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Third Life

For Jakov Lind, reinvention was the heart of fiction

Sasha Weiss
September 03, 2008

In a photograph on the jacket of Counting My Steps, the first of Jakov Lind’s four autobiographies, the author grins beneath a brimming mustache. His eyes glint but give little away; a few gray strands distinguish an opulent head of dark hair. Photographs of authors don’t usually tell us much, but in Lind’s case, the evidence a photograph can bring to the supposed facts is illuminating. Lind—who technically died last year, of Lou Gehrig’s disease—lived three lives and died two deaths before the age of twenty. He renamed himself three times. But here he is at fifty, looking at the camera with the casual smile of a man enjoying a good joke.

Jakov Lind was his pen name. Born Heinz Landwirth in Vienna in 1927 to Jewish parents, Lind survived World War II posing as a Dutchman named Jan Overbeek and working as a sailor and courier in Germany. His writing—novels, stories, plays, scripts for films and radio broadcasts, and the four autobiographies—derives from the paradoxical experience of having lived inside another self. In a war that classified human beings with cruel precision, Lind inhabited more than one perspective, and this lends his writing on the war an uncommon lucidity. Tied to no one, identified with no one, Lind could not be categorized; his thoughts and impressions, locked away during the war years in an interior vault, emerge in his work with a quality like polished metal.

“I loved the aristocrats, the loafers, the hangers-on, the pretty girls among them, the near artists, dreamers, and inventors. Anyone not needing to settle and not willing to settle,” Lind writes in Counting My Steps. Those are the people who interested Lind in literature as in life—itinerant men and women, who, like himself, wandered about Europe examining the hollowed-out humans they met. The bleak iconography familiar from books about the Nazi period appears in his writing: skeins of train tracks, ragged crowds herded into town squares, attics crammed with people in hiding. But these images are not treated with the usual elegiac reverence—they are tossed off quickly, tangentially. Lind did not document the historical reality of a group; he wrote about the development of outliers, and about his own writer’s consciousness as it formed in the grotesque crucible of Europe. The plots of his novels veer away from the reader’s expectations, just as the facts of his own life veered from the common story.

* * *

Until the age of eleven, Lind lived in Vienna, one of three children of a poor but highly educated family. His father, an affable, impoverished man who came from wealth, failed at various business ventures; his mother was an amateur poet. Later, Lind would regard his childhood mockingly, sneering at the possibility of sentimentality. Even as a young man, he felt the insularity of Vienna—the residual haughtiness of a jewel in the crown of the defunct Austro-Hungarian empire. “I loved my father and my ’fatherland,’” he wrote in Counting My Steps. “Even now, after thirty years, when I curse or ridicule Vienna and the Viennese at the slightest provocation, I know I am in love with the town. I’m in love with my hatred.” He sensed early on his own intractable individualism, later describing himself, comically and ambivalently, as “a child of courteous pleasantries, noble feelings, simple phrases. Half gentleman-criminal, half pioneer-conman.”

Lind’s family fled when the Germans occupied Vienna in 1938, his parents and one of his sisters procuring passage to Palestine. Lind was instead sent on a Kindertransport to Amsterdam, where he was shuttled around, placed by a Jewish aid agency in successive homes of affluent local families. During these years adrift in Holland, he spent his time finding cigarettes and trying to get laid before it was too late. Lind’s account, in Counting My Steps, of the days when Jews were carted off in Lorries is startlingly, startlingly callous. A pugnacious sixteen-year-old, he is oriented only towards survival, and like any adolescent, ashamed of his extended family. Hiding in an attic during a roundup, watching his companions file out as commands are barked from the street, Lind thinks:

That’s why I stayed behind. I wanted nothing to do with these people, this bunch of remote relatives. Too familiar the way they sat huddled together on their wooden benches on top of lorries, the children on floor playing with their dolls . . . This noise, this crowd—I wouldn’t have liked to share a compartment with them from Amsterdam to Utrecht; I was certainly not going to go all the way with them to Poland. They are a dull and boring lot, my remote relatives, with whom one can’t exchange a single intelligent sentence. Typical relatives.

Irreverent passages like these abound in Counting My Steps. Lind mocks, and revels in his own contrarianism. The horrible outcomes of events did nothing to sanitize his tone; his writing retains the spirit of the enfant terrible who speaks his own rude truth with a disarming bluntness:

“The Jews are our misfortune,” it said in big letters on every front page of the Sturmer. Our misfortune? They are certainly mine. To survive this calamity I have to hate them; if I do not wish to die as one of them, I have to learn to live with the sentiments of the rest of the world. The rest of the world either hates Jews or is indifferent to them . . . I couldn’t afford indifference. I have to hate because I love life. I love to remain among those who breathe.

This vicious paradox electrifies Lind’s work. To continue to live as human being, he had to dispense with the moral boundaries that order human existence, to realign them to suit the purposes of survival. Lind’s writing documents the overturning of a moral universe.

His first novel was published in Palestine, where he lived briefly after the war. Finally settling in England in 1954, he published the story collection Soul of Wood in 1962, the book for which he became widely known in Germany and abroad. A novel, Landscape in Concrete, followed in 1963 (Open Letters Press will reprint Ralph Mannheim’s translation this fall). In writing about his own life, beginning in 1969 with Counting My Steps, Lind would switch to English.

His short story “Hurrah for Freedom,” in Soul of Wood, is Lind’s early, hyperbolic formulation of a world where conventional moral codes have ceased to apply. He explores this question again and again in his fiction. The young hero, Leonard Balthasar, might be thought of as an analog to Lind: He observes the decaying world around him from a certain distance, but quickly assimilates its values into his way of thinking.

He was rather sorry for them, as a well-dressed hunter on safari can’t help feeling sorry for the savages he meets. He would have liked to give them a handful of glass beads or a mirror. They are poor and proud, Leonard said to himself. Actually, what did he himself know of the Communist yoke—all hearsay. Here for the first time he was seeing the real victims. They moved him almost to tears. But a medical man has to control himself.

The simplistic metaphor of a beneficent hunter encountering a backward savage on safari satirizes the common tendency to shrink from one’s own complicity in violent acts. Leonard’s desire to separate his own fate from the fate of these savages is ridiculed: Just as the hunter on safari belongs to the damaging history of European incursion into foreign lands, so Leonard Balthasar belongs to the world of these perverse cannibals. Again and again in his writing, Lind reveals the monstrousness inherent in a character who seems, at first, perfectly likable. He transports his characters over the border of logic and sanity so slyly that the reader finds herself suddenly bewildered, much like the author must have felt during his years of incessant border crossings.

* * *

Composing his life as he later would one of his strange parables, Lind decided that he would not be carted off like the rest of the Jews, and at the age of sixteen fashioned himself a new identity. Appealing to the frayed remnants of the Jewish resistance still operating in Amsterdam, he obtained false identity papers and became Jan Overbeek, a working-class Dutchman in a felt hat and tall black riding boots, an inscrutable expression on his face. “I knew I had to be an ordinary Dutch boy,” he writes in Counting My Steps:

With no hatred and no special emotions one way or the other. A young Dutch laborer by profession . . . likes girls and cigarettes, movies and music. I had to be gay and indifferent, relaxed and cool. In short, one of them and not one of us. I tried to fix my look and finally ended up with a face that looked partly hautain into the world and partly nauseated.

He found work as a deckhand on a ship bound for Germany, and spent the duration of the war there, working. “Inside the lion’s mouth,” he wrote, “I would not have to fear the animal’s teeth and claws.” Life goes on for him as it did for all the other foreign workers in Germany—he toiled for little money, complained about food rations, went to bars and prostitutes in the various ports where his ship docked, and trembled through the Allied bombings of German cities, surviving by dint of sheer instinct: “Whenever death struck near, I jumped to life,” he writes. “This mad fantasy was my existence . . . no one arrests me, bombs fall behind, in front, or a few feet away from me. Not a single splinter ever hits.” During a stay at a hospital occasioned by a bout of clap, a fellow patient took an unaccountable liking to Lind and offered him a job as a clerk in an office of the German Air Ministry evacuated from Berlin to the countryside. Lind lived comfortably in a sleepy German town for the duration of the war, not questioning the nature of the envelopes that he was asked to deliver to other silent couriers around Germany. If Lind later regretted this, he did not let on; in fact, the experience seems to have taught him a sardonic empathy for the average citizen who took whatever small boon came his way during the war. This empathy makes his fiction potent.

* * *

Lind emerged from the war with a clutter of impressions, in a kind of mania produced by the resurfacing of his Jewish self from the depths of the young Dutchman. (Perhaps this explains his uneasiness about finding a name: He first became Jakov Chaklan, claiming he was a native of Palestine in order to gain passage on a ship sailing there; only later did he settle on Lind.) “Can one say ‘thank you’ for being alive and cursed forever to explain existence as the result of an assumed identity?” he asks, reflecting on the first days after Germany’s defeat in Counting My Steps, “I don’t even know if I am back from the war. This war has never ended.”

As Jan Overbeek, Lind had to pretend that he was limited by a grade-school education, and his writing was confined to surreptitious scribbling in diaries. It wasn’t until after the war that novels trickled out from the damp interior place where they had been stowed. Reading a diary entry from 1945, written when Lind was on his way to Palestine, where he would spend the next five years, we can see him trying to affix to the page the topsy-turvy world as he saw it: “The new Christians are the survivors of Hiroshima. Survivors are disciples. I will start this new Church. The fashion in 1975 will be: to look as maimed and ugly as possible. Millions of dollars to be learned from the Helena Rubenstein of ugliness. Young men should look like Frankenstein, and the chicks will have plastic surgery to look deformed.”

This passage is an early articulation of the themes that Lind would go on to explore in his novels: interior deformity manifested as physical deformity; human beings acting against their natures; nature itself giving way to an grotesque human invention. His characters often lack affiliation. They are, like Lind himself, itinerant men thrown around Europe by the circumstances of war, observing the legions of the maimed with a kind of amused detachment, not realizing that they themselves are irreparably wounded.

Soul of Wood

The story is a hodgepodge of naturalism and fantasy, acts of uncontrolled insanity and of deliberate heroism and cruelty. Most simply, it can be read as a parable of moral laziness, with Wohlbrecht as a German everyman driven crazy by the war and unwittingly complicit in murder. But in the end, the reader isn’t directed to pass judgment on Wohlbrecht—his humor, his probable insanity, and his generosity early in the story make him too sympathetic. And it seems that Wohlbrecht’s character, ending the war as an oblivious cog in the German machine, is crafted from Lind’s own wartime experience.

“Soul of Wood” is emblematic of what Lind does best. He takes us from a world that can be seen and described in all its detail and complexity, into a world of inexplicable, magical events. The suddenness of this transition, and the absence of an explanation or a reorientation, is dizzying, but the reader is pulled along by the evenness of Lind’s tone, as if nothing could surprise him. If the rules of the story have changed, the narrator’s tone quickly assimilates and accepts them. The experience of reading the story becomes analogous to what it must feel like to be inside it. The reader becomes deadened as Wohlbrecht is deadened. We too are asked to suspend our judgment and to accept the ugly vicissitudes of his transformation with matter-of-fact detachment. All the stories in Soul of Wood—Ralph Mannheim’s translation of which will be reprinted in 2009, by New York Review Classics—similarly startle and then lull the reader.

The effect is powerful and disturbing. You emerge from a Lind story as you would from a nightmare. You may try and figure out what the dream meant, and whether you can locate real-life referents in its characters, but nothing fits precisely. The meaning of the allegory slips from view.

* * *

In 1949, after four unhappy years, Lind left Palestine. Although he admired the Zionist ideal of Jewish robustness, he couldn’t tolerate what he perceived as the ideological uniformity of the early pioneers. In a typically bracing passage in Counting My Steps, he derides the life of “the pioneer”: “He was a culture consumer (at its best). The aims of his culture and its achievements seemed very provincial to me. ‘For the decorations of the dining hall, for this we need a painter? Or to write a poem for the next anniversary of the founding of the kibbutz, for this one needs a poet, chaver?’ The entire ‘cultural air,’ like in all small countries, in all provinces, was to entertain and to decorate only.” Lind returned to Europe, stumbling from one menial job to another and attending acting school in Vienna. These years are described amusingly in Numbers, the second installment of his autobiography, published in 1972, in which he depicts the illusion of normalcy in the world to which the refugees returned: “The green uniform of the Austrian police without a swastika made me feel a bit better right away. The same uniform, the same faces, the same voices, and no swastika in sight. No Heil Hitler, no outstretched arms. Polite policemen saluted three dead Jews returning from their graves. One felt it clearly in the crisp mountain air of the Semmering: Jews are now more than welcome.”

The acidity of these sentences is present, in varying doses of intensity, in almost all of Lind’s writing—it is the gallows humor of postwar writers such as Günter Grass and Thomas Bernhard, to whom Lind was often compared. Lind’s work can sometimes be intolerably relentless in its sarcasm. This is especially true of his early fiction (Soul of Wood and the novel Landscape in Concrete), which unlike his autobiographical work was written in German.

Lind described—in English—his ambivalent relationship to the German language in Numbers:

My sense of humor in the German language had left me since I had heard it used to yell and scream at people with venom and hatred, with threats and murderous slogans, since it became a language of decrees and curfews, inhuman laws and black-framed announcements, a language of lies and falsehood, of murder and death. German had til then been my private oasis to hide from this world, the only safe place I could retreat to when the world around had gone insane.

Reading Lind’s German work can be as irritating as hearing a nail banged into a wall. His books in English are warmer, the steady clip of his German prose falters. Writing the story of his own life in English, Lind sounds more like an impish older man on a stroll. His German novels became popular and won prestigious prizes in Austria in the 1990s. His books are in print only in Austria.

That Lind inhabited the liminal space between two languages seems fitting for a man who refused to fit. He was a chameleon, changing color as the situation required it; then again, the kernel of Lind’s self—his mordant, bizarre, cackling voice—speaks clearly in all his books. He was contrary, rejecting every circumstance that was ever imposed on him, yet he embraced the world with an unusual openness. Describing Johann Nestroy, the great Austrian comic playwright, Lind could easily be speaking of himself: “He dances, he doesn’t walk. He has a melody, a sound of his own. He is melancholic and loves the world, a sick, skeptical, torn-in-half, sentimental, optimistic, frightened-to-death wit; an amusing, elegant, childish old wise man.”