Martha Baillie’s hypnotic novel follows Heinrich Schlögel from Germany to Canada, where he sets out on a solo hike into the interior of Baffin Island. His journey quickly becomes surreal; he experiences strange encounters and inexplicable visions. Time plays tricks on him. When he returns to civilization, he discovers that, though he has not aged, thirty years have passed. Narrated by an unnamed archivist who is attempting to piece together the truth of Heinrich’s life, The Search for Heinrich Schlogel dances between reality and fantasy. Heinrich’s story, as it unfolds, in today’s disappearing North, asks us to consider our role in imagining the future into existence while considering the consequences of our past choices. Brimming with the creativity behind David Mitchell’s masterpiece Cloud Atlas in a far north setting, The Search for Heinrich Schlogel is a sophisticated story with magical underpinnings.
"Baillie reminds us of the power of novels to renew the world."
"Baillie delivers a work of magical realism that captures the experience of postcolonial guilt...and gives voice to a silenced past."
—Starred and boxed Publishers Weekly
"Baillie is an excellent storyteller, combining adventure with deeper elements and the characters’ search for self. Highly recommended."
"The Search for Heinrich Schlögel is utterly distinctive, a fictional biography that drifts so imperceptibly into dream that it's impossible to tell where the reality of it ends and the fantasy begins. There's something of Nabokov here, and also something of Rip Van Winkle. Baillie has written an ode to those things that resist time, like a photograph, and those things that relinquish themselves to it, like a painting, resulting in a novel that is itself a little bit of both."
—Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination
“Capacious, capricious, mischievous, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel moves like a quantum experiment, defying boundaries of time, place, chronology. Fluid as light itself, animated by startling imagery, vivid and peculiar characters,The Search for Heinrich Schlögel is a hymn to brooding memory, the enduring need to inhabit story, and a haunting insistence upon endless possibilities within possibility. That is to say, hope.”
—Gina Ochsner, author of The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight
"Martha Baillie’s extraordinary The Search for Heinrich Schlögel is not quite like any other book I’ve read. It invites us ona hallucinatory journey to the Arctic and through time. It asks us to live with mystery and wonder, which is what a work of art does. If it reminds me of anything, it is the fabulous, shape-shifting novels of the Icelandic writer Sjón."
—Catherine Bush, author of The Rules of Engagement and Accusation
Praise for The Incident Report (longlisted for the 2009 Giller Prize and one of the Globe and Mail’s Best Books of 2009)
“Baillie’s novel contains real tenderness, rendered in beautiful prose with compelling restraint.”
—Quill and Quire
“Baillie is a naturally figurative writer and, through precise and concrete imagery, captures, paradoxically, what is simply too much for measured words.”
—Globe and Mail
The Naked Eye
Like all living creatures, I had a mother and father; but I never knew them. I know that they met each other last summer; for several days they flew side by side and together sipped from the same flowers. Then for several hours they united. During this union my father pressed the tip of his belly against my mother; it is in this way he was able to slip tiny grains into her body, grains so small no person could see them with his naked eye.
—Animals and Their Families: The Butterfly
The sentences that Heinrich loved best were hard as rock candy and lasted. As a child, he did not read with ease but listened and remembered—what was read to him he savored. His favorite books were those that depicted the lives of animals. The person he most admired was his older sister, Inge.
In a letter dated October 30, 1980, and postmarked Toronto, a letter central to my archive, Inge addresses a friend, recalling:
Whenever the farmers sprayed the fields, straightaway our maid was sent out with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge to clean off my swing set in the back garden, so that if I went out to play I wouldn’t be poisoned. The day after the tractors left, pulling their tanks of pesticide behind them, I’d slip through the gate, cross the wild area that sloped down from behind our garden to the hops fields, and disappear among the rows of tall, heavy-laden plants. I collected birds from the ground. Those that had only just died lay limp and warm in my hand. I dropped each delicate body into the cloth sack I’d taken from the handle of the kitchen door, the sack my mother filled at the market with vegetables, fruit, sausage, cheese, and bread on market day, which was Tuesday. Every few meters, another corpse lay at my feet. I buried them in the wild area on my way home. But first I sat with them heaped beside me, and examined each one, admiring the colors that came into sudden existence as I twisted a wing so it caught the sun at just the right angle. The hardness of a beak and the softness of an eye—these became mine and could not be taken away. The burial was unceremonious. If, in my eagerness, I’d forgotten to bring a small shovel, I dug up the soil with my fingers.
Our maid was a fat girl, neither pretty nor educated, but hardworking and from a poor family. She was sixteen and I was two years old when my parents hired her to keep an eye on me and to help prepare meals, clean the house, and do our laundry. She remained with us for many years. I must have been about six years old when I started removing dead birds from the fields.
Below the hops fields, in what was called the “little hole,” the Italians lived, and the Turks. They’d come to pick the hops and to build sewers and to perform other arduous and unpleasant tasks we Germans preferred to avoid. My parents forbade me from entering the “little hole.” To ensure my obedience, they warned me that Italians and Turks ate hedgehogs, and might eat me. To get to the castle on the opposite side of the valley, I therefore had to go the long way around, through the streets of the town. In the central square a freshly painted sign announced: A CORDIAL WELCOME TO TETTNANG. A brief history of the town was followed by a promise that the hops grown in the fields surrounding Tettnang were unrivaled in quality in all of Germany and possibly in the entire world:
The finest aroma and a delicate bitterness give the beer an unmistakable character and reflect with every mouthful the unique countryside between the northern Bodensee lakeside and the Allgäu.
It was only because of my refusal to eat most foods put in front of me that I was allowed to attend high school, a privilege generally reserved for boys. Most bourgeois girls in Tettnang who completed middle school in 1973 were sent to the Institute of Domestic Sciences, where they were taught cooking, sewing, and how to run a household. My parents feared that, given my peculiar eating habits, were I to attend cooking classes along with other girls my age, I might become the subject of malicious local gossip. So great was my parents’ fear of gossip that I was spared the Institute of Domestic Sciences and went instead with the boys to the gymnasium, where I earned my baccalaureate or das Abitur, from the Latin abire: to leave.
On very clear days, when everything was bright and hard-edged, as if made of glass, I could see out of Germany and into Switzerland by leaning from my bedroom window. To look beyond Tettnang, beyond Germany, enabled me to breathe better.
I do not know if my brother, Heinrich, felt a similar tightness in his throat and chest whenever he read the sign in the central square: A CORDIAL WELCOME TO TETTNANG, but if he didn’t it was because already, in his imagination, he’d left for Canada. Until recently, I liked to believe that I helped him find his way to Canada, but what has happened now has changed everything. I have no clear idea where he is. Heinrich, my younger brother, had a different temperament from mine, yet we were very close. Should I use the past tense when I speak of him? Will any of us ever see him again? I am choosing the present tense: he has a different temperament from mine, yet we are very close.
As a child, Heinrich feared his maternal grandfather.
It was summer and out the back door of his grandparents’ house Heinrich went. Someone had given him a pair of roller skates. Abrupt wooden stairs led down to the garden, where a paved path waited for him. On the top step he sat and began to attach his roller skates to his shoes. As he struggled with the stubby metal tongue that had to enter the tiny, uncompromising hole in the red leather strap, his grandfather’s legs, or rather the sharp pleats that ran the length of his grandfather’s trousers, appeared beside him.
“Wouldn’t you do better to wait, and strap those on at the bottom of the stairs?” a voice inquired from above. The voice was not a voice he knew well. He visited his grandparents infrequently, and years later he would forget entirely the sound of his grandfather’s voice. The perfectly pressed pleats, however, and the impeccable shine of his grandfather’s pointed shoes—these would resist time; they’d persist, totemic, almost legible, the purveyors of Heinrich’s inadequacy. He had not thought of descending the stairs before strapping on his roller skates. He did not belong among those who thought ahead.
Throughout his youth, Heinrich’s reasoning would undulate rather than slice or pierce, and quite often it would sink out of sight, submerged in murky emotion; it would sway back and forth, pulled by currents of anxiety.
His second memory of his grandfather was of a hunched man in a wheelchair, engaged in the act of disappearing. It frightened Heinrich to have to stand and greet this figure whose clothes fit well but whose skin did not, and whose words fell sloppily from his mouth, a man reaching out with his eyes from within his own uneasy departure.
“You never knew him,” said Heinrich’s mother, Helene, years after her father’s death, in a tone mildly accusatory, mildly angry. Either she was angry at having lost her father or frustrated with Heinrich for having been born too late. Heinrich rarely knew for certain what his mother felt.
“My father was a man of great wit,” she explained. “He had style and demanded punctuality. If I lingered in bed, he’d come into my room in the morning, open the curtains, throw open the window, and shake my feet.”
Helene stared down at her feet and Heinrich stared at them also. Square, short-toed, they were the only visible part of her that was not beautiful.
How did Heinrich feel about his mother’s feet? I too am German (from Munich, to be precise) but this gives me no special insight. I cannot know how he felt about his mother’s feet. My search for Heinrich Schlögel began with a photograph. In the newspaper, suddenly there he was—a young man walking down University Avenue. He was in profile, and so I could not be sure of his expression. Determination mixed with confusion? I noted his vigorous stride. Two passersby, approaching from the left, were turning to stare in his direction.
If I succeed in finding Heinrich Schlögel, do I have the right to ask him any question I like? It is mostly through speculation that we exist for others, and for ourselves. That he was being photographed disturbed him, I imagine. According to the newspaper several people pulled out their iPhones to capture him. My tiny Schlögel archive is bursting. I am collecting as much evidence as possible. My search for the truth about Heinrich Schlögel is far from over.
This much I know: throughout his youth, Heinrich’s interest in animals neither grew nor diminished; it carried him from one day to the next. He also learned to ride a bicycle and went exploring. Riding was easier than reading but in bad weather he stayed home, shut his door, and arduously pedaled through landscapes of words. He filled spiral notebooks with quickly scribbled quotations from whatever book on animals he was slowly reading:
Eighty percent of hedgehogs in Germany are born between August and September. Only in the warm Rhine Valley and Saarland are babies born earlier in the year. When hedgehogs are born, their prickly spines lie just below the skin so they don’t cause their mothers pain. They are blind at first; they also have baby teeth, just like humans. Hedgehogs leave their nests when they are four to five weeks old. One out of five dies before leaving the nest.
—Mammals of Germany: A Brief Introduction
“How much pain,” Heinrich wondered, “did I cause my mother during my birth?”
Heinrich’s mother’s beauty preceded and followed her. Whenever she entered a room, a displacement occurred, conversations shifted, people moved over to give her space. People didn’t want to offend, to press up too closely. They confused Heinrich’s mother with her beauty, had no idea that she resented and distrusted her own loveliness. They could feel her withheld eagerness. A small mouth, pretty as a bow; her eyes did all the speaking. Though she tried to conceal her sharp thoughts, these glinted visibly from across the room. She appeared calm as she glided among the guests. “It’s as if she’s wearing a veil,” someone said, perhaps someone who’d drunk too much.
When Heinrich thought of his mother, her beautiful head, severed from her body, would go floating through a room full of people who didn’t dare move, who waited. They waited for his mother to speak, to offer a revelation.
“Heinrich Schlögel, a name sticky as wet paint,” said Inge.
Nearly two years ago, on November 24, 2010, I cut Heinrich Schlögel’s photograph from the newspaper. I did so bitten by an intense curiosity, but with little idea of the importance this gesture would have in my life. A week later, I decided to stroll down University Avenue, along the stretch where Heinrich had recently walked. I wandered into the Toronto General Hospital with the vague idea that I might speak with the nurse mentioned in the article that accompanied his picture. Already there was no going back. I have now spent close to two years searching, acquiring clocks, journals, gloves, maps, lamps, and letters, anything that may have belonged to him, that once lay flat in his palm or was flicked open by his fingers.
Tettnang population: 10,236, according to the 1974 census.
On March 3, 1974, Heinrich celebrated his fourteenth birthday, nervously aware that his life was slipping him by. Fourteen took hold of him and shook him upside down, causing hairs to emerge through minuscule holes in his suddenly odorous skin and liquids to escape from his body; sounds twisted and soared out of his throat before plummeting without warning. Heinrich, trapped in his newly alien body, required a story, preferably one in which he played the leading role. But what sort of hero could Heinrich become?
I catch myself smiling each time I think of the delight that Heinrich felt the moment he tore open the gift his sister gave him. On the morning of his fourteenth birthday, Inge wrapped Heinrich’s present carefully. It was a brand-new copy of Karl May’s 1875 adventure novel, Old Firehand, set in a Wild West eternally crisscrossed on horseback and foot by Winnetou, the wise Apache chief, and his white blood-brother, Old Shatterhand. That May’s novels had been made into films and comic strips didn’t stop the books from circulating. At Tettnang Middle School for Boys, when you finished one Winnetou adventure you passed it on to someone else who loaned you his in exchange. Like most of his classmates, Heinrich knew that when you were feeling lost you could count on Winnetou or Old Shatterhand to stop galloping long enough to reach out of the printed page and yank you up. Then off you’d charge, in a cloud of dust, leaving school, parents, and any friends who’d betrayed you far behind. Heinrich had loaned his copy of Old Firehand to a classmate and not gotten it back. He claimed he could not remember to which boy he’d loaned it but Inge suspected he did not want to have to ask for it to be returned. She also knew it to be his favorite of all the Winnetou adventures. She wrapped her gift in colorful paper and left it on his bed.
Often, Heinrich felt that he was looking at the world through a kaleidoscope. Glittering ideas, intense images, and random scraps of information tumbled about, fell into patterns—clear, sharply outlined patterns that held for a moment, then disintegrated.
Particulars excited him but he had no idea what to do with them. He was a reasonably good student, never first in his class, yet he showed signs of promise. He was starting to hate the word “promise.” He longed to excel at something, anything. Handwriting, neatness, punctuality, organization of content could all do with improvement. He was good at walking. This he shared with his father, Karl Schlögel.
In the company of his father, Heinrich walked for miles, most often without complaint. Karl, on a Sunday afternoon, would set aside the history papers he’d been marking and change shoes. Father and son took the tractor lane that ran between the hay fields to the north of town, then skirted Herr F.’s immaculate apple orchard and crossed the hops plantation recently acquired by Herr R. through an astute marriage.
Father and son. It gives me a burning pleasure to think of them paired, and walking together.
Karl Schlögel listened for birds; head cocked, staring up into the foliage, he searched for the singer. He knew the breast color and head shape, the wing markings that matched each melody. The size of a field determined by song, measured in mating calls tossed between the trees at the perimeter, every bird hidden—at the edge of such fields Karl stopped and waited. Heinrich occupied himself, examining insects and searching for animal tracks.
When he walked behind his father, Heinrich noticed the long muscles in his father’s calves, and when they paused for a drink and something light to eat he admired the ease with which Karl slipped the knife from his pocket; muscle and knife wiped the word “father” clean of chalk dust and classroom; the blade unfolded from the deep groove in the handle, sliced through sausage, stabbed a chunk of bread.
“NL,” Karl jotted in his notebook. And: “Sunday, April 25, 16h 05, NW corner of P’s hay field. Very vocal.”
(NL: northern lapwing or Vanellus vanellus)
And: “4 ST. April 25, 16h 47, top of lane behind F’s orchard. Two singing, one whistling.”
(ST: common starling or Sturnus vulgaris)
Only now does it occur to me that Heinrich’s love of notebooks came from his father. So often, it is the most obvious that escapes us.
A small map and a book—these are the most recent additions to my Schlögel archive. I own them. What giddy happiness! They could so easily have been sold to someone else, someone to whom the name Heinrich Schlögel means nothing. Instead, they sit on my table, mine to pick up and examine whenever I like.
The person who listed them on eBay suspected that the book might be valuable but cared little about the map tucked inside. “1915 edition of Brehms Tierleben with reproductions of the extraordinary illustrations done by Gustav Mützel and the Specht brothers in 1876, illustrations praised by Darwin himself. Moderate-to-good condition. Several small stains, no missing pages. Also included a hand-drawn map (circa 1974? date partially erased) of several streets in unnamed German village or town, found inside book.”
Mine! The very copy of Brehms Tierleben from which Heinrich so often copied passages, and, folded inside it, his sketch of what appears to be his route to school, with places of importance named, his handwriting almost legible. Each time I open Heinrich’s Tierleben and am confronted by the bright eye of a hedgehog, or, turning the pages cautiously, I come upon the finely engraved tip of a rabbit’s ear, I long to locate Heinrich, to meet him in person. I slip out his little map, unfold it, and turn it around, hoping to spot the detail that will tell me why Heinrich was destined to live such a peculiar life, subjected at the age of twenty to inexplicable experiences that set him irrevocably apart from most others. But the only certainty that is revealed to me is my desire to find him, to know him more intimately—as if knowledge of him could enable me to escape. From my failings or my parents’ failings? I very much want to meet Heinrich Schlögel and speak with him, if he is still alive.
The whole town tilts in the direction of Lake Constance but does not reach the shore. The last houses stop, give way to fields at eight kilometers’ distance from the broad and beautiful body of water. On the shore of the lake stands a larger, more industrial and important town—Friedrichshafen, birthplace of the zeppelin.
Barn #1: At the sharp bend where Moosstrasse becomes Friedhofstrasse, Heinrich pedaled faster and with all his strength, not because he was late for school but to avoid being ambushed by those of his classmates who enjoyed bullying as if it were a sport and who used the barn for their headquarters.
The Field behind Schiller Schule: Here the traveling circus parked its trucks and trailers and set up its voluminous tents. During those three weeks that the circus remained in town, Gypsy children appeared in classrooms and were distrusted, but also prized. It was as if the class now possessed a python or tarantula, an exotic creature safe to stare at from a short distance. Heinrich, glancing over his shoulder, saw a delicate earlobe, a dark curl, a sharp nose above pretty lips, and redirected his attention to the floor, resisting the temptation to turn in his seat.
Heinrich’s parents wrapped the Gypsies in silence, as did most bourgeois Tettnangers. To speak loudly against the Gypsies felt uncomfortable, as not too long ago, numerous dark-eyed strangers had been herded into trains and disposed of. Nonetheless, accusations slipped from the mouths of some: “Five shirts—that’s how many I hung out back to dry, and when I came from watering the garden only three shirts were left.” Farmers, when conversing with farmhands, allowed themselves, in such insignificant company, to remark, “The rake I leaned against the shed, it’s gone, and I won’t be seeing it again, so long as the circus . . .” Suspicions hopped and bit, like fleas.
The Basement of Schiller Schule: Heinrich, after school, followed a long corridor past many closed doors until he came to a room that leaked music. Every week he attempted to learn how to play the flute but showed no aptitude, frustrating his teacher’s expectations. The shiny scar that stretched from Herr T.’s left ear to his chin, a gift from the trenches of the Second World War, became an anguished pink as he listened to Heinrich’s incompetent efforts. Not for Heinrich’s sake but for the sake of those students who possessed musical ability, egg cartons were nailed to the walls and suspended from the ceiling of the practice room, to improve acoustics.
In the month of February or else in early March, with military efficiency, Herr T. would march his students through town, some playing recorder, others flute or accordion or violin. The entire town came out to celebrate. Even the teenagers turned off their transistor radios and straggled into the square, singing under their breath the lyrics to “Miss American Pie.” The youngest children, dressed up as roosters, waved inflated pigs’ bladders from the ends of sticks and playfully beat passersby with their balloon-like weapons.
The mayor appeared on the balcony of the town hall and tossed the town keys into the crowd of women gathered below, indicating that all order was now tipped on its head, that the women, dressed up as Hops Spiders and Hops Jesters, were now in charge and would remain so until Ash Wednesday.
Every year without fail, the carnival came and went, the carved wooden masks—the Hops Jester, the Red Spider, and the Hops Pig—were removed from storage and worn through the streets; they were admired, then returned to cupboards and chests until the following chilly Lent, and so long as the crops grew well, the roads were maintained, electricity flowed, the priest said Mass, the buses ran on time, and one cow a week was slaughtered by the butcher, there was little need for anyone to change his or her ideas.
The Butcher Shop: On a rise overlooking Kirchstrasse, a road made dangerous by the trucks that careened through Tettnang, stood the butcher shop. Heinrich’s parents warned him repeatedly to ride with caution along this stretch of his route to school. To arrive in time for the morning bell, which rang at seven thirty, he left home at seven o’clock. Every Monday, he briefly slowed to a halt and lingered outside the butcher shop’s holding pen, where a cow stood waiting for its life to end.
All day, the animal’s distress swelled in the inner chamber of Heinrich’s ear. Bovine anxiety muffled the urgency of historical dates, the beauty of lyric poetry, and the elegance of mathematical calculations. On his way home from school, if the cow had not yet been slaughtered, Heinrich again brought his bicycle to a halt and stared into the animal’s eyes—these were liquid, a frantic liquid. He could do nothing to save the cow. Rather than speak words of hypocritical comfort, he pedaled away, and the cow continued tossing its distress from its large mouth. Heinrich rode until exhaustion eclipsed his knowledge of the cow’s suffering.
I am tempted to say that Inge felt similarly about the weekly cow that waited for the butcher to lead it indoors to its death, but little documentation remains of the feelings that Inge experienced during her childhood and youth. The one letter that does exist, from which I have already quoted at length, occupies a position of prominence in my archive. I also possess evidence, in the form of a scrap of very old newspaper, that suggests Inge was, at one time, contrary to popular belief in Tettnang, both sly and daring.
Barn #2: The steepest tobogganing hill overlooked the “little hole,” where the Italians and Turks lived. At the summit of this hill, Inge slipped inside a barn and became a thief. Where the tiny nails securing the leather seat of an old sleigh had loosened, a shred of newspaper protruded. It caught her eye. She poked at the brittle leather, and it cracked open. She reached in with her fingers, widening the opening as she delved. Old newspapers had been used as stuffing. She tore off a piece and read:
Saturday, May 5, 1880. Family of savages from the Frozen North draws large crowds at the Berlin Zoo. On Tuesday last, the youngest Eskimo, a girl, six years of age, caught in her mouth and swallowed a raw fish tossed to her.
Inge folded the scrap of newsprint and slid it into her pocket. She imagined donating her find to the collection of a famous museum. She could not, however, reveal her treasure to anyone, as she’d damaged the seat of a sleigh and had stolen her discovery. Only Heinrich she trusted to keep silent. The bit of yellowed newspaper disappeared beneath her socks and underwear in a drawer of her dresser.
The Hay Fields: Every year in late May, before the tall grass was cut and the hay sown, female deer stepped out from between the trees to give birth. The tall grass provided a soft bed for the newborn. The farmers purchased large and modern tractors. Seated high up, they could not see the fawns. When these awkward young animals, uncertain on their stick legs, failed to leap out of the mower’s path, the machine cut off their limbs. If the blades severed the limbs without killing the animal, the farmer shot the fawn or called in the town veterinarian, who brought his pistol and relieved the farmer of this act of mercy.
Back Garden: At dusk the hedgehogs rustled in the foliage and Heinrich would set out a bowl of milk. The sharp-nosed, prickly animals investigated. They added this new and delicious liquid to their diet of garden snails. Neither they nor Heinrich knew that cow’s milk is not good for hedgehogs. He held his breath and observed their pleasure.
Pellets of blue, slug-killing poison, strewn among rows of plants in the well-tended vegetable gardens that bordered the Schlögels’ backyard, endangered the hedgehogs. Karl, Heinrich’s father, did not set out poison. He refused to participate in the incidental killing of birds and hedgehogs. He set out glasses of beer in which the Helix aspersa and Theba pisana, the most common and destructive of garden snails, drowned.
1. When I lifted the book from its packaging, turned to the title page, and read the inscription, “Für Heinrich zu seinem 14. Geburtstag. Von Inge,” I sat down quickly, my heart pounding. The used- and rare-books store in Munich, Antiquariat Axel Grass, had sent me not just any copy of Old Firehand but Heinrich’s own.
2. Can I prove that he did not complain? I’ve traveled to Tettnang more than once and spoken with people who knew him—the farmer who hired him to pick hops, the music teacher (now retired) who gave up on him, and the town butcher. In assessing all testimonies offered to me, I’ve relied on my intuition and logic. To determine the truth about someone else’s life is a grave responsibility.
3. Don McLean, the Eagles, Crosby, Stills & Nash—it was from the lyrics of American singers that I first learned English. Perhaps the same was true for Heinrich?
Tin House Books: For me, one of the most wonderful aspects of The Search for Heinrich Schlögel is the bits of ephemera—there are letters, journal entries, a map, a newspaper clipping. How did the book itself originate? Were you inspired by an image or a quote or a bit of ephemera like those that appear in the book?
Martha Baillie: This novel began with chaos and numerous questions. I’d been thinking a lot about ideas of “North.” I’d been reading about the Department of Indian Affairs, the interest of the Hudson’s Bay Company, early on, in creating a population chronically indebted, the relocating of people, the shooting of sled dogs, the establishment of residential schools. Then, hiking in the Rockies, I crossed paths with a German photographer intent on capturing the sublime. It occurred to me that I might turn the tables, have a European become a “primitive,” a potential object of scrutiny, someone considered out of sync with the flow of time. My European, yanked from the twentieth century and weirdly deposited in the twenty-first, deeply disoriented, might meet up with an Internet-nimble Inuit teenager. I knew about Abraham Ulrikab, the Inuk from Labrador, displayed in the Berlin zoo in 1880.
Right away, I decided that Heinrich Schlögel’s life would be pieced together by a stranger gathering evidence of the sort you mention: letters, journal entries, newspaper clippings. W. G. Sebald’s works are never far from my consciousness.
The Canadian artist Spring Hurlbut released her father’s ashes into the air, allowed them to fall onto a dark background, and took a photograph. The ashes look like a nebula: a perfect novel—the story all there and the story missing. This novel is not a nebula, though it’s full of suspended ephemera. It has a definite direction, because the last scene, which is a surprise, came to me first and I had to get there.
THB: Some of the journal entries were written by the British explorer Samuel Hearne, who was the first European to cross northern Canada to the Artic Ocean. Did you know about Hearne’s journey before you began to tell the story of Heinrich’s? How did you come to the decision to integrate an actual person and his historical accounts into the narrative?
MB: One summer, when I was a child, my father became engrossed in the diary of Samuel Hearne and kept reading passages aloud. Hearne was an explorer whose expeditions failed, according to my father, until women were included. Women could carry a lot of weight, had better endurance, and were useful in many other ways. That was all I retained about Hearne. But when I realized that Heinrich needed a hero, someone besides his sister, Hearne came to mind. I read his diary and decided that I wanted his actual words, their tone and texture, to figure in the novel.
THB: What other kinds of research did you do for the book?
MB: I was very lucky, and able to travel to Baffin Island, where I hiked up the Weasel River Valley to the Turner Glacier and back. The hike took two weeks, and then I stayed on for a while in Pangnirtung, a hamlet where the main language is Inuktitut. As for Germany, I visited Heinrich’s hometown near Lake Constance, gathering information; and I dipped into the memories of a friend who grew up there.
My reading jumped all over, including accounts by survivors of residential schools, an Inuktitut grammar book, a recent study of Pangnirtung by two American anthropologists, and a recounting of the life of Abraham Ulrikab, based on his journals, which he wrote in Inuktitut and which were translated into German by a Moravian missionary after Abraham and his family died of smallpox while being toured from zoo to zoo.
THB: When Heinrich emerges from his hike on Baffin Island, he lives and becomes friends with an Inuit woman and her granddaughter. How much did you know about the Inuit people before you began writing the novel?
MB: I was familiar with Inuit legends, Inuit printmaking and sculpture, and had seen Zacharias Kunuk’s extraordinary film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, the first feature film ever written, directed, and acted all in Inuktitut. But initially I wasn’t focused on Inuit culture in particular. I was delving into chapters of Canadian history that had not been taught to me in school, history being reclaimed in brilliantly subversive and exciting ways by contemporary visual artists across Canada. Kent Monkman was slipping drag queens into re-creations of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century depictions of historical scenes; Nadia Myre, with the help of over 230 volunteers, was covering all fifty-six pages of the Indian Act with red and white glass beads; Brian Jungen was making West Coast aboriginal masks from Nike Air Jordan trainer shoes. Once I started writing the novel, I turned my attention north, and began listening to the terrific spoken-word artist and throat singer Taqralik Partridge. I also stumbled on Donald Weber’s close-up portraits of Inuit women, men, children, and teenagers, their faces illuminated by the blue light from their computer screens. These haunting photographs say so much, succinctly, about Inuit resilience.
THB: You are also a published poet. Does your poetry writing inform your prose writing?
MB: Regardless of what I’m writing, poetry or prose, much of my thinking consists of picture and metaphor. But when I’m writing prose, I’m not hearing poets in my head but the voices of Coetzee, Kincaid, Banville, Sebald. It’s the quality of their sentences that I’m aiming for—their elegance and lucidity, their fierce precision, their rhythms and layering; not that they aren’t very different from each other.
Maybe even more than what I’ve read as an adult, my earliest, formal encounters with language determine how I write. I learned to read in French before English. For better or worse, I was immersed, very young, in Molière, Corneille, Racine. When I was in grade three, the Cold War was raging, and we were taught Russian. A film strip of a burglar climbing through a window, and a song about killing a rabbit that we had to memorize and perform. All this, I imagine, still affects how I make sentences.
THB: Heinrich’s story is narrated by an unnamed archivist who is attempting to find out what happened to him. What was the inspiration for telling Heinrich’s story through her?
MB: When reading any history, it is crucial, of course, to consider who’s doing the narrating, whose fears and ambitions are shaping the material. I ask the readers of my novel to piece together its narrator’s identity, just as she is piecing together Heinrich, who in turn is searching for himself by reading about the life of Hearne, because the many subtle means by which we impose and carve out who we are, and who we imagine others to be, fascinate me. Besides, I wanted to have fun. Technologies of narration are becoming so pliable, information so layered, and sources evasive, how could I not invite readers to be curious about who is doing the telling?
THB: Do you know where Heinrich is now?
MB: The best answer I can give is to suggest that you visit the archive at www.schlogel.ca. There, you’ll hear many different voices keeping him alive, and find hundreds of paintings and photos that may point to where he’s gone.