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by Yoko Tawada ; translated by Susan Bernofsky

Pub Date: July 9th, 2024
ISBN: 9780811234870
Publisher: New Directions

Japanese novelist Tawada, who lives in Berlin, observes a scholar’s obsession with a poet.

When does an interest become an obsession? A pathology? For the central character of Tawada’s Covid-19-era novella, problems come to light after his interest becomes a job. Patrik—more often referred to as “the patient”—is a literature scholar in the midst of a mental breakdown. The object of Patrik’s work, and of his obsession, is the 20th-century Romania-born Jewish poet Paul Celan (1920-1970). In his thoughts and conversations, Patrik references endless minutiae of the poet’s work, including his preoccupations with Zen and Kabbalah. For Patrik, Celan takes on a similar mystical significance—no detail small enough to escape notice, nothing in life too mundane to connect back to his work. Patrik aspires to “give a lecture in which he revealed the significance of every single letter Celan used in his poetry,” but he’s hobbled by his mental illness, which largely prevents him from leaving home. When he does, the patient suffers absurd compulsions, such as an inability to turn right at intersections or to order at a café. After a server offers a drink, he complains: “Why grapefruit juice? The grapefruit available in Berlin is mostly imported from Israel. Celan didn’t go to Israel until 1969.” Although he insists that “Patrik is different from the patient,” the line between them is undefined. The narrative embodies his alienation by fluctuating between first and third person and traversing fragmented timelines. What results is an inventive homage to modernist literature, wrapped up in an unexpectedly personal depiction of illness. Although the patient’s problems appear to be psychological, they manifest in his physicality: “I ought to leave my body to its own devices, it can lead a healthier life without me,” he says. “…I’ll stop trying to read my partial, physical pain. Instead, I’ll read Celan.”

A dark but charming portrait of a man unmoored by his love of an artist.