As an 11-year-old boy, Jakov Lind (who died in 2007) fled from the Nazi-occupied Vienna to Holland and survived the Holocaust by assuming a Dutch identity. After the war he moved around, living in Israel and returning to Vienna for a while, but finally settled in London. Lind began his literary career by publishing a collection of short stories “Soul of Wood” and continued to write in both German and English.
Lind’s third novel “Ergo,” first published in 1968 and now translated into English by Ralph Manheim, is in many facets a product of his experience under the Nazi regime. The novel is rife with allusions to Hitler and his dominion, and the narrative itself is filled with a pervasive sense of horror the subtext of which could only be those atrocities.
“Ergo” is the story of three men—the widower Wacholder, his stepson Aslan, and the tenant Leo—living at “Custom House No. 8,” a dilapidated lodgment by an unnamed river. Much of the plot is chaotic or simply unclear. The novel takes for granted its unconventional structure; it frequently jumps from character to character, with each delivering bizarre and fanciful episodes. The narrative treats characters without any semblance of sympathy or logic. During the first half of the book, Aslan barely carries a significant role. All the reader knows about him is that he is an aspiring writer who repeatedly copies works of canonical German writers and that he has written a four-page-long novel. Suddenly and out of context, Leo slaughters him with an axe, appears in Aslan’s afterlife as a god or a demigod, and chants like a mad prophet: “every day isn’t easter, the rabbits haven’t laid any eggs this year, so we’ve postponed the resurrection ceremonies from easter to christmas...”
Both aesthetically and historically, “Ergo” is a piece of disillusioned postwar literature. The entire novel is as arbitrary, surrealistic, and tenebrous as the episode of Aslan’s death. Its violent content and spastic structure incarnate the fury of war and the gloom of post-war Europe.
The chaos of the novel serves as a background for Lind’s omnipresent existentialism. Because in the world of “Ergo” everything is permitted, Lind takes the liberty of mentioning the concept everywhere. From the most quotidian of conversations to the Leo’s deitific chants, the characters communicate via existential tropes from modern literature whose clearest source is Samuel Beckett.
In fact, the characters themselves are existential questions. Each occupies himself with an interminable quest: Wacholder wants to destroy his doppelganger figure Würz; but Aslan wants to write literary masterpieces, copies others instead; Leo never leaves his bed and only thinks about existence. Their stories—if there are any—unfold through their pathetic attempts to reach the unreachable. Wacholder, for example, tries to eliminate Würz, who might as well be Wacholder himself, by writing him half threatening and half incomprehensible letters; by inventing imaginary, toxic juice; or by simply thinking that Würz does not exist.
In the end, however, “Ergo” is obnoxiously one-dimensional. Of course there are many abstract ideas presented in the book, but they all serve a single purpose: existential terror. The novel explores no other sentiment. Even the intercourse of Wacholder and Trude Böckling, a minor character from the government, is described in a disturbing fashion. Böckling goes, “Kill a Trude Böckling with a little fellow like that? Don’t be silly.” “Aren’t you a whore?” answers Wacholder.
Lind’s language is vulgar, again without variation. Toward the end of the book, Leo says, “We pull on God’s cock therefore, we are. Penem Dei tractamus ergo sumus.” This declaration is presumably an important sentence, considering the fact that the title of the novel “Ergo,” which means “therefore” in Latin, is derived from the quote. However, the redundant use of crude language and even the purpose behind its use, which is always the same, become an annoyance. The structural chaos of “Ergo” only aggravates the redundancy. Lind’s technique—whether concerning plot, character, or language—disturbs for the sake of disturbance.
“Ergo” deserves a certain degree of credit if only for its ability to genuinely terrify. It would be difficult to find a postwar book that leaves an impression as petrifying as “Ergo.” But a novel, due to its inherent features as a genre, tends to reach its height when it delivers multi-layered thoughts and sensations that expand themselves throughout the breadth of reading. Instead of delivering on this front, Jakov Lind limited the artistic potential of the novel by consciously designating a purpose to it. “Ergo,” unfortunately, is like a long, repetitive commentary on postwar terror that can never stand alone without its historical context.