Novels can naturally be written about people who live on remote farms in the Markgraviate of Brandenburg or who spend their days in stately villas in even more elegant suburbs along the River Elbe. Usually, however, it is more rewarding for literature if they transform locations into stages where many characters meet for a while, share ideas and experience one thing and another. This explains why world literature is so rich with narratives set in hotels or at stations. It is also one reason for apartment complexes to be so ideally suited for interweaving stories and revealing characters in all their peculiarity.
In her debut novel, Juliana Kálnay (b. 1988), who studied creative writing at the University of Hildesheim, reverts to this kind of scenario. She generally relies on short chapters to describe what happened over many years in an apartment block Number 29. Yet readers who might expect her Kurze Chronik des allmählichen Verschwindens (“Brief Chronicle of Gradual Disappearance”) to emerge as a psychological social novel will soon feel disappointed. Juliana Kálnay has no intention of complying with realistic parameters. Her text follows various perspectives, moving to and fro in flashbacks and fast-forward scenes, thus outlining the contours of an apartment complex whose walls are not just transparent in the figurative sense. The old lady, Rita, is the focal point among two dozen residents or more. She has lived here for a long time. She knows everything and everyone. Thanks to a mirror placed on the balcony, she is fully informed about events on the street.
“There are people who are their house, and there are other people who only live in it”, is the opening of a chapter situated on the first floor, on the right. This reflects the narrative principle of this delightfully playful and courageous book. Kálnay’s tenants merge with their living accommodation. They devour each other in a very real way through walls, living as scarcely perceptible shadows in the basement, permanently nesting in the lift, filling rooms with jam jars and leaving their apartments without obvious any traces. The smells and sounds are superimposed on daily life and incredible things keep happening, so there is no reasonable distinction between the real and the surreal. For example, what is that rust-coloured connecting door that not everyone notices? Or the greedy creature called Kasi that finds a comfortable niche in a bidet? Not to mention Ronda’s goldfish which leave their aquarium without being asked and cosy up in their owner’s bed?
Juliana Kálnay’s house has no fixed boundaries. Indeed, it cannot even be said for certain where these demarcations lie between humans, animals and plants. Maia, who suddenly vanishes, is noticeable because of her “mole-like hands”. She loves to bury herself down holes – until apparently, she finds a last refuge at the town cemetery. And Lina living on the third floor must acknowledge that her husband Don in future prefers to go through life as a tree and to put down roots on the balcony. A metamorphosis, which surpasses Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees for its radical quality, giving the writer the opportunity for a sensitive account of love-making between Lina and her ‘man-tree’. Among the genuine highlights of the novel is the account of how Lina rubs herself against the bark, moaning as she intertwines with a branch.
Juliana Kálnay artfully switches register. Dialogues in different typeface follow abrupt sentences and – if the narrator doesn’t suffer an entirely voluntary tumble downstairs – she moves on to staccato-like prose passages. “A brief chronicle of gradual disappearance” is unmistakably linked with magical realism that causes uncertainty and simultaneously circulates captivating charm. In a short afterword, the writer personally refers to her literary role models. Some chapters are consciously compiled as James Joyce and Julio Cortázar pastiches. Moreover, it almost goes without saying that the magnificent “house novel” – Life a User’s Manual – by the French author, Georges Perec is another point of comparison.
Despite these affinities, Juliana Kálnay finds an entirely unique, sympathetic and bizarre tone which radiates an assured style and only occasionally – even though a wall may be “obscured with curtains” – slightly misses the mark. Moreover, as the rather pretentious title hints neither Rita nor the walls of this house positioned between heaven and earth are made for eternity. At some point, Rita, the owner passes away, and later a fire breaks out – a leitmotif for the novel – and then the residents all disperse in different directions. Ultimately, however, one question hovers above it all, “It’s the house, it’s deep in my bones. Or am I the one who is stuck between the walls of the house?”
By Rainer Moritz
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright
Juliana Kálnay, Eine kurze Chronik des allmählichen Verschwindens. Novel. Wagenbach Verlag, Berlin 2017. 189 pages.