Awake is Danish writer Harald Voetmann’s first book to appear in English translation (by Joanne Sorgenfri Ottosen). It’s also the first part of a historical trilogy exploring the human desire for mastery over nature. Awake focuses on Pliny the Elder, the Roman scholar known for his thirty-seven-volume Naturalis Historia, an attempt to catalogue the world and its knowledge.
Voetmann juxtaposes extracts from the Naturalis Historia with passages in the voices of Pliny the Elder; his nephew, Pliny the Younger; and his slave, Diocles; as well as ‘scenes’ written in the third person. The effect of this is to highlight contradictions and ironies between what Pliny wrote and the reality of the world.
For example, the beginning of Awake quotes the Naturalis Historia: ‘I simply wish to remind the reader that I am in a rush to describe the world in detail.’ The following scene depicts Pliny as a wheezing, bed-ridden figure, at odds with the image of someone about to know and encompass the wider world. Not that Pliny is actually doing the mechanical work of writing: that falls to Diocles.
Pliny outlines theories in Awake that we now know to be false, which points up the ultimate futility of Pliny’s hope that he might encompass the world. But Voetmann suggests this inability was always inherent in Pliny’s project. The author has Pliny the Younger comment in a letter that his uncle refused to visit the garden where travellers brought him specimens of foreign plants. Perhaps, says Pliny the Younger, this was an attempt by his uncle to place a boundary around what he didn’t know – out of sight, out of mind.
Certain passages in Awake bring Pliny’s times to life in sharp relief. There’s one in which Pliny describes the construction of a theatre, with pulleys operated by slaves labouring in treadmills. Pliny imagines the universe operates in a similarly mechanistic way, and though he may be indifferent to the human cost himself, it is not lost on the reader.
Awake, with its brevity and focus, stands in contrast with the vast and sprawling Naturalis Historia. So, even at that most basic level, Voetmann’s novel is interrogating Pliny’s plan to encompass nature. It is a conflict that plays out, quietly but surely, as the pages turn.
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
By Harald Voetmann
Translated by Joanne Sorgenfri Ottosen
Lolli Editions, 2022
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David Hebblethwaite is a book blogger and reviewer. He has written about translated fiction for Shiny New Books, Strange Horizons, Words Without Borders, and We Love This Book. He blogs at David’s Book World.
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