Father, Son and Sewing-Machine

Patrick Parrinder

  • Garden, Ashes by Danilo Kis, translated by William Hannaher
    Faber, 170 pp, £8.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 571 13453 X
  • Star Turn by Nigel Williams
    Faber, 314 pp, £9.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 571 13296 0
  • On Glory’s Course by James Purdy
    Peter Owen, 378 pp, £9.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 7206 0633 0

Once upon a time the novelist’s task was to be realistic and to tell a story that was lifelike, convincing and ‘sincere’. Today’s novelists are counter-Aristotelians, spinners of tall tales and colourful yarns, engaged, as it seems, in some eternal childlike competition to impress their hearers and see who can get away with telling the biggest whopper. Each of the three novels under review reads, at times, like a gigantic leg-pull. Yet all three are historical novels, set in the first half of the present century and significantly concerned with world war, its origins and aftermath. Garden, Ashes and Star Turn, though unlike in most other respects, share a preoccupation with the Holocaust.

Danilo Kis’s novel is a lament for the passing of the Central European petty bourgeoisie. In one scene a Jewish shopkeeper, a man who has been as comfortably entrenched in domestic life as any of Dickens’s small bourgeois, watches his household goods being inventoried and loaded onto the cart which is to carry him and his kin towards the death-camps. Foremost among his possessions, a ‘whole museum of the history of mercantilism’, is that symbol of pre-war middle-class comfort, a Singer sewing-machine. On another page eine Singermaschine is lovingly itemised, analysed, and illustrated by a line-drawing.

The design of the Singer machine, with its cast-iron body like the arch of a bridge, is a product of the railway age. So is the book’s central figure, Eduard Scham, a comic monster in Derby hat and frock-coat whose messianic delusions are recounted with horrified fascination by his son Andreas. Eduard had been the promoter, in 1930, of the first moddern bakery in Central Europe and the Balkans – or was this all a hoax, born of his unrequited love for a baker’s widow and for her daughter who smelt of fresh bread? Bankrupted by his venture into steam baking, he took a job as clerk on the railways, rising to the rank of chief inspector and author of a Bus, Ship, Rail and Air Travel Guide. The travel guide, his Urfaust, is the progenitor of ever more fantastic and unpublishable compendia, sketches for an ultimate timetable in which travel data would unlock the doors to all human knowledge. Scham’s Utopian travel encyclopedia, which owes less to Bradshaw than to Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pècuchet, is the ‘summa of a new religion’, the scriptural embodiment of the greatest-happiness principle of modern materialism. For what could be more commonplace, in the bourgeois world, than to interpret the injunction to ‘Live all you can!’ as meaning ‘Travel and see as much as you can’?

The ultimate timetable is an intellectual fantasy worthy of Borges or Stanislaw Lem: but Danilo Kis shows us not only Eduard and his brainchild but their devastating effect on Andreas and the other members of his immediate family. Eduard, like most geniuses, is comprehensively misunderstood. The publishers reject the new edition of his travel guide, he loses his job on the railway and is eventually stripped of his standing as a retired inspector. Or could it be that some more malignant and less personal agency is at work? As Eduard, distraught and dishevelled, changes from time-tabler extraordinary into magus and sage, he begins to wonder if his grandiose heresies have not called down a blight on the whole Jewish race. How else explain the pogroms at his door and the forced eviction of his shopkeeping relatives? For a time he takes to drink and then to roaming the woods, living off mushrooms and birds’ eggs and for ever intoning Pantheist prayers. Even then his enemies will not leave him alone, since superstitious villagers see his frock-coat and cane as the instruments of a black magician. Later he is deported in a sealed cattle-truck, leaving behind his Catholic wife and children. Later still, he makes periodic reappearances in post-war Yugoslavia (or so his son claims), disguised as a prosperous German tourist.

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