Thursday, August 05, 2010

Short-a-Day: Donald Barthelme's "Engineer-Private Paul Klee Misplaces an Aircraft between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916"

From Sadness, published 1972. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 100.

Barthelme is always a breath of fresh air; watch him as he deals with simple ideas in simple ways, all while emphasizing the ridiculous complexity others put on it. In this story, monologues alternate between painter Paul Klee and his country's Secret Police as he transports an aircraft through Hohenbudberg and copes with its disappearance. The story winds up being about two things: war in practical terms and, more deeply, the existence of God. As Klee puts it, ending the story: "I am sorry about the lost aircraft but not overmuch. The war is temporary. But drawings and chocolate go on forever." As the Secret Police put it, standing in for God: "The pleasure of the comradely/brotherly embrace is one of the pleasures we are denied, in our dismal service." In other words, they exist by not existing, for the moment they are known--called upon to actually perform--then there may be a crack in the perfectly hidden surface of their omnipotence. To do all this in a story that consists only of dialogue--often repetitive and perfectly mundane at that--is a mark of a true fiction writer, one who has cut away unnecessary descriptions and used only that which truly enhances our deeper understanding of the characters.

Oh, and the novelty of the story is worth pointing out, too, since it almost goes missed in the simplicity of the set-up. Klee hasn't just lost an everyday object: he's "misplaced" an airplane. This is the trick of hiding something in plain sight: if we don't react to the oddness of losing an airplane, then it's not really odd, is it? That's one of the reasons to read fiction: it plays with your sense of perception. How afraid would we be of death, really, if the pain that often accompanies it --and ironically, the sense of non-being that carries--wasn't in our face all the time? If we believed it was a truly spiritual, not at all physical, thing? Look at this.

"I have never yet lost an aircraft or failed to deliver one to its proper destination. The war seems interminable. Walden has sold six of my drawings."
[That's not just good stream-of-consciousness, that's a slick way of showing how highly war rates. Barthelme's a great satirist of wars and bureaucracies, and I'm shocked he didn't write Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five.]

"Omnipresence is our goal. We do not even need real omnipresence. The theory of omnipresence is enough. With omnipresence, hand-in-hand as it were, goes omniscience. And with omniscience and omnipresence, hand-in-hand-in-hand as it were, goes omnipotence. We are a three-sided waltz. However our mood is melancholy. There is a secret sigh that we sigh, secretly. We yearn to be known, acknowledged, admired even. What is the good of omnipotence if nobody knows?"
[This could be a story on its own. The repetition is comic yet, at the same time, emphatic, and it builds up to this actual philosophical question--the one people ask of God all the time.]

No comments: