. . . but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

19 May 2010

Prussia Rises from the Depths

The opening pages of The Part About Archimboldi are in one sense typical of a novel that tells a man's life story and in another sense completely disorienting. The passages relating to Hans Reiter's childhood are poetic, but it is poetry of a very distinctive flavor. I come back repeatedly to this paragraph, set off by itself, and consider who else would have or could have written anything like it:

When his one-eyed mother bathed him in a washtub, the child Hans Reiter always slipped from her soapy hands and sank to the bottom, with his eyes open, and if her hands hadn't lifted him back up to the surface he would have stayed there, contemplating the black wood and the black water where little particles of his own filth floated, tiny bits of skin that traveled like submarines toward an inlet the size of an eye, a calm, dark cove, although there was no calm, and all that existed was movement, which is the mask of many things, calm among them.

Page 639

Remember Amalfitano's voice? Calm will never let you down. That must hold true only in the terrestrial world. Here, under the water, there is only movement. And what is the movement from childhood to adulthood if it is not in great part a movement from poetry to prose?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Part About Archimboldi features a cast of extraordinary characters, characters that remind me of those of John Irving at his very best. The first whom we encounter is the one-legged man who lost his leg in the first world war and later becomes Hans Reiter's father.

Upon his return home from the war, the one-legged man seeks out the one-eyed girl before he either washes or shaves. He goes to her house. I love this that occurs there:

When the girl saw him standing at the door to her house, she recognized him instantly. The one-legged man saw her, too, looking out the window, and he raised a hand in a formal salute, even a stiff salute, though it could also have been interpreted as a way of saying such is life.

Page 638.

Such is life.

The one-legged man is of the opinion that all nationalities and ethnic groups are swine except the Prussians. But Prussia no longer exists. Later this occurs, which from my point of view is a truly beautiful image.

Then his mother stared at him with her blue eye and the boy held her gaze with his two blue eyes, and from the corner near the hearth, the one-legged man watched them both with his two blue eyes and for three or four seconds the island of Prussia seemed to rise from the depths.

Page 644.

Goddamn, I like that!

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