BEF 2011/19 – Dust [Liechtenstien]

13/05/2011

“So I’m inclined, loaded as I am with concerns about Liechtenstein and what lies just beyond its borders, to make a bricolage out of foreign traditions: that’s the freedom of being in the periphery.”

To hear him tell it, author Stefan Sprenger’s native Liechtenstein has no national literature.  It is a small principality of approximately 36,000 people and has long been surrounded by such towering cultural colossi as Austria and Germany.  Yes, there are a handful of writers, but the absence of any kind of domestic publishing industry means that the books they write are published by foreign press, and the books they read are overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, foreign.  Given such a literary climate it is inevitable that Sprenger’s story ‘Dust’ will resound with the echoes of German literature and culture.

‘Dust’ is really three short stories in one.  There is the Burgenfeld Circle, an intellectual clique who, through an alternative therapy technique called Systemic Constellation, effectively psychoanalyze dust, finding that it not only has emotional weight, but that that emotion is shame.  Secondly, there is the artist Frau H., who for several years has worked in the noisy attic of an industrial building, searching fruitlessly for a medium and method that will best realise a vision that she “had only ever caught sight of, caught hints of, in flashes of intuition.”  Thirdly, Klubka, a violin player, explains to his tour manager why he doesn’t clean his instrument of rosin at the end of each performance, because “God only comes when the dust is flying.”

As narratives, the three independent yet interwoven parts of ‘Dust’ are simple.  Considered thematically, however, they are more enigmatic.  What is this story really about?  In the first piece Sprenger mentions Rupert Sheldrake and his theory of “morphic resonance.”  Essentially, Sheldrake postulates that a living being’s behaviour and growth is governed by memories inherited from its ancestors – not taught or learned, but remembered.   It is a kind of immortality, a persistence beyond death, and it points toward the central metaphor of the other two parts of the story.

Frau H. shares a studio with an air compressor, and just over her head on the roof is the housing of the motor for the building’s elevator.  It is a difficult environment to work in, but one that she has adapted to.  There is an unexpected benefit from working in the attic that only comes to light on returning from a holiday of several months.  In her absence, dust kicked up by the shaking and thumping compressor has settled over papers left scattered over her table.  For years she has been searching for a way to express an inchoate artistic vision, looking for the vision itself, knowing there is something in her self, but not knowing what it is.  As she cleans up her papers, dust begins to settle on the clean, blank, black boxes left on the tabletop and she knows, as sure as epiphany, that her vision has revealed itself.  What that vision is Sprenger doesn’t say, nor do I care to speculate, but it is the dust’s role as medium that is important.  Sprenger establishes with Frau H.’s story that dust is important to the artist, but it is with the violinist Klubka that he will reveal his hand.

And what is that hand?  “Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.”  Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.  We were dust before we were born and we will return to it once we die, but while we are living we can be more than that.  Klubka allows the rosin to build up on his violin to remind him of the beauty of human defiance in the face of inevitable annihilation and ultimate transience.  We will one day return to the dust, yes, but while we are here we can shape our world.  “Resin makes flint points and sticks and birds’ feathers into arrows.  Viva.”  The resin is a metaphor for our memories, our consciousnesses, those epiphenomena that have defied explanation and that glue to our material selves our sense of an immaterial self.  Our identity is the remainder when you account for all the matter, when all the dust is weighed.  Klubka’s resin clouds are a memento mori, a reminder of why he makes music, and the manifestation of an incontrovertible truth: art makes us more than dust.

‘Dust’ is translated from German by Dustin Lovett.

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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