The deceptive verisimilitude of Martha Baillie’s mesmerizing novel, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel, extends all the way to the clever “Appendix” at the end of the narrative. That section begins, “On November 20, 2010, the Canadian national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, published a photograph showing a young man walking down University Avenue [in Toronto], possibly being followed by a fox and a full-grown stag.” The photo was quickly reprinted in other Canadian newspapers. The man was identified as a young German, Heinrich Schlögel, who had checked into the emergency department of a Toronto hospital, complaining of a roaring in his ears. As he filled in some forms for his examination, the TV in the waiting room showed an “image of a fox and a full-grown stag,” and the image prompted the young man to abruptly leave the hospital. The newspaper articles that were subsequently published—along with the photograph—requested that anyone who knew the young man’s identity should contact the Toronto Police.
The newspaper photo isn’t the only attempt the author makes to imply that—although her book is a novel—it’s based on a real-life event. The unnamed narrator claims to have known Heinrich when they were both children. For years, he’s been piecing together the story of his one-time friend. What we learn is that in 1980, when Heinrich was seventeen or eighteen, he left Germany and flew to Canada to make a trip into the wilderness, from Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean. The journey was prompted by his sister’s, Inge’s, obsession with the country’s Inuit, with learning their language, Inuktitut. She’s a brilliant but troubled teenager, given to cutting her flesh. Both Heinrich and Inge are overly controlled by their demanding parents, stifled, in fact.
One theme of Baillie’s novel is the abuse and extermination of Canada’s Eskimo population, plus the anthropological fascination of these people. In 1880, a family of Inuit was brought from Labrador to Berlin, where they were put on display in the city’s zoo. A newspaper article reported that “Saturday, May 5, 1880. Family of savages from the Frozen North [of Canada] draws large crowds at Berlin Zoo. On Tuesday last, the youngest Eskimo, a girl, six years of age, caught in her mouth and swallowed a raw fish tossed to her….” The German obsession with “savages,” has been well publicized in various historical documents, including the often disgusting treatment of these people. Given the subsequent German obsession with exterminating the so-called inferior races during World War II, how revealing that Germany is the country where anthropology originated.
In Baillie’s novel, when Hendrich arrives in Canada, he enters a Hudson Bay store and purchases a book called A Brief Study of Residential Schools in Northern Canada: Evolving Approaches to Educating Indigenous Populations. In that book, he reads that Inuit “children were beaten for speaking Inuktitut”—the language his sister worked so diligently to master. “They were underfed and housed in over-crowded dormitories, where disease spread easily. They were taken, against their parents’ will. Some escaped and froze to death trying to find their way home.” Earlier, Heinrich had been concerned about environmental degradation, including the fact that bees had lost their memory and had difficulty finding their way back to their colonies.
To a certain extent, that is what will subsequently happen to Heinrich. Initially, he wants to follow the route of an earlier explorer named Hearne, whose book had been published in Germany. But because of a casual meeting with a young Canadian, Heinrich changes his route. Thus, he begins his supposed twelve-day trek into the wilderness, alone, intending to return to Frobisher Bay. He encounters few genuine obstacles, observes few people or animals, but suffers a series of hallucinations where he believes he meets members of his own family and Hearne, the earlier explorer. When he finally returns, the town has been totally changed and renamed Iqaluit. The money Heinrich uses to pay for the hotel the first night is referred to by the hotel manager as old money, no longer acceptable. A calendar in the hotel tells him that the year is 2010, which he believes is some kind of joke. Heinrich has not aged; he’s no older than he was when he began his trek thirty years ago. Thereafter things become quite complicated. When he calls his father in Germany, the old man is quite blunt: “My son disappeared thirty years ago. People do not reappear after thirty years of absence except in books and films.” He will have nothing to do with him.
Martha Baillie’s The Search for Heinrich Schlögel is totally engrossing, quite magical. The narrative is modulated with historical extracts, lengthy and fascinating footnotes (mostly by Heinrich’s friend piecing the story together), extracts about flora and fauna—plus the “Appendix” that I have already mentioned. The story is a mystical account of a young man’s attempt to relate to the harshest of environments, but also a narrative rooted in troubling family dynamics. You will probably feel that some of Heinrich’s experiences are more annoying than understandable because of the author’s refusal to provide explanation for what has happened. Yet Heinrich himself is a fascinating—if not complex—young man, wild eyed and bushy tailed, concerned about the environment and the treatment of the world’s indigenous cultures and, finally, in that sense hopeful that if other young men and women (like Inge) demonstrated similar awareness of the world we live in, our collective fate might still be reconciled with its once-pristine past.
Martha Baillie: The Search for Hendrich Schlögel
Tin House Books, 352 pp., $15.95
Charles R Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: email@example.com.