Only the most beautiful girl in each country was allowed to enter. One of them failed to appear because her aircraft crashed on the way. Perhaps she might have turned out to be the winner, but the dead were not eligible because, apart from anything else, immediately after death they are generally more beautiful than the living.
Judging by Ilse Aichinger’s preoccupation with death, contained in the ten stories which make up The Bound Man and Other Stories, that statement might well be her own opinion. It pervades every tale, whether it is being visited upon someone or being evaded.
Those that deal most overtly with death include ‘The Advertisement’ in which a ‘billsticker’ (someone who pastes advertisements on hoardings) tells himself ‘You’re not going to die’ as he plasters the poster above a railway line. As he says the phrase, he’s unaware that the boy in the picture can hear him, which leads to the child to ponder what the words mean.
‘Angel in the Night’ sees a girl attempting to stay awake to see the angels her fifteen-year-old sister says visit her. If only she didn’t sleep too long and miss ‘the silver in the air’ on those ‘bright days in December so penetrated with their own brightness that they become brighter still’.
While ‘Story in a Mirror’ is a life told backwards from funeral to birth, which if told in that sense, is also a death, and ‘Ghosts on the Lake’ and ‘Speech Under the Gallows’ are exactly what you might expect from the titles.
What’s most interesting about Aichinger’s work, however, is her ability to switch perspective and show us, and her characters, a different view of the world.
In the title story, a man wakes outside to find himself robbed of his knife, money and coat. Not only that, he’s been left bound.
His legs were tied all the way up to his thighs; a single length of rope was tied around his ankles, criss-crossed all the way up his legs, and encircled his hips, his chest and his arms. He could not see where it was knotted.[…]he thought he was unable to move until he discovered that the rope allowed his legs some free play, and that round his body it was almost loose. His arms were tied to each other but not to his body, and had some free play too.
We never discover who the man is, where he’s come from and why no one comes looking for him. Instead we follow him to the circus he discovers at the edge of the field he’s in and then on, through his time as a performer and the consequences that restriction brings for him.
In fact, few of our characters have a given name. Those who are identified are usually given a title, such as ‘The Private Tutor’ in the story of the same name. One in which the danger the parents fear for their son by leaving him home alone waiting for his tutor is not the one that is realised. And also in one of my favourites from the collection, ‘The Opened Order’, in which a soldier and ‘the driver’ deliver a message from headquarters to troops in the field which states the soldier carrying the message is to die.
The Bound Man was first published in 1953 and translated into English in 1955. Copy Press have republished it as part of their Common Intellectual series. ‘A series of 100-page paperbacks, each title providing a proposition for living, thinking and enjoyment.’ Aichinger’s work doesn’t read as though it’s over 60 years old. Indeed, I checked the date of the translation as I was wondering whether it was more recent. It’s not only the vocabulary choices and the sentence structures, it’s also Aichinger’s themes and ideas. Death is universal, of course, but she also looks at outsiders, questioning views of beauty and mental health. This is an interesting, engaging collection which asks you to view the world a little differently.
Thanks to Copy Press for the review copy.