Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1350
Jakov Lind’s short stories fall within the European tradition of the hallucinatory and the tragicomic grotesque brilliantly initiated by Gogol, pushed to paranoid extremes by Franz Kafka, and horrifyingly popularized by Jerzy Kosinski. Characteristic of this tradition, Lind focuses on gruesome acts of evil so extreme that the result is a kind of macabre comedy that puzzled a number of American reviewers. As one said about the title story of Soul of Wood, and Other Stories, “in a story so inherently sad, how can one laugh with such pleasure?” One admires the writer’s skill, but is baffled by his intentions. Lind’s intention, like Gogol and Kafka’s, is to push the reader’s awareness of humankind’s inhumanity to such appalling lengths that he or she must react; the fact that the reader laughs at such things magnifies the sense of horror.
“Soul of Wood”
In “Eine Seele aus Holz” (“Soul of Wood”), the novella-length title story of Lind’s most highly praised collection, a Viennese man named Hermann Wohlbrecht, a one-legged veteran of World War I, has been given the responsibility of caring for a paralytic boy named Anton Barth after the boy’s Jewish parents have been cremated by the Nazis. However, Wohlbrecht, a man with a “soul of wood”—his wooden leg—takes the boy to the country and leaves him alone on a mountain top; then returns to town to take over the Barth family apartment, which he tries to sell to a Nazi district leader.
Wohlbrecht is put in a sanatorium, which, in its absolute overall lunacy, represents the madness of the Nazi persecution. The story ends when Anton Barth, having been magically transformed into a deer, is found and Wohlbrecht is executed in the woods. The final image is of Wohlbrecht’s one-legged skeleton still lying there on the mountaintop, the wooden leg propped beside him against a tree, “waiting patiently for the resurrection of its master, which will surely happen some day. Any day.” Lind blends hallucination, fairy tale, realism, and nightmarish fantasy so thoroughly in this story that even as the characters and events seem to be abstract embodiments of satire, they convince the reader of their terrifying actuality.
“Hurrah for Freedom”
In this brief, hallucinatory story, “Es lebe die Freiheit” (“Hurrah for Freedom”), a medical student from Vienna named Leonard meets a three-hundred-pound Lithuanian man named Balthasar who has fled the Russians for refuge in Sweden, where he and his family have become (comically) nudists and (horrifyingly) cannibals. Invited to spend the night, the medical student is appalled by his host’s overweight, nude sisters and mother and shocked by the carcass of a horse hanging from the ceiling and by the fact that he is offered hog’s blood to drink. The family explain that they drink hog’s blood in memory of a shepherd who drank his children’s blood because he could not stand to see them starve; they say that they keep the dead horse in memory of the old country, believing that when only the skeleton is left, Lithuania will be free and the Russians will be gone. The stink, they say, reminds them that the Russian occupation stinks to heaven of corruption and slavery; “a dead horse in the house is the least we can do for our country.”
Because he is a medical student, the guest tries not to let anything upset him; however, when he realizes that he and his hosts are eating the bodies of children, he gets sick and tries to leave. The old mother justifies their cannibalism by saying they are just poor refugees who are reduced to eating their own children since they have been so deprived of food. The student, feeling like a well-dressed hunter on safari sympathetic to the savages he meets, thinks he is seeing for the first time real victims. However, when he leaves, he thinks, “that’s what insanity is like,” realizing that none of his friends, all medical men, will believe him. In this nightmarish, Kafkaesque satire, Lind reduces to absurdity the extreme dehumanization of people deprived of freedom and simple needs.
“Journey Through the Night”
In this brief story, “Reise durch die Nacht” (“Journey Through the Night”) Lind’s most frequently anthologized piece of fiction, a man shares a compartment on the Nice-Paris express train with a madman who has threatened to dismember and eat him as soon as he falls asleep. Unlike the cannibals in “Hurrah for Freedom,” who are evoked to satirize the absurd results of deprivation and political suppression, the cannibal in this story, with his small black bag of tools, is an embodiment of the natural order, the law of the jungle in which animals eat other animals in order to stay alive.
Although the threatened narrator tries desperately not to fall asleep, he begins philosophically to consider that since everyone dies one way or another, “why not be eaten by a madman in the Nice-Paris express?” A feeling of warmth comes over him, for he knows the madman, unlike himself, at least has a purpose. However, the madman, who seems to know his intended victim’s thoughts, says that now he does have a purpose, thanks to him.
At just this crucial point in the story, when the madman opens his bag and takes out a mallet, the narrator pulls the train cord, making it stop. With disgust the cannibal packs his bag and leaves the train, chiding the narrator that his foolishness will cost him a ten-thousand-franc fine. “Look, who wants to live?” he shouts back as he leaves, vanishing into the darkness “like a country doctor on his way to deliver a baby.”
“Journey Through the Night” is Lind’s most frequently reprinted story not only because it is his most economical Kafkaesque parable but also because its philosophical implications transcend the limits of a particular historical time and place. Although the train travels between Paris and Nice, it is a metaphor for the basic human journey toward the inevitability of death as the only abiding human destiny.
Originally published in German as Der Ofen in 1973, this collection, when translated into English and published by a small press in 1983, did not receive the powerful reviews of Lind’s first collection Soul of Wood, and Other Stories. Primarily an assortment of Kafkaesque fables and fairy tales, the collection lacks the hallucinatory horror of the Holocaust that powered the earlier stories.
With the exception of the title story, an absurdist satire composed of letters between two men, the remaining seven stories begin with the traditional “Once upon a time” introduction associated with German fairy tales. Some of the tales are versions of Jewish legends, such as “Beinahe Mord” (“A Near-Murder”), which retells the story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac, and (“Die Geschichte von Lilith und Eva” (“The Story of Lilith and Eve”) which recounts how Eve enters the body of Lilith in order to experience Adam’s passion. Others, such as “Die Lüge” (“The Theft”) and “Der Diebstahl” (“The Lie”), are moral and literary parables about peace of mind and truth.
The title story, “The Stove,” begins with one man’s proposition to a cousin that they go into the business of selling stoves, stating both economic and philosophical justifications for the advisability and viability of the arrangement. As the two men exchange letters, the mundane business matter becomes the center of extended philosophical ruminations about stoves representing warmth, about mystical experiences and wondrous fairy tales, about the evil of attaining riches, and about seeing things in terms of eternity as opposed to focusing on everyday reality. The story ends with the failure of the business venture and the original letter-writer saying he is going back to being an author. A philosophical dialogue based on an everyday metaphor, “The Stove” lacks the seriousness and horror of Lind’s best-known stories. The basis of the metaphor is too limited and the philosophical discussions are too predictable and ordinary to elevate the story above the level of a satiric set piece.