Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Please Support CounterPunch’s Annual Fund Drive
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We only ask you once a year, but when we ask we mean it. So, please, help as much as you can. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. All contributions are tax-deductible.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Talk to the Animals

It is not inaccurate to say that in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1912), once the characters reach the tuberculosis sanitarium in the mountains, very little action occurs.  Rather, it’s reaction, analysis about the past.  As a colleague said to me when he read the novel years ago (as I did), the characters talk, and talk, and talk.  I’m certain that I am stereotyping by saying that that talk, talk, talk is true of other Germanic narratives.

And it’s certainly true of Marcel Beyer’s probing—but ultimately unsatisfying—novel, Kaltenburg, a roman à clef of sorts about the real life Austrian zoologist, Konrad Lorenz, a controversial figure because of his World War II activities.

Instead of using Vienna (where Lorenz was born and died) as the primary setting, Beyer shifts the venue to Dresden, focusing on the periods before, during, and after the war.  This setting permits a close linkage to Russia because of the post-WWII era, especially the rise of Communism and the beginning of the Cold War.  And like Konrad Lorenz, Beyer’s main character, Ludwig Kaltenburg, joined the Nazi Party, was a prisoner of war in Russia once the war was over.  Beyer goes so far as to suggest that Kaltenburg was involved in questionable human studies like the Nazis under the influence of Stalin.  The problem is that as a narrative, as a novel about Ludwig Kaltenburg, the reader is provided with cryptic information at best about Kaltenburg’s activities for the Nazis and then for Stalin, hinted at rather than shown more directly, i.e., talked about by others who knew him.

Primarily, the observations about Kaltenburg came from Hermann Funk, who as a child knew the celebrated man.  Kaltenburg was a frequent guest in Hermann’s parent’s home.  Those years were in Posen when Herman’s father, a botanist, regarded Kaltenburg as one of his close friends.  But then a rift occurs, though Hermann is never quite certain of the reason for the break up of the friendship.  The boy’s family moves on to Dresden, and when he is still quite young his parents disappear.  But Hermann has already fallen sway of Kaltenburg’s studies because both share a love of animals—the bond that links so many characters in the novel.  When he grows up, Hermann will become an ornithologist and work with Kaltenburg at his institute in Dresden.

The birds, the animals, the fish—what we learn about them throughout the narrative—these are the highlights of the novel for me, beginning a few pages into the story where the first references to fear are introduced.  Birds in their nests are “continuously subject to abrupt random shocks.  It has been observed that even in the egg the blind and featherless creatures flinch when a falling twig hits the nest.” That’s powerful stuff, relating as it does to Konrad Lorenz’s theories about aggression.  No surprise then when much later we encounter the following passage about Kaltenburg’s own house:

“Sometimes, [Kaltenburg] said, he had people in the house who clearly thought him not entirely sane, although they would never admit it to his face.  Not a single chair available for guests but any amount of space for his animals, the jackdaw colony in the loft, the basement reserved for fish.  A cockatoo had the run of all floors, and its infernal cawing echoed through the whole house whenever an unwelcome guest blocked its usual flight path up and down the stairs.  Dogs strayed around in the rooms, which annoyed some people more than did the ducks sitting there on the carpet making a low gabbling noise when the resident tomcat strutted past as though only he and his master were present.  And not forgetting the hamster. On the desk a pile of gnawed papers on which it had been working the previous night, but the animal itself was nowhere to be seen.  ‘I force myself not to let on that for the past few weeks it has been residing in the kitchen.’”

The references to bird imprinting, with birds magically appearing around Kaltenburg wherever he goes sometimes make one think more of Dr. Doolittle than Konrad Lorenz.  The infighting and jealousies with other celebrated contemporaries (zoologists, ornithologists, ethnologists) become the center of much of the focus of the story, with Hermann himself shifting his loyalties to Kaltenburg several times during the narrative.  Plus the endless discussions of these relationships, the questionable activities with Nazis and Soviets, frequently between Hermann and his wife, Klara Hagemann (who has as strong a fixation on Marcel Proust as her husband has on Kaltenburg); all contribute to the dense narration where little is ever known for certain beyond endless speculation.

And, yet, there is damning criticism here of all the major characters, who go merrily about their lives and their research as freight trains pass by them, with “crowded cars” and foreign faces and languages as the unwanted are being carted off to the camps.  Or, as fifty years pass by with few references to families or children—and almost no emotion—demonstrated by the educated elite who blindly continue living their lives as if they, too, are little more than jackdaws, ducks, or hamsters undergoing endless behavioral study.  It’s all rather elliptical narration, which even Alan Bance’s smooth translation can’t redeem.

Kaltenburg
By Marcel Beyer
Trans. by Alan Bance
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pp., $26

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

October 17, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
When Saudi Arabia’s Credibility is Damaged, So is America’s
John Steppling
Before the Law
Frank Stricker
Wages Rising? 
James McEnteer
Larry Summers Trips Out
Muhammad Othman
What You Can Do About the Saudi Atrocities in Yemen
Binoy Kampmark
Agents of Chaos: Trump, the Federal Reserve and Andrew Jackson
David N. Smith
George Orwell’s Message in a Bottle
Karen J. Greenberg
Justice Derailed: From Gitmo to Kavanaugh
John Feffer
Why is the Radical Right Still Winning?
Dan Corjescu
Green Tsunami in Bavaria?
Rohullah Naderi
Why Afghan Girls Are Out of School?
George Ochenski
You Have to Give Respect to Get Any, Mr. Trump
Cesar Chelala
Is China Winning the War for Africa?
Mel Gurtov
Getting Away with Murder
W. T. Whitney
Colombian Lawyer Diego Martinez Needs Solidarity Now
Dean Baker
Nothing to Brag About: Scott Walker’s Economic Record in Wisconsin:
October 16, 2018
Gregory Elich
Diplomatic Deadlock: Can U.S.-North Korea Diplomacy Survive Maximum Pressure?
Rob Seimetz
Talking About Death While In Decadence
Kent Paterson
Fifty Years of Mexican October
Robert Fantina
Trump, Iran and Sanctions
Greg Macdougall
Indigenous Suicide in Canada
Kenneth Surin
On Reading the Diaries of Tony Benn, Britain’s Greatest Labour Politician
Andrew Bacevich
Unsolicited Advice for an Undeclared Presidential Candidate: a Letter to Elizabeth Warren
Thomas Knapp
Facebook Meddles in the 2018 Midterm Elections
Muhammad Othman
Khashoggi and Demetracopoulos
Gerry Brown
Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics: How the US Weaponizes Them to Accuse  China of Debt Trap Diplomacy
Christian Ingo Lenz Dunker – Peter Lehman
The Brazilian Presidential Elections and “The Rules of The Game”
Robert Fisk
What a Forgotten Shipwreck in the Irish Sea Can Tell Us About Brexit
Martin Billheimer
Here Cochise Everywhere
David Swanson
Humanitarian Bombs
Dean Baker
The Federal Reserve is Not a Church
October 15, 2018
Rob Urie
Climate Crisis is Upon Us
Conn Hallinan
Syria’s Chessboard
Patrick Cockburn
The Saudi Atrocities in Yemen are a Worse Story Than the Disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi
Sheldon Richman
Trump’s Middle East Delusions Persist
Justin T. McPhee
Uberrima Fides? Witness K, East Timor and the Economy of Espionage
Tom Gill
Spain’s Left Turn?
Jeff Cohen
Few Democrats Offer Alternatives to War-Weary Voters
Dean Baker
Corporate Debt Scares
Gary Leupp
The Khashoggi Affair and and the Anti-Iran Axis
Russell Mokhiber
Sarah Chayes Calls on West Virginians to Write In No More Manchins
Clark T. Scott
Acclimated Behaviorisms
Kary Love
Evolution of Religion
Colin Todhunter
From GM Potatoes to Glyphosate: Regulatory Delinquency and Toxic Agriculture
Binoy Kampmark
Evacuating Nauru: Médecins Sans Frontières and Australia’s Refugee Dilemma
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail