Wednesday, May 16, 2012

THIS BEAUTIFUL PLACE By Tankred Dorst and Ursula Ehler

By Tankred Dorst and Ursula Ehler
Hanging Loose Press
Prose, 91 pages
ISBN: 978-1-934909-29-4 (pbk.)

     Tankred Dorst  is a German playwright who has also worked in film, radio, and as a stage director.  THIS BEAUTIFUL PLACE, written with his partner, Ursula Ehler, is his only novella.  Translator Anna Posten, in her illuminating afterward, notes that the book was first conceived as a screenplay and, indeed, it has a cinematic quality.  Posten mentions the parallels between this novella and the work of American filmmaker Robert Altman.  She says that “Altman’s style, with its emphasis on luck and fate, coupled with dark undercurrents of tragedy and dissatisfaction, had a strong effect, not only on Dorst, but on German culture and writing from the last quarter of the twentieth century through to the present day.”  

     THIS BEAUTIFUL PLACE is comic in an even darker way and more indebted to Theater of the Absurd than Altman’s work but the fragmented, episodic unfolding of the narrative(s) works the same kind of magic as that of an Altman film.  The reader gradually learns more about the characters and their motives, their dreams, desires and delusions as their stories weave together.  

      One of the most interesting characters is Lilly, child of an absent father and a drunken and feckless mother.  Lilly believes her father, who deserted the family and who is no doubt an alcoholic too, is living in Spain and is, in fact, the King of Spain.  As the story progresses, she steals money from her mother and takes off with her little brother, Maxi, who is still young enough to be in diapers, an heads off to hitchhike to Spain to find her father the King.  She imagines a wonderful life filled with love if only she can find him.  

     Another presence dominating the story is not a character per se but a historical personage (though there is some debate about what is true and what is myth regarding him) called Aleijadinho (real name: Antonio Francisco Lisboa).  He was a Brazilian architect and sculptor who lived from 1738—1814.  He is said to have contracted leprosy but continued to design churches and carve religious statuary.  When he lost his hands he had his tools strapped to the stumps of his arms and continued to work.  When his feet rotted away he bought a slave to carry him on his shoulders.  

     Another character is Adam Bonsack, a womanizer who has written an essay on Aleijadinho, and his devoted wife, Anna, whom he neglects and humiliates.   A comic character who turns up for brief interludes is Fritz, who is Maxi’s actual father though he in no way carries out that role.  Fritz is a lewd, disheveled geezer who wears an aviator’s cap and rides around on a moped and who is generally unwelcome wherever he shows up.

     Dorst’s novella explores how our lives are bounded by our dreams and delusions, and by the luck of the draw. Within that context there is still room for hope, however, because there’s still room for the persistence, the courage of an Aleijadinho.
                                                                                    --Richard Wilhelm

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