An Offering for the Dead

At the beginning of this often obscure tale, the rain-drenched narrator is surrounded by sleeping bodies, clay masses waiting for life. It is up to the nameless witness, the only survivor of an unspecified cataclysm that the reader will inevitably identify as World War II, to reinvigorate the dead (among whom he comes to include himself). After universal devastation, only speech remains, and the narrator begins time and man’s story anew with the rediscovery and retelling of a lost past.

The narrator returns to “the city,” abandoned, colorless, and dead (even the mirrors give no reflections) until he dreams it to life. This dream world is peopled not with characters but with family archetypes — the father, the forebear, the mother — who constitute the narrator’s own divided self. The novel occupies a timeless limbo between death and rebirth, where the narrator must unify all aspects of himself before he is born.

His creative task is crucial for the sleepers surrounding him, the dead and defeated in spirit. He must remember the lessons of the mythic inner journey and relay them so that these others, waiting to be born into the post-cataclysmic world, might avoid a self-destructive destiny. Man has warred upon himself since time immemorial, a recurrent pattern Nossack dramatizes through the tragedy of Orestes, where wife is sundered from husband and mother from son. The resulting inner wounds, goading man to ever greater strife, can be healed only with the re-integration of man’s male and female selves. So only the pursuit of his higher destiny through a love which submits the rational to the spiritual, the murderous to the creative, can save man from the eternal recurrence of self-inflicted misery.

Reminiscent of Hermann Broch’s work in its somber portentousness, this moral tale may not be to everyone’s taste. However, with the authority of a civilized witness to our century’s most barbaric period, Nossack provides hope that a culture defeated in spirit can aspire to more than revenge. His short novel is a welcome addition to the distinguished Eridanos Library, which publishes lesser-known gems of European literature in high-quality English editions.