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An Inventory of Losses: Urgent invitation to value the present

Book Review: Judith Schalansky uses fine detail what no longer is to explore the world of what might have been

An Inventory of Losses
An Inventory of Losses
Author: Judith Schalansky Translated by Jackie Smith
ISBN-13: 978-1529400793
Publisher: MacLehose Press
Guideline Price: £20

Loss of touch. Loss of mobility. Loss of certainty. Loss of income. The inventory of losses in the age of the pandemic is long. The catastrophic immediacy of contagious disease feels like an uneasy portent of the imminent crisis of biodiversity loss and climate upheaval.

Judith Schalansky, one of modern Germany’s most original literary talents, draws up her own inventory of losses and wonders, in the end, whether “being alive means experiencing loss”. Ranging from lost islands and extinct species to the lost poems of Sappho, the incinerated scribblings of an eccentric and the lost biography of an amateur astronomer, An Inventory of Losses uses the fine detail of what no longer is to explore the world of what might have been.

Loss clarifies. We never cease finding out the true extent of what we have lost, arguably the most common experience of bereavement. Schalansky, however, in describing the purpose of her book, does not see her writing as an elaborate threnody for the vanished grandeur of lost worlds but as an urgent invitation to value the present.

“This book, like all others, springs from the desire to have something survive, to bring the past into the present, to call to mind the forgotten, to give voice to the silenced and to mourn the lost. Writing cannot bring anything back, but it can enable everything to be experienced. Hence this volume is as much about seeking as finding, as much about losing as gaining, and gives a sense that the difference between presence and absence is perhaps marginal, as long as there is memory.”


Historical shift

It is memory that links large-scale stories of historical shift and destitution to the micro-histories of individual loss. In Palace of the Republic, Schalansky briefly introduces the fate of the modernist home of the Volkskammer, the parliament of the former East Germany. The building was eventually demolished after much controversy in 2006. The story that follows, however, is not a grand survey of the historical reasons for the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) but an exquisitely rendered tale of marital infidelity that is only tangentially connected to the vanished building.

As in her 2014 novel, The Giraffe’s Neck, Schalansky most powerfully captures the alternative reality that was East Germany in the inconsequential details of the everyday. She observes elsewhere in the book that “experience shows that it is the discarded rubbish of past ages that proves most enlightening to archaeologists”.

In a childhood memoir linked indirectly to the disappearance of the Von Behr Palace in Pomerania, a loss of innocence is sketched out using the routine particulars of GDR life. What she intimates is that we have much to gain from loss, especially in becoming more attentive to those marginal, peripheral, ignored elements of our daily life that tell us so much about what we have and will become. It may be less the monuments we build than the plastics we consume that will be our species’ most enduring legacy.


WG Sebald is often mentioned in the same company as Schalansky and influences are clear, particularly in the opening paragraphs of Guericke’s Unicorn, a piece about time spent in the Swiss Alps. Too much can be made of the comparison, however, as there is a distinct adventurousness in the way Schalansky tries out different narrative voices in her writing, which is not always there in the prose of her predecessor.

This succeeds brilliantly in the imagined lunar afterlife of Gottfried Adolf Kinau who dedicated more than 30 years of his life to selenography – the scientific mapping of the moon. She captures perfectly the cranky delirium of a meticulous pedant whom she imagines transported to the moon and deciding what things lost on earth should be preserved on our near satellite. There was at one time a folk belief that everything lost on Earth ended up on the moon.

Less successful is the ventriloquising of Greta Garbo in mid-century Manhattan in The Boy in Blue or the evocation of ancient Rome in Caspian Tiger.

A well-worn coin in the schoolyard currency of exclusion is “loser”. The man who has nothing left to lose is generally to be feared but so equally are those in a culture of iron-pumping self-improvement who are deemed to be losers. Schalansky’s women, men, animals are frequently on the wrong side of history. From her Atlas of Remote Islands (2010) to The Giraffe’s Neck to her latest publication in English, her work is as much an inventory of losers as of losses. But if it is the victors who get to write the history, it may be the vanquished that get to write the fiction.

Schalansky is marvellously adept at enabling “everything to be experienced” but most especially from the point of view of those who are lost to view. As translators are often among those lost to view this is a moment to hail the singular achievement of Jackie Smith in rendering An Inventory of Losses into English. Her translation of Griefswald Harbour, for example, is a miracle of exactness. If loss abounds in this book, translation loss is not one of them. As we deal with the consequences, emotional and material, of a pandemic, it is hard to imagine a better guide to the resources of hope than Schalansky’s deeply engaging inventory.

Michael Cronin is director of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation

Michael Cronin

Prof Michael Cronin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is director of Trinity College Dublin's centre for literary and cultural translation