Harold Rhenisch, Carnival


Grammar nazi, soup nazi, feminazi.

Harold Rhenisch has written far more accessibly in other books about growing up German in Canada after WW2, in both Out of the Interior and The Wolves at Evelyn, but one of the things I enjoy about Rhenisch is that he never compromises for the meagre reward of communicating more clearly with his readers.

With Carnival, though, a fictionalized ventriloquizing memoir about his father's life in and escape from Germany, I sometimes found myself wondering if Rhenisch was deliberately writing against his potential audience, deliberately reducing their number so he could just get on with the business of sorting out his own experiences and his own history.

As Brian Fawcett put it in My Career with the Leafs, which I'm pleased to have re-read recently, the word "Nazi" was for many years a standard insult in Western Canada, among kids, anyway, for anyone not clearly Anglo. Those German-ish children whose families fled the Nazi shame only to find themselves regularly threatened, pummelled, and physically injured for the crimes of that distant country their families had abandoned must have suffered in all kinds of complicated ways, and Carnival's strangeness gives a real intimacy to the backstory of that suffering.

Strictly speaking, this book grew from eight hours of 1987 recordings that Rhenisch made of his father telling one last time the stories that he'd been telling for Harold's whole life. Interspersed among these biographical fragments (none of them identified as such in the book, I should say) are what I take to be something like fantasias, with angels and returns from the dead and such, as well as what I think are Rhenisch's imagining what it was like for his father to return to his family home many years later:
"This is, however, above all a work of fiction, and its story, of the forces unleashed in 1930s Germany and of their terrible retribution, of an entire generation raised without parents or history, confronting the worst horrors of our species without the insulation or protection of society, the consequent death of civilization and of the world of story--and its eventual and unexpected re-creation" (p.8)
And it is all horrifying, appropriately horrifying. The story-filled world of Hans's childhood rots and collapses into a cruelly material too-early adulthood, with a child killed in the very first moment of this town's occupation by French troops, and a girl raped to death by occupying soldiers who are subsequently killed for their crime, publicly, by their officers. There's nothing redemptive in the lives being depicted here, no answers for any of these varieties of pain suffered by any of the characters on or off the page, and yet in spite of Carnival's formal inaccessibility and the unpleasantness of its content, this is a book that provokes obsessive reading.

To sum up: I'll never feel about Carnival how I feel about Rhenisch's more BC-centric work, like Tom Thomson's Shack or The Wolves at Evelyn, and to be honest I have no idea who I might recommend this book to. It's remarkable, Carnival is, and it deserves to be remarked upon and to be shared, but I'm just not sure who by. This ignorance, though, I'm prepared to lay at my own feet.


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