A mind-boggler par excellence, courtesy of the good folk at Dedalus, who can always be counted on to dig up fascinating Euro-obscurities. THE ARCHITECT OF RUINS, originally published in 1969, was the first novel by Germany’s late Herbert Rosendorfer (1934-2012). With its English language publication, skillfully transcribed by Dedalus’s regular translator Mike Mitchell, Dedalus undoubtedly reached some kind of plateau; it’s no exaggeration to call this book a modern-day SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT.
The setting is a train upon which the unnamed narrator is riding. He’s joined from under his seat by a grubby little man on the run from police. The little man reveals a very complicated backstory via a complex recounting to the narrator–the first, it turns out, of a bewildering succession of lengthy sub-narratives. But before the little man’s story can be properly completed cops storm the carriage and the criminal escapes out the window. He leaves behind a piece of paper with a number of precisely patterned holes, allegedly for a funeral business the little man claimed to be setting up. As the narrator gazes at the paper he has an overpowering feeling of deja-vu, and is plunged into a hallucinatory daze, the particulars of which comprise the narrative proper.
In this daze the narrator finds himself in a seemingly placid landscape whose inhabitants all have detailed stories to tell involving feuding monarchs, mechanical dwarves, a mountain-dwelling dragon and a massive cigar-shaped underground bunker for people to hide out in the event of an apocalypse. This bunker turns out to be real—or, rather, “real”—with the narrator taking up residence in an inner portion of the thing, wherein he’s ordained a senator and, of course, made to listen to more stories. As the novel proceeds the apocalypse for which the bunker was constructed appears to indeed be imminent, and order within the bunker falls apart entirely, in time for the narrative to finally come full circle aboard the train where it all began.
It’s all set down in a breathless and shockingly straightforward style that allows the author’s imaginative richness to take center stage. Rosendorfer isn’t given to florid prose or lengthy descriptions, although he does have a yen for esoteric detail. The aforementioned SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT is brought up, as is one of its characters, the Wandering Jew, along with a wealth of obscure musical references (the author, unsurprisingly, was quite musically inclined).
Ultimately THE ARCHITECT OF RUINS is eminently readable, if a bit frustrating in its multiple narratives that are often abruptly cut off and then resumed, sometimes many pages later. It may admittedly all be a lot of elegantly crafted nonsense unworthy of the time and ink devoted to it thus far (such as John Clute’s admirably in-depth introduction), but it’s a damn good read nonetheless.