The Figure on the Boundary Line

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Christoph Meckel and his work are not easily classified. A willful outsider, rebel, fantast, malcontent, poet, graphic artist, and storyteller, Meckel writes a prose that is vibrant in its energy and flow of images, yet at first reading it is likely to seem ephemeral, abstract, and difficult to grasp. For an American audience ill versed in German letters and history, the stories in this, his first collection in English, may be little more than surrealistic curiosities. Nevertheless, there are riches in the apparent jumble of vagabonds, magicians, dream figures, transforming animals, and folk heroes that fill this thin volume. On closer acquaintance, Meckel is a masterful technician of language and a first-rate miniaturist.

Surely, it is all too easy to blame Meckel’s impulse to rebellion and unbounded fantasy on his father, who after the war was stiffly despotic and tainted with a compromised past. Nevertheless, the father’s story, critically recounted in Suchbild (1980), provides access to Meckel’s concerns and the shaping of his imagination. Eberhard Meckel, before the war a poet and man of letters as well as his son’s trusted friend, returned to his family in Freiburg in 1947 nervous, broken, and brain injured. The father brutally reasserted his waning authority over his three sons and created a familial prison, from which they escaped into petty criminality and wanderings away from home. Christoph, the oldest, took revenge on his father by publishing his own poems beginning in 1956. Where the father had “no wings, only shoes of lead” and was reduced in later life to the role of provincial journalist, the son created with exuberant abandon a plethora of poems, stories, and graphics. Meckel’s longing for the artistic freedom and openness missing both in the parental home and in the rebuilding of the West German economy and society in the 1950’s became transcribed into the hovering and flying creatures and objects of his etchings and the transformational mobility of the narrative figures.

A counterfigure to his father and perhaps prototype of the dropouts in Meckel’s stories was a free spirit in Freiburg named Toni Müller, who lived in happy poverty, wrote columns on the local culture and dialect, laughed disarmingly, and told stories—“a discreet way,” Meckel comments, “to dance on tear jugs without spilling.” The same discreet playfulness can be claimed for Meckel’s own storytelling. If the early stories (those written before 1965) seem divorced from reality, that reality—the horrors of German history, the wars with their mass destruction and uneasy aftermaths—is nevertheless always present as threatened violence, loss of memory, disappearance, and death. In an early poem, Meckel wrote, “I live in a land that is in love with death,/ a jug of tears is its crest and souvenir” (“Hymne”). In “Tear Animals,” the anonymous letter writer speaks of the strange three-legged animals who cried constantly, filling the tear jugs left for them, and then suddenly vanished. The tears seemed to this philistine totally superfluous and inexplicable, just as the suffering of the animals was a matter of indifference to the residents of the neighborhood. Although the writer claims that it was futile to continue talking about them, to hear the tear animals’ story told is to remember suffering and ward off the terrors of future indifference.

Meckel situates the frenetic emptiness of postwar activity in the realm of the dead—laid out in “From ’Manifesto of the Dead,’”—a place of furious winds, airy ideas, fake architecture, and scurrying crowds, from which perhaps a few angels manage to escape. In order to resist such emptiness, Meckel attempts to re-create the world imaginatively. Ucht (from the 1961 story of the same name), an image magician and the writer’s double, is endlessly inventive. Although he tries to shape and control his ideas, they soon take on a life of their own and overwhelm him with demands for order and accusations of neglect. Nevertheless, he enjoys the freedom of a creative chaos that is without rules or goals. “Tullipan” varies the theme at much greater length and tests the reader’s patience to stay with the long-winded and rather shapeless narrative. Here, the writer-narrator is victim of his own creation—Tullipan, a carefree, broad-shouldered dreamer, who suddenly appears one day at the writer’s door and proceeds to entertain, delight, cajole, and disturb him for months. Only after Tullipan has...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Choice. XXI, July, 1984, p. 1612.

Library Journal. CIX, June 15, 1984, p. 1252.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 12, 1984, p. 8.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, November 25, 1984, p. 22.