diegetic context of the poem, but they bear even more emotional weight with the knowledge the author himself was condemned to exile. Dante knew the pain of losing one’s home in the wake of oppressive regimes. He also wrote the Commedia in Italian: the vulgar language, the language of the people.

Dean Rader writes, “[Poems] are the instruments of the people, not the palace.” Each poem is a voice raised against the hegemonic castle of oppressive societal structures, joining together in a symphony of resilience. From ancient to contemporary voices, the poet’s essence remains constant: we ask questions. To the extant power systems, we ask why. Art does not acquiesce – it rebels.

Emma Lazarus composes a vision of the Statue of Liberty. She writes:

A mighty woman whose flame/
is imprisoned lightning, and her name/
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand/
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command/
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame

America, We Call Your Name invites us to think for ourselves: do we view the future as the Statue of Liberty emerging from her cage of fog, or is she disappearing into the shroud? The existence of the anthology itself ­– a collaboration of passionate humans – may compel us to see Lady Liberty coming out of the fog, continuing in her resistance even in the midst of seemingly inescapable despair. Without hope, there is little to hold on to. As we struggle in search of the strength to carry on, the work of great poets like those in this anthology might serve as a beacon guiding our way.

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Leaning into the Tale: “CoDex 1962: A Trilogy” by Sjón

CoDex 1962In CoDex 1962: A Trilogy (515 pages; MCD/FSG), premier Icelandic novelist Sjón manages to transcend conventional genre expectations while still engraining himself within the rich tradition of fables and fairy tales. The trilogy of books, first released to great acclaim in Iceland in 2016, was written over the course of 25 years, with the story itself spanning from the early 20th century to modern day.

For the American release, the author has combined all three novels into one book, designating a genre to each section: Thine Eyes Did See My Substance (A Love Story), Iceland’s Thousand Years (A Crime Story), and I’m a Sleeping Door (A Science Fiction Story). Despite these labels, Sjón does not confine the writing within these respective genres. The prose, translated by Victoria Cribb, exhibits the timeless cadence of a Grimm Brothers’ tale, yet is suffused with a profound nuance and ambiguity that evokes the surreal quirkiness of Italo Calvino (especially his Cosmicomics) or George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.

The trilogy begins in a German inn, just after World War II. Marie Sophie, a maid, looks after an invalid, a Jewish refugee who had been interned at a concentration camp. After a gentle but troubling prelude, they produce a child formed from clay. He is Jósef Loewe, the narrator of their stories, from its nascence all the way to its conclusion in the present day, when we find Jósef the aging and mildly delusional CEO of a biotech company.

Over the course of the three sections, Sjón introduces a vast array of characters, including a curious little chickadee, a jealous lover, a stamp-collector, the Archangel Gabriel at his most vulnerable, and a genderless android. He deftly employs a close third-person perspective, allowing him to delve deep into the minds and lives of his characters. From time to time, the narrative will halt its ongoing plot to elucidate an incident from a character’s past, or a folk tale that is analogous to the one being composed.

One example arrives in Thine Eyes Did See my Substance, when the story is suspended so as to tell the tale of “The Old Woman and the Kaiser,” in which a young woman in a woodland cottage takes in a hunter later revealed to be the King. Of course, they fall in love, and legend has it she bore his only true heir but raised him in the woods, keeping him from assuming the throne. The book weaves similar stories throughout, adding even more complexity to an already complex plot.

It is difficult not to equate the narrator with the author. Both Jósef Loewe and Sjón were born on the same day in Reykjavik in 1962, and Loewe often discusses the act of storytelling. In this way, the trilogy proves of and about storytelling. Sjón hails from a rich background of traditional Icelandic stories, but he is not derivative –– he is wildly original in his reshaping and expansion of these stories.

Near the end of the novel he writes:

Storytellers are not content merely to have power over their audience’s minds but must also take control over their bodies at the very beginning of their tale by lowering their voices and leaning back, thus compelling their listeners to lean forwards—after all, they’ve come to hear what the story teller has to say. By means of this synchronized shift they establish who is the guide and who the travellers are on the coming journey.

 CoDex 1962 makes the reader feel as though they are engaging with a master storyteller. By the end of the trilogy, one enters into a symbiotic relationship with its narrator (and its author)—we trust Sjón will provide fulfillment in synthesizing the countless elements of the story, and we will be rewarded for following along with his vertiginous adventure. Sjón compels us to lean in close to hear his tale—and the journey is more than worthwhile.

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