Monday, 2 December 2013

Brother of Sleep

Brother of Sleep - Robert Schneider
(Translated by  Shaun Whiteside)

"Come, O death, O come, sleep's brother,
Lead me where thou dost decree"

This is a brutal, poetic, fable, set in Eschberg, an Austrian mountain village. It is set in the  early nineteenth century and the dust of the dark ages hasn't been fully shaken off.  In the isolated community inbreeding has exacerbated certain tendencies and idiot children, psychopaths and one towering, mysterious case of musical genius dominate the book.

I felt elements of American Southern Gothic in these truncated, inward looking lives filled with violence and strangeness but the most telling reference point would be the fairy tales collected by The Brothers Grimm. The writing style is that of a fireside storyteller, with the fire rising on occasion to consume the village Eschberg in flames that may constitute a judgement from God.

The brother of sleep is death, and the first sentence tells us why: "This is the story of the musician Johannes Elias Alder, who took his own life at the age of twenty-two, after he had resolved never to sleep again." The second chapter is called "The Final Chapter" and tells us of the final end of Eschberg. It also tells of the series of three fires within a century that had led to the utter destruction of the village. So it is a place with no future and with little history: "it would be a waste of time to describe the history of the peasants of Eschberg, the wretched monotony of their years, their sordid quarrels, their singularly fanatic faith, their unparalleled inflexibility in the face of novelties from without..."

Johannes Elias, the musical genius who is the only reason to visit this place, must also share it's fate, "for he had never learned to write music, however much he might have longed to do so." So he, too, is set to be forgotten, apart from tales passed from hand to hand, gradually losing the shape of his life, you imagine, yet growing into something ever more fabulous.

The world of this book is a brutal one. The characters are washed over and back on the tides of their emotions, and they will often act on these emotions, no matter how disturbed. Abuse, mutilation, murder, blasphemy, neglect, cruelty, rape, incest... all are present and incorrect. I didn't find it, however, a very disturbing book. It is clearly a tale told for effect, with little intention, even within the world of the narrator, of telling the truth in a realistic way.

That is not to say, however, that there is not a search for truth across these pages. Life has been, and is, truly brutal for many people. It is hard to overestimate the ability of humans to be cruel to each other, or any other creature who shares this world. And why shouldn't people who live lives of poverty and brutality be angry?

Much of the anger is directed at God. The people of Eschenberg are capable of great piety and great blasphemy. They are also capable of falling under the sway of itinerant preachers and local wise women. The book outlines times of fervour and times when no-one enters the church at all. Religion is embedded deeply in the book, although as much through blasphemy as devotion. It is in the language: "That afternoon the moon and sun faced each other, the moon a broken host, the sun a mother's cheek", and is key to the plot, both as setting and motivation.

Johannes Elias is a strange child who, when born, doesn't cry until the midwife starts singing. He also has a strange "glass voice" because of which his parents tell him not to speak when there are visitors. It is clear that he has an extraordinary connection to sounds and extremely sensitive hearing. He is awoken one night by the sound of snowflakes falling. Then there is a metamorphosis, triggered when "five-year-old Elias heard the sound of the universe" and the range and sensitivity of his hearing grows to even more extraordinary levels. He "not only heard the sounds, he also saw them. He saw the air incessantly contracting and expanding. He saw into the valleys of sound and into their gigantic mountain ranges. He saw the hum of his own blood, the crackle of the tufts of hair in his little fists."

This incident leaves the young boy with a changed voice, with which he soon learns to imitate almost any sound including the voices of everyone in the village, a precocious puberty and strange yellow eyes that make him a sort of freak show in the village and leads his parents to lock him away.

The other thing that is left to him from his metamorphosis is a sound that bewitched him, the sound of a foetal heartbeat that he knew "was the heartbeat of the person destined for him forever. It was the heart of his beloved." This is Elsbeth and it is to show his love for her that our hero will renounce sleep and seal his early death.

Elsbeth's brother Peter is another key character, often staying for long periods outside Johannes' window while he is locked in his room. He has a sense that there is something special about Johannes and loves him though short on hope and overburdened with feelings of jealousy towards his own sister. Peter is brutalised as a child and seems, apart from his love of Johannes, totally psychopathic.

The other love of Johannes life is the organ and his fascination with it moves him to be an observer, then working the bellows for the local organist, then a secret visitor to the organ loft at night and finally, a great, if totally untutored organist. This will bring him acceptance in the village and finally, perhaps, recognition....

But whatever it brings we know where it leads.

I really enjoyed this book but there was a sense that it was a great stylistic exercise. It never really engaged me emotionally with its characters.  However, these are minor carps. The book is not meant to be taken too seriously, I think, and is enjoyably transgressive, if you, as do I, enjoy that sort of thing.


  1. Sounds like a winter fireside read...

  2. Replies
    1. I actually meant to mention that. Truly ugly. The photos come from a film version, apparently.