Daily Archives: October 18, 2015

The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach

Ferdinand von Schirach’s succinct and deceptively easily readable novel blends crime genre tropes with arthouse experimentalism; if Scott Turow had rewritten Last Year at Marienbad to include some courtroom shenanigans, this would be it. Although structured in four parts, each featuring a colour as a leitmotif, it’s essentially a narrative of two halves. The first documents the troubled life of artist Sebastian von Eschburg in a dark, occasionally absurd, and thoroughly unreliable manner. There are so many lacunae that sometimes it seems like you’re potholing instead of reading. The waters are further muddied by Eschburg’s emotional detachment and synaesthesia – the novel uses the condition to a narrative purpose unequalled since Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

The second half is from the perspective of Konrad Biegler, a defence lawyer so grumpy, so portly and so henpecked that he makes Rumpole of the Bailey look like Dirty Harry. Biegler races (or rather waddles) against time to make sense of the case – which involves a shedload of circumstantial evidence but no actual body – with the assistance of Eschburg’s glamorous partner Sofia. As the trial date approaches, Schirach first tinkers with then outright subverts his readers’ expectations.

The artworks and installations that make Eschburg famous are based on Goya’s The Clothed Maja and The Naked Maja, Sir Francis Galton’s multiple photographic exposure of the faces of criminals, and Wolfgang von Kempelen’s “mechanical Turk”. Not mentioned in the novel, but a tempting correlation, is the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Poetry Machine installation, a sort of random poetry generator that became a bete noire of the German literature scene a decade and a half ago. Similarly, Schirach’s novel reads in places like a randomly generated thriller, as he gleefully throws everything from hidden family secrets to the sudden reappearance of long lost siblings into the pot, seasons with east European hookers, and simmers over the hyperbole of torture porn imagery.

All of which, done purely for its own sake, would pretty much guarantee a cynically entertaining read. However, Schirach assembles all his pieces (including several rugs that don’t remain under the reader for very long) in the service of two thorny questions: what the relationship is between reality and truth; and, as Eschburg asks outright at a crucial moment, “what is guilt?” Omitted from Schirach’s author’s back cover biographical note is the fact that his grandfather was Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach, an awkward bit of family history which nonetheless offers perspective from which to ponder that question.

Neil Fulwood

Ways to Build a Roadblock by Josh Ekroy (Nine Arches, £8.99)

Ways to Build a Roadblock is well titled. There’s hardly a poem in it that doesn’t demonstrate, with admirable craftsmanship and economy, how poetry can act as a focused and unflinching distillation of its subject and stop the reader in their tracks. At the heart of Ekroy’s debut is a controlled but palpable fury at corrupt politics and pointless war-mongering. In ‘Lord Hutton Reports’, ‘The Trojan Enquiry’ and ‘Orange’, he calls out bullshit by aping the bland language of officialdom and plausible deniability. The former has a touch of knockabout humour, taking the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty as its starting point:

I am satisfied that this is not a case

in which the Crown could have had any knowledge

that a notoriously unstable egg would hurl itself

from the wall it was ill-advised enough to sit on.

‘The Trojan Enquiry’ ups the ante, leeching away some of the humour and replacing the broad whitewash of an official report with the mealy-mouthed question-hedging of a witness appearing before a board of enquiry, while ‘Orange’ spoofs the semi-urgent attention-shifting speciousness of government press releases, spoofing them into absurdity by casting oranges and lemons as antagonists in some kind of citric sectarianism:

Growers insist on a patrol-base

and lemon security is handled seriously.

Downing St issued a black on white statement

which promises that our involvement

will soon be on the ground.

That Ekroy recognises no sacred cows is obvious from the opening poem, which compares the courtship rituals of the Empid fly with Blair visiting Bush at Crawford in 2003. Here’s a poet who not only identifies politics as a grubby business but isn’t afraid to get his own hands dirty; the ‘roadblock’ as an act of resistance.

Even when he turns his attention to more rarefied subjects, an earthy and unpretentious aesthetic remains present. Classical music links ‘78rpm’, which ends with its titular slab of vinyl, scratched and unplayable, hurled over a patch of wasteland (“the Vienna Boys’ Choir was stung / into silence in the nettle patch”); ‘Musical Vienna – a Guided Tour’, where the tour in question is of the sewers; and ‘Shostakovich 5’, which manages to simultaneously exult in the power of music and generate the tension of a thriller in ten brilliantly cadenced lines.

Elsewhere, he uses set forms – the pantoum, a scattering of sonnets, a specular poem – with an almost conversational ease. Accessibility is key to his work even at its darkest or most experimental, such as in ‘The Restroom’, a textbook example of the via negativa where fifteen broken and scattered lines avoid the subject of political torture and leave the reader more unsettled than if Ekroy had tackled it head-on.

Ways to Build a Roadblock doesn’t offer any comfort zones or safe havens. Poem after poem challenges, pushes, provokes. Ekroy is like a boxer, ducking, weaving, never still, coming at you from different directions and with wildly divergent subject matter. Sheep, owls, goldfinches. Politics, warfare, paranoia. Memory, surrealism, propaganda. If there’s anything missing from this astounding first collection it’s probably because it isn’t terrifying or corrosive enough to merit inclusion.

Neil Fulwood