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This article is taken from PN Review 144, Volume 28 Number 4, March - April 2002.

The E-Word and History with a Big H Iain Bamforth

The first time I saw Strasburg's old city, one damp night in the mid 1990s, it was lost in a thick mist that rose slowly from the canals and muffled the lamps and streetlights, an emanation that left the pavement in a cold sweat and sowed tiny beads of moisture on my eyelashes. I could just make out, before the mist closed in on them, a row of dwarfishly steep houses with dovecotes on their roofs looming up on one side of me. It was their angular half-timbering; and on the other side, the eerie calm of the Ill, its black water lulling steps at the foot of which a deserted restaurant-barge lay at anchor, that brought to mind an image: from a Kafka story about the boat that bears the most ancient of seafarers, the Hunter Gracchus, to his metaphysical port in the heart of the continent. Kafka's eerie story about ambiguity as a mode of being is a condensation of the opening of one of the great Victorian novels, Wilkie Collins's novel Armadale, set not far away from Strasburg in a Black Forest spa. With the band playing and children dancing, a carriage bearing a ghastly-looking invalid arrives in the town. In his melodrama Collins gives his invalid the ominous name Death-in-Life. 'Are you dead?' the burgomaster asks the hunter in Kafka's story: 'As you can see,' he replies. In both stories, the past refuses to disappear; the sins of the fathers are visited on the ...
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