Anna Kim’s Anatomy of a Night is composed of fragments, few more than a page or two in length. The novel, translated from the German by Bradley Schmidt and just released by the Berlin-based publisher Frisch and Co., tracks the suicides of eleven members of an east-Greenlandic community within a five hour period. Kim is interested in exploring the complex connections between a place and its people. She is interested in sentences that extend and modify lines of thought (check out the sentence that begins the second fragment below – the one that starts: “Ole, who had originally befriended Magnus…” – how it keeps interrupting itself, how it never quite arrives at where it set out for, but ends someplace visceral all the same), while also painting miniature portraits.
Kim’s prose demands rereading. In the excerpt below, which comes about a third of the way through the novel, watch for the way that attributes of the setting, Amarâq, described in the first fragment as a place where “you could believe you are dead and yet still exist . . . perhaps one must say before birth,” manifest themselves in Inger’s love for Mikkel in the third fragment: “a timeless love, without space, an end . . . it would be a beginning and an end at the same time.” Note that both Keyi and Inger are thinking of a sentence, but not the same one. What initially seems arbitrary is anything but, and the more one rereads Anatomy of a Night, the more the fragments – trimmed and wedged and sanded first by the author, then by the translator, and finally in the mind of the reader – fit together.
The nights in Amarâq are an impenetrable black mass, what one imagines nothingness is, an image the eye cannot comprehend. And for a brief moment, you could believe you are dead and yet still exist: finding yourself at the other end of life, at a point that doesn’t yet exist, that is searching for its existence, perhaps one must say before birth, though there can be no talk of a mystic primal state, this darkness is concrete, it’s almost tangible, it’s a thicket. Day and night aren’t the same place, not in Amarâq.
As a child Keyi didn’t count the days, he counted the nights after the hunt, when the stories traveled from mouth to mouth, reappearing in similar form, the same heroes, the same monsters, but the story about the world’s creation impressed him most of all. The empty night was filled all at once when the earth fell from the sky, and with it fell the mountains, hills, valleys, rivers, lakes, and stones, they fell and landed in the darkness. Finally the first humans crept from the middle of the earth, at first they couldn’t speak, only eat and flail around, and they didn’t know how people died because there was no death in those distant nights. When from those few people too many arose, they were forced to choose between night and immortality and day and mortality, as if it was merely visibility which made them mortal. They chose day. The words were pronounced, and the first ones died, but they didn’t know how to die correctly, they stuck their heads out of their stone graves, the stone mounds that had been stacked over them, in an attempt to stand up and leave, and they had to be pushed back into their graves and be banished with words, with magic.
The tamed night, the stars and the moon, came with the day, and Keyi believes he had once heard the souls of the dead flying across the sky and becoming stars, and he was surprised he thought of that sentence, today, in this moment, and even more surprised that he remembered the voice of the person who said it, his grandmother, who spoke these words while pouring milk over cooked whale meat, to drive away the taste of liver; it was a voice he had believed he couldn’t remember—in Amarâq the nights are a reservoir for everything that has been forgotten, buried. The memory becomes invisible at the moment of forgetting, only to fall back to earth like a bolt of lightning, at the other end of life.
Ole, who had originally befriended Magnus because he had a television as large as an altar, and just as ornately decorated—with porcelain figurines (a ballet dancer, a shepherd and his sheep) and plastic roses winding their way around the base—it was more than a device, it was a view out into a world which, as it seemed to Ole, couldn’t exist in this form: wonderful, at the same time infinitely ugly and full—
and he became lost in the television pictures at first, didn’t understand the faces of those strange people as faces, he saw only pieces of faces, often just the mouths, which made familiar tones and transported him back to an earlier time, when he was reproached due to his failure to understand a language which repeatedly commanded him to be less himself—
ultimately he refused to decode these words, he gave up and was satisfied being what he should have been from the beginning: one of those who, like his parents and brothers before him, wouldn’t make it, but for that reason fit into this world, Amarâq, all the more, where being no one at all didn’t make a difference because the infinite nature of Amarâq reduced and negated every difference—
and while his parents buy beer from the welfare they collected at the post office on Fridays between nine and twelve, to maintain their inebriation until Sunday evening, because they know how to drink themselves senseless then roll around on the floor, depending on where you kicked them, Ole tries to ignore the stench of vomit that had become ensconced in the house, in the air and the walls, in his clothing, in his hair, in his skin, a stench he couldn’t wash off, even after scrubbing himself every morning in the shower at school with a piece of soap that Magnus had given him—
he can’t get rid of the puke, it had been etched into his nose along with his father’s kicks, his mother’s punches.
His stomach growls.
Are you hungry?
Magnus quietly opens the door, sticks his head through the crack, to see the lay of the land. No one there. Slips into the dark hallway, the steps creak with every movement, and into the kitchen, he rummages through the cupboards, picks out a bag of toast, butter, marmalade, sausage, and orange juice.
A noise from the shower room startles Inger.
Her first instinct is to hide, duck down; she quickly looks around, to see if she could crawl under the table or slip into a dark corner, but then abandons this plan and listens. She is used to listening; as a hunter’s wife, she learned to listen on a professional level. Niels, who couldn’t differentiate between his obsessions, who pursued hunting as obsessively as he pursued dreaming, loving and hating, black and white, in his world there were no shades of gray; he tracked his quarry for days, studied their habits, their preferences, to anticipate their wishes and find out when they were most vulnerable. He attacked when they were happy because he knew that they, paralyzed by happiness, wouldn’t be able to defend themselves. His strategy paid off; for a long time, he was one of Amarâq’s most successful hunters, despite his scarred eyes, he was esteemed and respected, and it was said that in his dreams he could see where the best hunting grounds were and what he would hunt next—until one day he found himself at the mercy of his prey: a polar bear which had lost its way and come close to town. It quickly recognized its mistake and slipped away, but Niels had seen it, he had been following the animal, day and night, in his dreams; and then days, weeks, months passed, and the desire to capture this creature became his sole purpose, his life dictated by his obsession: this time the hunter was the one captured.
In those lonely days, Inger thought that every hunting relationship is also a love affair, and she turned a blind eye when, after half a year, Niels returned home empty-handed, emaciated, sick, and weak, half of his gear either lost or broken, and when he recuperated, he signed up for welfare, and he never spoke of hunting again. Perhaps his hunting instincts had turned in a different direction—he concentrated on his immediate vicinity, on those who were easier to capture, his child and her mother, and every blow led necessarily to a subsequent blow, because they could still move, weren’t yet bagged—
until an outside competitor interfered, the Danish man named Mikkel Poulsen, who hunted as a hobby, chugging aimlessly around the fjord and shooting indiscriminately into the waves at everything that vaguely resembled a living creature, he taught broken English in school using broken Danish, his tongue had lost its way in this cold desert that calls itself Amarâq. This man snatched Inger, and she grabbed at him, let herself be pulled from a fragile life. And they compared the fragments, placed them next to each other, edge against edge, and discovered some of the parts complimented each other, and they trimmed the pieces that wedged, sanded down the corners, and Inger transformed herself from the wife of a hunter to the wife of a teacher. And because she could answer him in broken Danish and he could answer her in broken Greenlandic, she believed he was what people call the love of their life, a timeless love, without space, an end, because no other love could follow a love like this, it would be unmatchable, it would be a beginning and an end at the same time.
When no further noises come from the shower, Inger decides to check. She carefully opens the door and gropes for the light switch. It’s a small room, covered with tiles, the shower itself is a hose with a hook, and warm water comes out of the faucet, not from the stove, like at her house. Once white, the tiles are now a shade of yellow and some of their corners are broken. The mirror above the sink is smeared with toothpaste and soap. The window above the toilet is cracked open, and a cool breeze streams in. Before she closes it she peers outside, although she knows she won’t see anything, but she believes she hears footsteps in the darkness, steps that move away swiftly, a quick tapping of soles on stony ground, quiet smacking on the damp earth.
She turns around and returns to the laundry room, still an hour and twenty minutes, the yellow numbers glow on the washing machine display. The fact that a person ceases to be arbitrary for someone else, the beginning of this sentence has been floating around her head, and she has been trying to finish it for days, but she hadn’t been able to decide on an ending—when it emerges voluntarily: is almost a miracle.
—Anna Kim translated by Bradley Schmidt