Thursday, 6 February 2014

'Anatomie einer Nacht' ('Anatomy of a Night') by Anna Kim (Review)

Today's book was the readalong choice back in November for German Literature Month, but (sadly) my German-language paperback copy arrived too late for me to join in.  However, it's been sitting on top of a pile for a while now, catching my eye whenever I walked past, so I thought it was about time I got around to it.  It's an excellent read, if a little grim - and for anyone who wants to read it without having to improve their German, I know where you can source Frisch & Co.'s English-language translation...

Anna Kim's Anatomie einer Nacht (Anatomy of a Night, English version translated by Bradley Schmidt) is set on the east coast of Greenland in the small, fictional town of Amarâq, the story taking place over the course of a few hours on one summer night.  Amarâq is a beautiful place, but its isolation means people often see it as the end of the world, and on this one, fateful, night, several people are about to take this description very literally.

Over the course of 300 pages, the writer introduces a whole cast of characters, moving back and forth between past and present.  They are a sorry bunch, a group of people with little to live for and hard, painful stories in their past, depressed and alone in the small outpost at the end of the world.  What happens next is unsurprising, yet shocking - one by one, the inhabitants start to kill themselves...

Let's be clear about this - Anatomy of a Night can make for grim reading at times.  It seems as if Kim's whole purpose in introducing her characters and their history is to make the suicides even more painful for the reader than they would be anyway, death after death making the reading experience rather uncomfortable.  Once you understand what is happening, you begin to wonder who will be the next to fall victim to the 'epidemic' sweeping the town.

Before reading the book, I was under the impression that the focus was on the one night, an attempt to explain why the townsfolk all chose the same night to end their lives, but this isn't really a question the writer wants to address.  Instead, the novel examines the background, looking back at upbringings and traumatic events which, much later, will explain the events of the night.

One of the potential catalysts is the town itself, a dark, brooding entity which stands out as one of the novel's most prominent characters:
"Es ist, als würde die Natur, als würde die Stadt, eine andere Sprache sprechen und sich über Bilder mitteilen, für die man besondere Augen benötigt."
p.20 (Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 2013)

"It's as if nature, as if the town, spoke a different language and shared images which required special eyes to see them."*** (my translation)
Amarâq is a landscape where the land and sky meet, giving the impression of a world with no horizon, and in the eery northern summer nights, a pale darkness appears to blanket the town.  The combination of isolation and ubiquitous silence creates a feeling akin to claustrophobia - even the reader starts to feel trapped at the end of the world.

A large focus of the novel is the character of the Greenlanders and their indigneous beliefs.  Kim, through her creations, discusses the theory of multiple souls, shamans and people who can 'read' dreams, while we also learn of historical events, such as stories of famines, food shortages - and eating people...  In a harsh environment, people tend to live for the present with no thought of the future:
"Ella holt ihren Block heraus und macht eine Notiz, warum, glauben Sie, gibt es so viele Selbstmorde?, fragt sie, die Mentalität, antwortet Peder, es ist in ihrer Natur, die Grönländer leben zu sehr in der Gegenwart, und wenn die beschissen ist dann, er umfasst seinen Hals mit einer Hand, stranguliert sich andeutungsweise." (p.100)

"Ella gets her writing pad out and makes a note, why, do you think, are there so many suicides?, she asks, mentality, answers Peder, it's in their nature, the Greenlanders live too much in the present, and when the present is shitty, then, he puts his hand around his neck, pretending to strangle himself."***
This is a perhaps a partial explanation for the epidemic Amarâq suffers from.

However, Anatomy of a Night is largely the story of the effects of colonialism.  With Denmark taking over the 'colony', the traditional way of life is changed forever.  While the natives' lives may be improved in some ways (they're certainly financially better off and no longer in danger of dying of hunger), the people are largely caught between two worlds.  This is particularly true for those Greenlanders who spend time in Denmark.  In the imperial centre, they are treated like savages and yearn to return to their natural environment.  However, on their return, they find that it's impossible to ever truly return home (a theme Kim actually examines in a non-fiction work in German, Invasionen des Privaten).

The move to dependence on Denmark also contributes to the creation of a welfare state of hopelessness.  With regular dole payments from Copenhagen, Amarâq has become an enclave for generations of welfare recipients, with little work available.  This inevitably leads to alcoholism, casual violence, stupor and vomit, and the Danes struggle to understand how their benevolence has resulted in the destruction of a way of living.  Once again, with no future, it's hard to find reasons to live for the present.

Anatomy of a Night is very confusing at times.  It's full of short, frequently shifting scenes, and the novel contains a vast array of main characters.  In order to follow the story, it's important to keep on top of the connections between the folk of Amarâq (and there are a lot...).  The book is compelling though, and excellently written, with fluid, rolling sentences.

But why does it all happen on this night?  As mentioned at the start of the review, it's a question which is never really answered.  The reasons why the Greenlanders are drawn to suicide, on the other hand, are made very, very clear.  Of course, the real question is how to prevent it, and Kim doesn't provide us with an answer to this one.  With welfare dependence, isolation, cultural attitudes and a genetic predisposition to depression, this is a community perpetually falling apart; there will always be new deaths and sorrow...
"Der Tod, bisher nur fiktiv, eine Erzählung, eine Legende, wird durch diese erste Begegnung monumental und lässt sich nicht mehr aus dem Leben rücken..." (p.69)

"Death, up to this moment merely fictional, a story, a myth, becomes, as a result of this first encounter, monumental and can no longer be separated from life..."***
The first encounter with death plants a seed which grows inside - and that all means that the nights of terror will continue...