Courtesy of Open Letter
Josef Gasser, who neighbors speak of as an “industrious no-good,” may have done something terrible. It could be said also that he may have done something not entirely terrible—call it a muddled action, noble at its core but misguided in execution. There’s a possibility, too, that what Josef Gasser (allegedly) did was in fact…nothing. Or, rather, nothing we can fairly judge “bad” or “good” except for the way it is described, and by whom. And to whom. And the sequence of events is likewise a bit fuzzy. Really nobody knows anything, though of course they all very badly want to.
A real head-scratcher, Andreas Maier’s second novel. It’s also, sort of miraculously, a great read. Originally published in German in 2002, Klausen arrives now via Open Letter Books, who in a stroke of everyday genius offer a subscription service for their small catalog of international titles. And if Klausen is any indication of editorial taste, then this subscription is surely the next gift I’ll buy for someone I’ve either wronged or would like badly to impress.
Klausen’s jacket copy refers to its author’s “method”—a revealing term, as if writing were something like heart surgery or home building, a finite process toward a distinct and known goal. Here, Maier (like Roberto Bolaño and Thomas Bernhard at their best) exhibits a sneaky mastery of human chaos, feigning helplessness to a noisy disarrangement of voices—something like an elementary school chorus lacking a leader—while quietly burying a firm, guiding plotline within the clamor.
The noise is thanks to the competing epistemologies within Klausen, the South Tyrolean town where rumor meets police report meets counter-rumor meets newspaper story, none of which earn credence over the rest. And it’s the interstices (we think of Melville) between accounts where Maier plays, and also where Kenneth J. Northcott’s translation shines. The German language has two forms of subjunctive verbs—one for wishes and unfulfilled conditions, and another to express doubt. The latter is what’s called “indirect speech,” which turns clunky when forced into English. Northcott’s solution is to pepper the text with phrases that lack certainty: “Many people asserted,” “it was later maintained,” or the endemic, “it was said.” But that these never grate, or even really bother, is testament to Northcott, who is also responsible for the 1998 translation of Bernhard’s tight collection of story fragments, The Voice Imitator.
In Klausen, the whirlwind of doubt spins around even the most minor of points—Gasser was said to have eaten the pickled calf’s head and to’ve drunk a glass of rosé—and accelerate as it expands, feeling both automatic and uncontrolled, a bit like a balloon trained to inflate itself. And it would all be too much were it not for Maier’s narrator/ringmaster, who has the authority and generosity to explain, on one occasion, that, “The details of what happened were as follows.” Elsewhere, there’s perspective enough to encapsulate much of human history: “Some people are for something and others are against it, and the world goes on its way in spite of it all.” It’s an affable omniscience, comforting in its assurance that someone at least could know the truth of this story.
But a reader stepping into the mystery of Josef Gasser will quickly give up efforts to solve anything, submitting instead to Maier’s steady authorial hands, gloved as if for protection from his subjects’ madness, exacting his surgery with a hefty 129-page paragraph, and then a seven-pager for its coda. The voices are loaded with political and philosophical bias, ego, racism, and are thus profoundly unhelpful. But our other option is, what? “Silence in Klausen. Nothing had ever sounded more unimaginable than that.”
Kyle Beachy can be found on the web at (where else?) kylebeachy.com.