Jakov Lind’s stature as a major European writer is based on a collection of short stories, Soul of Wood, and two novels, Landscape in Concrete, and Ergo, all of which were written in German. After that he began writing in English and the bulk of his output from the seventies until his death in 2007 consists of memoirs.
‘Jakov Lind’ is a pseudonym, one of three by which he has been known. He was born Heinz Jakov Landwirth in Vienna in 1927 to an assimilated Jewish family. Arriving in the Netherlands as a part of the Kindertransport in 1939, Lind obtained false papers and became Jan Gerrit Overbeek; the young Dutchman explained his native German by claiming an Austrian mother, which was true. Interestingly he survived the Second World War by hiding in plain sight. He returned to Germany, where he disguised himself as a Dutch deckhand on a barge on the Rhine travelling between from the Hook of Holland down to the Ruhr Valley — one of the most postcard-perfect parts of the Reich.
Overbeek contracted the clap from a prostitute, and was ordered to a sanatorium to recover. There, he was recruited by a scientist-soldier to serve as a personal courier in an office attached to Das Metallurgische Forschungsinstitut des Reichsluft-fahrtministeriums, “The Institute for Metallurgical Research of the Imperial Ministry of Air Traffic.” When Allied bombs are falling even by day, and Berlin’s being threatened, what’s a Jew passing under false papers to do? Overbeek mimicked a Nazi. It’s unconscious, Lind tells us; one nods and obeys, one adapts. Overbeek had no way of knowing that this Nazi scientist, who refused to allow Overbeek any contact with friends (and certainly not with any female friends), was spying on the Reich’s nuclear program and making reports on the progress of the Cyclotron to the British. — E.J. Van Lanen, ‘The Year of Jakov Lind’, Three Percent, 10th Feb 2010
After the war he relocated to Palestine to rejoin his family and became Jakov Chaklan. He took passage to Haifa, only to find his father ill, his mother dead, and his sisters grown up. He couldn’t settle to life there. The kibbutz drove him crazy, as did the religious, and so he eventually, reluctantly, found his way to London and to the name he would hold onto for the rest of his life, Jakov Lind.
I normally leave bios to the end of book reviews but I think it’s important here to get some idea of the kind of person who, in between 1964 and 1967 sat down and wrote the three books I mentioned in the first paragraph.
Ergo: a comedy, to give it its full title, is interesting because no sooner had it been published as a novel — as Eine bessere Welt (A Better World) — than Lind quickly adapted it for the stage where it found some success off-Broadway. Barbara Long, writing in Vogue, described it as “a swirl of madness [involving] a grotesque caricaturing of reality rooted in apocalypse ... that links metaphysicians, madmen [and] fools.” The New Yorker was not so charitable: “Ergo was written by a Viennese dramatist named Jakov Lind, and can be classified as ‘stale-experimental.’ At any rate, I'm sick to death of the leering, obscene comedy of German (in this case, Austrian) self- disgust.” Both are accurate. And where you finally lean will depend on how charitable you feel towards any kind of experimental writing.
I think I could’ve enjoyed the stage adaptation. I found the novel hard going.
Lind, in his lifetime, was described as a successor to Beckett and Kafka. It was what attracted me to him. And I can see where those who said that are coming from without a doubt. As soon as you take a bunch of paranoiacs and stick them in an enclosed space which two authors are going to jump to mind? Ergo takes elements of Watt and The Trial and adds a pinch of . . . oh, I don’t know . . . Jarry’s Ubu Roi, mixes well and stands well back.
The book opens:
ERGO: where the meadow narrows and the river makes a bend there is a sunken ship made of old beams and corrugated iron, stone flags and doors that don’t close properly, a jerry-built structure with rough wooden boards instead of windows that calls itself Custom House No. 8. Here at the end of a footpath it has lain rotting away for the last eighty or a hundred years. No one pays attention to it, because if you notice it from the bridge it looks like a piece of driftwood, but you don't notice it and no one has ever found out who if anybody lives there.
Well, what kind of book would this be if we weren’t introduced to the inhabitants? And indeed these three could happily take up residence on the set of Endgame and look quite at home there. First there is Roman Wacholder:
Slowly and heavily, a hippopotamus rising from the Nile, he rose from the paper mountain, beat the nightmare lewdness out of his clothes and stood there, a squat man of sixty with short gray hair and swollen lips, crossing his hands over his forehead, and looked around him darkly.
The mountain of paper is exactly that, three tons of paper, which he is responsible for.
The other two men are Wacholder's adopted son Aslan, and Leo, a tenant, neither of whom are required to pay any rent. (Yes, I noticed they were both the names of lions but I have no idea why.) Aslan is writing a novel to be called The Better World. So far it has taken him years to complete only five pages of his book which he keeps hidden.
To protect his own book, his private secret, he had been copying out the books of dead authors for several years. Wacholder suspected nothing.
Aslan: Do you know Faust, Father?
Wacholder: Faust? Mine is called Franz.
Mine is by Goethe. My pseudonym.
Wacholder: Can I take your word for that?
Aslan: Ask Leo.
Wacholder: Leo, is Aslan Goethe? I’ve known him a long time, and this is the first I’ve heard of it.
Wacholder: All those famous people are my Aslan? Is that true, Aslan?
Yes, Father, I’m very famous.
Aslan is being facetious. Wacholder is not. Leo never leaves his bed and only thinks about the nature of existence and his philosophical masterwork, Placental Theory of Existence, an idea that’s perhaps best described here:
It began as a pseudoquestion with Spinozist propositions. It started out scientifically, perhaps to avert suspicion, and gradually became its own principle. The principle was termed: the rediscovery of sense without nonsense.
Wacholder isn’t involved in writing fiction or philosophy. He prefers to send letters, seventy-three before the events recorded in Ergo, and a few more get written during the course of the novel. The letters all go to one recipient at Melchiorstrasse 9, Mr. Ossias Würz. As I said, they are not short of paper. In fact when the Minister of Commerce and Reconstruction, Trude Böckling, arrives to take inventory she finds 340,722 sheets unaccounted for. Only after Wacholder makes good with sex (although the sex is not very good) is the matter put to bed.
The Würz household consists of Würz, his wife (who for some reason still goes by the name Mrs. Rita Haunch) despite the fact that Rita’s grown sons, Arnulf and Arnold, “(begotten by a foreign dentist during the war),” who also stay with them had adopted the surname Würz. The two young men make a living by preying on “loneliness. Especially pensioned old gentlemen, dishwashers, waiters and policemen.”
Soliciting was fun. It amused the brothers to approach people sitting defenceless in the bus, cautiously crossing the street, patiently waiting in line for theatre tickets, with obscene propositions.
There was more money than patience and as much as loneliness. You can make a living by it, and that was no drawback either, especially since it was also fun. But why no women and girls, Arnulf? Würz had asked once. No objection, Father, but the market isn’t so hot.
You’ll note no quotation marks. There are none in the whole book and at times it gets very confusing especially when there is an interchange within a single paragraph. Occasionally, to make things clearer, Lind does use line breaks but quotes would have been so much easier and I see nothing gained by what I’ve always considered an affectation. Towards the end of the book capitals vanish too. I have no idea why.
Würz has not left his house for seventeen years. Wacholder’s seventy-fourth letter is sent to commemorate this fact. It also marks a breaking point for Wacholder. There’s nothing in the book to make it clear when the events in the book are set but The Beatles are mentioned and so this has to be post-1962. My guess is that it’s actually it is 1962 and Würz hasn’t left his home since the end of the Second World War during which time he has devoted himself to hermetically sealing his home and eliminating every last atom of dirt from the place. The two men used to be best friends but over the years Würz’s refusal to leave the safety of his home has changed the tone of their relationship; Wacholder has started to view Würz has his nemesis and has convinced himself that his former friend is plotting against him. Plotting what I — and I suspect, he — does not know but plotting nevertheless.
His increasingly threatening and barely comprehensible letters do have an effect on Würz: they annoy him but no matter how annoyed he gets he’s not for budging. Wacholder realises that extreme measures are called for. And this is where things start to get a little silly. As he’s leaning over the iron rail and peering into the dark water below the Reichs Bridge he sees “foam and bubbles” and that gives him an idea:
Nerve foam. Nerve foam.
That’s what I’ll do to Würz. I’ll get him. I’ll get him with air, with thousands of bubbles. With brain poison. Watch it, Würz. Here it comes. Through the water pipes, gushing from every faucet. Hot from the hot and cold from the cold. That’ll show him how to clean house. First he’ll be surprised, then he’ll go mad. Whish. Wacholder smiled. Whish swish. Whish and swish. He shouted so loud that even motorists turned round. I’ve got it.
But he’s not got it.
His happiness lasted three minutes, then the world went dark before his eyes. Worries. Practical considerations. How will I get a water pipe? I can’t send him the juice in a trunk. It’ll all escape before it gets there. No, it’s got to go through the water system, it’s got to rise up unexpectedly from deep down, that’s right, it’s got to come from way deep down.
The more he thinks about it the more he realises how many obstacles he will have to overcome to bring his plan to fruition. But that’s all right. Leo, it transpires, has a better plan:
I’m working on it. I’m not finished, but pretty nearly.
Working on what?
You heard me. I’m working on it. Leo stood up, tucked his shirttails into his pants and paced back and forth. He put on a look of pride and bored holes in the air with his right forefinger. That’s it exactly.
What? How so?
Where will Würz be if we subtract him?
Exactly. He’ll be gone. You’re not as dumb as you look. If we subtract him, he’ll be gone; if we take away his existence, he won’t have any existence. If something has no existence , it doesn’t exist.
So far, so good and no nasty chemicals to mix or employees of the municipal water works to ask favours of. But Leo’s plan also has one teeny tiny flaw:
Being can be. Nonbeing, that definite. But only if a majority agrees in it. A question of quantity. Quantity can reduce quality... [T]he negation of Würz involves the danger of self-negation, because of what is can be declared to be nothing, so can the man who does the declaring. In other words, if we say Würz doesn’t exist, Würz can say: No one who exists can say that I don’t exist. Then where would we be? Nowhere.
The inevitable conclusion is reached: they need a lot of people to agree that Würz doesn’t exist. They need to have a conference. And that is indeed what happens eventually though where the throng that assembles to hear Leo speak come from or how they heard about said conference either isn’t explained or I missed it, probably the former.
The story as I’ve presented it above seems straightforward enough if a little strange. It is not, believe me, it is nothing less than perverse in both the broadest and the narrowest senses. The novel is rife with allusions to the war in which it appears both old men were Nazis although not especially important ones if the truth be told despite Wacholder’s claims to the contrary.
Interweaving a multitude of cryptic episodes and motifs, Lind satirically excoriates Austrian – and, by extension, German – attempts to conquer the Nazi past as half-hearted and hypocritical. Morally he shows, nothing has changed. It must be said, however, that the story line is far too intricate to allow for a clear-cut reading. ... In his own drastically alienated manner, through narrative of allegory, the bizarre and the fantastic, he remains a writer in search of meaning amid the moral disasters of his time. — David Patterson, Alan L. Berger, Sarita Cargas, Encyclopaedia of Holocaust Literature, pp.113,114
The big problem is that meaningless things don’t have any meaning. What happened to these men in the war has set up a schema; they have continued to live meaningless existences to which they try an ascribe meaning. Highbrow rubs shoulders with out-and-out vulgarity. I suppose that’s a reasonable allegory for the stance the Nazis took on issues like racial purity; they could make the most obscene acts sound so reasonable as I found out recently when I researched their treatment of disabled people (see my review of Dreaming in Black and White).
The title is a puzzle. Ergo. We’ve all hear of Cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am — but in this book what Leo is proposing is Cogito ergo vos es non — I think therefore you are not — when it comes to “removing existence from a mortal enemy of our society, a Mr. Ossias Würz ... who has been living on the immoral earnings of his wife’s minor sons...” Does that not sound like the kind of propaganda the Nazis used to spout off about the Jews? I know Orwell coined the word “unperson” but the Nazis came up with the idea first. The way that Leo explains existence (and the only place the word ergo appears in the book apart from the first word) is in the following statement where Leo informs the gathered conferees:
We pull on God’s cock therefore, we are. Penem Dei tractamus ergo sumus.
This declaration is presumably an important sentence, considering the fact that the title of the novel is derived from the quote but it’s part of a long monologue and I’m not sure quoting a large section of it would help. Suffice to say if language like that offends you then large chunks of this book will offend you and I advise you to steer clear of it.
Some reviewers have called the book surreal. It’s a word that’s overused. Really this book has its roots in German Expressionism not Surrealism. The common thread would be one of unrealism. In the world of Ergo anything is permitted. There is plenty of nonsense but I couldn’t make any sense out of it. I say that flippantly but I can see there’s a point buried in all the densely packed grandiloquence and verbiage. It’s what you have to wade through to get to it. I’m not easily shocked or offended and this book neither shocked nor offended me but I finished it feeling that he could have made his case far more eloquently and certainly more succinctly, not that the book is very long — 150 pages — but it felt much longer.
One review described it as "a wild, strange, bawdy book for lovers of paradox and black comedy" which is a very glass-half-full view of the book. I could replace every word with a far less charitable synonym and leave the sentence equally valid.
The worse thing is, although I struggled with this book there was a lot that intrigued me about the author and if another book by him came my way I’m intrigued enough to try him again; there were some brilliant passages in amongst all the murk. That says something.
You can read an excerpt here.