Ergo and Soul of Wood: New Translations of a Viennese Master

03/17/2010 3:15 AM |

Ergo and Soul of Wood
By Jakov Lind
Translated by Ralph Manheim

Open Letter, New York Review Books

Jakov Lind’s biography is the sort that demands to be led with. A Viennese Jew, Lind left Austria in the wake of the Anschluss, traveling to Holland to escape the Nazis. Five years later, when the occupying Germans began their first mass round-ups of Dutch Jews, Lind went underground, obtaining false papers in the name of Jan Gerrit Overbeek and taking a job as a barge worker ferrying goods up and down the Rhine. Shortly thereafter, with Allied bomb attacks making work on the river increasingly dangerous, Lind, in an irony that was certainly dark enough, if perhaps too straightforward, to sit comfortably at home in one of his stories, managed to get a job as a courier for the German Air Ministry. At the war’s end he assumed yet another identity—this time of a Haifa-born Jew named Jakov Chaklan. Traveling under this persona, he made his way from Marseille to Palestine, where he lived for a time on a kibbutz before returning to Europe, eventually settling in London in 1954.

Dropped atop the hypocenter of the 20th century, Lind managed miraculously to extricate himself from the disasters ordained for him. The characters who populate his fiction, two volumes of which—the story collection Soul of Wood and the novel Ergo—have recently been reissued in English translations by Ralph Manheim, are typically less successful.

Notably, they’re also less innocent. The title story from Soul of Wood concerns the efforts of a crippled WWI veteran named Wohlbrecht to smuggle a paralyzed Jewish boy to a mountain hideaway after his parents are sent to a concentration camp. After essentially leaving the boy in the woods to die, Wohlbrecht ends up at an insane asylum, where he spends his days helping a pair of doctors administer lethal injections. With the war winding down and Germany losing, the three of them realize they’ll likely be held accountable for their crimes, and so they race back to the woods where Wohlbrecht left the boy, planning to claim him as an exculpatory example of their good works. What begins seemingly as a tale of Schindleresque redemption ends with a cast wholly unaware they’d any need to be redeemed in the first place.

Soul of Wood‘s characters are in general remarkable for their indifference to the blood on their hands (or, in the cases of the less culpable, the blood running through the streets around them). In “The Pious Brother” a German princess whose six sons died fighting at the Russian front smugly lights candles at mass for their S.S. comrade who’s committed suicide. In “The Judgment” an unrepentant serial killer tries to lure his father to his prison cell in order to make him his final victim. In “Hurrah for Freedom” a husband and wife feast obliviously on their own children while a visiting medical student does his best to join them. The stories’ universe is one devoid not just of righteous characters, but of the idea of righteousness itself.

Ergo seems an almost sunny book by comparison. The tale of an absurd, decades-long epistolary battle between two men, Wacholder and Wurz, the novel follows Wacholder and his tenant Leo as they attempt, over the objections of Wacholder’s adopted son Aslan, to read Wurz out of existence. It’s a fanciful, profane, discursive work, what little plot it possesses tripping disjointedly along atop the characters’ ranting and obsessing. Soul of Wood, with its sinister dreamworlds and disoriented paranoiacs, inevitably draws comparisons to Kafka. Ergo, on the other hand, approaches more the nimble surrealism of a Flann O’Brien. Blackly comic and deeply pessimistic, the book is by no means a light read, but it manages somehow still to feel light on its feet. Ultimately, this is Lind’s great genius. He writes like a man juggling cannonballs, tossing the weightiest of fates about with a casualness that makes them seem more terrible still.