GABRIEL LOVATT Reviews
Vacant Lot by Oliver Rohe, translated from the French by Laird Hunt
(Counterpath Press, Denver, Colorado, 2011)
In Oliver Rohe’s Vacant Lot the violence that accompanies the juncture between destruction and reconstruction is augmented by a central quotient of speed, wherein an ever-changing landscape is made ever more disorienting and vague by the rate at which change takes place. The city is a site that shifts rapidly in a fevered and “complete recasting,” but these transformations are neither exclusively technological nor architectonic. Instead, the city changes at the pace of rapidly duplicating cells that yield abnormal growths, a “permanent disaster of reconstruction,” where “[n]ew buildings multiply themselves on every street corner like furious metastases it’s hard to believe.” As the unnamed narrator witnesses the unidentified post-war city being rebuilt from an apartment overlooking the city, he is afflicted by partial memories that testify to an intensely chaotic experience of trauma and loss that accompanies not the war itself, but rather its end. His visions follow the city’s course of hideous biological transformation: “Graceful shadows move like ink stains before my eyes. Undulating they unfold themselves across the length of the wall and, little by little, infest the illuminated surface. In the center of the canvas I can see embryonic forms a horrible swarm of unfinished figures.”
The figure at the center of the book ruminates not on the loss that coincides with war, but the eradication of remnants, both physical and immaterial, entailed by the workings of reconstruction. He confesses that he “can’t help missing all those years when were kings. There were several of us who survived—who blossomed even—in a sick world.” Rohe, in an interview with Hunt included at the end of the book, remarks that after writing his first novel (Défaut d’origine, 2003), which dealt with the victims of war, he wanted to consider the “point of view of those who benefited from the war (the war lords)—those who had glory, power, money.” The interview clarifies the terms of the main character’s existence according to the author, but I would rather the work had been left to stand alone to menacingly rattle without this exact context. For it is the very ambiguity of the self at the center of Vacant Lot’s diffuse and savage monologue that allows the narrator to inhabit, rather than survey, the state of ruin. As he tracks the violence that pervades both the war and its aftermath through impressions, memories, and experiences, the individual becomes a political and cultural touchstone for not only the theoretical or linguistic implications that rise up out of destruction, but the embodied self that inhabits physical and social sites (cities, battlefields, houses; class systems, power structures, war).
Rohe figures the narrator’s losses as manifold, inclusive of the loss of memory, the eradication of a value system based on survival and prosperity in the midst of horror, the loss of comrades, and even the loss of the apartment as it becomes overtaken by vegetation and fetid decay. This sense of collapse is abetted by the chronological disorder that rules the book, as if the connection to workaday order has been abolished in a manner that affects the very material of memory and re-collection. Here ruin functions not just as a material site of rubble and dilapidation, but as an active verb that portends action and individual agency. These are unsympathetic and systematic processes. Throughout the text, drawings by Alexis Gallissaires provide illustrations that only heighten the depiction of an unstable world in which suffering is, perhaps, the only constant. Gallissaires figures have the boldly twisted, anxious lines of Egon Schiele’s most skittishly expressive work, but drained of any color or erotic import. The pull between visual excess and austerity echoes the extreme stakes of Rohe’s prose, which seems intent on maximizing the tension between erasure and impression, absence and presence.
Laird Hunt’s unsparing translation renders the omnipresent first person of the narrative as compulsive tic that constantly attempts to reassert (though futilely) the existence of a stable self in a world comprised of frenetic, violent revolutions. The assertion of one’s subjectivity within destructive terrain is, here, almost an irrational act, as if any attempt to avoid erasure through the constant declaration of “I” proves absurd: “My memory disperses itself and betrays me and I have the impression the fear of having lived only the pastiches of lives. But I hold on to them they are all I have left.”
The line of thinking that moves through Vacant Lot also works through mutation rather than accretion. The sentences appear to follow the syntactical constructions and grammatical signs that convey meaning, but deviation quickly takes over: the thought processes here are neither progressive nor sequential, and the form obliges this sense of being over-stuffed and suffused with sensation by vacating the language of conjunction and transition, preferring abruption. In a narrative catalogue that underpins the length of the short book, the narrator compiles the detritus of war that interferes with the city’s attempt to renovate—from wailing mothers to elderly people who no longer speak, the evidence of ever present suffering (and the inability to testify to it) is made manifest in forms of silence. Vacant Lot reconfigures the literature of witness and ruin as testimonial that devastation is a continual process in which even reconstruction begins with destruction.
Gabriel Lovatt writes, researches, and teaches in Athens at the University of Georgia, where she is finishing her dissertation.