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.

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

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

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