World Poetry/Prose Portfolio: The Camphorwood Binder

World Poetry/Prose Portfolio: The Camphorwood Binder

Trench Gardens

During the Great War the soldiers obediently descended
into the bowels of the earth as if they were kindred spirits of
the dead Chinese emperors. Near Ypres, the city in Flanders,
they fought for four years in order to push the demarcation
line a little farther up, up to the point when the trenches
and fields were filled with corpses, while the soil became utterly
toxic. Several million were never to return home. Those
whose trench feet were not rotting, whose heads were not yet
distraught by shell shock, desperately attempted to escape
the earthly depression. The British were reading pages of
black humour, the French were reading letters from their fiancées,
the Austro-Hungarian soldiers were listening to their
storytellers and tambura players while the Germans tried to
grow plants in their trenches, well preserved to this day. As
Geert Maak recounts, some German soldiers managed to
plant gardens with rhododendrons, lilies and “Parole-Uhren”,
the small windmills that shortened the tedium, reminding
them of a more peaceful life before the war. This type of
bio matter, anti-war poetry, conservative and sentimental,
remained buried in the ditches of the lesser history. The
former trenches and war cemeteries were soon overgrown
with fields of poppies, these companions of the gunpowder
dust and soon-to-occur social revolutions. It is hard to say
whether these ditch gardens were simply the expression of
escapism or a traumatic injury, a type of apocalyptic anxiety
or perhaps a belief in some sophisticated horticulture
of a new world. In the testimony of Maak, the fields around
Ypres, polluted and barren, have remained untilled and un-
inhabited. In the meantime, the Netherlands has become
the world’s greatest producer of flowers, plants for both the
house and the cemetery, while Belgium remains the country
with the greatest number of well-maintained military cemeteries
per capita.

Sleepwalkers in Galicia

The Europeans hastened into the night of World War One like
sleepwalkers — attentive and near-sighted, haunted by dreams, yet
blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the
world, writes Christopher Clark. Mesmerized by his own metaphor,
the historian did not commune with Heraclitus, Marx,
Dix or Chagall, but rather with the well-to-do characters of
Thomas Mann who, from the Lido in Venice and his Alpine
lodgings, bravely walked into the officers’ battle trenches accompanied
with a gramophone and caviar. While to Heraclitus
the Many are sleepwalkers while a few, who are philosophers, seek
after wisdom and respond to its voice; to Marx the political visionaries
are such proud yet ghastly figures which threaten the bourgeois
dream of the lifetime annuity. Yet no one before Moishe
Zakharovich represented the sleepwalking of share croppers
and wage earners in full colour of their (past and future) collective
misfortune. His Galician lunatics fly straight into the skies,
on the wings of the red angel, turning their backs to a shtetl, to a
fiancée, to farm animals, to the dew-covered fields, to the persecutions
and pogroms, to Dix’s crippled soldiers with gas masks
on their faces. Maybe this explains why in many languages of
Galicia there are more words for lunatics than sleepwalkers, the
multitude of dreamers carrying a painted bird in their hands.
From the rush after the raw oil resources in “Austrian Siberia”
to the death factory of Oswiecim, this mythical border has expanded
the concept of the exploitation and the infernal beyond
its limits. Even today it lives from its lunar choreography, the
diabolical tourism and the phantasm about how easy it is to
march into the promise of the European Dream.

The Camphorwood Binder

The book that Walter Benjamin, in his Berlin flat full of books,
could not, despite his promise, give to Asja Lacis was a rarity.
Her hand intuitively and theatrically reached for the fragrant
camphorwood binder. This was the first edition of Stelés, from
1912, a collection of prose poems by Victor Segalen. Already
by the 1930’s it had become a precious book artifact — with its
concert in a bindings held together by boards and ribbons. Only
a few readers at that time could have appreciated Segalen’s poetry,
in which he had expressed his fascination with Chinese
culture and poetry. Even fewer could have read the Chinese
script accompanying each of the poems. Because of the way it
was produced with the use of fine Korean paper and the camphorwood
bindings, the book became a treasured collectors’
item. Meanwhile, Asja persisted in offering money to Benjamin
until he, visibly agitated, as if parting with a living thing, finally
agreed to sell the book to her. At that time his ailing, love-struck
son had already passed away, while Asja’s daughter had been
released from an orphanage in Moscow. She witnessed the
book transaction and talked of it quite often in front of the TV

Kafka’s Restaurant

Writing the cookbook Kafka’s Soup, one of the many culinary
parodies of literary classics, the author Mark Crick might not
have dreamt that Kafka toyed for a while with the idea of moving
to Palestine and opening a restaurant. A sharp-witted person,
Kafka confided this idea only to his close associates, most
of them Zionists. At the same time he let them know what he
thought of the idea of a classless, desert, Jewish community. He
knew that the vibrant Prague intellectuals would perhaps not be
pleased by the cultural offerings of a kibbutz, that in their new
(ancient) homeland they would need a place to meet and exchange
ideas. Perhaps a cool diner in which to meet and have
fun, just like characters in a Woody Allen film. A place in which,
thanks to postmodernism, the well-lettered filmmaker and the ill-fated
Israeli restaurant owner could exchange their favorite jokes.
And thus prevent Max Brod from committing the folly of violating
his friend’s bequest and handing over the manuscripts into
the hands of an unreliable mistress and secretary. By opening the
first chain of literary diners, with the logo showing A Hunger Artist,
the treasury of the state of Israel would have benefited most.
It could have taxed the globally recognisable slow food company
and it might have grown richer from the lawsuit against Ruth and
Eve, the two daughters of Brod’s entrepreneurial secretary, since
both claimed that the manuscripts of Kafka and Max Brod were
not common cultural assets, but only guaranteed the material security
of their late mother and, of course, their own. The lawyers
wisely claim that it has become an instance of the paradigmatic
Kafkaian trial of the 21st century, to be emulated by the greedy
inheritors of famous writers in many other countries.

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