In Other Words Cabo de Gata by Eugen Ruge
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