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The Compound of the Scribes

Answering letters from the concentration camps

Heidegger’s Glasses by Thaisa Frank (Phoenix Books, $22.95/$28.95 Canadian) takes as its protagonist a woman capable of transforming herself. But unlike Demeter or Arachne, she does so by shifting identity rather than by physical alteration. She operates in a world, a time that has lost its moral compass. While others adhere to strict ideological codes, at times supported by nothing more than superstition, Elie Schacten has the capacity to move snakelike across boundaries and borders closed to most.

Thaisa Frank invites us into her novel through the route of the philosopher’s cognitive disorientation — a tree “a confusion of shapes,” a “blood-spattered window a floating oblong,” a “starling…darkness in motion.” We sense that the world as we know it will be altered and may not be resurrected whole again. It is a warning. Though for a moment there is restoration: “eventually the ticking belonged to the clock again.” A capsule summary of the entire work.

The novel is set against the backdrop of the decline of the Third Reich. Hidden in a forest enclave is the strange Compound of the Scribes. Made of a converted mineshaft, the sole purpose of its inhabitants is to answer letters written by those about to be executed, letters that will never be delivered.

George Steiner tells us in No Passion Spent, that for the Jewish people the “text was the instrument of exilic survival; that survival came within a breath of annihilation.” We know of the significant teaching and learning, art and music, preservation of texts, that went on in the ghettos while thousands were rounded up and murdered. In this Compound of the Scribes, while ghostly souls flee into the forests, and others are routinely killed, an absurd echo of the living — Heidegger’s being weirdly distorted and strangely illuminated in this habitation — can be heard. What is the purpose of the Scribes? To answer letters from the dead — a task presented by the clairvoyant Erik Hanussen in the form of a globe oozing letters that signify the unanswered letters of the dead. No need to deliver the letters, only to write them. The supposition? By answering the letters and sealing the cracks, the Third Reich can claim absolute power.

And what is the nature of this living space? A tunnel 10 meters deep that includes an artificial sun and moon, cobblestone streets replete with false trees. To wit, a life outside of life that at any moment can give way. As with so many who were required to hide in holes in the ground, or deep in forests in winter, or behind walls and, if they were lucky enough, to enter the world of the living once more and to pretend for the rest of their lives that they could live like normal human beings. And the bits and pieces, the remnants of what they have lived through and died through turn up as strange objects, bits of worn pages, that whisper to the generations that follow who could not possibly imagine from what world such scraps had arisen.

And what has Heidegger’s glasses to do with all of this? Is it to teach us that we must see through the lens of one who brought us the great work of thought of his century and at the same time aligned himself with the darkest imagining made manifest?

And the figure who could establish various identities to save the lives of others: what has become of her? She has vanished back into the world. This is a complex tale, to be consumed on many levels, as it has been beautifully constructed. 

Myra Sklarew, professor emerita American University and former president of the artists’ community Yaddo, is the author of books of poetry, fiction and essays, including Harmless (poetry 2010) and The Journey of Child Development (co-editor, 2010)