Thursday, January 13, 2011

Short-a-Day: Ernst Weiss's "The Rat Ship"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 5, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 63.

[Part of a longer novel, Georg Letham (1931); translated from the German by Joel Rotenburg.]

Unique situations make for good stories: even if all else fails, the sheer novelty is often enough to keep the reader turning, just to see what happens next. Although the setting of Weiss's story seems familiar -- an ice-locked ship in the Arctic (for instance, Dan Simmons's recent book, Terror) -- the aspect he focuses on is an oft-glossed over one: rats. With this plague of animals and a steady hand of pacing, Weiss has the son of the sailor recount his father's story, a story about success and failure, about a scientist who is humbled, ultimately, but human (and rodent) nature. It's an old-fashioned adventure story, filled with vivid descriptions, that have been meticulously shaved down to near-fragments and flung at the reader in matter-of-fact ways:

Terrible boredom. Cards played for hours for no stakes of any possible value. No contact with the outside world, other than scientific observations and the hunting which becomes more and more infrequent at higher latitudes. No blue sky for so very long, scanty artificial light day and night. No flowers. Close quarters in gloomy cabins, not properly ventilated because of the cold. Fresh water only in minimal quantities: the fuel required to melt snow must be conserved.

You can almost feel the scientific rigor of these observations, each sentence praised for its validity. Not that Weiss doesn't wax poetic, too, or get comedic in his details: "A ripe, yellow, aromatic butter pear, the 'Prince of Wales,' is the voluptuous dream of many nights" and "Only the Norwegian and my father are still in good spirits, the former with the aid of alcohol" (note the crushing pun of spirits/alcohol). With deliberate intent, the men attempt to smoke the rats out with a combination of arsenic and sulfur; when this fails, the men regress to animals themselves, then -- further -- they refuse to speak; the dog, Ruru, is sacrificed to the "underworld," the ship's magazine, aswarm with rats. There are brief moments of pity: the geographer, extending a pitying hand to the dog's owner; a stolen Bible being returned just in time for an apocalyptic showdown . . .

Being part of a larger novel, the father-son elements of this story don't tidy up in a satisfactory way (in fact, they're quite confusing), and instead of sticking tightly to the idea of life-as-God's-experiment, Weiss begins to repeat himself, attempting anew to flush the rats out, this time with carbon monoxide. The images of the cracking ice, the sounds of it creaking, these start to repeat themselves. Sentimentality, as the story warns, is pushed further and further to the outskirts of the page, until eventually all becomes plot. Rats, rats; rats. We cannot even leave on this note -- "Can man triumph over nature? Never. He, man, is only an experiment on the part of nature, the terrible" -- for nature is not what brings them down.

No comments: