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The Noonday Cemetery and Other Stories

Reviewer: Janet G. Tucker


The Noonday Cemetery and Other Stories

By Gustav Herling. Translated from Polish by Bill Johnston. New York: New Directions Books (, 2003. 281 pages. Hardcover. $25.95.

This volume by Gustaw Herling (Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski) consists of thirteen stories of varying length written in the 1980s and 90s. The narrator of all the stories exists in a strange land, a Polish Jewish intellectual/ refugee in Italy, where he virtually feels at home. The tales are about different worlds--from varying times and place--that collide and are unified by the narrator. Herling pairs life and death, faith and irony, love and anger in tale after tale, almost all set in Italy, hence by and large sharing a unity of place. They are also united thematically, with memory and an undercurrent of death, even violent death, running through them. Loneliness plays a significant role as well. But the principal theme encountered throughout is that of the hidden life--the secret, or the concealed narrative or journal--the discovery of which brings disaster or brings a disaster from the past to light. That secret frequently involves a love affair, sometimes an illicit one, with horrific consequences. At times the secret relationship is not erotic but rather unexpected. Herling exploits literary references to underscore his main theme. We are frequently left with an open-ended tale, or else one containing mysteries not revealed to the reader. There is a Hoffmannesque sense here that Herling is recounting actual events rather than creating fiction. His stories are marvelous, each a small gem opening onto a seemingly infinite complexity.

"The Noonday Cemetery: An Open Story," first in the present translation, has associations--exploited to good advantage--to Paul Valéry's poem "Le Cimetiere marin." Herling recounts secret, complex loves: a widow's for her husband and his gravedigger, the gravedigger's for the widow and his cemetery. We are never given the details of the mystery and can only guess at events leading to the widow's and gravedigger's deaths, with Herling's reference to Henry James a reminder that an author can leave things unexplained.

The James "frame" resonates in other stories as well. In "A Hot Breath from the Desert," the frame is illness, specifically, heart disease, as two narrators in a hospital recount in turn a harrowing and mournful tale of mental decay and murder. As in "The Graveyard" and virtually all the other stories in this collection, the protagonists (like the narrator, and author) are "refugees" in a foreign land. Herling's use of illness and the hospital, where everyone is a stranger in a strange land, underscores the central theme of displacement.

In "The Eyetooth of Barabbas," the narrator combines religion with the macabre in the form of relics, the specific relic here being Barabbas' eyetooth. Barabbas, released when Christ was crucified, is linked with the devil (or vampire) through his reliquary tooth. We get a sense of a relic a rebours, its holy, healing power given over to evil, in a tale in which an unsettling truth lurks beneath the surface in the unseen world. The sense of pervasive evil is akin to what we see in Nikolai Gogol's world, where the devil pulls the strings.

Herling is clearly anticlerical, a mood captured pointedly in his next story, "Beata, Santa." The young Polish protagonist Marianna, gang-raped by marauding Serbian soldiers during the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia, is pregnant by one of them and has chosen to have her child. Only the narrator can communicate with her, a role he plays more than once in this collection. He alone becomes partially privy to a hidden realm. Herling stresses the role played by the local Catholic clergy eager to demonstrate Beata's "near sainthood" to the world. The narrator sets a negative mood early on ("Potenza is an unsightly city"), and we expect a tragic ending. We are not disappointed. Marianna's unfortunate habit of sleeping soundly condemns her to burial alive following the birth of her son, who will then be brought up by the Church clerics. Herling's ironic touch is evident throughout, but nowhere more than at the end, when we are informed that the Church's canon law allows for beatification of only those persons whose last conscious moments were witnessed by others and whose state of mind before death can be attested to by witnesses.

"The Height of Summer: A Roman Story," deals with the annual rash of suicides hitting Rome every August 15th, known as Ferragosto. The narrator trains his sights on a few victims. Two are a lonely couple whose parrot has died. The next is Italian, but "displaced" by homosexuality and broken by the departure of his lover. Then we have the rape and murder/suicide combination of the young American couple, with the man's secret of AIDS and probable bisexuality, followed by the suicide of an older couple in the ancient Roman ghetto. Typically, Herling's narrator penetrates beneath the mute surface of the evidence, attempting to unlock the secrets of these drastic acts. The narrator himself almost falls prey to this "suicide-itis," and is saved from self-destruction by passing the night in an open boat. The hint at a symbolic journey suggested by the boat, combined with the closeness to heaven during a night under the stars, juxtaposes life and death.

An undercurrent of lurking violence breaks through in "Ashes: The Fall of the House of Loris." The secret, yet another family curse, is the deafness of Loris's twelve-year-old daughter, an angry young girl whom--as with Marianna--the narrator can, for a period, reach. He loses her in the end, for she dies of a drug overdose in India. The pain--typical in Herling's work--fuels a double sense of tragedy, as her father comes one day too late to save her. With her mother's cancer, her loss spells the fall of the House of Loris, reminiscent of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. That Loris has translated Poe emphasizes the theme of doubling, tied in with hidden worlds and refugee status.

In the "Notebook of William Moulding, Pensioner," set in London, the narrator is twice removed from his native land: having moved to Italy, he finds himself briefly in London, a city he strongly dislikes. This very antipathy leads to alienation and a sense of separation. William Moulding has left a journal, giving here, as elsewhere, a sense of double narration. He is a hangman, forced eventually to live under an assumed name to escape public wrath. His ploy meets with mixed success. Moulding's eventual torture and murder at the hands of young men knowing nothing of his history resonates with irony that is typical of Herling's stories.

"The Silver Coffer" combines mystery with theft, decay, incest, and death: a triple murder set back in time, the deterioration of the modern protagonist, the disintegration of a manuscript (symbolic of the decay of the literary text?), and the "demise" of the silver coffer. The narrator's love and eventual disaffection for the coffer hints at the frailty of human emotions and human existence.

The historical parallelism inherent in "The Silver Coffer" figures centrally as well in "Ugolone da Todi: Obituary of a Philosopher," a story about a contemporary philosopher alluding to a thirteenth-century figure. The narrator compares Ugolone's decline and eventual demise with Kant's, once again noting the unseen, mysterious links between the contemporary and historical worlds.

The theme of hidden and corrupting evil emerges yet again in "The Exorcist's Brief Confession." In the opening frame, Herling's narrator leads a furtive existence that prepares us for the main character's--Father Ulderico's--equally secret life. A priest specializing in exorcisms who initially succumbs to passion and then reacts violently, Ulderico is defrocked and tried, and is given a suspended sentence. The ending underscores Herling's main theme running throughout: life for all of us is but a suspended sentence.

The surgeon of the eponymous tale "Don Ildebrando," also known as Fausto Angelini, reminds us yet again of the evil concealed at the heart of characters and situations. Here evil eventually manifests itself as the evil eye, with the famous afflicted surgeon Fausto Angelini enjoying for some years a reputation as an expert healer. He has successfully operated on the narrator himself, but the doctor's own sister perishes under his knife. The evil eye and a related portrait of a similar "gifted" predecessor recalls E.T.A. Hoffmann's novel Die Elixiere des Teufels and Nikolai Gogol's story "Portret" ("The Portrait"), two works in which evil, manifested as an evil eye, wreaks deadly havoc.

"Suor Strega" again explores the borderland between good and evil. Suor Strega enters into a love affair with a priest, runs away from her convent, and becomes the guardian of a subterranean reliquary. As with "The Eyetooth of Barabbas" and "Beata Santa," the Church-related stories speak of death, decay, and evil.

"A Madrigal of Mourning" once again links love, decay, and mystery. The narrator is in love with Anna F., a half-Pole, half-Russian enamored of a long-dead composer of madrigals (rather, the narrator informs us, like the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva's love for Aleksandr Pushkin the poet and the man). But this final tale, in contrast to others in the collection, concludes on a somewhat elegiac note rather than one of concealed horror.

In sum, this is an intensely interesting collection of stories. Herling is complex and subtle, penetrating beneath the surface of apparent reality to a layer of secrets that hint at hidden evil and sadness. The narrator of the stories plays a significant role throughout. An expatriate himself, Herling reminds his readers that we are all strangers in the mysterious dream land of life. His stories, in Bill Johnston's masterful translation, should give Herling a deservedly wide audience.

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Last updated 1/28/04