Private Riddles

Anne Carson once wrote that Paul Celan is ‘a poet who uses language as if he were always translating.’ His elliptical, compressed poetry has been a longstanding influence on Yoko Tawada, another writer who seems to exist between languages. Born in Toyko in 1960, Tawada moved to Hamburg when she was twenty-two, eventually settling in Berlin. She has written some ten books in Japanese – both fiction and poetry – and five in German. A keen observer of cultural and linguistic dislocation, Tawada has absorbed a kind of anti-language from Celan, a deeply affecting, sui generis diction unmoored from nationality or obvious tradition. As the poet and critic Ryan Ruby has written, ‘More than simply international, [Tawada’s] writing is translingual; she leaves the borders between languages open and allows them to cross-pollinate.’ She shares with Celan the desire to render inbetweenness legible, and to give form to emergent or unspeakable sensation.

Paul Celan and the Trans-Tibetan Angel, newly translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, follows a literary scholar named Patrik through Covid-era Berlin as he contemplates presenting a paper on Celan’s 1968 collection Threadsuns at a conference in Paris. Lockdown has wreaked havoc on Patrik’s psychological and spiritual life; suffering from a kind of soul weariness, he is known as ‘the patient’. Listening to Patrik’s thoughts diatribes against former colleagues, concerns about technology and disconnection, excursuses into poetic theory, musings on time – gives an impression of overlong isolation and anomie. For most of the novel, Patrik seems half-asleep, his language coiling in private riddles, his will thwarted by existential paralysis. Into this inert space, the past rushes, blurring distinctions, inviting phantoms and regrets. Above all he faces the challenge of simply finding enough to do to get through the day. He may or may not still be employed by the ‘Institute of World Literature’. His habits have calcified, transformed into strange, ascetic rituals. He watches a lot of opera DVDs, thinks about his ex-girlfriend, wanders the city, and begins conversing with an angel, Leo-Eric Fu, whom he meets at cafes to discuss loneliness, life and the koans of Celan. The conference in Paris begins to take on existential significance: if he attends, his life might begin again – a terrifying thought.

Is Leo-Eric really an angel? Does he actually exist or is he merely a figment of a lockdown-ravaged mind? ‘The man standing in front of Patrik looks very Trans-Tibetan,’ we’re told. He speaks ‘a straightforward German with a faint accent.’ He ‘appears to know even unimportant details about Patrik’s life.’ He gives Patrik a card on which is printed ‘Chinese Cultural Institute’; when Patrik calls the phone number on the card, no one has ever heard of a Leo-Eric Fu. He lends Patrik an anatomy book, one in which ‘Leo-Eric’s grandfather copied the traces left behind by [Celan]’ in a similar volume, the striking terms underlined: ‘aortic arch’, ‘cerebellum’, ‘bright blood.’ At the end of the novel he sprouts wings and bears Patrik to Paris – or maybe to his own death – a divine force shattering Patrik’s stasis in Berlin. He may be an emissary of God or of Celan himself. (In Patrik’s mind, there isn’t much difference.)

Born in 1920 in Czernowitz, then part of Romania (now Chernivtsi, in southwestern Ukraine), Celan was raised to speak German and Romanian, while also picking up Yiddish and Hebrew in his Jewish family home. From the start he felt an affinity with Kafka, who had complained of ‘the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, and the impossibility of writing differently.’ During World War II, Cernowitz was occupied by the Soviets, then by the Germans. Celan survived the camp he was interned at but both his parents perished. The tragedy would bequeath profoundly conflicted feelings about German, the language in which he wrote, and inform his haunted, compact style, rife with enigmatic silences, startling portmanteaus and ruthless self-interrogation. His attitude toward German was both unsparing and almost mystically devoted:

It, the language, remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. It had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for what happened; yet it passed through this happening.

Though not a character, Celan suffuses Tawada’s novel like a vapour, his language, experiences and eventual suicide warping its gravity like a superdense star. In this respect, it continues a tradition – call it the skewed homage – well-represented in the last half century of European fiction. Works like Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser (1983), Roberto Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain (1984) and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Never Any End to Paris (2003) also ventriloquize or orbit an historical figure: the pianist Glenn Gould, the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, and the novelist Ernest Hemingway, respectively. They are strange and wonderful, these half-characters and shadowy projections, glancing figures skimming the surface of reality in service to the fictions they bolster and sustain.

Patrik is an avatar of Celanian aesthetics and concerns, his thoughts imbued with the poet’s obessions, his hyphenated nouns pulled directly from Celan’s ambiguous poetics: ‘thought-scraps’, ‘thought-worms’, ‘thought-foam’, ‘breath-pause’, ‘breath-turn’. The poems themselves have been ransacked for incident and imagery. In her translator’s afterword, Bernofsky lists some of the novel’s borrowings: ‘Rolling the dice, Van Gogh’s severed ear, the krater, foam, needles, hammers, pomegranate, quince, lips, blackbird, jackdaw, cockchafer, diving whales, phosphorus, comets, corona, melancholy, hard silence, and folie a deux.’ The non-expert will surely miss many of these references, though this hardly lessens the book’s effect. Something of Celan’s lyric mystery seeps through even the most obscure allusions.

Each lifted motif acts as a platform upon which Tawada arranges the fears and anxieties of contemporary life, many of them recognizably pandemic-era: technological atomization (‘What appears to connect everything with everything nowadays isn’t the soul – it’s a digital network’); temporal distortion (‘On the radio, they’re saying all the opera houses and concert halls are open again, but the timelessness persists’); emotional numbness (‘Opening hurts. Closing brings comfort’); pathology fatigue (‘Fortunately every human being is potentially sick, so you can ask for a checkup withoutspecifying your symptoms’); romantic hopelessness (‘What are the dead genres? Poetry? Opera? Love?’); and persistent fantasy (‘Telling well-calibrated lies is the only way he can draw a map in his head’). Yet amid these crises, Patrik’s consuming predicament is whether or not he should attend the Celan conference in Paris. When he receives a printed e-ticket from Leo-Eric Fu, he mistakes the barcode for a burn mark. The scrap of paper might free him or burn him, offering a potentially dangerous reacquaintance with the world at large.

Yet this is first and foremost a novel about loving a poet. Patrik is always coming back to Celan’s works – an elliptical return like that of migratory birds or weather patterns. He yearns to be absorbed in individual poems, permanently frustrated at anything – errands, obligations, relationships – that stands between him and his quarry. All sensation, all thought, all activity leads back to Celan. When he is ailing: ‘I’ll stop trying to read my partial physical pain. Instead, I’ll read Celan.’ When entertaining fantasies of purpose and meaning: ‘One day Patrik would give a lecture in which he revealed the significance of every single letter Celan used in his poetry.’ When facing social commitments: ‘I wished for nothing more than to become invisible so as to be able to read. To read Celan.’ Devoted readers will recognize such bewitchment – the beautiful, baffling, embarrassing ambit of literary enthusiasm for which prosaic reality is no match.

Celan’s refusal of answers urges the reader toward better questions, the kind that light a path through the text’s darkness. Tawada’s novel lifts this, too, from the great poet, the atmosphere of mysterious meaning in which one wanders, sometimes lost but for the illumination provided by leaps of chance understanding, references dimly apprehended, jokes overheard, problems rued and poetry exalted. This loose weave of connection – of what we love, what we lose, what we talk about, what we read – remains intelligible, even amid forms that don’t readily yield their meanings. In this sense, Patrik is lucky. Would that we all might find our Celan.

Read on: Michael Maar, ‘The Ordeals of Fire and Water’, NLR 2.