BEF 2011/26 – Oranges and Angel [Germany]

02/07/2011

From Goethe to Nietzsche to Thomas Mann, the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy is a concept favoured by German writers.  This might be accounted for by the Weimar Classicism movement of the early nineteenth-century and the focus on classical philology in the school curriculum that bloomed in its wake.  As a student of classical philology, Ingo Schulze is aware of the tradition in German letters, and in his story ‘Oranges and Angel’ he would add his name to that illustrious roster.

The structure of his work rests on a thematic interplay of movement and immobility, a vibration and stasis, carried in the forms, respectively, of the character Ralf and the narrator.  The narrator, who, given the autobiographical elements of the work, may or may not be Schulze, travels to Naples with his family and Ralf, an old acquaintance.  While there, the narrator and his family play the good tourists and visit art galleries and aquariums, take a trip to Pompeii.  Ralf, however, is unleashed, disappearing without warning, attendant to the Neapolitan underside, irreverent to the gods of Art.

This city has its own peculiar density – I know no other word for it than density.  The volume of its squares, streets, alleys, courtyards is so supercharged that Neapolitans seem to me more mature than other city-dwellers.

Ralf, in contrast, is immature.  He gorges himself on oranges and gets drunk on red wine.  He chases after prostitutes.  If we retain an doubt about his Dionysian aspect after all of this, his behaviour at Pompeii destroys it.

Tanya said that it would be charming to go on a trip that left out all the major sights…I said that I couldn’t see anything charming about that, really couldn’t.  Ralf was evidently trying to decide which side to take.  But suddenly, for no obvious reason, he spread his arms wide, traced circles with his hands, and began to dance in small steps across the stone floor in front of the barrier.  With eyes closed, he slowly raised his arms, his fingers intertwined, his head nestled first against one bicep, then the other.  Then he snapped his fingers and did a couple of spins, arms outstretched at his side and making snaky motions.

This calls to mind nothing so much as the dancing of a Maenad, those acolytes of Dionysus (admittedly women only, but let’s not cloud the issue).  This is Ralf’s answer to Tanya’s imagined sight-less trip; he is declaring, there amidst the still forms of lifeless Pompeiians, for movement – movement for movement’s sake, as an end in itself.

Ralf’s dance is reprised toward the end of the Neapolitan holiday by an obliging octopus at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn.  In the octopus can be seen the synthesis of Apollonian reason and Dionysian abandon, of the narrator and Ralf.

It was a creature of nobility, since if you compared its brain mass to its body weight, it was more highly developed than Homo Sapiens.  “And in terms of elegance,” [the guide] added with a twitch of one corner of her mouth, “it was in any case an evolutionary mistake for life ever to have left the water.”

The octopus displays a “polymorphic and yet unified animation”:

The entire octopus was not caught up in the motions of its arms.  It had raised itself from the stones, and now swam headfirst to the right, dived, swam back, tugging its arms like a bundle of garlands along with it, rose up again, and repeated the process.

In fact, the entire aquarium seems a house of revelation for the narrator.  In addition to making friends with the octopus, he marvels at the frescoes of seascape panoramas and orange groves on the interior walls of the building.  Earlier in the story, the narrator attends an exhibition of paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema at the National Museum, commenting that, given Tadema’s historical context in the late nineteenth-century, his art betrays an “attempt to flee the ever-accelerating world of modernity into one of ostensibly eternal classicism.”  His figures all share the same stylized features.  In comparison, Hans von Marees’ frescoes show “faces [that] are a blend of the individual and the abstract;” whose figures are related but form no narrative; whose subject was not the celebratory processional, but the “everyday”.

Schulze’s prose is relaxed and he proves himself adept at creating wonderful images.  The story ends in Rome where there is

still just enough daylight to see the starlings, hundreds maybe even thousands of starlings above Rome.  Swarms of them in flight are beautiful, but eerie too, as if they’re tracing some message of doom in the sky.  One theory says that, instead of flying south, these birds perform dances, metamorphosing into indecipherable shapes, now a dance of seven veils, now spirals and banners of smoke, comparable in elegance only to the movements of tentacles.

In our rapid progress, in our “ever-accelerating world,” Schulze suggests, we are paying a high price.  Above the frenzied rush of roads and freeways and above the clamour of the marketplace the birds still wheel and play as if to remind is what it feels like to move without going anywhere; in the ocean there are creatures that still remember those who went ashore ages ago and forgot what it was to let go and drift in the current.  We are outrunning our humanity.  Perhaps Tadema was right after all.

‘Oranges and Angel’ is translated from German by John E. Woods

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.

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