“You were afraid for me, and that was how I knew you.”
Yesterday I saw J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy on the shelf. It was a chunky doorstop of a book that’ll the do the job of keeping the door open or be the death of someone should it be thrown with reasonable accuracy. Up front, here and now: I have not read the novel yet. I cringed that the book has been touted as her first “adult” novel. It could be my own perversity but I did chuckle at the first page in which the author cites the definition of ‘casual vacancy:’
A casual vacancy is deemed to have occurred:
(a) when a local councilor fails to make his declaration of acceptance of office within the proper time; or
(b) when his notice of resignation is received; or
(c) on the day of his death
Read another way: (a) Indifference, (b) Denial, and (c) some euphemism for mortality, like “a prior appointment with his Maker.” A ‘casual vacancy’ is also how some U.S. politicians leave the last of the work to their wives when they die.
The inevitable question asked by everyone is whether Rowling will out-Rowling herself with something other than YA literature. It’s a rather depressing and cynical thought that a writer has been typecast and not by someone else’s writing, but by her own success. In Rowling’s case, she has enjoyed multiple successes with her Harry Potter series, inducing Muggles the world over with her spell of ‘wingardium leviosa’ on their wallets. Ms. Rowling is a wealthy woman and I don’t think that she gives a “f” about the money at this point in life. She is writing what she wants to write, but that is not to say that she didn’t write what she wanted after the mega-success of the first Harry Potter novel. Harry had to grow up and leave the nest or, in Rowling’s case, the desk. I’d like to see Hugh Howey, author of the Wool series, have the same success.
The Harry Potter series was enjoyable, but I prefer Otfried Preußler’s tripartite Krabat. Its other title in English is The Satanic Mill. It is a disturbing book and like all books that purport to be “kinderliteratur,” adults can read it, too. Krabat took the 1972 Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis, the German prize for YA Literature. Sadly, the book is out of print, but available on Kindle. A film version was made, but it is unavailable in the U.S.
Krabat is the story of a young beggar boy who becomes a sorcerer’s apprentice after rather persistent dreams about ravens. The ominous ravens remind me of Pinocchio. Ravens are never a good sign. The dreams lead him to a watermill where he will learn how to become a miller; but in reality the mill is a front for the Dark Arts. New Year’s Eve turns out to be a pivotal date for our Krabat.
The story is set in the Germany after the Thirty Years’ War. It describes the renaissance guild tradition of journeyman to master, and the narrative is dark, as dark as any Grimms Brothers fairy tale. I should state the obvious: The Fairy Tales of the Grimm Brothers were not intended for children. The Brothers Grimm were classically trained philologists in a medieval university system who collected European folktales at a time when German Romanticism was in the ascendancy; and for those who don’t remember their European history, the Thirty Years’ War was the precursor to world wars, so much so that some historian have called the years 1914 to 1945, the second Der Zweit Dreissigjährige Krieg or Second Thirty Years’ War. I mention this because Krabat reads like a fairy tale and the historical context is Preussler’s nuanced nod to World War II, when personal choice had moral consequences then and for posterity.
What makes Krabat so compelling for me is that, unlike Harry Potter, it is a novel about inviting Evil into your life. Krabat does not accidentally stumble upon Evil. He knows ravens are bad portents but the call to the mill (hero’s journey?) is unavoidable. Out goes Free Will and in comes Predestination. Krabat knows that he has to confront Evil. He, as any of us would, denies it and rationalizes it as he confronts it during his apprenticeship.
The story becomes extremely unnerving and creepy. Without spoiling the denouement for you I will say this: Krabat confronts his master in a challenge. Unlike Harry Potter, Krabat has no band of friends; no totem animal; no preordained wand meant just for him; no sympathetic teachers as allies to rescue him; no years of Hogwarts-like curriculum to back him up. Krabat is self-taught. It’s a simple challenge of Do or Die. He has the aid of one unnamed girl but she does not help him with magic.
Again, without giving too much of the ending of Krabat away, I will simply state that Good does not defeat Evil. Otfried Preußler offers a more complicated and nuanced solution, which is why I chose ‘Antikörper’ as the title for this blog post. It is the German word for ‘antibody.’ Krabat suggests that there is an antidote to Evil.
As I mentioned above, Krabat was made into a film. David Kross, the actor who played opposite Kate Winslet in the film adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader, is Krabat. Just as Schlink, who in his novel portrayed the Holocaust Legacy as a mass psychosis of an entire culture and generation, Preußler, who served in the Wehrmacht Heer and then was a POW on the Eastern Front, warns that resistance to Evil comes first with exposing it, developing a memory of it, and not caring about self-preservation. You decide whether Evil is institutional and whether people en masse care only about themselves and thereby empower Darkness.
Der Antikörper gegen Hass ist Liebe. The antidote to Hate is Love.