disappearance

THE SHIP BY HANS HENNY JAHNN

It had been fifteen minutes since I ordered the taxi. According to the tracker on my phone it had spent that time down a dead-end street, turning slowly in circles. I considered cancelling, but with the instinctive human yearning for a reasonable explanation I convinced myself that my phone was faulty, that I was overreacting, that the fear I felt was unwarranted. When eventually the car pulled up I got in and asked the driver if he had been having mechanical problems. He told that he had been stuck at traffic lights. The lie unnerved me further. When the vehicle moved, it did so at great speed. I felt for my seatbelt, pulled it across my chest. It would not click into place. It was obstructed by something. ‘It doesn’t work,’ the driver said. I asked him to stop the car. He seemed agitated. ‘It’s fine,’ he said. ‘Stay there.’

It crossed my mind at this point that he meant me harm, and, further, that in harmful situations the victim usually waits for the terrible moment, the blow, before reacting. I was ready to act, to preempt. The driver offered me the backseat, then changed his mind. ‘Stay there, it’s fine,’ he repeated. We sped on. I wondered, with that futile human need for clarification, why he was so insistent on me being in the front of the car. A robbery? A sexual assault? I contemplated jumping, but, in compromise with myself, persuaded him to let me in the back instead. It’s either that or I get out, I stated firmly. What an absurd agreement. A few moments later we pulled up at some traffic lights. ‘My eyes,’ he said. ‘They feel itchy, I can’t see.’ He wants me to get in the front again, I thought. To check his eyes. I didn’t. I asked to be let out, and to my surprise he stopped the car.

I’ve told this story numerous times. Most think that it was nothing, that the danger was a figment of my imagination, that it was no more than dust dirtying the mirror of my mind. Sometimes I think so too. Is it not I who am mad, and not the world? I’ve asked myself that question before. Isn’t it possible, likely even, that I am viewing the world through the prism of my own insanity, and that this is the reason why everything I experience seems so peculiar, offbeat, and frightening? Is that the reasonable explanation for which I yearn? There are no demons in dark corners, they are all in my head. Yes, that is certainly a more straightforward way of looking at things. There was no maniacal taxi driver intent on hurting me, simply a taxi driver who was bad at his job; there are no trapdoors, simply doors upon which my diseased mind has imposed a sinister significance.

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The Ship was written by Hans Henny Jahnn and published in 1949. Information about the author is scarce, but the German was, I’ve read, the son of a ship’s carpenter and the grandson of a builder of ships. This, and the title of course, might lead one to expect from his work something like an ode to sailing and the sea, or even the less thrilling chapters in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but the reality is far removed from that. The ship itself, which at the beginning of the novel is moored, and doesn’t give hint of being ready to go anywhere, is described as being of ‘unparalleled artistry.’ It was, we’re told, ‘built by a genius.’ The red sails, however, are troubling. More so is that fact of it being stationary, and of it being utilised as something of a party boat; for a ship that doesn’t drive through the water is a ‘useless enterprise,’ is, indeed, ‘an offence to society.’

These are early examples of a strangeness and unease that intensifies as the novel progresses. Some of this is due to the construction of the ship itself. The vessel is, it is revealed, equipped with microphones that allow the supercargo, a government official, to listen in to all conversations. This man is also in contact, in a way that isn’t particularly clear, with another ship that is sailing close behind and which is ready to move in on his say. Even more alarming is that the original ship appears to have secret walls and certain doors can be opened from outside even when locked. All of which gives the impression that the passengers are trapped in what is effectively a surrealist painting or on a floating fairground house of horrors. These people are further spooked by the uncertainties regarding the mission and the cargo. In short, none of them know where they are going, or why, or what is being carried.

In this way, The Ship is a a kind of mystery thriller, albeit a slow-paced one, especially when one factors in the disappearance of a young woman, and her possible murder. Indeed, it has much in common with the ‘locked room’ subgenre, as there are witnesses that see her enter the supercargo’s cabin, but none that see her leave; and yet there is no evidence of foul play when the room is searched. There is not, however, a highly trained detective on hand to unravel the mystery, only the passengers, the greater number of whom – the regular crew – are rapidly losing their minds. Of the others on board, there are three who are of particular interest. There is a captain, who is affable and competent, as long as he is dealing only with traditional captain’s business, but who would, if he were allowed, turn a blind eye to anything he couldn’t easily explain. Secondly, there is the aforementioned supercargo, who seems initially set up to be the villain. He is the only one with knowledge of the cargo and destination of the ship, and he is described as ‘devious’, ‘repulsive’, and ‘exceptional.’ Most telling, however, is his nickname as the ‘grey man’, for his character is vague, changeable. One is never sure what to make of him. Is he victim, loser, pawn or puppet-master?

The third character of note is Gustave, the missing young woman’s lover. He is the person on board who goes through the most significant changes. In the beginning, he stows away on the ship, and one can see in this a shedding of his previous identity, or a means of mentally and emotionally reinventing himself. Indeed, his relationship with Ellena, which had been so solid, falters; he ignores her, first for his new-found love of adventure and comradeship with the crew, and then in his obsession with understanding and explaining the odd nature of, and happenings on board, the ship. Yet far from arriving at any form of enlightenment, he becomes increasingly ‘befuddled.’ It is through Gustave in particular, but also notable members of the crew, that Jahnn illustrates his principle theme.

When faced with the strange or confusing, man will endeavour to look for a reasonable or logical explanation, almost as a kind of comfort blanket. However, it can happen that in searching for a simple, rational explanation one actually creates lavish fantasies, and these, in turn, can push one towards insanity. Moreover, is it also the case that a mind already in the grip of madness, when searching for the rational, will in fact create something monstrous, yet still plausible. Take, for example, the construction of the ship. Gustave refuses to accept, or may not even acknowledge the possibility, that its design is eccentric, but harmless. He sees something sinister in it, a motive. Likewise, the cargo could be anything. It is a secret, yes, but that does not mean that it is something horrifying or supernatural. Perhaps it is guns. Drugs. Or something even more banal. Yet Gustave and the crew concoct ever wilder theories, culminating in a belief that in each coffin-shaped box lies a woman, dead or alive.

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CONCLUDING BY HENRY GREEN

I had intended to write this yesterday. But I went out drinking instead. This is my life now. This, apparently, is living. I spent a number of years putting people off, in order to read and write. Excuses and outright lies. I was ashamed of myself, and wished I was different. I am different now, yet not in a meaningful way. Different only in so much as I force myself to engage, while being still disengaged mentally and emotionally. I felt I had to try though, so I am trying. I spoke about Henry Green last night. I was asked, as I am always asked, because it is one sure way to make me speak, what are you reading? I had just finished Concluding. It is usually the case that my brief explanations are met with interest, be it genuine or fake. However, on this occasion the response was lukewarm, almost hostile. And it occurred to me then that Green’s body of work might just be the hardest sell in literature.

There is something singularly unexciting about Henry Green’s oeuvre when reduced to its elements. Of plot and character depth or development, there is very little, and the most immediate compensation – the lovely, awkward sentences – is not exactly crowd-pleasing. Yet Concluding, which I have read twice now, is, for my money, one of the great British novels, and I hope that what I am going to write here will give some indication as to why it is deserving of that status. I’m not holding my breath, though. The book was published in 1948, making it one of the last things the author worked on. Green himself was only 43 at the time, so it is unlikely that he felt as though his own life was coming to an end, but perhaps he did have in sight the last days of his career as there is an autumnal, elegiac quality to parts of it. In one scene, for example, he writes about ‘a glare of sunlight concerted on flat, dying leaves’ and a ‘hidden world of spiders working on its gold, the webs these made a field of wheels and spokes of wet silver.’

The central character Mr. Rock plays into this too. He is an old man, in his seventies, a once brilliant scientist, who now wears thick glasses, consistently mishears conversation due to deafness, and rises ‘with a groan.’ In fact, one way of understanding Concluding is as a novel about old age, and specifically the mistreatment, at least in Britain, of the elderly. Certainly, if one’s sympathies lay with Rock, one could argue that he is a highly intelligent, but vulnerable, man, who is preyed upon by various other, younger, characters who want to strip him of a cottage that sits close by an institute for girls; a property, moreover, which was given to him by the State in view of his former importance and contribution to science. However, one is never entirely sure of him. There are too many contrasting opinions, too much contradictory evidence.

In some quarters he is ‘well liked and respected’; and his granddaughter, in particular, idolises him. But for others he is something more sinister; he is a man ‘not of this world’, he is a ‘curious creature’. At no point in the novel does he do anything truly concerning, and yet one is at times given the impression that there may be, or have been, some form of inappropriate involvement, possibly sexual in nature, between him and one or more of the young female students of the institute. Indeed, it is even suggested that he may have had something to do with the disappearance of two girls, which is the central mystery that provides much of the novel’s momentum and tension. In this way, Concluding is very much like the work of another Henry, Henry James. As I wrote in my review of Portrait of a Lady, James’ genius was the ability to somehow hint and imply without ever outright telling you the juiciest bits of his story. There is, I wrote, a whole world beneath the surface of his work. The same could be said of Green.

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In relation to the disappearance of the girls, it is not only Rock who is fingered as a suspect in the reader’s mind. Almost all of the characters are. Everyone raises suspicion, everyone strikes you as dubious, without ever really doing anything to deserve it; except perhaps Miss Edge, the headmistress, who is the most obvious villain of the piece. In fact, one is never sure whether there has even been a crime. It’s really quite magical. There is an atmosphere of unease and strangeness throughout the novel. The girls, for example, are all called names beginning with M. They are essentially faceless, and without personality, and are often described in sexual terms, such as when reference is made to their ‘golden bare legs’ or the ‘brilliant wetness’ of their mouths. Liz, Rock’s granddaughter, is decidedly odd, having recently had a mental breakdown. Edge and Baker, who run the institute in tandem, are ‘devious’, ‘dangerous’, ‘Babylonian harlots.’ The whole cast appear to be plotting and scheming, and they all talk to each other as though they are having two entirely different conversations.

The characters aren’t all of it, either. Perhaps the most significant scene, in terms of understanding the peculiar power of the novel, and something of Green’s art, is when a doll is found dressed in institute pyjamas. One cannot help but he alarmed by it. Is it meant to represent Mary, one of the missing girls? If so, who is responsible for it? The murderer? The kidnapper? Or does it perhaps belong to her? If so, how did she lose it in the woods, and why the pyjamas? All kinds of macabre thoughts run through one’s mind, and yet it is still only a doll. It does not, in fact, signify anything, even if it does belong Mary, as we already know she is missing and we do not know for certain that she has come to any harm. The doll tells us nothing of note, but suggests all kinds of horrible things. Indeed, one spends the majority of Concluding waiting for a dead body to appear, to be stumbled upon, to float to the surface, or at least for some form of closure, but this is not a book that works in that way. There are no answers or conclusions. As Henry Green himself once wrote: “it’s not the truth that matters. It’s what’s believed.”