on What Darkness Was, a novel by Inka Parei, tr. by Katy Derbyshire (Seagull Books)

Born in Frankfurt in 1967, Inka Parei was ten years old during what became known as the “German Autumn,” a series of killings, bombings and robberies by the Baader-Meinhof Gang and other left-wing protest groups. The assassination of the attorney general of Germany was followed by the kidnappings and murders of the head of Dresdner Bank and the president of the German employers’ association, and the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet by Palestinian guerillas.

This turmoil simmers in the depths of Inka Parei’s novel What Darkness Was, set in Frankfurt in September, 1977. The second of her three slim novels, What Darkness Was was published in 2005 as Was Dunkelheit War.

Parei.jpegIn Parei’s integrated world of then-as-now, history is a malign residue, an indistinct but pervasive presence. Menace, whether past or present, is a half-understood horror, all the more threatening for its shape-shiftings.

Twenty years after the fall of Hitler’s Berlin, Germans had just begun to come to terms with the facts and implications of their role in the savaging of Europe. The past was neglected, disowned and fading. At the same time, the identity and character of democratic West Germany had not yet coalesced. Into this environment Parei establishes the story’s main character, known simply as an “old man” who inherits a building in Frankfurt from an army comrade. The building is a gaststätte -- comprising a restaurant and rooming house where the elderly and infirm man takes a room for himself.

The unnamed narrator of What Darkness Was follows the man through the banal hours of geriatric uselessness – a halting walk to the park nearby, wandering through the hallways of his building, staring down at the street, lying awake in his bed with the febrile nightsweats of old age. Much of what the man experiences exists on the level of sheer sensory effect – strange sounds in the building, murmuring conversation, the odd appearances of ordinary objects – meshing with his bodily discomfort, cognitive confusion and creeping fear. With the lightest of touches, Parei creates an entire, disturbing perceptual framework. Untempted by sententiousness, she will not exploit the old man by loading him -- as if he were merely a receptacle for given notions -- with the conflicts of his time.

Generally, Parei refrains from a too exact accounting of the old man’s thoughts and sentiments. In a world where the most massive forces of destruction elude comprehension and are veiled in memory, third-person omniscience is invalidated as an element of “realism.” When she nudges closer to her character, her strokes are brief and quick:

“He sensed it would be nice to think of the past now. But he forbade himself from doing so. It was better not to pursue that kind of thought, just as it was sometimes better not to call to mind in a dream that you were only dreaming.”

PAreiCover.jpgNevertheless, the past appears. The old man had served during the first months of Germany’s ill-fated invasion of Russia. When at war, does a soldier’s vocation exempt him from blame for horrors except in the most extreme cases of individual violence? This is how Parei treats the old man’s status:

“He thought about what voluntariness was. He came to no conclusion. Was it a series of circumstances? Something that gave you the possibility to apply your own will, your own judgment, without the compulsion coming about to take a false action, or, even worse, a pointless action? Or was it the opposite, the inner freedom to take your own decision at any moment, even in situations in which you seemed to have no choice at all?”

In another chapter, the old man recalls a friend in Berlin named Heinz who would share a park bench with him and espouse “eccentric mixtures of science, general wisdoms and imagination.” One of his theories proposed that some people live in only two dimensions. Heinz said, “See that? The people, I mean the ones that only live in two dimensions, if they existed, I mean, they don’t understand what’s happened, they don’t know the third dimension, there’s something missing for them. This here means they’ve lost something! Do you get me? Lost! It’s all lost!”

Parei2.jpegThis is the hard truth that Europeans understand but that Americans don’t – or, as Milan Kundera wrote, “Everything will be forgotten and nothing will be redressed” -- a virtually unacceptable and even immoral point of view for most American readers who prefer novels that portray life as a short-list of problems in search of solutions that ,with perhaps a few nights of troubled sleep, turn up in plain sight.

Kundera also said, “The aggressivity of force is thoroughly disinterested; unmotivated; it wills only its own will; it is pure irrationality.” Parei’s old man survived this brute force when it blew by him in a Russian winter, but his life continues at the cost of a loss of dimension.

Parei seems to suggest that the third dimension, the effort of gaining vision, derives from a sort of deprivation, refusing simplifications and evoking one’s own patience to peer into the present. What Darkness Was gives shape, sound and presence to a world deprived of dimension and leaking its memory.

[Published July 12, 2013. 128 pages, $21.00 hardcover]

This books sounds like a

This books sounds like a lyrical novel or maybe just what gets called a "small novel" the way film critics say a "small movie," satisfied to look at a simple situation with a keen eye. Maybe something like Paul Harding's TINKERS meets that description, but on the other hand that book is a pretty conventional narrative. Your comment re Americans says to me that if a Yank writes a book like Parei's it won't be taken seriously by the publishing gatekeepers since we don't have the patience for such things. Too small. Not sanguine. No resolution. I'll have fries with that.

Re The Third Dimension

Thank you for another intriguing review. A very interesting premise. Me, right now I'm having a little trouble breaking into the third dimension, there where the spatiality just seems to want to draw me back in time. If our American project was to forswear that looking back, and if we now seem to be in some sort of sullen inertia, I'm not so sure that the luminous doth always reside somewhere in the memory. Pound for pound, the future will usually win. We figure the cost. Maybe that's what has gone missing. Only my opinion.