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"The Cannibal" is a short, stubby book with a forthright jacket; it fits neatly into your pocket. Its content is neither forthright, nor neat, nor stubby, and it is not classifiable by any other standard whatever.
Now Directions calls "The Cannibal" a novel "halfway between nightmare and myth." Hawkes has taken a decaying German village, Spitzen-on-the-Dein, and used its rubble as a stage-set for a fever-dream, and for a series of enlarged, fore-shortened images which obstinately refuse to tie into the story.
This story stabs into Spitzen-on-the-Dein and its people at various times during world wars and an American occupation. The U. S. military government is administered by a venereal-diseased motorcyclist named Leevey. The book's narrator--who only narrates for a dozen-odd pages throughout--eventually kills Leevey, overthrows the occupation, and founds a new Germany.
This is a distorted summary, distorted in that it tries to bring some order to a deliberately disordered book. Hawkes likes to play with reality, to juggle his characters through time and space, to withhold important information and stress irrelevant detail. But most of all, he likes cold, sharp, frightening imagery.
Hawkes is preoccupied with decay, with the rust on an abandoned gun or the fungus on a dead soldier. He is preoccupied with disgust, with the technical details of wringing a chicken's neck or the inept skinning of a fox. He is preoccupied with the warriors and valkyries of the German folk-myths.
Reader's of avant-garde novels will probably be pleased to note the return of the comma in Hawkes' intense, brilliant style. It is an anchorage in a book that will leave an awful lot of people at sea.
"The Cannibal" is an intense book and a confusing one; Hawkes is not afraid of alienating his reader. It also wallows around in the muck of the human unconscious, or maybe more accurately, in what Jung called the "racial unconscious." Its wallowing is effective.
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