:: Article

Pretty Vacant

By Colin Herd.


Vacant Lot, Oliver Rohe, trans. Laird Hunt, Counterpath Press 2011

Set in an upper-story room of a soon-to-be demolished building in a post-war city, Oliver Rohe‘s novella Vacant Lot is told from the point-of-view of a former war-lord, holed up in the site of his crimes, disgraced and disconnected from the rapid regeneration of the city that surrounds him. It’s one of the most striking and unusual conceits for a narrative I’ve come across, the narrator someone who benefited from war, whose status was defined by war and who is in a sense a victim of the peace, a non-entity in the new era.

The setting is unspecified, but may be based on Lebanon, where Rohe was born in 1972, his father German and his mother Armenian. They moved to France in 1990 to flee the end of the Civil War, and Rohe finished his education there. He has since published four novels, including a fictional epistolary biography of David Bowie, Nous Autres, told through the different personas Bowie adopted in performance. The lack of location-specificity is an important element of Vacant Lot, which the French title Terrain Vague articulates more clearly than the English translation. Like the fiction of Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, Rohe’s novella detaches itself from any realist location and situates itself instead in an inner-monologue, locatable in a more generalised sense to wars across time-frames and regions, and which has particular resonance right now, in present wars and present unrest. The narrative is not in fact located anywhere except the imagined consciousness of a figure who is detested and detestable, but lonely and irrelevant.

Although not his mother-tongue, Rohe attended a French school in Lebanon, with French his main language of communication. Still, Rohe’s move from Lebanon to France involved a process of language-transition from what he’s called “a ragout of unformed languages [Arabic, English, German, French] to the mastery of a single language.” In an interview with the translator, Laird Hunt, printed at the back of the book, Rohe writes that:

“This process took time and considerable effort, because in essence it required me to erase my linguistic hard drive, which was overflowing with languages, and install a new operating system. To extend the computer metaphor, let’s say my mind was simultaneously playing host to Linux, Windows and Mac OSX, all of which I had to erase to go with a single system (Mac OSX).”

Although this process of transition is complete, an element of its unease is retained in the prose of Vacant Lot. Sentences tag on unexpected extra clauses, run breathlessly on, or get cut off suddenly, turning unexpectedly to short phrases set out like verse. It’s something about the narrator’s distractedness, as if he’s using one language perfectly, but applying it through a related but somehow ill-fitting grammar:

“Like me they must miss the old world the field of ruins: because at least then they had a place – a piece of earth to piss on. I note that the shadows move slowly slowly in the middle of the vegetation and henceforth move more and more unpredictably. At the end of their sinuous and incoherent course they form a silhouette frozen in a flood of physical pain. From my collapsing armchair I can see a private cavity of its eye socket

an open toothless mouth

the expression of a visceral panic

something like a prelude to

the last sigh

Maybe. Yes maybe. I wonder if it isn’t my cat.”

This highly-strung and poetic prose adds to the sense of the narrator’s outmoded and forgotten decrepitude, which suits his alienation from the outside world. His monologue (or what feels more like the text of his consciousness) is fluent (in fact, at times very elegant) but it has a taint of the unnatural and corrupt.

Vacant Lot is haunted by Gustav Mahler’s adagietto in F Major from the Symphony No. 5, in the same way that Visconti’s film of Mann’s Death in Venice is, atmospherically and through and through. The narrator endlessly listens to what he calls “Mahler’s very slow adagio”, after the instruction Mahler gave that it should be played “sehr langsam.” He listens to it on a bust-up, battery-drained, about-to-give-up-the-ghost player, and dreams of an alternate reality where he’s a Professor of Music called Philip with a family. Like Visconti, Rohe borrows from the piece the adagietto its desperate late Romanticism, its melancholy, its paralysis, its indulgence, its frustration and its desire, above all its sensation of moving relentlessly closer to death:

“This evening the world is a field of ruins a sublime chaos and I will listen to Mahler while telling myself that my life is an extraordinary spectacle of success and perfection. But I know that no one will come that when all is said and done I won’t go anywhere. I’m not dreaming: there all interned some exiled and my Siamese has well and truly vanished. This isn’t a farce.”

Rohe’s novella is a narrative of defeat and a serious meditation on the aftermath of war that shrinks neither from its horror, nor from its twisted absurdity. It acknowledges the complexities of aftermath, the tangle of business, politics, symbolism and rebuilding, to a degree that our politicians could do with taking note of. In the last paragraph, capturing all these absurdities in one tragic-comic image, the narrator is “limping among the new buildings, somewhere in the middle of the business district, a few meters from the forthcoming Martyr’s Square, I say to myself that I’m not on top of my game. But then I have to take into account that I no longer have a right leg.”

Counterpath Press deserve recognition for seeking out such ambitious and urgent contemporary French writing of this quality and I hope to see all of Rohe’s other novels translated into English. The edition is beautifully produced, making space at the back of the book for the interview with Laird Hunt, a fascinating discussion in which Rohe discusses in detail the genesis of the book and also contextualises it within his other writing projects. Throughout, the narrative is punctuated by beautiful, dejected, doll-like sketches by the artist and graphic novelist Alexis Gallissaires: thick smudgy bodies, heads cupped in hands and crouching spidery torsos.


Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal. His chapbook, Like, is published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press and his poetry collection, too ok, by BlazeVOX.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 28th, 2011.