Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Cannibal by John Hawkes


Albert Guerard, who acted as his Svengali, called John Hawkes a prime proponent of ‘the rhetoric of anti-realist fiction’. This rhetoric poses considerable challenges for the reader: in everything he writes, Hawkes assiduously tries to remove the conventional literary techniques with which we are familiar and which we can use to create sense of the text. Characterisation is virtually non-existent; narrative is fragmented, surreal, unbounded by traditional senses of time or space. Guerard likens it to ‘the effect of a solitary flashlight playing back and forth over a dark and cluttered room’: what we see is therefore fragmented, unconnected. We are left with something sensual, immediate, forceful and brutal, instant, something deeply confrontational. It defies simple explanation. At times, it defies understanding. Hawkes’s own description of it is as ‘a hallucinatory vision’. Mark Hamstra describes it thus:

Hawkes' books attempt to portray the dark cisterns beneath everyday reality. His work challenges readers to wade into the black waters of the violent, the comic, and the sexual; to sift through elements embedded in the past, with the ghosts of regret [and] death existing side by side with hope for the future.


The Cannibal is set ostensibly in Germany during and immediately after the Second World War, with diversions back in time to 1914 to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip, but this is not any recognisable representation of a real Germany. The locus is an imagined town called Spitzen-on-the-Dein, which ‘gorged itself on straggling beggars and remained gaunt beneath an evil cloaked moon’. It is a strange, nightmare world in which a lunatic asylum stands as the most direct symbol of the madness which infested Germany from 1933 to 1945. The narrator, Zizendorf, is a neo-Nazi who sets out to free his country from its American occupiers. To that end, he lays a trap for Leevey, an American soldier who patrols the countryside on his motorbike and appears to be in charge of much of Germany. In the ensuing ambush Leevey is killed and the novel ends with Zizendorf becoming the new Fuhrer.

There is no moral framework within which any recognisable sense of society can be formed. Everything has been reduced to a state of savagery: communication is rudimentary, emotions stunted. The people live a brute existence, madness and sanity appear indistinguishible. The Duke’s cannibalistic murder of Jutta’s young son is portrayed, in much the same way that Cormac McCarthy would later depict the actions of the necrophiliac Lester Ballard, in wholly neutral tones. This 1945 narrative, portraying the descent of modernity into madness, is counterpointed by the middle section of the novel in which the principal characters (in as much as they are ‘characters’) are transported back in time to 1914, the pre-First World War era of bombast and vainglory. The message is clear: the savagery and evil to which Germany succumbed is a natural concomitant of the mythically-based idealism on which its nationalistic fervour was built. Evil, but inevitable. A hell foretold in its own making.

Along with Zizendorf, the novel is peopled by a surreal array of character-types, none of whom are quite well enough defined to be considered characters in any traditional sense, but each possessing, nonetheless, a fierce sense of their essence, what it is that makes them as they are. There is the cannibalistic Duke, a drunken census taker, Madame Snow the boarding house owner, the tuba-playing Herr Stintz and Jutta, Zizendorf’s mistress, constantly craving a love which Zizendorf cannot offer, too passive to be considered a heroine, but the closest the novel comes to a sympathetic character.

There is an exotic, almost incantatory feel to the language and it is easy to immerse yourself in its beauty. Long passages feel luscious to the tongue, insisting to be read aloud. There are moments which could come straight from The Waste Land. And yet, throughout, there is a wilful refusal to allow any straightforward narrative to intervene. While one can admire Hawkes’s determination to pursue his modernist course, the result is a sense of distancing which makes it very difficult to access the novel on any level other than purely intellectual. There is little room for emotion, none for empathy. The Cannibal is certainly not a novel you can skim or allow your attention to wander from because, if you do, within a few paragraphs you will be hopelessly lost, with neither narrative nor compassion to reconnect you.

In the end, it is difficult to see anything redemptive here. The characters seem fated to recycle history, displaying the same weaknesses, expressing the same evil, falling into the same brutal traps. Perhaps that is accurate; perhaps that is the fate of us all. Or perhaps not. I cling to the beauty of that ‘or’. That beauty is missing in The Cannibal. Its hallucinations, while they are intended to liberate the novel from its form, liberate it, too, from hope.

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