09. 09. 2011. 15:55

A continent locked in paper. Ilma Rakusa: More Sea (Mehr Meer)

Mehr Meer is a sort of mental map of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, as seen by one person: Ilma Rakusa, the child of an Eastern European family wandering from country to country. And as such, it is highly subjective.

“Even though I am a small dot, a tiny dot on the world map, I have a vast inner world. A whole continent”, we read somewhere around the middle of Ilma Rakusa’s new volume. Mehr Meer, winner of the Swiss Book Prize in 2009, consists of sixty-nine short chapters that—with some omissions, but in chronological order—guide us through the most important stages of the youth of its author, born in 1946 to a Hungarian mother and a Slovenian father. There is a detailed account of her childhood years spent in Rimavská Sobota, Slovakia, then in Budapest, Maribor, Trieste and Zurich; a less detailed account of the university years in Paris and St Petersburg; we can also read about a visit in Prague in 1967-8 and about a short summer holiday spent on the Austrian shores of Lake Neusiedl/Fertő; and finally a brief report about her trips to Uzbeghistan and Iran as a tourist. Thus, the coordinates are given: the realm encompassed by Mehr Meer and toured by the narrator—both physically in the past and spiritually in the present of narration—stretches from Paris to Shiraz, from Trieste to St Petersburg. This is Europe, especially its eastern half.

Mehr Meer is an autobiographical book of the highly lyrical variety which concentrates more on spiritual than external facts, and where the plasticity of the memories is due to the lifelike quality of the impressions, images, smells and moods preserved by the narrator. Yet the text gives a sense of orderliness and transparency, not so much as a result of adherence to concrete historical events, turning-points in the life of the community or exact dates, but rather to geographical areas, to people the narrator met there and to sensual experiences she had. Although the year in which a certain event occurred is often indicated, the time spent at the various spots is only vaguely specified or not mentioned at all, which makes Rakusa’s prose more or less detached from temporality, as if floating freely in time. This creates a strong sense of spatiality, further increased and expanded to an almost map-like quality by the multitude of European places (mostly cities) visited in these pages. Mehr Meer is a sort of mental map of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, as seen by one person: Ilma Rakusa, the child of an Eastern European family wandering from country to country. And as such, it is highly subjective: the narrator’s person, her inner and outer micro-world dominates over the representation of the world outside and beyond her personal relations. For example, Rakusa visits Prague in 1968 (just before the Soviet invasion), but the few pages dedicated to this trip are almost entirely about her host, Jan, and their romantic walks and visits to the pubs, whereas the Prague Spring is mentioned only as a reason for Jan’s enthusiasm; and the same goes for later historical developments as well. Typically of Rakusa, she mostly records events and ‘civil’ impressions related to her own private life—spiritual and sensual experiences and moods, a concert, a book, a colour or a smell, the joys and annoyances that go with them, and eventually, what she shares with us is the essence of these, filtered through her own creative vision. The result is a weird, dimmed representation of reality: as if we were observing the world from behind the darkened window of a glass booth with a noise filter.

The contradictory impulses to discover the world, on the one hand, and the withdrawal into a rich inner world, on the other, somehow logically entail that the narrator satiates her yearning for adventure in the realm of words (and images), mere signifiers of the outer world. “Reading is an adventure”, she writes somewhere, and we often see the narrator bending over atlases, savouring the names of faraway, exotic cities. Because of the tension between the internal and the external, the whole volume has an almost tangible pulsation, a dimmed inner dynamic, a self-movement—as if it was alive. ‘Travelling on paper’ recalls a world in which Europe was torn apart by frontiers, but where erudition, books and music were passports offering not only the possibility of discovering the world, but also, and above all, precious relationships with people. Offspring of a multiethnic Eastern European family, who moves confidently among languages, the Switzerland-based narrator corresponds with Dedek, her learned grandfather who lives in Slovenia, or with a literate Russian mining engineer called Aleksey, and after years of silence they always take up the thread where they left off. And it is thanks to her love of organ music that she meets her first great love in Paris—for eventually the world, the real one, opens up for her. It is worthwhile to travel with Rakusa: she is a wise, entertaining and self-confident fellow traveller.

Ilma Rakusa: Mehr Meer
Graz: Droschl, 2009

Györgyi Horváth

Tags: Ilma Rakusa