Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Cannibal by John Hawkes

Picture me wearing levis with long hair, a beard, and a rucksack full of books strung over my shoulder. That person, that edgy and mouthy bohemian, encountered The Cannibal by John Hawkes. This book comes back to me every few years, re-discovered amongst a stack of dusty literature, its dark visions very much alive, the prose resonating across time: “Beyond the edge of town, past tar-covered poor houses and a low hill bare except for fallen electric poles, was the institution, and it sent its delicate and isolated buildings trembling over the gravel and cinder floor of the valley. From there, one day in the early spring, walking with a tree limb as a cane, came Balamir, walking with a shadow and with a step that was not free, to fall under the eye and hand of Madame Snow. All of Balamir’s demented brothers, in like manner, had been turned out to wander far from the gravel paths, to seek anyone who would provide a tin plate or coveted drink.” The academic community has tagged The Cannibal as postmodern literature, which is a convenient and necessary way of labeling the heavy narrative. The Cannibal never follows a traditional novel format. Its parts are fragmented, and dense with analogy. The three opening sentences set the stage for a frightening vision of post-war Europe. I have read numerous theories on this novel’s meaning, and all of them are correct, but none of them are satisfying. I believe that’s because the novel itself is unsatisfying, but perhaps The Cannibal offers the strongest condemnation of Imperialism in post-war literature. What I know of the author is simple enough; a man of letters who spent his life in the academic community. I am fond of another of his books, The Blood Oranges, which is far different in structure and tone to The Cannibal. The plot switches back and forth between 1918 and 1945. Madame Snow is the only connecting character, a cabaret singer, a boarding house owner. She is everything and nothing, which might be the point. The tenuous plot of assassinating the American overseer during the German reconstruction strikes me as anti-militarism. The overseer’s motorcycle a symbol of industrial strength, at once appealing and pathetic. Germany in the wake of WWII was grimy, desperate, and murderous. But so, too, are the allied societies that rose against Hitler’s quest for global domination. How much has changed and how much is the same? In The Cannibal Germany is reconstructed and the true “nation” restored; the madmen line up and return to the insane asylum. There are many brilliantly written passages that are surreal but reflect an uncanny picture of modern life. I view The Cannibal as a piece of social criticism, satirical and unpleasant. Trust that mine is the minority view. Academicians have written thesis after thesis on the book’s meaning. I don’t have that much strength. I love The Cannibal for the quality of its writing and the relevance of its many themes, but ultimately its vision is disturbing. That’s why this book is important.

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