Morbus Kitahara; The Dog King

[This page by Dora Osborne]

Morbus Kitahara ; The Dog King (1995)

Ransmayr’s third novel seems to come very close to the time and place he had thus far avoided in his fictional work, namely, his native Austria and the years following the Second World War and the Holocaust. It is set in a place which is recognisable as the Traunsee area where Ransmayr grew up, and his protagonist, Ambras, suffers from the after-effects of the torture inflicted on him when he was interned in a labour camp. The camp, located at the edge of a lake and linked to a quarry, has recognisable elements of the former concentration camps of Ebensee and Mauthausen. The novel is set in a post-war dystopia, where the local community have been cast back into a kind of stone age following the implementation of a de-industrialisation plan (something very like that proposed, but never realised, by Henry Morgenthau at the end of the Second World War). However, the obvious historical and geographical links to Ransmayr’s native Austria after 1945 are never explicitly named as such (this town is called Moor), and once again Ransmayr is able to work in a narrative space between reality and fiction. He uses this space to show how the desire to forget can assert itself against an imperative to remember, as well as to critique the kind of enforced culture of ritualised remembrance. Ransmayr describes the vast stone letters, visible on the approach to Moor, carved upon the orders of the occupying forces, which spell out the number of victims murdered by its citizens and then ‘welcome’ us to the town. This memorial as warning (in German, a kind of ‘Mahnmal’) is an imposing emblem for the onerous task of ‘coming to terms’ with the past, but also for the ambivalence of Ransmayr’s text, which warns against forgetting whilst questioning the politics of collective commemoration.

The novel deals with the after-effects of violence and uses a triangulation of principal characters to show how, ultimately, the paranoia induced in Ambras at the hands of his captors leads him to anticipate the repetition of such violence in those around him. As the scars of his beatings mark his body, so the scarified landscape reflects the threat of violence which is never eliminated, even in times of apparent peace. The opening of Morbus Kitahara is very striking; it uses the same tropes of the detective story familiar from Ransmayr’s earlier novels, which is to say, it begins following a catastrophic accident and we must recover what evidence we can, in order to reconstruct what has happened. A surveyor’s plane circles a Brazilian island and the narrator describes how, below, the burnt bodies of two men lie intertwined, the rotting corpse of a woman, covered by a swarm of flies, lies nearby. As if this were not traumatic enough, a voice from the plane delivers the verdict that the island is deserted, uninhabited. This is, of course, true: the dead bodies are our evidence. But what of the human life recently erased? How will this be recorded, remembered or commemorated? Can it be represented in ways other than the re-inscription of the violence which erased it? In some senses, this is what Morbus Kitahara goes on to investigate.

Bering, the novel’s other protagonist, is born during a night of heavy bombing in Moor. He is a child of the war which means he comes too late to know the conflict itself, but he is marked by its legacy. His soldier-father, Moor’s smith, returns home when the fighting is over to take up his place again at the forge, but he is a strange, frightening figure for the boy. Ransmayr makes Bering into a sort of Chicken Boy who can only express himself by panicked squawking and flapping of his arms. The desire to fly asserts itself time and time again in Bering, who wants to escape the world he was born into. Bering’s struggle with himself only intensifies when, one night, he shoots a looter dead. From this moment on, Bering is plagued by his crime and increasingly withdraws from the community; he rejects the legacy of the smithy and he goes to work for the strange recluse, Ambras, as his bodyguard. Sharing a deserted villa with only a pack of feral dogs, Ambras is also known as the Dog King and by taking up his position as his servant, Bering makes a definitive break with the social structures of the family and local community. The two men are occasionally joined by Lilly, a fearless tradeswoman who travels round the local area selling her wares. She tends to Ambras’s wounds which he sustained in the camp and, observing her gestures, Bering falls in love with her. As Moor falls into further decline, Bering, Ambras and Lily eventually leave the town for Brazil, accompanying a transport which will deliver dismantled industrial machinery. They will go to Pantano, which like Moor, means marsh: their journey ultimately returns them to the site of decay, and they meet their fates at a disused interment site on Dog Island.

The novel’s title refers to an eye condition which, although not permanent, obscures vision with black marks when someone looks at something too intensely. Ransmayr himself suffered with the disease and was motivated to write a book with that title. He has Bering succumb to it, and in the novel its significance is clearly symbolic (although very ambiguous). The blind spots affecting Bering’s vision might mean several things: they are the bullet holes which Bering sees in the chest of the looter and which now remind him of his crime; they are the marks of his desire for Lily, a desire which can never be satisfied, not least because of her attachment to Ambras; they are the dark scars marking Bering’s severed relationship with his family; they are the traces of war which have blighted the community (Bering did not witness its violence directly, but everything he sees now is obscured by this past); and, most troublingly, they are the marks of a self-perpetuating violent legacy. These marks on Bering’s field of vision are not only scars from past wounds, they project onto the world around him the violent visions to come, produced either by others or himself (in fact, Bering will kill again, twice more).

At the end of the novel, we come to understand the opening scene as the culmination of Bering’s desire and guilt: angry with Lily for taking Ambras as her lover, he shoots her. Ambras, overwhelmed at his return to a place of imprisonment, hallucinates a return to the camp, with Bering as a predatory guard. Scaling a rock face, Bering tries to help Ambras with a rope, but the frightened prisoner wants to escape. Whether they fall or struggle is unclear, but, tied together, the two men plummet to their deaths.

Morbus Kitahara is a renewed engagement with the things that have concerned Ransmayr before: with inhospitable environments, with narrative as a mode of retracing of the past, with the difficulty of inscribing the subject meaningfully and definitively in narrative. But for its clear evocation of the camps, of war, torture, victims and perpetrators, of violence and the guilt felt at violent crimes, Ransmayr is engaging specifically and far more directly with the legacy of National Socialism necessarily carried by literature written after 1945. The biographical link to Morbus Kitahara, a disease afflicting those who stare too long and too hard at a particular object, suggests Ransmayr wrote this novel in order to address a topic which had preoccupied him, but for which he had not yet found adequate formulation.

Further Reading

Ian Foster, ‘Alternative History and Christoph Ransmayr’s Morbus Kitahara’, Modern Austrian Literature 32 (1999), 111-25

Robert Halsall, ‘Christoph Ransmayr’s Morbus Kitahara: An aestheticization of the Holocaust?’ in Literature, Markets and Media in Germany and Austria Today, ed. by Arthur Williams et. al. (Bern: Peter Lang, 2000), pp. 192-212

Jutta Landa, ‘Fractured Vision in Christoph Ransmayr’s Morbus Kitahara’, German Quarterly 71 (1998), 136-44

Judith Ryan, The Novel After Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), pp. 172-83