Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Search for Heinrich Schlogel by Martha Baillie

Martha Baillie’s hypnotic novel follows Heinrich Schlögel from Germany to Canada, where he sets out on a two-week hike into the isolated interior of Baffin Island. His journey quickly becomes surreal; he experiences strange encounters and inexplicable visions as shards of Arctic history emerge from the shifting landscape. When he returns from his hike, he discovers that, though he has not aged, thirty years have passed. Narrated by an unnamed archivist who is attempting to piece together the truth of Heinrich’s life, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel dances between reality and dream, asking us to consider not only our role in imagining the future into existence but also the consequences of our past choices.
Amazon Description

I received this book as a e-book ARC (advance review copy) from the publisher in return for a fair revew. I now find myself in a difficult position. It is sometimes hard to review an e-book ARC, because the formatting makes the book hard to read. That is the case here. 

This is a piece of literary fiction in which the biography of the missing Heinrich Schlogel is told by an unnamed archivist  obsessed with her subject. The narrative is interspersed with extracts from Heinrich's journals, letters, natural history books, and skype conversations, as well as footnotes from the archivist about the above. I found myself struggling to work out what was happening and who was speaking. Was this due to a problem in the book, a problem with my capacity for attention or the problem with the ARC e-book formatting? 

My confusion stopped once Heinrich got to Baffin Island, my attention was gripped and I enjoyed the story. I loved the descriptions of the nature of that remote place and Heinrich's response to it. It reminded me of one of my favourite books, The Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding, which is also about a man alone in the northern wilderness and his response to it. I loved the way reality gently and subtly shifted into a dream and back again, so that you soon did not know which was which. 

The theme of Europeans going into the wilderness and experiencing the mystical other is a not uncommon one in literature. But what is unusual is that when Heinrich returns he finds that thirty years have past in the two weeks he has been in the wilderness. Again the book operates on two levels. There is the "realistic" portrayal of the issues a modern Rip Van Winkle would face, for example out-of-date banknotes and a passport that is unusable. Then there is the "magic" which is flowing under Heinrich's new life, like the water of a glacier. 

Despite my problems with the medium with which I received this novel, I found Baillie's use of additional material interesting. Then I found her online version of the novel: The Schlogel Archive - a novel redistributed at The book has been divided into short sections and written on specially chosen postcards. Click on any postcard that appeals to you and you will also hear the section being narrated. When the text is read and/or heard like that the poetic nature of the book becomes apparent. Any suggestion of traditional story structure is abandoned and we are closer to the mystical world that Schlogel discovers. It is absolutely fascinating.

But I am here to review the novel that is being distributed by more conventional means and will mostly be read in a linear fashion.  I found the narrator at times somewhat annoying and distracting. I wanted either to know more about her and what makes her fixate on Schlogel or have fewer of her intrusions into the story. Ironically I also found the chronological account of Schlogel's life prior to his adventure to be a problem, in that the young Schlogel's personality is not a particularly interesting one. In order for this book to really work I think the reader must also want to search for Heinrich Schlogel. The narrator almost invites us to search: Were someone else to delve into my archive, they might tell Heinrich's story differently than I do, what they'd want from Heinrich would be different.
Maybe my problem was just that I wanted something different. I probably would have told it differently too. And I rather think that is exactly what the author wants.

The book will be published on 9th September 2014. I recommend getting the print edition of the book. 

1 comment:

Wildswimmer said...

I enjoyed this review and playing on the cited interactive page of The Schlogel Archive. Had hoped to keep pace with your reading this Autumn, but may let you do the hard work for me and act on the reviews! I love immersing myself in descriptions of snow and wilderness; thoroughly captivated by The Snow Child, although I can see this will be different. Have ordered it from my local library and will give it a go. Thanks Zoe - a very worth while project.