Porcupine’s Quill, 2000. ISBN: 0-88984-213-2. 6 x 9, 205 pages. $15.95
Poet, bioregional essayist, and explorer of post-colonial landscapes in decay and transition, Harold Rhenisch combines his father’s character with his own, and in a series of lumnous, closely-linked stories takes the reader on an emotional journey through humour, joy, heartbreak, horror, spiritual catastrophe and redemption, to present a second look at history. This is a powerful and captivating evocation of innocnce and storytelling from one of Canada’s master prose stylists.
A Canadian farmer returning to the German town of his childhood relives the dreams, stories, and terrors he experienced fifty years before. In incandescent, emotionally charged and magical prose he tells of a boy growing up wild in a fairty tale village, seeking among the ruins of society to understand love and his place in the world as a man. His world of mermaids, eelfishers, Carnival characters, witches and life-giving transformation is given to him by the quiet resistance of his mother’s stories. Parallel to that is the world of pranks that he pulls with his best friend; the hidden world of a French POW he is nursing in the basement; and the crippling world of a father politically trapped into war — of carpet bombing, strafing, the confusing journey of his sister into quite a different adulthood, the rape of his girlfriend by occupying Moroccan soldiers, and the terrble retribution enacted upon them by the French command. We watch as the enchanted town of Hansel’s childhood decays into the harsh, one-dimensional town of a modern adulthood, and how by facing his memories — and the best and worst of humanity — with unflinching honesty, joy, grief and deep emotion, Hansel comes to tee the world with great clarity and wisdom. The result is a passionate work of unusual integration and intensity.
Carnival can stand beside anything by Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom Rhenisch cites as influences, though it’s more like a painting by Marc Chagall or Kurt Schwitters: a volatile mix of memory, nightmare and memoir blended into fiction by a writer who heard the original text as a child, from his father. John Moore, The Vancouver Sun
The results are often nothing less than astounding. Reinhold Kramer, Canadian Literature
Carnival is about so many ideas, the story itself would be enough, but there is more. There is the exquisite beauty of the writing–the density of detail, depth, a cacophony of sounds, the symphony of images and motifs. Rhenisch’s understanding has caught up with his mastery of technique, which also shone through Out of the Interior. His poetry augments his themes. Here in Carnival, the magic realism is intended to document Hans’ dissociation. It rings psychologically true, showing how the child Hans’ dreams, nightmares, and visions help him cope with the bodies falling around him. His “flights” are tricks his mind plays in order to keep him alive. Style and content are perfectly integrated…I do hope Rhenisch plans to market Carnival outside Canada; it has international, national, and universally personal significance. Reading it makes me feel proud to be Canadian. A story that needed to be told is now a book that needs to be shared. J.M. Bridgeman, Prairie Fire
ESCAPE THROUGH THE ROSE GARDEN
We dug a tunnel every night for five weeks in the second winter of the war. The maids got off work at 8: 30, put us all to bed in our pyjamas &emdash; six kids from four to fourteen years old — locked the doors and left. Once we were sure they had gone, we tied our sheets to the window and climbed down. Michel said, “There is a dirt floor in the wine cellar and there is our sandbox by the canal. We can have a secret entrance!”
Night after night, we slipped out in our pyjamas. We dug thirty metres before we gave up. Michel dropped the project as quickly as he had picked it up. It was ridiculous. We hardly got any sleep.
We had a lot of sand and nowhere to put it, so we threw it in the canal, laid boards over the hole, and covered them with sand. One day we stood there with the mayor and the firemen, looking at the dam in the canal as if we had never seen it before in our lives. It was awfully funny. They said, ‘Frau Doktor,’ very politely when Mama came, and nodded gravely. The dirt we had dug out of the tunnel completely blocked the canal. No-one could figure out where it had come from. There was no evidence of it at all.
At least Michel thought of wooden supports, so the whole stupid thing did not fall down on our heads. We got the wood from the bombed-out school across the canal. Michel laughed, ‘We can steal the door off the garage!’ Mama never knew! She came home late at night and left early in the morning and she did not have a car. We carried that big plank door through the rose bushes, and threw it into the canal with a big splash. Then we all splashed through the water in our pyjamas under that big weeping willow, climbed onto the raft, and pushed across. We were like Huck Finn on the Mississippi.
Four weeks later, the maid said Papa was coming home on leave. Right away, we ran straight down to the canal and got that door! The bad water in the canal had wrecked all the paint, but we hung the door back on the garage anyway. That evening in the dusk Papa came home in his black car. Michel said, “He’s here,” and we all ran to the windows. What I saw that night I will never forget, because there was Papa standing in front of the garage door, looking very puzzled. We could tell right then he was not going to be mad. It was just something he did not understand. One half of the door was white and clean, new and shining in the last light; the other half was grey and peeling — and wet! Papa stood there for a few minutes, then he came in, and he never said a thing about it, ever.
MY PARENTS’ DIVORCE
Papa sat at the piano in the Herrenzimmer and played the Emperor Concerto. We did not dare go in. He played and he played until Mama came home, late. We lay upstairs, afraid, in the white moonlight, picking the sand from under our fingernails, and listened to that music. It was the first night in weeks we had not been out working on the tunnel. We heard Mama downstairs talking to Papa. Shit, what were they talking about. We all heard it plain enough, but what did it mean?
“I work 72 hours without a break. I take drugs to keep me awake. Some kid comes in and I have to decide whether he should live or not as he is bleeding on my table. They have no right to talk about planning. I am going to get killed too. How could you do that to me, Martha. How could you send me there?”
“You were having an affair. I did not know there was going to be a war.”
“Then you are stupid.”
And a door slammed.
After that I just heard Mama crying. We all heard that. It pooled and echoed in the whole house. It was a house of tears. What is that supposed to mean? We did not know what we were supposed to do, so we did nothing
OUR PRIVATE WAR
The truth is, it was our war. The war was as much between Mama and Papa as it was with England and Russia. Most of the time it was just fought with silence and absence. Papa was in his field hospital, on the front. Mama was looking after the hospital in Rastatt.
Papa left the next morning. He closed the door of the garage tightly behind him and gave each of the girls a hug and shook our hands, the boys. He said nothing to Mama. We heard him shifting the gears of his car on those dirt streets through town, then out into the fields. When it was silent, Mama sat us down on the steps and told us a story.
“After the Swedes surrounded our town, Wallenstein was up in Ebersteinburg, the robber castle. The knights could see all the roads leading through the forests and down into the plain, and used to ride down and steal gold from travellers. When Wallenstein was caught up there, the Swedes had already knocked off the tower and blasted half of the walls apart. All the wooden roofs and the wooden walkways were burning. The Swedes thought they had finally captured Wallenstein, who had been causing them so much trouble in this part of the country, but as they watched he leapt with his big, white stallion off the edge of the burning castle into the steep, dark ravine. The Swedes went down right away. It took them hours to force their way through the thorny underbrush, but they never found any sign of Wallenstein, or of his white stallion. Do not forget that: you live in a country of magic, where a man can disappear. When nothing else will make things happen, magic may, if you believe in it.”
A PARTY IN THE ROSE GARDEN
And a week later, Frau Sturmann fell into our tunnel! It was terrible. Mama was having a party, the last garden party she would have before the war took over all our lives and squeezed us out of those places where we used to live. The guests were party officials, businessmen, local politicians. Frau Sturmann was a very stuck-up old lady, but she was Mama’s friend. Mama was very busy as the hostess. There were people in all the rooms of the house, and people walking around, laughing loudly. The men sat in the Herrenzimmer and smoked cigars. The stinking grey smoke settled to the floor and around their feet. Mama said to Frau Sturmann, “Frau Sturmann, I am so glad you could come. Let us go out into the garden for a moment so we can be alone and talk.”
We did not know anything had happened until we heard the screaming. We ran outside. There was Frau Sturmann, alright. Only her head and shoulders were sticking up above the ground. She was not the nice old lady anymore. Mama was trying to help her out of the ground, but Frau Sturmann was screaming at her that she was crazy and her whole house was crazy and her kids were worse than dogs! Michel and I ran out and pulled her from that hole. She was stuck very badly, as if she was planted there. She came out with her dress covered with sand and dust. That was really something for an old lady! By this time everyone from the party was leaning over the railing at the back of the house and looking down into the rose garden.
“That is it! You are a stupid woman and your husband does not love you, and I will never, ever, see you again!”
She stormed off.
Once she was gone, Mama looked up at the house. Everyone was staring at her, without saying a thing. As Michel and I watched, Mama walked through the garden, picking a few roses. When she had a handful, she walked into the kitchen and set them in a bowl, went into the dining room and told everyone they had to go home. The evening light came in long, slanting yellow beams through the west windows and splashed across the floor, throwing long, dark shadows. Everyone stepped through those shadows and those beams of light. They all flickered like the leaves on a birch tree in the forest, turning over and under in a light wind.
Some of the people said they were sorry, but many of them did not. Mama knew right away which ones were going to speak to her again and which ones were not. When you are a kid, you know which people are your friends and which ones are your enemies, but when you are grown-up, when you are a certain kind of grown-up like my mother, you think you can get somewhere with people by talking to them or by doing good things or by being polite, but it is not true; any child could tell you that: some people are your enemies and they wish you nothing good. The loss of society was hard for Mama, later, with the blackout shutters closed, listening to the Canadian planes flying East high overhead, and the booming of the flak guns along the Rhine.
She called us inside that night, and asked if we knew anything about the hole in the garden. Naturally, we said, ‘No, we do not know anything!’ Then Mama laughed. She laughed till the tears came to her eyes like raindrops and she wiped them off with the knuckles of her hand and they came again.
“Just there with only her head and shoulders sticking up out of the ground! Ha! The stupid old woman. That is just what she deserved! Meddling in other people’s business!”
No-one came to the house again. Mama was alone. Every night, she came home later and later from the hospital.