The Emergence of a New Narrative in the Works of Paul Verhaeghen
Anyone reading a novel by Paul Verhaeghen (1965-) finds themselves balancing for a while on the boundary between fact and fiction. In his debut novel Lichtenberg (1996) Verhaeghen tells the story of Tom Pepermans, a young researcher who encounters strange figures, hears and tells absurd stories, and lands in alarming situations. Tom is actually a character from a book by the author Lichtenberg, who in turn appears as a character in the novel Lichtenberg. After completing the novel, in which Tom eventually commits suicide, the author follows the example of his own character. ‘The character had shown the way – now it was the author’s turn.’
However, Tom would also seem to exist outside Lichtenberg’s novel: in a peculiar scene, both characters are sitting on the same terrace. At the beginning of the novel, Tom has already ordered a glass of soda water while sitting out on this terrace. That is evidently part of the Lichtenberg novel, for the waiter thanks Lichtenberg for the publicity the latter’s novel has given him: ‘since that first chapter, considerably more people [have come] to the place. Increasing amounts of soda water (…) are being ordered.’ This scene in turn is part of a TV programme on literature, presented by the author Lichtenberg. The presenter refers his viewers to the difference between fact and fiction: what they have just seen was ‘a real encounter with a character out of a novel’. But what is real in a novel such as Lichtenberg, in which the layers of fiction are stacked one on top of the other?
In the run-up to the scene on the terrace, certain subtle transformations take place: at one moment, Tom and his girlfriend are still sitting on the beach in their bathing costumes; at the next Tom is wearing a ‘jacket’ and his friend ‘reading glasses’. Their conversation murmurs calmly on. A little later their cocktail turns out to be a glass of beer, and a bit later still a cup of coffee. Apparently there is nothing that is not a metaphor for something else, nothing that cannot be replaced or supplemented by something else. What we consider to be reality is merely ‘an illusion of which we have the illusion that it is not an illusion.’ And so these characters tumble from one delusion into the next, without ever definitively getting past the illusion. And so the girl sighs: ‘But somewhere you must come across reality – across experience?’ But that’s the question.
Chaos and romanticism
In the work of Paul Verhaeghen (who is currently an Associate Professor of Psychology at the Georgia Institute of Technology), reality is not something you can count on or something the existence of which you can assume to be self-evident. Not only is our perception of reality ambiguous; reality itself is inconsistent: ‘Ambiguity is part and parcel of reality. (…) It is not the eye of the beholder.’ The stories that are told about this reality are thus doubly untrustworthy. Memory is no mirror of the past – memory is always a distortion and a construct. The narrator leaves us in no doubt about this: ‘we cannot be certain about what now follows. It has been dredged up from Tom’s memory, with all its distortion.’ The reader has been warned: all the stories that are told in this novel are infected with uncertainty, ambiguity and fiction.
The only hand-hold in Verhaeghen’s universe is the certainty of the beginning and end of time. In the beginning there was light – the creative explosion of energy and matter that created the preconditions for life. Since the beginning of time everything has been moving in one direction: chaos and destruction. Following the perfect beginning is the long road of decline: ‘We are following the road from perfect order to perfect chaos.’ And yet there is room for consolation and reconciliation in this miserable world – room which Tom seeks in the lap of a beloved. For despite the sophisticated play and the philosophical stratification, Verhaeghen’s work is out-and-out romantic: the characters do not knuckle under until they have seen ‘a sign of true love’ amid the chaos.
Many of the themes of Lichtenberg are also to be found in Verhaeghen’s second novel, Omega Minor (2004). Nevertheless, at first glance the differences between the two novels would seem to be greater than the similarities: while Lichtenberg was interlarded with stylistic pastiches, absurd dialogues and grotesque scenes, Omega Minor is an ambitious, encyclopaedic novel that penetrates to the core of the traumatic twentieth century – the century of the atom bomb and the holocaust. The novel has an ingenious threefold loop-structure: the three main narrative strands begin and end in the heart of Germany, linking characters from the wartime past with characters from the present day of 1995.
Goldfarb fled Nazi Germany as a child, participated in the development of the atom bomb and, at the end of his life, returned to Potsdam. There he falls in love with his brilliant student Donatella. In Berlin, two other protagonists meet each other. The elderly Jozef De Heer tells his life-story to the young Belgian researcher Paul Andermans: as a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz he ended up in the GDR, where in 1961 he participated in the building of the Berlin Wall. A third narrative strand runs from the German film star Helena Guna to her granddaughter Nebula, who discovers love together with Paul in Potsdam. These strands are interlinked in all sorts of ways. Nebula is shooting a film about a group of neo-Nazis who attack Paul. That film is partially based on a manuscript by Goldfarb’s mother. As a member of the Flemish SS, Paul’s uncle had had an affair with Helena Guna.
Everything repeats itself
Another element of the composition is the parallelism between present and past. After the collapse of the Wall, the spectre of Nazism revives once more in the former GDR: the economic malaise and the ideological vacuum exhume the bodies presumed dead. The neo-Nazi Hugo’s reasoning is razor-sharp in its simplism: when both communism and capitalism are found wanting, all that is left is Nazism: ‘Forty years of anti-fascism and now everyone is out of work?’ In the world of capitalism, where every act of resistance reinforces the status quo logic, only Nazism is still subversive. On the threshold of the Second World War there was a similar situation, according to De Heer: capitalism had sown poverty and chaos, and the communist elite had lost its grip on the masses. Intellectuals and artists were ‘in too deep a trance to see reality’.
Two scenes strikingly resemble each other. During the night of 9-10 November 1938 – Kristallnacht – Nazi youths demolished Karl Grüneberg’s shop. Before the Nazis beat the shopkeeper half to death, their leader whispered the following in his ear: ‘Attacks have to be chaotic and amateurish.’ Soon after his arrival in Germany something similar happens to Paul: in the metro he is set upon by neo-Nazis. The group’s leader explains his way of working: ‘Attacks have to be chaotic and amateurish’. Although one of the scenes is told by De Heer and the other by Paul, exactly the same words recur. The composition of the novel takes precedence over realistic illusion.
Along with Nazism, nuclear mass destruction also reappears. On 30 April 1995, precisely 50 years after Hitler’s death, Goldfarb detonates an atomic bomb in Berlin. While in 1945 it was still possible to believe that the bomb was a necessary evil, a weapon in the hands of the Good Guys, in 1995 it serves only blind hatred and the urge to destroy. At the same time, the bomb is the most eloquent expression of pain. In the mass murder, Goldfarb sees the only answer to the brutality that rules the world: ‘large-scale destruction is after all the only noise that reaches the ears of the masses.’ Evidently art, philosophy and politics have completely lost all power and inﬂuence.
The difference between 1945 and 1995 is just a single rotation of the wheel of Shiva, the Hindu god of creation and destruction. In 1945, physicists imagined themselves to be gods, ‘creators of a new sun’ that penetrated right to the heart of matter and the origin of things. Fifty years later, the god of the Apocalypse and the end of time dominates. In Omega Minor, Shiva symbolises this duality and the endless cycle of creation and destruction, of beginning and end. ‘Shiva is not only the Destroyer. He is also the Creator of the Universe.’ It is this Shiva that allows Paul to end the novel on a positive and romantic note: because there is love, there is no end but rebirth. ‘There is never an end to the world. Never an end.’
The truth of lies
The narrative of Jozef De Heer forms the backbone of the novel. His parents disappeared during the war, but he managed to live in hiding in Berlin for several years. The resistance cell he was a member of had a magic theatre as cover. The conjuring tricks De Heer learnt there provide a metaphor for his fugitive existence: ‘the man in hiding and the artist in disappearing – they complement each other nicely.’ De Heer’s narrative reads like the heroic account of a Berlin Jew, although his memories do not seem completely trustworthy.
Sometimes, the narrative’s style causes some knitted brows. De Heer says about a theatre spotlight: ‘In this slovenly atmosphere, even photons seem infected with patience.’ There is nothing, however, to suggest that the young man had any knowledge of advanced physics. The credibility of De Heer’s narrative also suffers from meta-fictional utterances that problematise the boundary between fact and fiction. ‘Memory is literature. It is invention, schematisation, fabrication.’ Paul, who notes down De Heer’s narrative, is equally untrustworthy. At the beginning of the novel he describes his own begetting, but he has actually copied that scene from a book. ‘I always read much too much. This image of ecstasy I got from a book.’
At the end of the novel comes the radical change of perspective that makes Omega Minor so oppressive. De Heer turns out to be a deceiver, a former SS officer who assumed the identity of an Auschwitz victim after the war. From the mouth of this man, a remark about photons seems less improbable: ‘I know the laws of physics,’ he boasts afterwards, ‘even the forbidden laws of Jewish physics.’ In retrospect, the story of the conjurer and illusionist seems to anticipate this reversal. With hindsight utterances such as these acquire a significant undertone: ‘I really need disguises these days, just to make me feel human.’
This ex-officer has compiled his war-biography from the other people’s stories of the camps. ‘He has spoken with many voices. Very many voices. And they are the voices of others.’ That is quite obvious from the account of De Heer’s last days in Auschwitz: it contains numerous echoes of the final chapter of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (1947). After the camp is evacuated, De Heer remains behind in the sickbay. The patients go foraging in the camp and find potatoes, a stove and herbs that they can smoke. They curse those suffering from diarrhoea who are soiling the snow, their source of water – all of these narrative elements come from Levi’s book.
This twist creates a surprising effect: if even the story of a camp-survivor is not to be trusted, what can one then believe in? De Heer’s account, which does not shrink from scenes of horror, calls for empathetic and sympathetic reading, yet subsequently frustrates it radically. Extreme scepticism would seem to be one possible reaction. Another is that of Paul: he feels himself misused, yet sees in the false biography a monument to the victims. De Heer’s collage is not necessarily less universal that the evidence of witnesses: ‘From the fragments a new narrative emerged that transcended the individual narratives.’ De Heer seems to feel the same way: no part of what he has narrated is a lie – only the whole is that. Authenticity is a fiction, a well-told lie can be just as ‘true’. ‘In every profound lie is concealed more eloquence, more instruction than in simple honesty.’
Paradoxically enough, it is De Heer who formulates a criticism of the conventions of the camp-story. He is annoyed with the literary canon of camp-stories that determines the way in which those stories have to be told. Historiographers demand authenticity but at the same time they enforce conventions that deprive the story of its authenticity. ‘A literary form has emerged, a form laid down by such men as Eli Wiesel and Primo Levi.’ One of these conventions forbids the telling of fictitious camp-stories: literature and the camps do not mix. Which makes it utterly intolerable for a Nazi killer to creep into the skin of a Jewish victim and interpret the survivor’s feeling of guilt: ‘So why, why (…) have I survived?’ Verhaeghen tramples these conventions underfoot, with the result that in Omega Minor he has written a surprising, problematic book.
By Sven Vitse
Translated by John Irons
First published in The Low Countries, 2008