Lead Review (Spontaneous Acts)

  • Book: Spontaneous Acts
  • Location: Berlin
  • Author: Susan Bernofsky (Translator), Yoko Tawada

Review Author: tripfiction




The patient’s name is Patrik. He sometimes refers to himself as the patient in his interior monologue.” He has (or had) a dog called Aorta. He is living in Berlin, a city coming back to life after lockdown. He likes to turn left.

He registers for a conference on Paul Celan (a Romanian-French translator, who died in 1970) and is due to give a paper, but he gets stuck on the first question: What is your Nationality? This floors him.

This story is a stream of consciousness, a ‘thought-foam’ that butterflies around the components. He likes to settle on words, like Othello, which begins with an o and ends with an o (“both letters are identical, round and empty”); the German word ‘denken’ (to think) has “many corners, spikes and contours”. He ponders the nature of lips and he indulges in his passion for music and opera and delves into various operatic scenarios.

He meets someone called Leo-Eric Fu and they fall into conversation. Leo-Eric poses the question at one point “What do you mean. I don’t follow?” And I guess that phrase sums up my feelings about this novel, often tantalising but singularly just out of reach. It feels like a literary interpretation of the “Conceptual Art” movement (art, for which the idea – or Concept – behind the work is more important that the finished art object).

The novel is clearly also inspired by the Brecht’s theory of “alienation”. Just take the sentence “I don’t want to buy a vacation trip, the soles of my shoes are too thin”.  In a Kafka-esque moment Patrik feels the walls of a room might go rogue and turn against him, the walls will encroach and the windows will shrink… What does this all MEAN? For me, having studied Brecht at university, that is where I want to leave him and his aims, and I now choose reading for pleasure and, yes, occasionally, for challenge. But this novella – thankfully short – is a discombobulating mêlée of words and ideas that will not stay with me long-term.

Clearly the team behind bringing this book to the English speaking world felt that it had merit. It is a beautifully produced product with French flaps.  It just wasn’t for me.

Apart from a specific mention of Potsdamer Platz and the odd U-Bahn station, there is no real sense that this novel is set in Berlin.

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