BEF 2011/4 – Doe a Deer [Switzerland]


Other animals have preyed on it, gutted it, picked it clean, following the rules of the game.  So one might say.  That’s why I’m looking for the place where the disemboweling happened.  I would like it to be a place that, by human standards, is cruelty-free.  I would like to know a good word for the absence of cruelty.

Torture.  Murder.  Mutilation.  These are actions that belong solely to human kind.  Along with abstract reasoning and other cognitive phenomena, it is this that separates man from beast: there is nothing on earth that can treat another creature with such savage disregard as man does his own.  I can furnish this claim with countless examples, drawing from a pot older than the first cities and as vast as the globe.  From pogrom to pogrom, from Holy Inquisition to Holocaust, one could cross the Pacific Ocean on the backs of history’s victims and not wet so much as a single toe. But to talk in such sweeping, universal terms is to orbit the issue at stake, safely at a distance from the pain of concrete details, when what we should be doing is taking it firmly in our jaws.  And so, an example.  Since 1993 hundreds of women from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico have been murdered, their bodies maimed and showing signs of sexual assault and torture.  Most of them are workers from maquiladeros, sweat-shops where they earn a scant wage.*  They were young women, some of them children, all of them, needless to say, undeserving of their fate.  But how to speak of them when anything said can never realize the pain and terror suffered by the victims?  The wrong way is the way most often followed: clothe the naked horror of the event in ragged, threadbare euphemism; anaesthetize with an innocuous turn of phrase.  Such clumsy verbal tributes can only serve to perpetuate the violence, amputating a reality far too complex to be linguistically realized.  Swiss writer Verna Stefan knows this and knows, too, that where humans go cruelty is sure to follow.

Stefan’s story Doe a Deer touches on these themes by contrasting the death of a deer with the atrocities of the Juarez murders.  Out walking in the snowed forests of Quebec, Stefan’s narrator comes across the carcass of a dead deer, a doe.  Animal tracks surround the deer, forming a “script of paws, hooves, claws, of bellyfur, of tailhair…which I could read word for word, if only I knew how to decipher the signs.”  The deer carcass, however, is viscerally unambiguous.  “In the woods,” the narrator says, “I’m illiterate.”  To fix this she notes that she would need a book detailing animal tracks, Traces d’animaux, and that language dictionaries to translate it.  To understand the immediate reality of the natural world, it is necessary to interpose a lexicon, like a pane of glass that bends the light to a more agreeable angle.  So it is with the murders in Juarez and the terrible news that happens daily around the world:

Living in Quebec, I’ve heard all the shocking news in English and French, the litanies of warscenes, Kosovo, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Chechnya, Congo, names of groups, factions, freedom fighters, of suicide bombers both male and female, white-collar criminals, the vocabulary of war that expands with each new war, that also insinuates into German such phrases as collateral damage, friendly fire, humanitarian bombing, embedded journalists, thus remaining abstract.  In order to understand the real content of the news, I have to look up a deadly litany in English: briefing, compliance, containment, defection, deployment, deterrent, quagmire, mired, cakewalk, truce, without resorting to force.

This is the cushioning of horror for the sensitive.  This is the clothing of the naked iniquities of man.

No language can answer the cruelty of the Juarez murders.  They are crimes of such unmitigated evil that they are beyond any expression.  The death of the doe and the subsequent consumption are also beyond language because language is a step removed from reality, it is the map, not the territory.  Nature knows no maps.  There are only the primeval forces of instinct, of life and death, hunter and prey, the eternal cycle of the seasons.  Nature knows no crimes and recognises no victims.  The deer is killed we know not how, but it is dismembered by scavengers to provide sustenance and not under the impulse of a black human mind.  The difference between the deer and the women in the sands of Juarez is the absence in the former and the unanswerable presence in the latter of the wholly human phenomenon: cruelty.

But all is not hopeless.  Stefan suggests a language that is not fated to distort the reality it purports to represent because it is not a human invention.  It is a language empty of semantic content and free from the governance of syntax: music.  Stefan has her narrator chant some lines from a children’s rhyme intended as a mnemonic to facilitate the learning of the musical scale.  It is repeated in a few places in the text like a mantra, as a response to the cruelty of mankind that doesn’t try to answer or account for anything, but that in its purity may be the only way to bear witness to the pain and loss of death and the hope – heard in the birdsong that heralds the coming of spring – of new beginnings.   A good word for the absence of cruelty?  Doremifasolatido.


*For details, see Roberto Bolano’s novel 2666.  Though fiction, 2666 is widely agreed to be heavily influenced by the Juarez murders.

‘Doe a Deer’ is translated from German by Lise Weil

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.


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