Born on the Danish island of Aero, Jesper Wung-Sung has received several prizes for his novels; in 2008 and 2009, his young-adult novel “En-to-tre-NU!” (“One-two-three-NOW!”) was the most-read book among Danish teenagers. Here he recommends a book which raises questions about the nature of European literature.
IN A DRAWER IN THE CINNAMON SHOPS
For me, Bruno Schulz’ “The Cinnamon Shops” is the most European of all books. I’m as certain of this as I am of the fact that there is no such thing as European literature. But why do I think of this book when I think about Europe and literature or literature and Europe?
In extent, “The Cinnamon Shops” is practically small enough to fit under a microscope. If we focus on its content, what is it about this work, this insect, that something in me identifies as being essentially European literature? How does is differ from its American or African brothers and sisters, for example? Could you, like an entomologist, pinpoint the characteristics that diverge and thus make it something special? Or is it not even the individual characteristics, but the sum of them, that makes it a piece of distinctively European literature? Looking at the parts:
The size of the insect: It is very small.
The wings: It is neither a novel nor a collection of short stories.
Body: It is childhood remembered, a search engine of recollection.
Legs: They are a rebellion against the father and a dreamy sense of reality.
Colour: It is realism which doesn’t acknowledge that it is realistic.
The sum: Is the special thing about European literature then the belief that you can fly even though you are a small, out-of-genre, memory-obsessed, nostalgic, father-fighting, dream-orientented, realism-challenging creature?
To dissect a single joint: “The Cinnamon Shops” is about the core. It is written from the assumption that you are able, or rather a hope, a yearning to be able to reach the core of all things – and the belief that such a core does exist. The core is a distinctively European thought. For example, it is characteristic that an important role is played by non-living things in the book. The apartment above the square plays a living role, the square plays a living role, everything that has been there before the narrator – like an insect’s ability to look both forwards and backwards, but at the same time put itself under the microscope. Again distinctively European. The idea of how significant it is to be able to remember every single cornice in a city – European indeed! Europe is a competition for identity, a competition to be “the most” of something.
Is this a reasonable claim? Yes and no. You could argue just as much for this as for the contrary. For is the reason that we still read not exactly – as it has often been said – that literature transcends what is bound in time and space, that it becomes universal, that it speaks to us across all our ethnocentric, personal boundaries like nothing else can?
In the book, the nameless narrator seeks out the cinnamon shops mentioned in the title one night – mythical places he has previously visited with their diversity of futile and fascinating bits and pieces – without it being clear if he ever reaches other places than the possibly treacherous mirror of memories – a place you yourself could risk ending up if you are searching for the distinctively European. Like the scent of a person walking by – was it experienced, dreamed, or read?
“The Cinnamon Shops” is written upon a paradoxal impossibility, and what is left when the sand slips through your fingers after all? A book.
As such, I may not have terra firma under my feet, but I do have a book in my hands.
Bruno Schulz writes in “The Cinnamon Shops” that some years are deformed, that they are born with “a sixth finger on the hand (…) a thirteenth and false month”.
Perhaps Europe itself is such a thirteenth and false month. Something that I call my life, my reality, but which “belongs more to guesswork than reality”.
As such, I may not have terra firma under my feet, but I do have a book in my hands. I am left with a belief in the book. That what is created will endure. Even if it lies at the very bottom of a scruffy box of discarded magazines in the shop of a drunken second-hand book dealer constantly talking about how life used to be different and better in the old days. In the moment a hungry young person recovers exactly this book from the depths of the box – like I did “The Cinnamon Shops” years ago in Copenhagen – opens it, reads a few lines, feels in the pulse that it is like winning the lottery of life to be standing with golden sentences between his hands, and that despite everything, all of it – ravingly mad and yet crystal clear – makes sense and is connected, that this book is in essence about me and about the world.
Translated by Juliane Schmeltzer Dybkær