In Other Words Cabo de Gata by Eu­gen Ruge

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER -

If you could take the pulse of a novel, Cabo de Gata’s is a steady 80 bpm. There are rare emo­tional spikes, which are all the more note­wor­thy be­cause the un­named nar­ra­tor, a writer grap­pling with fail­ure, has oth­er­wise dialed his feel­ings way down. So it is all the more sur­pris­ing when the pro­tag­o­nist’s wry, hon­est voice draws you into his story, and never lets go de­spite the fact that very lit­tle ac­tu­ally hap­pens here. Cabo de Gata, writ­ten by the Ger­man au­thor Eu­gene Ruge (In Times of Fad­ing Light), is that en­vi­able Euro­pean novel that uses only a dash of story to hold our at­ten­tion. With scant re­gard for plot, the nar­ra­tor plods dispirit­edly through the first half of the novel, not quite know­ing what his next move will be, un­til his in­dig­na­tion at his state, along with his sar­donic hu­mor, mem­o­rably an­i­mate the page. By the end, Ruge has dra­ma­tized the es­sen­tially non­dra­matic and even in­sipid life of a failed writer, and he em­ploys a cat, of all crea­tures, to give the tale poignancy.

The un­named nar­ra­tor’s quest to leave be­hind his unin­spir­ing life and a failed re­la­tion­ship in Berlin in or­der to go some­where warm takes him to what looks like an aban­doned town in south­ern Spain, a place he has cho­sen al­most ran­domly. The An­dalu­sian fish­ing vil­lage where he ends up is a spot where the sea daily spews out garbage onto the beach, where fish­er­men are re­signed to the motto: “Mu­cho tra­bajo, poco pescado!” (A lot of work, not many fish!). Here, the nar­ra­tor sits ev­ery day in the court­yard of a restau­rant, at­tempt­ing to fill his empty notebook. His thin de­scrip­tions of the vil­lagers — the restau­rant server is re­duced to her pump­kin-like hips — re­in­force his acute bore­dom. Be­cause the nar­ra­tor dili­gently dis­tills the in­hab­i­tants in the vil­lage to a sin­gle at­tribute, the reader also sus­pects that the au­thor doesn’t have a deep ac­quain­tance with the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion.

Ruge writes with more au­thor­ity about the land­scape of south­ern Spain. There’s some­thing of The Lit­tle Prince in how the nar­ra­tor re­li­giously watches the sun­rise over the black moun­tains in Cabo de Gata. “But then, the next morn­ing, I am sit­ting on my bench again, the first glimmer of sun­light shows above the black moun­tains, shines more brightly, spreads, sends its life­giv­ing heat out into the world, and in view of that sun, skep­ti­cal as I am, it seems to me en­tirely ab­surd, pos­i­tively de­ranged, to doubt the ex­is­tence of God.” De­spite the glimmer of hope he de­rives from these moun­tains and his com­mit­ment to the perch out­side the restau­rant where he eats and lives, the nar­ra­tor makes lit­tle progress on his novel; the bleak­ness of his mood only deep­ens.

The joys of this book are un­ex­pected. Ruge makes com­par­a­tive dis­cus­sions of Amer­i­can and Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture spring to life. An Amer­i­can visi­tor who makes a brief stop at the vil­lage, and who gives the nar­ra­tor’s rusty rou­tine a wel­come break, jump­starts the con­ver­sa­tion: “Amer­i­cans, he shouted against the stormy wind, think lit­er­a­ture is all about the plot! I re­mem­ber his scorn­ful laugh­ter.” The book as a whole makes a suc­cess­ful case that the in­ner work­ings of a pro­tag­o­nist’s mind can be in­her­ently dra­matic to the ex­tent that they can form the bones of a novel. It in­tel­li­gently show­cases the ap­peal of a cer­tain kind of Euro­pean novel, re­call­ing No­bel lau­re­ate Pa­trick Mo­di­ano’s pleas­antly me­an­der­ing books.

There are times when Ruge is too ob­vi­ous about the me­chan­ics of in­te­ri­or­ity. So many sen­tences be­gin with the phrase “I re­mem­ber” that it seems to be­come the nar­ra­tor’s mantra, some­thing that per­haps works for him, but not as well for the reader. Ruge is live­lier when he touches upon the mech­a­nisms of the writ­ing life. When the nar­ra­tor first moves into the room be­hind the restau­rant, one of his first acts is to “se­cretly” screw in an “elec­tric light­bulb into the fit­ting of the dim 40-watt one” so that he can read. Un­for­tu­nately, he has brought only one book with him, and he is mostly re­duced to reread­ing the same edi­tion of a Span­ish news­pa­per in or­der to im­prove his lan­guage skills.

A reader who has got­ten thus far, and who has read on the dust jacket that the nar­ra­tor falls in love with a cat, might think this is all a sur­real joke. But the love story that leaves us as­ton­ished at the end of the novel is as real as can be. You don’t have to be a cat lover in or­der to sa­vor this book. It doesn’t mat­ter that it’s a cat whom the search­ing nar­ra­tor falls in love with. Ruge shows us truly what it feels like to fall in love: It could be as sim­ple as show­ing up with a beat­ing heart ev­ery night at eight at the mail­box where you first en­coun­tered your love, in the hope that she will be there again tonight. — Priyanka Ku­mar

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