Never Forget. Forget It All.

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

The Dog King is...well, it's complicated.
Hoo boy. This has been a hard one. In fact, I think this may be one of the hardest pieces I've ever written for Ferretbrain. I've tried to outline reviews of it for a couple months, but they all ended up coming to naught.

The problem is that this is a book that, sadly, lends itself to snap judgements. It's powerful, even shocking to a certain extent, but it is a subtle beast. And given the subject matter, it is so very easy for a reviewer to misinterpret this book, to misrepresent its contents, distort its meaning, and use as a punching bag for whatever cause.

And my problem, naturally, is that I both realize this and am smart enough to know just how stupid I really am. So I've kept it on the shelf for a while, but never wholly out of my mind. And so, over the past few weeks, I decided to read The Dog King again, and to scrounge up whatever analyses I could in order to do a proper review. I don't know if I will succeed at this, but I hope to at least do some justice to the source material. And if I convince any of you out there to read it too (which is, to be honest, my main motivation for writing these), then that will be okay too.

Oh, and there will be spoilers. It's the only way to talk about this book.

The Dog King, originally written by Austrian author and poet Christoph Ransmayr under the title Morbus Kitahara, begins with three bodies on a burning island in the Amazon basin: two men bound by a red cord and charred beyond recognition, and one woman, untouched by the flames, but half-eaten by birds and larvae. It is also how the book ends, and a fair case could be made that the island is the metaphorical purgatorial state within which all the characters remain submerged for the entire story.

So, yes, it's one of those novels.

Chronologically speaking, the story begins in the town of Moor in the Year Zero (or, as it known in the Anglosphere, Nineteen Forty-Five). A lakeside town up in the mountains of an unnamed nation, in its heyday Moor was at the heart of resort country, surrounded by countless hotels and spas. The war changed that, naturally, with well-moneyed tourists being replaced by invalided soldiers. Moor's true shame, however, lay with its granite quarry. Source of a particularly rare type of beautiful green granite, Moor's quarry was worked by slave labor during the war, with hundreds of condemned souls sent there to work, endure any number of cruelties and hardships, and ultimately, to die.

On the final day of the war, Moor survives its only night of bombs, courtesy of an American plane seeking to shed its payload before returning to its Adriatic base. The first few months following the Peace of Oranienburg are as chaotic in Moor as anywhere else, with constantly changing occupiers, refugees streaming in from everywhere, and all number of reprisals and scores being settled in the dead of night. In due course, with the arrival of Major Elliot and the American army, the peace of the victors makes itself known. The brainchild of High Court Justice Lyndon Stellamour, the new peace is one of poverty and penitence. Under the slogans "Our fields grow the future" and "Thou shalt not kill", Moor and the rest of the defeated nations are pushed back into a rural existence. Hydroelectric dams are dismantled, turbines are boxed up and shipped away, and railway lines are torn up by squads of tattooed navvies. Electricity becomes an occasional luxury in Moor, and most families make do with their own private plot, coop of chickens, or get by through barter.

But impoverishment is not the only goal of Stellamour's peace plan. A great culture of remembrance springs into being across the defeated land. Societies of Penitents make their way across the wilderness on foot, seeking to lay offering or build monuments at the sites of former atrocities. "Stellamour Parties", events in which communities participate in memorial activities, become an annual tradition. It is this area that Major Elliot comes into his own. A man driven by a deep sense of moral outrage that, in another time and place, would have resulted in swift institutionalization, his anger at the citizens of Moor and their complicity pushes the memorial activities of Moor to new extremes. During the Stellamour Parties, citizens are commanded to don the uniforms of the former camp inmates and restage photographs of wartime cruelty. Elliot's greatest achievement, however, is his order to carve a great inscription across five terraces of the quarry, an inscription visible across the entire lake country that reads:


But Elliot is only an incidental character, and disappears after the opening chapters. The true protagonist of The Dog King is Bering, son of the town blacksmith. In infancy, Bering kept company with his mother's chickens, and learned for a time how to mimic the call of any bird. While that ability disappeared in time, Bering's close connection with all birds remains unbroken. In his childhood, an intuitive proficiency with all things mechanical soon develops, a talent sorely needed in a world of slowly decaying machinery. Despite his gifts, Bering's childhood is an alienated one. His mother, who conceived him on the final night of bombs, spends most of her time in endless supplication to the Madonna, her entreaties slowly occulting all else from her world. While his mother slowly vanishes into a realm of private (and most likely delusional) revelation, his father, the blacksmith, becomes a figure of fear. A veteran of Africa, bent by his experiences during the war and after, he is a simmering node of anger and hatred who makes no secret of his opinion that Bering is an alien creature, an interloper in his nest. In due course, the hatred becomes mutual.

The distance between Bering and his parents becomes a rift when, just short of his 23rd year, he retaliates at a skinhead gang chasing him by shooting one of their number with his father's hidden pistol. With both parents turning their backs on him after the incident, and shackled to an apprenticeship he hates, there is nothing left for him at home. Opportunity soon presents itself, however, when the "Dog King", the American-appointed manager of the quarry, crashes his car, an aging Studebaker gifted to him by the departing Major Elliot. Offering to repair the ruined vehicle, Bering rebuilds the vehicle into the avian-styled "Crow", a job that nets him the position of the Dog King's bodyguard. With this, the novel shifts to the Dog King's home, a ruined country home called the Villa Flora guarded by a pack of wild dogs tamed by said king, and to the two other major characters of the novel. The Dog King is Ambras, a former photographer whose only crime was loving a Jewish woman, and who was punished for this by her death and his incarceration and torture in Moor's quarry. In life he presents two faces: to the villagers he is the omnipotent Dog King, a distant, invincible autocrat who rules the only major source of employment remaining in Moor and serves as the mouthpiece of the Americans. In person, Ambras is a haunted man, his body broken by his years in the quarry, maintaining a distance from almost everyone, his only remaining joys in life his interactions with the dogs and the gems procured for him by Lily. Lily, or "The Brazilian" as the townsfolk call her, is a solitary trader, one who weaves her way through the mountains, past the checkpoints, selling scavenged war relics to the Americans in the lowlands and returning with small luxuries from the modern world: jars of peanut butter and cacao, records, or a personal radio. She also has her own cross to bear: at the end of the war, she and her family were refugees fleeing the ruins of Vienna, trying to make their way to the Adriatic, to a ship bound for Brazil. Her journey ended in Moor, however, when her father was accused of being an SS man by several refugees from the quarry, and vanished in the company of the Americans after being beaten and almost lynched. As for Lily, while she stays out of the grasps of the gangs of skinheads and war criminals that roam the countryside, once every few months she takes the guise of a hunter, lying in wait for a raiding party with an old English sniper rifle.

At this point, I would like to shift focus away from the plot and characters of The Dog King to the structure and themes of the novel. The reason for this is that The Dog King is very much a symbolic novel; anyone reading this with a realistic framework in mind is going to be sunk. There is a plot, but it is supplemental to the thematic concerns of the novel. Character is revealed more through interior monologue than dialogue, and Ransmayr's masterful use of description is the engine that drives the narrative. Rather more telling of book's nature, however, are the way setting, history, and time are used. While all three reference reality, they all depart from it in such a way as to disorient the reader. From what I have been able to gather, Moor is based on the town of Gmunden, a resort town in Austria, close to Ransmayr's childhood home of Roitham and the former concentration camp at Ebensee. The details and locations are mixed and matched, and a few real-world locations appear in unusual contexts (such as the name of a mountain from the real world being reused as the name of a ferry), but for the most part they are something only a native from the region would notice. For the rest of the audience, Ransmayr's temporal games are far easier to notice. As a few of you may have noticed, this is an alternate history novel, one where the victorious Allies dealt with the defeated nations of the former Third Reich by instituting the Morgenthau Plan, a plan designed to punish the aggressive nations of Central Europe by forcibly deindustrializing them and transforming them into agricultural republics. The temporal engineering go far beyond simple alternative history, however. There are time skips throughout The Dog King where the action with suddenly shift forward a decade or so, or loop back a few months for a particular anecdote. There will also be subtle time shifts within the story, when what appears to be a single short stream of events are revealed in an offhand sentence to have taken place over the span of a year. Even the characters are subject to authorial games, being rendered more as archetypical figures than as realist characters, with their identities borrowing any number of attributes from figures in Greek mythology and German sagas.

All of these tactics serve to push The Dog King away from the world of realism and into the realm of parable. But what, precisely, is this novel a parable of? That is the question. There have been some reviews that have lambasted this book as a conservative attack on the culture of Holocaust remembrance on contemporary German culture, and while I believe the book is a attack of a sort, it not the type of attack those critics imagine it to be. Such a criticism imagines that Ransmayr is merely reversing roles, recasting the Germans as suffering victims and the Americans as brutal victimizers, but that's not quite what he's doing. The people of Moor are suffering under grotesque punishments, true, but there is nothing saintly about them; the few times we are privileged to hear their thoughts, they hit the same notes of dull, spiteful meanness you can hear in small towns the world over.

It's taken me a long time to figure out what precisely Ransmayr is doing in The Dog King, but after a reread (and the occasional help of academics much smarter than me), I believe I have an answer.

The Dog King is a story of victims, of victimizers, and of how the two states are bound to each other. Each of the three major characters are, to some degree, a mixture of both. Ambras was victimized in the quarry during the war, and after the war he brutalized the wild dogs at the Villa Flora to become their master and treats the employees of his quarry with casual indifference. Lily lost her father to accusations and hastily-meted justice, and in turn hunts skinheads in the depths of the forest. As for Bering, his entire narrative arc is a consideration of this relationship. In some ways, he never stops being the victim: he was a child that was unwanted by his parents, stuck in an profession he hated, and forever longing to break free and soar, whether as a bird, behind the wheel of a car, or with Lily. In time, his failures, his inability to leave or transcend his situation stokes his inner anger, manifesting itself in an obsessive desire to fulfill his duties as Ambras' bodyguard and as a seething hatred of Moor's inhabitants. (It also manifests itself in his relationship with Lily developing in a Nice Guy-ish direction, which is probably one of the few times such a development has been completely intentional on the part of the author.)

Bering's problem, and indeed the problem of all the other characters of the novel, is one of blindness. No one in this story is open. Individuals are either separated by ranks of authority or, more commonly, are so wrapped up in their personal tragedies that they simply cannot perceive anything outside of them. This point is made clear in the middle of the novel, where, after catching Bering poking through his room, Ambras explains how he lost his wife, opening himself for the first time since he was freed. In response, Bering, lost in his own world of problems (including, aptly enough, the emergence of black spots that are slowly consuming his vision), turns away from Ambras in silence and gets to work on repairing a motor. The retreat into memory becomes a monomaniacal obsession, preventing any manner of empathy from developing to provide perspective or wisdom. In the end, that is Ransmayr's criticism of the culture of remembrance: that harping on about the same old atrocities and mouthing the same platitudes does not bring understanding or compassion, but rather indifference and a destructive retreat into oneself, with the rituals themselves becoming hollowed-out affairs that are viewed more as public utilities than as instruments of understanding.

In the end, all that the rituals produce in both the victims and victimizers is amnesia, a state with profound consequences for the story. In the final stages of the novel, Lily and Bering make the trek over the mountains with Bering's father, condemned by his memories to eternally wander the dunes of Africa, to a hospital in the lowland city of Brand, the site of a major American military base. Bering's awe at the lights and technological wonders of Brand soon gives way to anger that all these gifts have been bestowed upon Brand while Moor and the other mountain towns have slid back into the Middle Ages. If Moor is the center of self-absorbed memory, Brand is the hometown of modern capitalist amnesia. The ironies build. When Bering arrives, he finds the entire town united in rapturous celebration, for after over a quarter-century of fighting in Latin America, the Pacific, and Southeast Asia, America's war against Japan has been ended by the atomic annihilation of the city of Nagoya. Soon afterwards, the American military returns to Moor with news of its plans for the future: in light of the declining output of granite, all of the quarry's machinery is to be disassembled and shipped to Brazil for installation in a new quarry, while the whole of the lake country is to be ceded to the military as a training ground. What follows is a grim reenactment of the war years, with the inhabitants of Moor disassembling the quarry under the watchful eye of the American military and the heavy hands of a vengeful Bering, awaiting their own resettlement in the lowlands, all done in the name of economic efficiency.

So what path is there out of the maze? The traditional path of penitence is dismissed as ultimately self-indulgent, and all amnesia does is reiterate the same tragedies with new actors. A third possibility is seen in the closing chapters, with the three main characters escaping the ruins of Mitteleuropa with the machinery and making a new start in Brazil. But even escape isn't an option, for it quickly becomes apparent that the site of the new quarry, the town of Pantano, is just another iteration of Moor, and the old patterns reassert themselves. In the end, it is implied that the only way to escape the problems of memory, victimhood, and victimization is mutual self-destruction.

But not for Lily.

Lily escapes the logic of the novel. She does so by doing what no other character managed to do: by acquiring perspective. That perspective came on the trip to Brand, in an encounter between her, Bering, and a pair of chicken rustlers. While she was content to let them go, Bering, driven by anger at the mistreatment of the chickens and by memories of a wounded skinhead long ago, stole her rifle and killed one of the fleeing men. That moment is a conceptual breakthrough for Lily, allowing her to transcend her previous beliefs and see herself not just as a victim, but as a victimizer as well. After this point, she slides out of the story, abandoning her role as a trader and huntress, eventually taking leave of Ambras and Bering and departing into the wilds of Brazil, freed of her past and with her childhood journey finally completed. Sadly, for Ambras and Bering, two eternal victims who are no longer anything but past, there is no way out. Indeed, after Lily's departure, Bering ends up conscripting another woman to play her role in the immolatory drama that ends the novel.

So that is The Dog King. After reading it again, I'm not entirely sure about if I can comfortably call it a "Holocaust novel". It references the Holocaust, though the fantastic nature of it does serve to obfuscate the particular historical elements of that event, and there is no attention paid to the matter of historical responsibility (though I'm not entirely certain Ransmayr would see the concept of "historical responsibility" as anything but a honeyed phrase hiding baser impulses). On the other hand, the allegorical nature of The Dog King universalizes the story far more than a strictly realist account would, and if you're looking for the widest possible audience for your message, universalism is the way to go. Other than that, it's beautifully written, beautifully translated, and I am glad to have read it and shared it with all of you.

And I also promise that my next review will be something that didn't take me a year to write.
Themes: Books, Historical

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Comments (go to latest)
Janne Kirjasniemi at 14:41 on 2012-03-01
This seems like an interesting read. Lot's of the issues you mention seem to be at least partly the themes that a lot of german literature has wrangled with in the post-war years, which, of course is hardly surprisng. Did you happen upon the book because of its tentative connection with the alternative history genre, or through other interests?
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 19:28 on 2012-03-01
I found it through alternate history, specifically from reading Gavriel Rosenfeld's The World Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism. The book thoroughly covers the expected topics: stories of a victorious Third Reich as imagined by British, American, and German writers, stories depicting Hitler's post-1945 survival, and stories where Hitler either never came to power or failed to start WWII. But Rosenfeld also included a section discussing the Holocaust has been used in alternate history. Naturally, there wasn't much material to discuss (though I was surprised he didn't read Martin Gidron's The Severed Wing), so a fair chunk of it ended up being devoted to German stories depicting an successfully enacted Morgenthau Plan. The Dog King received the most attention, and the synopsis Rosenfeld gave sounded so alien to everything else he had discussed that I felt I had to find it.

The upshot is that this book made me a confirmed fan of Ransmayr's work, which is a pretty hard row to hoe, given how only three of his books have been translated into English. Many of the themes dealt with in The Dog King seem to be perennial features of his work; my research uncovered an illustrated poem he wrote in the early 1980s called "Resplendent Decline", depicting the construction of an immense compound in the Sahara Desert in which Europeans are settled and left to die of dehydration as part of an experiment by something called the "New Science." No translation, alas, and I doubt there will ever be one. at 01:17 on 2012-03-02
Hi, long time lurker, first time commenter.

Unfortunately I don't think I'll be able to make a cohesive, thought-through comment right now... It's all just a mess of half-remembered history lessons, social and cultural feelings too complicated to explain to a foreigner in a foreign language, and a creepy sense of "there but for the grace of god" inside me right now. Plus, the last time I did any kind of literary analysis was 10 years ago. Basically, this book would probably strike far too close to home for me to actually enjoy reading. (He just *had* to name-check my hometown, didn't he? I mean, it was in the Soviet Occupation Zone and it was a whole fleet of Allied bombers that dumped their payload here in order destroy industrial assets shortly before the Soviet army arrived - we're still busy finding and defusing a dozen delay-fuse bombs each year and will be for the next hundred years if they don't go off on their own before. But everything else... I guess I should be greatful for the Cold War and that despite the reparations and the dismantling of industry and infrastructure there still was a political need for a strong buffer state.)

I wonder were the victim mentality is coming from, though. I mean, yeah, bombing civilian targets like that is reprehensible, but all sides did that. And it's perfectly understandable that the Soviet states wanted revenge and needed the reparations. And even with what was left after the industrial dismantling, we were still in a comparatively privileged position within the Warsaw Pact. At least that's what I've been told all my life.
In my experience, for those not actually alive during the Third Reich and the war, it's more a sense of vague karmic group dept than personal guilt or anger at the victors. Or maybe that's just Germany - or specifically East Germany, I can't speak for the Allied Occupation Zone. The whole idea of "we deserved that" and "never again shall war originate from this country" was drilled in pretty thoroughly when I went to school, but I'm not aware of any ritualised penance. Just this pervasive sense of a need, and duty, for constant civil vigilance and that any kind of pride in your country or trust in your government is the first step on a very slippery slope. Then again, perhaps we East Germans feel we have paid enough of a price for our grandparents' crimes, so all that's left is not to let it happen again. War reparations (and global shunning on the basis of your nationality) are a form of collective penance, after all, and if Austria has been spared that, maybe there's some kind of psychological need to be punished in more personal ways and that leads to writing books like this.
Or maybe it's just a generational thing. My mother (born 1944) does still harbor resentments against the Soviets. Though, ironically, also a bit against the Allies, for not being ruthless *enough* with the denazification and war reparations on their side.

It references the Holocaust, though the fantastic nature of it does serve to obfuscate the particular historical elements of that event, and there is no attention paid to the matter of historical responsibility (though I'm not entirely certain Ransmayr would see the concept of "historical responsibility" as anything but a honeyed phrase hiding baser impulses).

Considering that playing down the Holocaust or Nazi war crimes in a print medium has been a serious crime in Austria since 3 years before this book was published, and that the author got a number of prizes and prestigious speaking gigs shortly after publishing it, I doubt that he would make fun of the concept or that the book was perceived as doing so. Perhaps it's just that he could be sure that anyone in the intended audience would have the neccessary historical knowledge that allusions would suffice? It's hard to obfuscate something any child learns about in 8th grade. And 10th grade. And 12th grade.
But again, I was still a politically disinterested teen in the '90s, and by now the Holocaust denial laws are so entrenched in my culture that any kind of historical whitewashing by the descendants of the perpetrators provokes a loud "WTF is wrong with you people?!" from me, and to Hell with 'freedom of expression'. So the idea that any recent German speaking author would just shrug off his historical responsibility and not be publically shunned for it is kind of mind-breaking.

Gah... I hope that made any sense. I'm not used to expressing myself in English about a topic like this. And I probably shouldn't try to... at 01:23 on 2012-03-02
Okay, after googling a bit, I found out that there actually is a special brand of post-war victim mentality particular to Austria. Here's an English link:

"The war generation rejected the pain of coming to terms with the dark chapter of their own history, and quite frequently the war damage suffered by the Austrian population was put on a level with the suffering of the Jews in the Shoa."

Apparently this only started to get any critical debate a few years before this book was published, so maybe it was supposed to be something of a commentary to that change in Austrian culture.
Michal at 02:20 on 2012-03-02
RE: German/Austrian victim narratives

Omer Bartov has done quite a bit of work on them. His article "Defining Enemies, Making Victims: Germans, Jews and the Holocaust" (The American Historical Review 103.3, June 1998) is worth a look, if you can find it. It's available on JSTOR and I (fortunately) saved a copy before my access rights evaporated.

I've written a bit about victim narratives in relation to current trends in western discourse about the Holocaust. Cathrynne Valente has also written about such narratives, and in far more readable fashion, I think.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 06:39 on 2012-03-02
What might be relevant to this, is that Austria as a national entity was not recognised by the allies as being extant during the WWII, that is, that while individuals, who were Austrians before the Anschluss and perhaps after 1945, were responsible for war crimes, Austria or Austrians technically couldn't, since such an entity did not exist during the war. Perhaps this makes it possible to build the feeling of being a victim of both the National socialists and the Allies, a thing Germans are unable to do, because it is impossible to segment things in this way. Well, this is of course speculation, I wouldn't know.
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