Best European Fiction 2012 – Part III – Death in Sicily

Clowns, volcanoes, love, jealousy, grief, birds and disease are the elements that make up Janusz Rudnicki’s haunting short story

The beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy sees the poet “halfway along life’s path” at 35 years old and lost in a dark wood. The beginning of “The Sorrows of Idiot Augustus” by Poland’s Janusz Rudnicki finds the main character similarly assessing his life at a midpoint. But while Dante’s halfway point gives the impression of undertaking a perilous journey, Rudnicki’s narrator seems stuck in a rut that reeks of mediocrity and stasis, after early retirement from teaching at a middle school:

“I live in a city of medium size, I am of medium build, I have a medium-sized pension, a medium-sized apartment, and I am middle-aged. Deeply middle-aged.”

With his daughter and grandson having emigrated and his wife having been killed in a plane crash on her way back from visiting them, the nameless narrator has essentially retreated from life. He claims to look up at every passing plane, regularly visits his wife’s grave to read Bruno Schulz to her and just as regularly and dispassionately has a prostitute come over to minister to his physical needs.

Having a grief-stricken hollow man as a main character could easily be a recipe for a somber and dull story, but Rudnicki skillfully fills his empty vessel of a character with images, thoughts and impressions both from the present and the past he is trying to come to terms with, not to mention with the words of Bruno Schulz.

The break comes on one of his cemetery visits when he spots a young couple kissing, reminding him of he and his wife’s first trip together to Warsaw and their own romantic interlude in a cemetery. He decides to return to the site of their honeymoon in Taormina, Sicily.

This progression evokes another literary model that plays an increasingly important role as the story goes on. In Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, writer Gustav von Aschenbach is at a transition point of his own, emotionally and artistically spent, when a walk by a cemetery leads to a resolution to head south to Venice. Like Aschenbach, Rudnicki’s retired Polish teacher develops an obsession for someone much younger than he is, and like Mann’s buttoned-up character he loses his self-restraint and not only seems like a clown, but actually becomes one in his inamorata’s theater troupe.

What is most impressive about the story, and what most gives it the feeling of depth more typical of a novel is the symbolism and imagery Rudnicki develops, a symbolism actually more subtle than what Mann used in his famous novella. Clowns, volcanoes, love, jealousy, grief, birds and disease all serve to transform a fairly simple plot into a highly resonant story.

Stories relying on such a symbolic and poetic aura typically do so with a more lyrical style; characterized by long, flowing sentences that call attention to themselves. Rudnicki, on the other hand, often opts for short, choppy sentences that are more reflective of his narrator’s restless, nervous back and forth thought process.

In the end, the manipulation of the girl he’s let himself become a clown for, leads to some bleak reflections on love as the island mysteriously empties out.

The explanation of why everyone seems to have left the island comes in a symbolic flourish that Rudnicki simultaneously deflates by placing it in a wholly different context. “In the sand, next to me, I saw a dead dove. Apart from the fact that it is a symbol of peace and the Holy Ghost, it is also a symbol of love, or, of course, the irony of fate.” It is this very image that accompanies the announcement of the threat of bird flu in Sicily on the front page of the next day’s newspaper.

The climax of the story takes place on stage, where the clown, Idiot Augustus, is made to understand that he was being used by the object of his obsession to make her boyfriend jealous, the boyfriend whose baby she now carries in her womb. After throwing a heavy object at his rival he rushes out of the theater still dressed in his clown costume (in what is the first escape scene I’ve ever read where the person being chased stops on the way to pose for photos).

The clown ends up running towards the beach that has become a “carpet of bird carcasses,” where he  sees a familiar face holding an umbrella for protection from the creatures being shot out of the sky. This surreal scene is further explained (without becoming any less surreal) by the information that the mafia has been called in from Palermo to kill the potentially diseased birds. Gunshots ring through the air, together with the squawking and screeching of the flying, feathered targets. Without an umbrella the clown has a dead bird fall on his head, leaving his face covered with blood. That is when he sees the police approaching him and the story comes to a vivid, haunting end, reminiscent of Mann’s Aschenbach falling victim to the cholera epidemic and succumbing to death at the beach.

Photos – 1) The Greek ampitheater at Taormina, 2) Charon crossing the river Styx from Gustave Doré’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, 3)

For Part I of the BEF 2012 review click here

For Part II of the BEF 2012 review click here

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Categories: Book Reviews


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  1. Best European Fiction 2012 – Part I – the dead white noise of space | literalab - 30/06/2012

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