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Schopenhauer's TelescopeReview - Schopenhauer's Telescope
by Gerard Donovan
Counterpoint Press, 2003
Review by Matthew Ray
May 21st 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 21)

    Gerard Donovan's Schopenhauer's Telescope is an exceptionally bleak and vaguely otherworldly novel set in an unnamed European country at the time of a great and horrific war. Spread along the course of a single day, it tells the sorry and unsettling tale of a baker who is possibly a native collaborator with the brutal colonising forces. These rather faceless forces, it soon emerges, have inflicted great civilian casualties in a quite cruel manner. The novel effectively records the detailed minutes of a sombre day-long dialogue between the suspected collaborator, who turns out to be a very odd character indeed, and a teacher who until recently taught the young children of the town. (The teachers' wife may or may not have been a victim of the suspected collaborator, adding tension to the latter stages of the conversation.)

    European towns, bakers, death and horror: if the 'folk-tale' aspect of this narrative reminds one of the novels of Franz Kafka, it is worth pointing out here that positing such an association would, in the end, be misplaced. Ultimately, this is a something of a philosophical dialogue, and not only because several European philosophers -- Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger, for example -- are namechecked during the course of the wide-ranging conversation recorded in the book.  It is a philosophical dialogue above all because during the long conversations between the peculiar baker and the traumatised teacher the characters sometimes appear to become mere mouthpieces for one or another philosophical -- or theological -- view, giving the novel itself something like the feel of a drama rather than a narrative proper, although, apart from the central dialogue, a series of flashbacks and reveries do color in the back story of these men's' rural lives and their personal characters. But we always return to the sad depiction of the sparse and unyielding landscape. The staggered and sometimes jarring language of the work matches the bleak landscape where the narrative is set.

    The novel opens on the scene of a frozen field where the baker is being cajoled into digging a mysterious hole, presumably a grave, and it never veers far from this territory, except at the very end. The pervasive theme of the novel seems to me to be the silence of an indifferent and sometimes positively cruel world and silence is often mentioned by Donovan as both a theme and a failing (see, for instance, pp. 8, 69, 15, 139). Frequently, a surprising insight by Donovan may be seen to emerge from the dialogue and its silences. In the end, however, little is offered in the way of salvation by the author to his characters. In this respect, perhaps, the author is very far removed from the intentions of the philosopher mentioned in the books' title, although in other respects it must be acknowledged that both share a certain obvious pessimism about the human condition, and perhaps about human nature itself.

    Ultimately, we may say that this book, characterised as it is by a largely dialogue based form and by the subject matter of serious crimes committed by a ruthless invading army, is perhaps to be recommended only to those seeking something other than escapism and narrative richness in their appreciation of literature.

 

© 2003 Matthew Ray

    

 Matthew Ray, Bristol, UK


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