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Essays

This space is for essays about books, mostly novels, and an exploration of craft and what I surmise to be its effects.

Shifting Emotion in Farewell Sidonia

The novel Farewell Sidonia, by Erich Hackl, tells the story of a baby abandoned on the steps of an Austrian hospital in 1933 by her Roma (gypsy) mother. From there, the baby girl is taken up by child welfare services; she is rejected by her first foster mother after only a few nights because the family considers her too black. A second couple, Josepha and Hans, who already have a son, take in baby Sidonia and love her as their own. Due to the historical setting, readers can guess from the first page of the novel what will happen to Sidonia —tragically, she is taken at age eleven to her birth mother and then brought on a train with the rest of her family clan to Auschwitz.  The highly charged emotional and political content of the story is played down by a third-person narrator who tells almost the whole story as though it were a report, without emotion, until, in the final pages, he makes one abrupt narrative shift.  This shift to emotion brings the factual tone into question, serving the territory the novel explores extremely well.

The first three quarters of this brief novel is narrated by an omniscient narrator, and the tone is exceedingly dispassionate.  The novel begins, “On August 18th, 1933, the porter of the hospital in Steyr, Austria, found a child asleep and wrapped in rags… The man, named Mayerhofer—gray, lanky, sixty-three years old—had been asleep in his quarters behind the porter’s lodge…” (1) The novel often, as in these first lines, sounds as though it were being told from a third-person objective point of view, the narrator recounting only observable actions and facts. Even when we are permitted into the head of characters, thoughts are described in a similarly factual tone. On the porter Mayerhofer’s decision when he is awakened in the middle of the night: “So now he only half sat up on his cot, straining his ears in the darkness. It was quiet. Nevertheless, in the end he decided to take a look… he could barely make out the tops of the trees on the other side of [the street] and decided that he had been correct in thinking he had imagined it all” (2).

This distant omniscient narrator packs over thirty crucial years into the narrative. After getting the father’s WWI history, we are led forward, step by step, through the Second World War and into its aftermath, with a subtle focus on events that eventually lead to Sidonia’s ultimate fate: a newspaper announcement calls people to “consolidate their battle against the gypsy plague,” (52); the ongoing search for Sidonia’s birth parents, which officials continue “with undiminished fervor,” (51); and the growth (or unveiling) of undisguised racism: “And what is that?” asks a new neighbor “in a shrill voice, that black thing?” (59).  Life-changing historical events are told as though in passing: “In 1938, right after the Germans marched in, the Socialist Gymnasts joined the SA” (59-60). Even Sidonia’s perspective on who she is is recounted in this factual way. “Sidonia had no doubt that she was the legitimate daughter of her foster parents…. She insisted unswervingly that Josepha had given birth to her. She was dark only because she had been out in the sun so much. Not any more than the rest of us, the other children said. It works faster on me, Sidonia explained” (55).

This insistence on an unemotional tone is intriguing and a bit puzzling. In a first reading, we can only guess why Erich Hackl chose this point of view for the novel. It could be because the use of a distant tone acknowledges the author’s distance from the events that occurred. (He was born in the 1950s). It could be an attempt to keep the emotionality at arm’s length. Because it is a time in history to which modern readers have a strong response, a highly emotional voice would perhaps diminish the impact. Or it could be the opposite. It is a period in which many people, to their moral detriment, kept a focus on the facts instead of responding with humanity.  Perhaps the narrator is mirroring this? It could also be that the lack of emotion acknowledges that no emotionality can suffice as a response to what happened.

But then, more than three quarters of the way through the book, we get this: “At this point the chronicler can no longer hide behind facts and conjecture. This is the point at which he wishes to scream in helpless rage” (103). At this point in the story, Sidonia is being taken by the social worker to be rejoined with her family clan in another part of Austria. Both Josepha and Hans have tried to stop this from happening, but, unbeknownst to them, the social worker who has written nothing but positive reports about Sidonia’s care, and the mayor of the town who personally likes Sidonia, have each supported this action. After over a hundred pages of factual distance, this emotional outburst is a surprising and attention-getting move.  In addition to experiencing relief at the emotion, we are given an explanation for the previous tone—the narrator believes that he was hiding. He inculcates himself in the events of the past with this admission, showing how easy it is to view even horrifying events from a distance.  While the dispassionate voice returns, the emotional residue of the outburst never disappears. The next appearance of the chronicler, as he calls himself, is several pages on and without the emotion: “Decades later Gertrud Embacher, who was present at the occasion because she was serving provisionally as the administrative secretary, reported to the chronicler that Sidonia’s mother was a little over thirty, but looked somewhat older” (113). But after the shift, because the narrator has admitted emotion into the novel, it’s hard if not impossible to continue reading without it.

The last pages of the novel are a sort of after-the-fact accounting, and, while they are told in the earlier distant tone, I had a strongly emotional response to the two types of responses. When Hans, Sidonia’s foster father, receives confirmation that she is in fact dead, “[he] screamed with such fury and pain that the American officer next to him started in shock” (121). I absolutely felt his outrage and grief. The second , and more common, type of response is denial. “Hans and Josepha were still greeted in Letten. People spoke to them. All of them acted as if Sidonia had never existed” (123).  The neighbors who had called Sidonia black “acted as if nothing had happened…They avoided each other, greeted each other over the shoulder in passing, it was best not to look each other in the eye” (122-23).  The social worker who delivered Sidonia to her death “is still alive today; she feels no responsibility. What could I have done differently then?” (123), she asks when interviewed by the chronicler.

Perhaps it is especially this human denial after the war that deserves the most emotion and outrage. It seems plausible that the whole story is told dispassionately, with the one outburst, in the way it is order to, in the end, elicit the readers’ outrage.

Metaphor in Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture

The figurative language in Sebastian Barry’s novel, The Secret Scriptures, is one of its most salient characteristics, and certainly its most beautiful. While many writers feel, and write as though, language should not call attention to itself, Barry uses figurative language, mostly metaphoric, with a flourish. The novel is told in two intertwined first-person accounts. One is the voice of a one-hundred-year-old woman, Roseanne, living in contemporary Ireland in an insane asylum that is about to be shut down; the other is the voice of the psychiatrist who heads the asylum, Dr. Grene. Both seek to understand themselves and each other, Roseanne telling what is essentially her life story, which is also the story of modern Ireland, Dr. Grene explaining how he comes to learn Roseanne’s story, while also relaying details about himself. The figurative language stands out because it is not specific to one character, it is frequent, and when it occurs, it is often extended. Barry’s most powerful metaphors draw on several physical senses at once and are placed with an eye for impact.

Barry uses metaphor in such a way that readers feel in our bodies what the character feels in hers. “His voice entered my head as a sort of honey, that lingered there potently, buzzingly, banishing all the fears of childhood” (13). Here, Roseanne describes the effects on her of the voice of her father, a man she loves deeply. The reader gets taste, sweetness, and sight, golden-brown, thick liquid, through the word single word honey. In the same sentence, both sound and a more abstract connection to the honey, that it is produced by bees, are conveyed with word buzzingly. Barry tends to pack his sentences in this manner. In the next quotation, the speaker is Dr. Grene; he has just asked his wife, with whom he lives but from whom he is estranged, to take a holiday with him. She refuses. “It was suddenly difficult to speak, as if every word was a little lump of mud in my mouth” (50). The metaphor activates our senses of touch and of taste, and through the comparison, we understand in a visceral way how badly Dr. Grene feels.  Another striking use of metaphor related to taste and sight is one Roseanne uses to explain how she feels when Dr. Grene asks her too many questions. She calls the sense of “[p]anic in [her] now blacker than old tea” (35).

Barry’s language is perhaps most compelling when the author stretches his sensory metaphors further than one expects. Roseanne, whose mother has been ill for quite some time, explains what she must do after her father dies: “I knew I had to leave school… because my mother’s wits were now in an attic of her head which had neither door nor stair, or at least none that I could find” (96). Barry could have stopped with the attic, already conveying the image of a place to store things destined to be forgotten, a place that smells of naphthalene and dust. But through the extended metaphor, we learn that the mother’s thoughts are not only stored away in the attic, there is no possibility for access. This description intensifies the mother’s madness and encourages the reader to predict the negative outcome. Through Dr. Grene, whose wife has died without reconciling with him, we get this arresting description of grief, involving our visual, taste, and kinesthetic senses: “My head is already stuffed with grief I suppose like a pomegranate with its red seeds. I can only bleed grief, having no room for more” (172).  Finally, again in Roseanne’s words, a description of a fire that her father has inadvertently caused, in an orphanage for girls. “What could be seen—and now the fire engines could be heard in the distance, clanging their bells—was the floor of girls bright as day, with a foaming of flames behind the great windows, and though we were at a strict angle, the faces and arms of girls beating at the windows like moths do in daytime, or sleeping butterflies in winter when a room is suddenly heated, fatally thinking spring has come” (77). This gorgeous, compound metaphor—with brightness and foaming flames to start and then the extended simile of the moth and the butterfly—involves the reader physically and emotionally in the news that many girls perish in the fire.

Barry also positions his figurative language in a forceful way.  In the following two examples, the punch comes in the last words of the passage, leaving the reader a vividly condensed sense of the thing being described. In the first case, it is Fr Guant, the priest to whom Roseanne can trace many of her troubles. “He went everywhere in Sligo in his ministry, he walked into bleak rooms in the town where impoverished bachelors feasted on tinned beans, and lousy cabins by the river that looked like ancient starving men themselves, with rotting thatch for hair, and little staring dull black windows for eyes. Into those too he went, famously, and never took flea or louse out with him. He was cleaner than the daylight moon” (38). The initial narrative clauses and the comparison of the houses to the men serve as a backdrop and contrast to the tremendous visual image of a daylight moon. In the following sentence, the first and last description of love-making between Dr. Grene and his wife, the simile at the end is both visual and kinesthetic and, because it comes after the mostly literal description, it creates an especially strong effect.“And then she brought me into the front room among all the bric-a-brac of our lives and she held me and she kissed me again, and in a passion that eventually tore the top of my head off, she pulled me against herself in a most gentle, fierce and concentrated way, kissing and kissing, and then all our little play of love we had enacted so many thousands of times in former years, and afterwards we lay there on the Axminster carpet like slain animals” (94). Last, and because it is one of the only uses of metaphor to show a positive feeling, here is Dr. Grene again. “I was driving along in my Toyota, feeling quite wretched, with the same drumming recrimination going on in my stupid head, when I saw the windmills silverly turning, as one might say, and my heart lifted like a quail from the very bog. It lifted” (156).

Sebastian Barry uses rich and standout language to tell the terribly sad story of an Irish woman who loses her father, her mother, and, because of social taboos, her husband. In the final injustice, she becomes pregnant, bears the child, and loses it, along with, she believes, her mind, though the reader and Dr. Grene know otherwise. Dr. Grene suffers as well, and, we learn in a revelation toward the end, partially as a result of Roseanne’s suffering.  It is the specific use of language in this novel which creates our intensely personal involvement with these tragic characters.

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