The Language of Birds by Norbert Scheuer (tr. Stephen Brown)

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Inspired by the travels of his ancestor Ambrosius Arimond, and haunted by his own past that is gradually revealed to the reader, Paul works as an army paramedic in Afghanistan. It’s 2003, and he’s surrounded by the atrocities of war. Paul’s coping mechanism amidst the brutality is drawing pictures of local birds: “Many ornithologists photograph the birds they watch. But photographs would make me lose the memory of what I have seen.” These numerous drawings are presented on the pages of The Language of Birds, a fine and short novel by the German author Norbert Scheuer, translated into English by Stephen Brown. In a series of diary entries, Paul logs not only birds but the ever-growing feeling of suffocation working in the spatially restricted container. He wishes to travel to a lake outside the base, and plans an escape route through all the barbed wires, walls, and electronic barriers that populate the text throughout. The imagery of confinement is evidently juxtaposed with the freedom of birds, and results in a beautiful exploration of constraints, freedom, and death. The diary scenes in Afghanistan are interspersed with scenes from Paul’s native Germany, which are a minor source of confusion due to the number of characters in an otherwise succinct novel. A third level consists of Ambrosius Arimond’s letters from the 18th century as he explores the Orient, deepening the theme of enclosures: “In the bazaar I catch sight of birdcages elaborately wrought out of silver wire; tradition tells us that the Mughal emperors had sumptuous aviaries built in their palace gardens.” The Language of Birds is an atmospheric and poignant novel that packs a lot inside its 170 pages. While it may bewilder at first because of multifarious formats (drawings, diary entries, different centuries and countries), it is a thematically coherent whole.

The Language of Birds, 179 pp, is published by Haus Publishing in September 2018.

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