Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Imagination was a filter for wondrous transformations

The patient Herbert Anwaldt had survived "the house of torture", as he called the psychiatric clinic on Marien-Allee in Dresden, for already five years, thanks to his imagination. Imagination was a filter for wondrous transformations; the nurses' jabs and punches became gentle caresses, the stench of faeces became the scent of a spring garden, the cries of the sick became baroque cantatas and the shabby panelling frescoes by Giotto. Imagination obeyed him. After years of practice, he had managed to tame it to such an extent that he had entirely extinguished in himself something, for example, which would otherwise not have allowed him to survive incarceration: desire for a woman's body. He did not have to "extinguish the fire in his loins" like a sage from the Old Testament — that flame had long ago gone out.

Imagination did, however, betray him when he saw small, busy insects scuttling across the room. Their yellowish-brown abdomens flitting in and out of the gaps between the floorboards, their flickering antennae sticking out form behind the washbasin, the individual specimen crawling on to his eiderdown: a pregnant female dragging a pale cocoon, or a handsome male holding its body high on quick limbs, or the helpless young tracing circles with thin feelers — all this would lead to Anwaldt's brain being shaken by an electrical charge of neurons. The whole of him would curl up painfully, flickering feelers would burrow into his skin and he would be tickled, in his imagination, by thousands of limbs. He would then fall into a fury and was a potential danger to other patients, especially since the occasion on which he had discovered that some of them were catching insects, putting them into matchboxes and hiding them in his bed. Only the smell of insecticide would calm his jittering nerves. The matter could have been dealt with by transferring the sick man to another hospital — one less infested by cockroaches — in another town, but here unanticipated, bureaucratic obstacles wold present themselves and successive heads of clinic would forsake the idea. Doctor Bennert had restricted himself to transferring Anwaldt to a private room disinfected somewhat more frequently. In periods preceding the swarming cockroaches, the patient Anwaldt would be calm and occupied himself for the most part by studying Semitic languages.

— from Death in Breslau, by Marek Krajewski.

I'm not sure how this book first came to my attention, but it's been on my list of books-I-really-should-look-up-someday for years. And something made me think to look it up this weekend, so now I have a copy (electronic), and I'm reading and loving it.

Polish noir, they say. Morally ambiguous characters and sordid settings. Reminiscent of Simenon, only there's a little more going on in the plot department and the evidence of living in a Nazi state is a little more in your face.

Plus (as if that's not enough going for it!), it's set in Wrocław (or Breslau, as it was known prior to the end of WWII) — a town I have some familiarity with.

Double plus, I think the cover design for this series of Krajewski's novels (all set in interwar Breslau), from Quercus Publishing, is spectacular (to the point that I'm coveting actual print copies).

I'm only about 40 pages in. The murder case — involving hints of sexual perversion, scorpions, and ancient Syrian script, on a train car — has just been closed to everyone's satisfaction — everyone being the police department (chief of which is a prominent Freemason), the recently installed Nazi officials, and the victim's father (a connoisseur of esoterica) — except maybe that of the convicted Jew. I suspect we're not quite done yet.
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