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Paying Tribute to a Living Legend

Novelist, story-writer and memoirist Jakov Lind turns 80 on February 10. No longer a refugee and no longer writing, for the past decade he’s been unwillingly rooted in London, slowly dying from a motor neuron disease. He is scandalously under-read in his native Austria, and ignobly neglected, too, in the countries of his second written language, which is English; his birthday will be marked most notably with silence. Which would be unfortunate if his were a lesser talent. As it is, such silence is unforgivable. “Never forget” has literary implications, as well: Jakov Lind is the greatest living writer of Jewish Europe.

Lind’s oeuvre spans nearly 20 volumes, which have won him admiration and prizes, both in mainland Europe and in his adopted United Kingdom. Indeed, his reputation once was enormous: Critical acclaim, so often given to comparison, at one time held him as a successor to Franz Kafka; in the German-speaking world he was regarded as the peer, if not master, of Gunter Grass. “Soul of Wood,” a collection of stories, and the novels “Landscape in Concrete” and “Ergo” should have long established Lind’s fame and posterity, and not, perhaps as consequence of the very moral and stylistic complexity that makes them so important, his lamentable present estate.

To say that Lind is the greatest living writer of Jewish Europe isn’t saying much, though, since there are so few candidates to be found on that continent today, and many of them are not as much writers as they are chroniclers, historians, memoirists of another life (Hungary’s Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, say) or journalists of the far past (Poland’s Hanna Krall). Still others just happen to be Jewish (Austria’s wonderful Robert Menasse comes to mind), and their work speaks only occasionally — and, even then, often facilely — to Jewishness, whether as race or religion; invocations that often sound to European ears less like voluntary identifications and more like regressive obsessions with character, cult life and symbol.

And so it’s more exactly flattering, perhaps, to say that Lind is an inheritor of all Jewish European greatness, to think of him as an heir to its fevered imagination, ever skeptical of the received wisdom of the birthright that chose him — lentil soup, taken with a large dose of salt. Though Lind, it should be noted, is not strictly Lind, at least according to the records of a handful of regimes since defunct.

Before London and Mandate Palestine remade him, Lind remade himself: He was once Jan Gerrit Overbeek, and before that he’d been born Heinz Landwirth, Jewish Viennese. It was 1927, the year of the first trans-Atlantic telephone call, and, too, the year that television was first publicly demonstrated. Lindbergh flew to Paris. Trotsky was ousted from the Communist Party. This was not long after the collapse of the monarchy, the Empire’s fall — Austro-Hungary’s dissolution, through war, from a relatively unified culture into a smattering of countries impoverished with insular nationalism. Lind’s closest affinities lay here, with the ideal Habsburgs in their tubercular, war-wounded death throes; his childhood ailment is the Proustian languor, the mourning of a past always near, strangely distant, unlived and yet lost: “If I’m sick I vomit broken china and golden frames,” he writes. “What, if not handmade in the nineteenth century, is my Middle European soul?”

Lind’s many novels and stories and memoirs are all attempts to reclaim a land that doesn’t exist. There’s a reason that Middle Europe, “Mitteleuropa,” isn’t a name featured on maps, since it can be anything, anywhere, in the mind: Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal tells us that Middle Europe ends at the last Empire train station; Thomas Mann once proclaimed that Germany was wherever he was — a delusional, denying hope whose reification would have exiled the capital of the neighboring Reich, if temporarily, to Pacific Palisades, Calif. Lind offers a wonderful description of his impossible habitus in what might be his greatest, most experimental novel, 1966’s “Ergo”: “A town made of Liptauer cream cheese, Lippizaner horses and Lilliputians of roast chicken, bauernschmaus, liver dumplings and liver sausage, a rhyme, a phrase, a proverb and perhaps not even that but only a waistline, a shoe size, a collar size, a hat size and perhaps not even that but only the family vault of Maria Theresa and Franz Josef and the children Kalifati, Ruebezahl, Krampus, and Nikolo Christkindl and Andreas Hofer, who died of scarlet fever, whooping cough, measles, chicken pox and Basedow’s disease.”

As Lind writes in “Counting My Steps’ (1969), the first volume of his autobiographical trilogy, his father “was a Viennese businessman without much business in the world. Half Luftmensch and half duke. […] He claimed to be selling underwear to nuns.” Patrimony lay in Galicia, far over the Tatra Mountains in Poland, which would make Herr Landwirth a real Viennese. By contrast, Lind’s mother is hazier; she “had no money, four children, and no help in a three-room flat.” She was known as “the Saint. The Good One. The Strong One. The Patient One.” The marriage was relatively happy; Lind was mothered by sisters — he would always be surrounded by women.

The remainder of Lind’s biography departs from this domesticity, never regained. With Hitler returning to annex his homeland, Lind escapes into hiding; he’s sent to the Netherlands. His sisters are dispersed, as well, though his parents manage to make it to Palestine. In time, Lind becomes Jan Overbeek — named, it seems, for a barge. As a Dutch seaman, he plies the Rhine from the Hook of Holland down to the Ruhr Valley — one of the most postcard-perfect parts of the Reich. He contracts the clap from one of many prostitutes, and is ordered to a sanatorium to recover. There he’s recruited by a German scientist-soldier, to serve in the office of personal courier. When Allied bombs are falling even by day, and you’re a Jew at large under a regime that seeks your destruction, you mimic a Nazi: It’s unconscious, Lind tells us; you nod and obey, you adapt. Little does Lind know that the German, who refuses to allow Lind any contact with friends (especially women), is spying on the Reich’s nuclear program: making reports on the progress of the Cyclotron to the British. An employee of the German military machine, Lind’s also an accomplice to espionage. “I liked Berlin. My job was hardly strenuous. I had to take some letters to certain officials in the Air Ministry on Friedrichstrasse. I delivered my letters in large brown envelopes, turned about, and said good-bye.” As “the German Empire was disintegrating faster than any empire before it,” what were Lind’s thoughts? “My mind was on girls and how to find them. How to find them first and how to find a place to take them to.”

Immediately after the war, Lind takes himself off to the Netherlands again, and then to France, hoping to make his European escape. Palestine is the idea, but thanks to his passport (which now suspiciously reads Jakov Chaklan, Palestinian) — and to his many languages, all stamped with an accent that seems to be Dutch — British Intelligence, then controlling the French border, refuses to believe he’s a Jew. At Maubeuge, Lind drops his pants; miraculously, his circumcision convinces. He takes passage to Palestine, only to find his father sick and mother dead, his sisters grown up. A kibbutz drives him crazy, as do the religious Jews, and so, with his name forever converted (if not his soul), he makes his way to London to live. New York he can take for a spell. That and summers in Mallorca. With fewer and fewer invitations to Germany, to teach and to speak. But London is where the writing began.

The first book was “Soul of Wood” (1962), a novella accompanied by a set of stories, initially intended, according to Lind, less for the proof that is publication than as an experiment, an interrogation accomplished on paper: Though he’d been writing fragments for years, beginning diaries and then abandoning them when the poetry became too personal and the philosophy all muddled in language, could he write fiction, could he write real fiction that was truer than fact and in German, the murderers’ tongue?

What resulted was the story of Anton Barth, who “was a Jew before he was a skeleton,” an abandoned paralytic saved by Wohlbrecht, a Nazi. Wohlbrecht hides Barth in the woods, all the while officially collaborating in the execution of untold thousands through lethal injection. In time, Barth becomes strangely cured of his disability (an outcast mark that united him with war-invalid Wohlbrecht, whose wooden leg gives the novella its title); he runs off to join a herd of area deer. With them, he runs freely through the forest, refusing to countenance borders or law. With Lind, flux is always the ideal: wandering, fleeing, life lived as refugee-tourism (tellingly, Lind would later work as an itinerant actor, a photographer’s assistant and a private detective).

A year later, the novel “Landscape in Concrete” followed in a similar vein. A perfect German soldier, Sergeant Gauthier Bachmann is recovering from an injury, seeking only to rejoin the Eighth Hessian Infantry Regiment after a humiliating defeat at Voroshenko. As obedient and as loyal as a golem, intending only to serve, he allows himself to be fooled, manipulated, used and debased. As Bachmann the soldier becomes Bachmann the murderer, a hired gun for a Norwegian madman and war profiteer, the absurd is reasserted: Chaos isn’t so much the answer as are opposites, lies. (“Let me be a simple, normal, intelligent human being,” Bachmann says. “That’s plenty.”) Criminality is only a question of context; after all, the Holocaust was legal, as are most wars. As Bachmann marches east at the end of the novel, Lind’s “Landscape” is momentarily barren, and the only thing that can be said with any certainty is that its writer survived.

Facts follow: the memoir trilogy — “Counting My Steps,” “Numbers” and “Crossing.” Lind becomes famous. In 1968, his first play is staged in New York; in Hollywood, film deals are discussed. His darkness begins to alienate Germany’s critics, whose left wing has no patience for an ardent Zionist living in London, a hale, healthy and seething Jew writing excellent German abroad. While narrating his life, the languages change: Lind comes to English late, but poetically. His new writing is terser, less wild, less image. A late novel emerges, “Travels to the Enu” (1982), a “Gulliver’s Travels” to an exotic land that might be our own. Stranded in a shipwreck, Lind’s narrator assesses the nativist damage: “It has been my conviction all along that only an earthquake, a flood or a war could change our situation. I have proved to be right.” The pessimism here is funny, the anger is classical: Lind’s apocalypse comes in quickly thrown sentences, glowingly polished like the stones that would survive nuclear death.

In the 1990s, Lind got sick. He started to write less and then disappeared: It’s the toll of survival; divorce; smoking and drinking; all those LSD experiments underwent in London, intravenously perpetrated by a certain Dr. Ling, intended to exorcise Lind’s wartime trauma. It all wore him down. The publishing industry, such as it is, didn’t help, either; good friends and great editors died by the year. Entirely out of print in English, two of the books I purchased in preparation for this essay had been autographed (“To Albert,” “To Alfred”). They sold for a dollar apiece — that’s how little he’s known. But fiction that must be followed by fact that must, in turn, be followed by silence, then disappearance, is a reduction we readers cannot accept, or allow — though that might be the daily-felt fate of the writer. Jakov Lind doesn’t deserve to be read — he’s necessary, both in the vicissitudes of his life and, too, in the work it created. His books are the last late bloom of the European Jewish landscape, straining sunward through the concealing concrete.

Joshua Cohen’s latest novel is “Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto” (Fugue State Press). Another novel, “A Heaven of Others,” appears next year.

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