If you open Gert Loschütz’s new novel Dark Company expecting a clear answer as to who the titular dark company are, and why the protagonist’s grandfather warned him against them, you are sadly doomed to disappointment. Indeed, if you want a clear linear plotline neatly laid out, a consistent character set, or a steady setting, you’re going to have a rough ride. It is unwise to approach this slender tome anticipating clarity; rather, you’ve got to gird yourself, step warily, and simply go. However, that is a great part of the magic of this new book: the challenge here is to keep up with the narrator, Thomas, in his fluctuating life, and to accept it as impossible. What makes this novel, translated by Samuel P. Willcocks, ultimately satisfying and worthwhile is its glimmering prose, the fascinating and highly changeable life of our protagonist, and the constant rain that ties together every event.
Dark Company is marked as a book “told in ten rainy nights.” In fact, each of the ten chapters opens with a different facet of a cold, rainy night: the rain itself, the chilling wind, the fog, or the artificial light that shines, but offers no comfort to those outside or inside. Indeed, as the book progresses, the weather and the surroundings—different every chapter—themselves become characters that lead Thomas through the narrative. These elements are personified, as the wind is when it opens the third chapter, finding “its way into the house through the cracks to tear the handle from your hand and send the doors slamming. The wind moans in the chimney, rattles the windows, and when I go out at night I can hear a shrill whistling.” The elements here have agency, indeed more than our protagonist, Thomas, ever really seems capable of. The rain that pulls us through the book blocks out all light; the author, who cites Kafka and Rosendorfer as influences to his own style, must consciously equate this lack of natural light to lack of illumination for the characters and the readers. This, however, does not deter a reader—rather, she is swept along with the plot as surely as the people in the book are, straight into the flood.
There are few constants in the novel, rain, again, being one, and the vanishing of characters being the other. Early on, Thomas admits to a boyish wonder of Henry Hudson, “the explorer I admired above all others for the way he had disappeared. The way he sailed off at dawn (and never returned) spoke to me of true modesty and greatness.” This ominously becomes a veritable tattoo of the novel In almost every single chapter, we are introduced to a person—a colleague in the German Navy, a former lover, a nameless woman working on an angel statue in a workshop—who disappears. The natures of their disappearances are all different: Daniel, a fellow sailor in the British Navy, vanishes after the appearance of an African sailor who joins and introduces voodoo magic to the ship; Katharina, a young woman Thomas shared a night and a tattoo with, seems to melt away with her blood on the pavement after being attacked by some guard dogs, only to appear later in England; her Doppelgänger vanishes with a promise on her lips after chasing after somebody who, in a Marquez-like twist, has Thomas’s face. Thomas’s grandfather, continually referenced to but never seen in the novel, has a theory about vanished people:
He believed that all those who had vanished had not really vanished at all but were all gathered somewhere, in designated places. If I have understood correctly what he was saying, they travel in a particular kind of train which carries them across the length and breadth of Europe, unceasingly: that is to say, they never leave the train. . . . Since these trains are not listed on any timetable and never stop—or stop only in very remote, hidden places—it is difficult to detect them.
It is, then, this baleful continual movement of the train that pushes the narrative along like the rivers and eventual floods of rain do. Thomas—and thus the reader—learns to expect, and accept, their inevitability.
There does seem to be a striking passivity in Thomas’s acceptance of how the narrative plays out, which is baffling. That is, Thomas is content merely to let things happen to him. He repeatedly follows people into the darkness, once even as far as being led to the meeting of a religious cult in which he is apparently “The Promised One.” Thomas yearns to “go back, back to the rivers, the docks, the warehouses where a man could lose himself walking round, not back to my flat by the river but to a boat, and so what if my license had expired . . .” He never helps himself, and in his yearning eventually ends up a worker on a train. As a former skipper, he deals in transit, and never seems to get anywhere himself. His timeline is all but impossible to figure out—was he struck from his position as a skipper because he may have killed a woman? did he meet the woman who resembled Katharina after his work on the train? when did he have the affair with the married woman? when did he meet his possible son? is this the titular dark company?—and this question of time and madness is what sweeps the reader along as surely as Thomas is pushed forward by his work on the boats and on the train, and his life aboard a bus (a sad parody of Noah’s ark) that takes him away from his flooded house. It becomes apparent that Thomas does not trust the reader and indeed keeps things from her, allowing for gross jumps in logic (one moment he is waiting in a bar till “zero hours forty,” and then he admits that “this was the place and I had to wait. If she had come at eleven, we could have sailed at twelve,” with no previous mention to waiting for anyone. Perhaps, the readers reflect drily, he doesn’t trust us with his secret). He eventually references his omissions, finally admitting to them and their fatality: “Add one more fault to my list of omissions. . . . Everything that I have failed to do leaps out at me from the dark, my failures lurk in the driving rain, in the whistling sound overhead.”
It is impossible to read this book and not notice the beautiful translation from German into English by Willcocks. The text reads absolutely effortlessly in translation, with glittering descriptions of Thomas’s surroundings that are timed to an English pace and sound-set perfectly: “Instead [there was] fog, silence and the smell that so often accompanies fog, a smell of fire, a burning smell, a hint of smouldering trees and smoke creeping over the ground at knee height . . .” It is, however, Willcocks’s poetic employ of generally difficult English words that is worth our attention and applause. For example (emphasis mine), Thomas’s “world outside . . . dissolve[s] into a fuzzy stroboscopic fog of impressions,” and Katharina’s dogs, “two deep-chested, powerful beasts . . . stopped at her command (a word? a signal?) and eyed us, obediently, yes, but truculent too, truculent in their obedience.” Willcocks has weighed the very sounds of the words he applied to the English text, resulting in a sensuous, sonorous prose. Ultimately, in the translation itself as in the text, this is a book for a reader looking for a thematic and highly, wonderfully literary challenge, and though the reader is left with gaping questions apathetically unanswered, it can’t be denied that it was worth buckling in for the ride and getting caught up in the flow of the flood with Thomas and the debris of his life.
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“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
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