The piece of weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing last week . . .
Review: “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass”, Bruno Schulz, trans. Celina Wieniewska, 1937.
Besides Lovecraftian fiction and cosmic horror, the 20th century’s saw another new variety of weird fiction. The monsters and dangers and eeriness weren’t from beyond mortal ken. They were the deformation of human institutions. The men and women who faced them were trapped in bureaucratic institutions, hospitals, and courtrooms. They faced not dark sorcerers with grimoires but implacable functionaries following some arcane procedure with unseen and inhuman logic which, of course, really wasn’t inhuman. It was a manifestation of the increasingly prevalent and effective mechanisms of central control that human societies developed.
Franz Kafka, of course, worked in this vein, and the VanderMeers’ introduction puts Schulz in that same camp.
Our story begins with a long, strange train ride. The compartments in the cars are oddly angled. The train is drafty. The seats are empty with the few people aboard sleeping on the floor. The only person the narrator has anything to do with is a railwayman in a shabby uniform, handkerchief always pressed to a “swollen, aching face”. Then, one day, he just disappears leaving just his black suitcase.
In fact, everyone has left the train except the conductor who tells him they are arriving at their destination. As he steps off the train, no one is about. There’s not even a train station.
The day is gray. The vegetation around the white road leading to the Sanatorium has almost black leaves.
The Sanatorium is under the shade of trees, and it’s not much lighter inside. The narrator can’t see any numbers on the doors.
Finally, he meets a chambermaid who has the air of someone who just had sex, “breathless and excited”.
Did they get his telegram, he asks? He did book a room. The chambermaid has no clue and no idea whom to see. She suggests he park himself in the restaurant because everyone is sleeping even though it’s daytime because here “everybody is asleep all the time”.
It turns that the restaurant is well stocked, and the narrator is about to dig into some pastries when the chambermaid shows up again, her hips wriggling. In fact, as she takes him to meet the doctor, she brushes against him, increasing and decreasing her distance from him.
Dr. Gotard is in. He makes apologies for the carriage he dispatched to the station not picking the narrator up. Unsurprisingly, he notes railway connections to the town are poor.
The narrator asks after his father, the whole point of his visit. “Is my father alive?” he asks.
The answer is prime piece of weirdness, using, for 1937, the relatively new theory of relativity:
’Yes, of course,’ he answered, calmly meeting my questioning eyes. ‘That is, within the limits imposed by the situation,’ he added, half closing his eyes. ‘You know as well as I that from the point of view of your home, from the perspective of your own country, you father is dead. This cannot be entirely remedied. That death throws a certain shadow on his existence here. . . . Don’t worry . . . None of our patients know it, or can guess. The whole secret of the operation,’ he added, ready to demonstrate its mechanism on his fingers ‘is that we have put back the clock. Here we are always late by a certain interval of time of which we cannot define the length. The whole thing is a matter of simple relativity. Here your father’s death, the death that has already struck him in your country, has not occurred yet. . . Here we reactivate time past, with, all its possibilities, therefore also including the possibility of a recovery.’
Since his father is alive, there’s no reason not to visit him. In fact, the narrator is put in the same room as his father. We also learn that most of the Sanatorium’s patients sleep long hours because there’s nothing else to do. It’s recommended that our narrator go to bed too. It’s the best thing to do here.
The room has only one bed, and it’s drafty, but the narrator goes to sleep beside his father.
The next day the narrator talks to his father. It’s not a deep discussion. His father talks about his meals, his diarrhea, and the business he’s started in town. It’s in a stall he would have been ashamed of once but pretensions have to be dropped here. And his father is off to the shop.
The narrator goes into town to look for a café.
The town square seems remarkably similar to the one in his unnamed native city.
Thinking about his conversation with his father, he notes his father didn’t seem to realize it was their first meeting since his father came to the Sanatorium. The narrator realizes his father is “only half real” and leads a “relative and conditional life”. His “pitiful substitute for life” depends on everyone ignoring its shortcomings and the obvious.
Eventually, he visits his father who is hard at work. The narrator is rather surprised that a pornographic book he ordered and asked to be delivered to the town is there already. The package doesn’t have the book though. The business couldn’t get it for him, but, since he’s such a good customer they sent him a folding telescope as a substitute. (I’m not sure if this is implying that, hey, if he can’t have the porn, maybe he can be a voyeur.)
The story moves on. We hear the narrator’s further observation on the town. People sleep a lot. And they do it wherever they happen to be. Conversations just end and then are picked up after someone dozes off. A lot time seems to be missing in the day. This city has abandoned the Western world’s “compulsive readiness to account for the passage of time”. You can barely tell what time of the day or night it is by the color of the sky.
Once he comes into a restaurant where his father is making a clownish spectacle of himself going on about the food and his son. He leaves in disgust. When he gets back to his room in the Sanatorium, his father is already there. Did he fall asleep on the way? It’s another example of “undisciplined time” in this city.
His father complains he hasn’t seen the narrator in two days? Has he been off chasing girls?
And, speaking of women, the narrator hasn’t been looking at them too closely. He is too preoccupied from “swaying like a drunkard from one bout of sleep to another” to chase them.
But he has been looking and noticing. He’s noticed the women of the town obsessively walk in straight lines.
. . . they so conscientiously carr within themselves is an idée fixe of their own excellence, which the strength of their conviction almost transforms into reality . . . There is no ugliness or vulgarity that cannot be lifted up to a fictional heaven of perfection by the flight of such a belief.
This attitude transforms them into graceful creatures of provocative silence . Perhaps they have imbibed the transformative insouciance of ignoring their shortcomings.
Things at the Sanatorium, notes the narrator, are becoming more insufferable each day. Even the illusion of professional care has vanished. Door-bell wires are cut. The halls are always dark. The narrator is beginning to suspect only he and his father are the only guests though the chambermaid can still be seen coming and going into rooms. He’s not sure about this though. He still sees Gotard, enema bottle in hand, going to rooms with the chambermaid. He’s still sleeping in the same bed with his father. The sheets don’t get changed.
Father and son have gotten a little slovenly. They sleep in their clothes. Dad seems to be wearing out from his work at the stall.
‘Time put back – it sounded good, but what does it come to in reality?’ Does anyone here time at its full value, a true time, time cut off from a fresh bolt of cloth, smelling of newness, and dye? Quite the contrary. It is used-up time, worn out by other people, a shabby time full of holes, like a sieve. . . . secondhand time. God help us all!
Time, realizes the narrator, should be untouchable.
Sure, he should tell Gotard he and his father are leaving. But, of course, his father would be dead if he left. However, he is having trouble even finding Gotard. He’s always in surgery or in his office. The narrator finds no evidence of this, and he eventually learns the truth: Gotard is usually asleep.
The strangeness mounts. He thinks someone is hanging around his door and bolts away when it’s opened. His mother turns out to be a figure he frequently seems to see walking in front of him. Space as well as time seem in flux.
The days get darker, the world seems a vision seen through “black glasses”.
He begins to see packs of dogs around the Sanitorium. Packs of dogs in the street are often a metaphor for civil disorder and that will show up later in the story.
There is an odd encounter with a chained animal by the Sanatorium. At first, the narrator just thought it was a chained dog. Later, in the story it turns out it’s a man who howls and follows the narrator around when he’s released later in the story. He’s given some money and told to go away.
In the town are crowds and talk of war, one not “preceded by diplomatic activity” (perhaps Schulz sensed how World War Two would come).
Dad rushes off to his stall, and the narrator follows.
In the town center, the flower pots have asphodels, the flower of mourning.
Retreating from the commotion, the narrator goes back to the Sanatorium. He sees flames breaking out in the town. Gotard is, as usual, unavailable, and the narrator sees his mother again. The narrator wants to flee. He has visions of his father returning to the Sanatorium and being killed by the dog. Maybe it happened. Maybe it didn’t.
It’s time to leave. He runs to the train station. “Farewell, Father. Farewell, town that I shall never see again”.
The story ends with our narrator back on the train. He’s wearing the shabby uniform of a railroad worker now. It’s his face that’s now swollen.
Do we have a loop in time, a result of the general dislocation of time around the Sanatorium? Is the town a sort of purgatory, a half-way house between life and death?
Is this a fable about the strange results of the realized wish to turn back time? Or is it about the coming political chaos of Europe which killed Schulz himself? Is it just a surreal tale of an institution gone bad after abrogating a fearsome power to itself?
One is tempted to find an allegory, but I didn’t find a consistent one.
It’s hard to say if Schulz meant anything significant behind his strangeness, but it’s an effective story of 20th century alienation.