Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Rings of SaturnThe Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The shadow of night is drawn like a black veil across the earth, and since almost all creatures, from one meridian to the next, lie down after the sun has set, so [...] one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if levelled by the scythe of Saturn - an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness."

The Rings of Saturn (German original - 1995, the splendid English translation by Michael Hulse - 1998) is my second book by W.G. Sebald, after the magnificent The Emigrants . This work by Sebald again straddles the boundary between fact and fiction, albeit in a different way, and is hard to categorize as a specific literary genre. Were one forced to classify the book, it would likely be called a collection of historical and socio-economic essays immersed in a travel diary, where each visited place is in some way connected with events from the past that provide the material for study. The narrator, named W.G. Sebald - who may or may not be the author himself - embarks on a tour of the county of Suffolk, which is the area in England where the German-born author used to live and work after he had emigrated from his country in the 1960s. Obviously this adds to the perception of authenticity in this travel diary and indeed, the real Mr. Sebald could have walked the very same roads and ridden the same trains that the narrator writes about in the book.

Several themes of Rings made a strong impression on me. In Chapter II the narrator writes about the history of the manor of Somerleyton and vividly describes the current state of Somerleyton Hall. The practices of herring fishing and utilization, related to the visit to Lowestoft, the easternmost point of the British Isles, are investigated in Chapter III. Chapter V offers a truly fascinating essay - to me by far the best part of the book - about the childhood and youth of Polish-born writer Józef Korzeniowski, better known as Joseph Conrad. This is also related to Lowestoft - the narrator explains that the local papers, Lowestoft Standard and Lowestoft Journal were Korzeniowski's "first English tutors." Finally, the reader is offered an engrossing story of silk cultivation and manufacturing in Europe, accompanied by a study of the silkworm life cycle. The silk angle is related to the town of Norwich.

However the most important and recurrent motif in Rings refers to the works of Thomas Browne, the seventeenth century author who wrote about science, medicine, religion, and specialized in esoteric topics, such as burial and funerary customs or cataloguing strange objects (pictures, books, etc.) that are imaginary or whose existence is highly improbable. One will notice how the topic nicely dovetails with Mr. Sebald's inclination to write about events that might have happened. Unsurprisingly, the author juxtaposes Browne's works with the famous imaginary creations of Jorge Luis Borges - the fictional world of Tlön and the bestiary in Manual de zoología fantástica.

Melancholy pervades Rings: Mr. Sebald is a master painter of sorrowful moods. As in The Emigrants he is preoccupied with destruction, decay, and ruins. The book is also a powerful cry about the immensity of human suffering throughout history. About the ethnic cleansing atrocities in the Balkans it says:
"Seven hundred thousand men, women and children were killed there alone in ways that made even the hair of the Reich's experts stand on end, [...] The preferred instruments of execution were saws and sabres, axes and hammers, and leather cuff-bands with fixed blades that were fastened on the lower arm and made especially in Solingen for the purpose of cutting throats as well as a kind of rudimentary crossbow gallows [...]"
Painful and biting sarcasm, reminiscent of the best writings of Kurt Vonnegut, the author reserves for Kurt Waldheim who in his youth had been an intelligence officer for Wehrmacht's Heeresgruppe E, highly praised by his superiors for contributions to military operations that involved executions of prisoners, and who much later, in the 1970s, served as the United Nations Secretary-General:
"And reportedly it was in this last capacity that he spoke onto tape, for the benefit of any extraterrestials that may happen to share our universe, words of greeting that are now, together with other memorabilia of mankind, approaching the outer limits of our solar system aboard the space probe Voyager II."
To be fair, not all human suffering is caused by nationalism, religion, or other canons of ideological purity followed by members of our illustrious species. The following gut-wrenching statement is about the Chinese famine in the late 1800s:
"Parents exchanged children because they could not bear to watch the dying torment of their own."
Thanks to Mr. Sebald's outstanding prose I read most of the book with deep interest. Alas, somewhere in Chapter VIII, in the middle of the convoluted tale of Edward FitzGerald and the Ashburys, the author suddenly lost me and I fell asleep over the pages: not being able to focus on the minutiae of the plot I had to skim the next thirty or so pages. Fortunately, Chapter X, the last one, brings back Thomas Browne and his Musaeum Clausum, which again makes for captivating reading. Yet, overall, I did not like Rings as much as I liked The Emigrants. Of course I recommend the book - Sebald's prose is extraordinary - but not with unlimited enthusiasm.

Three and a half stars.

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