Book Review: This Beautiful Place
By Tankred Dorst with Ursula Ehler
Translated by Anne Posten
Hanging Loose Press, 2012. Novella.
Review by Debrah Lechner
Tankred Dorst is a German writer and playwright. He was born in 1925, and lives and works with his partner Ursula Ehler in Munich. As acclaimed and influential as his work has been in Germany, this is the first publication to be introduced to an English-speaking audience.
Little by little, piece by piece, as the understanding of other cultures becomes more important and the curiosity of readers is piqued, the infamous resistance of the United States to reading translated works is being worn away. Thanks to Hanging Loose Press for initiating the annual Loose Translations Prize, and congratulations to Anne Posten, translator of This Beautiful Place, the first winner of this prize, for bringing forth the fascinating work of Dorst and Ehler.
Dorst’s vision in this piece is funny, dark, and as Anne Posten reveals in her introduction, quite cinematic. The text often begins in capital letters as another scene begins. Dorst also writes gripping dialogue. A little girl, Lilly, convinced that her father is the King of Spain, makes an attempt to run away from her abusive mother, but does not succeed:
IT’LL ALL BE BETTER NOW, Lilly. Believe me, now that you’re back, everything will be better!
Lilly surveys her mother coldly. She’s suddenly been seized with the desire to paint Lilly’s fingernails red, and in the endeavor, drunk as she is, she’s forgotten all other work… She shuffles herself onto the chair, and holds Lilly’s hand down violently on the damp and dirty countertop, splaying Lilly’s fingers apart
—Hold still, Lilly, don’t pull your hand away, Lilly…
Lilly looks at her mother and waits motionless…
—It’ll all be better, and you won’t have to run away to Spain, Lilly. Now you’ll stay here with me.
The mother throws Lilly a long look, full of expectation.
—when I go back to work—they want me back, of course—they want me back…
—Who does? Lilly demands severely.
—Anytime! I can start immediately. When I bus glasses from the tables, none of ‘em get broken. Not a one! And from just the tips alone…I’ll buy myself a fur coat from Hirmer. Even if it’s summer. Who cares! And I’ll buy you something too. Lilly! Make a wish!
—There’s nothing that I want.
The slight makes her furious.
—You already have everything? And she wipes the wet table a few times with the sweeping gesture of her sleeve…
All the characters in this story are memorable. There’s also what could be called a missing character, Aleijadinho, a legendary Brazilian architect. He is said to have had leprosy, but continued with his work anyway, erecting cathedrals and carving saints and religious figures. His hands rot off, and he has his tools attached to what remains of his arms. His feet rot away, so he is carried on the shoulders of a servant. Despite the buffoons, vulnerable innocents, and irredeemably broken characters that inhabit This Beautiful Place, the story of Aleijadinho creates and makes believable the possibility of redemption.
This Beautiful Place is a lost classic found, as exciting as an unearthed treasure, testament or painting. It’s also a great read. You want it for both reasons.