Anna Kim was born in South Korea but was brought up in Germany where her father was appointed a Professor of Fine Arts. She writes in German and her book Anatomy of a Night is one of the first four books to be published by new Berlin-based publisher Frisch and Co who specialise in publishing contemporary books in English translation. The publisher’s website says that Anna Kim, “is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Austrian State Fellowship for Literature, the Elias Canetti Fellowship, the Robert Musil Fellowship, and the 2009 Austrian Prize for Literature, among others”.
This novel deals with a difficult subject; an epidemic of suicides among the Innuit community in Greenland. Apparently Innuit suicide is an ongoing problem and a quick search on the Internet brought up some in-depth studies by Canadian academics about the possible reasons for it such as
- Lack of coping skills when relationships break-up
- Lack of access to mental health treatment;
- Loss of control over land and living conditions;
- Socio-economic factors such as poor housing and employment opportunities.
Further research shows that suicide is a problem with all native communities and also of course with northern countries generally where long, dark winters seem to draw out melancholic feelings in those disposed to them.
In Anatomy of a Night, Anna Kim has produced a remarkable novel based on one Innuit community in Amaraq in Greenland in which the plague of suicides affects every family in the township. I say “township” for this community of dispersed dwellings seems not to have a centre as such,
In Amarâq shops flourish in secret, they’re not made visible by signs: the paper store is behind the hospital, the manicurist is next door, the cleaning lady lives close to the heliport, the kindergarten teacher close to the church, the translator next to the police, the hairstylist by the orphanage. The confectioner bakes in a pink house next to the art studio SKUNK, the shoemaker only works when her husband is out hunting, the seamstress only when her husband is at home, she accompanies him on the hunt, the shaman is always active when the pastor is away, the travel office is in Emilia’s book store and only sells tickets for the cargo ship Johanna Kristina . . .
The book focuses on one spring night when the suicide epidemic reaches a peak. During the night we follow the lives (and deaths) of eleven Innuit inhabitants of Amaraq, learing a little of their background, their joys and sorrows, the place they occupy in the community. The people have broken lives and Anna Kim occasionally gives the impression that they are like ghosts, almost transparent, a transient people who are not fully present in the world. I was struck by this description of Inger and her home which illustrates this tendency of the people to be adrift in the world;
The kitchen is small: a stove; a refrigerator; a table, painted white; and two chairs. Thin wooden shelves are mounted on the walls; ladles, a cooking spoon, and spatulas dangle above the stove; under the table there are three jugs for drinking water and three for other purposes. Inger is hardly visible against the furnishings— Mikkel would say she’s well camouflaged— both she and her clothing are faded, as if someone had tried to erase her and a stubborn residue remained, one which moved around in its own house like a guest, always stumbling over the furniture, completely out of place; she would probably fade away completely one day.
It is in grim surroundings like these that we read of the lives of this group of Innuit, their sad lives, often displaced from their birth families, spending periods of exile in Denmark only to return and never quite fit in again, their alcoholism and their yearning for family.
The Danish tourist information officer tells a visitor, “the Greenlanders can’t control their unhappiness” and explains that the government are trying to restrict access to alcohol, believing that strong drink is the root cause of the suicides. Anna Kim however seems to have been dissatisfied with such simple explanations and while I know nothing about how she wrote her book, it shows evidence of a considerable amount of research and personal exploration of the territories she describes so well.
Particularly striking was the story of two boys Ole and Magnus who plan a joint suicide. Anna Kim spares us no detail, “We’ll wrap the hand towel around the line so that it doesn’t slip out, and then we attach the line to the bedpost”. The two seem to have a distinct lack of despair, and plan their last act with a cool calmness which is as shocking as any more violent death.
Relationships seem to be difficult for the Inuit people. Families are troubled and couples seem no longer to understand how to behave with each other. Family relationships are made more complicated when relatives and friends go to Denmark for study or work, and then return with the old values permanently altered. One character muses on these conflicts and thinks, “What is hidden beneath this yearning that we call love? Is it strengthened by the conversations which are less like dialogue and more like confessions? And these mutual confessions give rise to a convergence that is based on an illusion, the illusion that one truly understands what the other is talking about”.
As I write this review and revisit the book I am struck by how well-written it is. It is tempting to compose this article as a set of quotations, to let Anna Kim for herself, for no one could doubt the beauty of the writing. Her translator Bradley Schmidt must take some of the credit for the quality of the prose of course, but a translator can only work from what is before him and I can only assume that the original German is as eloquent as the English translation.
The image of Anna Kim comes from the publisher’s website.