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The House That Jack Built: John Hawkes’s The Cannibal

Hawkes Cannibal

When I was young and the traveling fair came around every spring, they sometimes brought with them a funhouse called The House That Jack Built, meant to suggest a structure built by a crazed architect. Inside was a mildly scary maze that consisted of floors that were uneven or that would suddenly go soft on you, mirrors and optical illusions, horrible noises, paths with misdirections and dead ends, and other tactics meant to make the space the size of a mobile home feel as spacious as a mansion.

I was reminded of that as I read John Hawkes’s first novel The Cannibal (New Directions, 1949). The book begins and ends in 1945, during the final days of World War II, diverting with a middle section that takes us back to 1914 and the onset of the previous World War. In 1945, the Americans are sweeping across Germany in the final days of the war. We are in a bombed-out town called Spitzen-on-the Dein, a landscape of buildings that are tilting or half falling down, the streets littered with abandoned carts and bomb craters. The opening scene is the empty insane asylum, which sits on a hill surrounded by charred earth, fields with dead cows, and stunted trees. The omniscient narrator, Herr Zizendorf, is the Editor of the wonderfully named local paper, the Crooked Zeitung. Zizendorf is a reluctant narrator who doesn’t bother to announce his presence or use the pronoun “I” until page 32. He prefers to stay in the background most of the time, until the end of the book when he reveals that he is the ringleader of the final event.

We are slowly introduced to an odd cast of characters: Madame Stella Snow, Jutta, the Census-Taker, The Duke (a tank commander in the previous World War), Herr Stintz, a tuba-playing school teacher, and a handful of others. Relationships and chronology are often ambiguous. But the writing is lush, thrilling.

The Mayor, with his faded red sash, was too blind to tend to the chronicles of history, and went hungry like the rest with memory obliterated from his doorstep. Their powerful horses of boney Belgian stock, dull-eyed monsters of old force, had been commandeered from the acre farms for ammunition trucks, and all were gone but one grey beast who cropped up and down the stone streets, unowned, nuzzling the gutters. He frightened the Mayor on black nights and trampled, unshod, in the bar garden, growing thinner each day. Children took rides on the horse’s tail and roamed in small bands, wearing pasteboard Teutonic helmets, over the small confines of the town. The undertaker had no more fluid for his corpses; the town nurse grew old and fat on no food at all. By mistake, some drank from poisoned wells.

This is writing I would follow anywhere.

In the 1914 section, which is more overtly allegorical, Hawkes takes the reader on a bizarre trip through a very strange Germany. If the book has a main character it is Madame Stella Snow, the only person who is in both sections. In some ways she emblematizes Germany in the novel. In this middle section we learn how she met her husband, Ernie, or Ernst. In 1914, she is a singer at the Sportswelt Brauhaus, a Bavarian bar patronized by German military officers and Nordic women, where two men fight for her heart: Cromwell, a Brit who might or might not be a German spy, and to the bar owner’s son, Ernie, a man overly fond of dueling and whose left hand has but three fingers that closely resemble claws.

At first, Cromwell seems to have won and he rides off in a carriage with Stella towards his residence, when Ernst unexpectedly gives chase and tries to stop the carriage. Without skipping a beat, this scene of a love triangle becomes conflated with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

Cromwell was a fool. He wouldn’t move, but back straight, hat over his eyes, he sat and waited. His gloved hands trembled on his knees. “I’ll come back,” Ernst said and once more took to his heels as the carriage reached the curb and a crowd seemed to gather. Franz Ferdinand lay on the seat of the carriage, his light shirt filled with blood, his epaulettes askew and on the floor lay the body of his departed wife, while the assassin, Gavrilo Princip ran mad through the encircling streets.

After Ernie finally wins the hand of Stella, the couple make their way by mountain climbing (!) through “a great ring of chopped ice” high into the mountains to a hotel filled with “healthy guests, the men giants, the women tanned with snow, even the old venerable and strong because they were not too old.” In this anti-Berghof of good health, Ernie has “lost the meaning of sacrifice, siege, espionage, death, social democracy or militant monarchism.” He has lost the taste for war, until, strangely, Cromwell appears on the scene to chastise Ernie and Stella for hiding out from the war which has just begun, and before long the couple return to their village.

I won’t outline the rest of Hawkes’s plot, which can make it sound more cartoonish than it really is when condensed like this. I’ll just skip right to the ending in 1945, when Zizendorf and a couple of his compatriots scheme to kill the American who oversees their sector of Germany when he next rides his motorcycle down the highway. Once he is dead they believe they can lead an uprising that will free Germany from its new conquerors, launching “the birth of a Nation” once again. And, as the book ends, the lone motorcyclist is murdered and we watch a handful of locals gather to re-populate the insane asylum, ready to build a new regime under Zizendorf’s leadership.

In this, his first novel, Hawkes seems barely in control of his wild, exuberant, almost runaway story that feels like a series of scenes crazily stitched together without much continuity. Yet the novel is filled with immensely original writing that seems to come straight out of a fever dream. Hawkes has famously said “I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme.“ This is one of those throwing-down-the-gantlet statements that writers and artists love to make, but what does it mean in practice? In The Cannibal, plot, character, setting, and theme all exist, but they are all contingent. Hawkes makes them as pliable as Silly Putty. Characters, for example, do not have to behave consistently. Scenes change abruptly, without warning. Landscapes morph. This is a fictional world and fictional rules govern. There isn’t even an obvious candidate for which, if any, character might be the titular cannibal. On one terribly hot day, Stella has a vision of “cannibals on tropical islands or on the dark continent, running with white bones in their hair, dark feet hardened in the shimmering sand.” My own suspicion is that the cannibal is war itself. War is the theme that hovers in the background of every scene in the book and actually gives the novel its ultimate meaning.

In 1949, New Directions obviously thought that the reader of The Cannibal needed a bit of help, so they asked writer and critic Albert J. Guerard do an Introduction to the book. “No doubt the reader has a right to discover the hidden beauties for himself, during the first year of a novel’s life. . . ,” Guerard wrote, but “it would be well if we could get at the restless and original Kafkas at least, if not the Djuna Barnes, over a shorter period of ridicule, without having to wait so long.” In a few pages, Guerard delicately unpacked the key elements of the book and tried to put the reader at ease who wanted everything to add up precisely, for this is a story that is “radically out of focus, which was of course intended.” Whether John Hawkes will be a Franz Kafka or a Djuna Barnes only history will tell.

I’ve had several of John Hawkes’s books on my shelves for a while. More to come.

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