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The Mythical Dimension of the Danube River in Slobodan Šnajder’s Novel »The Brass Age«


Von Danica Trifunjagić, Institut für donauschwäbische Geschichte und Landeskunde, Tübingen 

Since the focus of the analysis will be on mythical and symbolic elements of the Danube River as a border, several concepts will prove essential for the analysis. Phantom borders are defined as traces of past territorial orders,1 that do not exist in a current territorial order but are nevertheless present in narratives and (often) easy to activate. They can be perceived in literary texts, which increases the importance of the symbolic background of the phantom borders. The notion of borderscapes, which is used as a method within different disciplines, is interpreted in many ways, but it can be generally defined as analyzing the landscape of the border. The term refers to creating or shaping borders, as well as to motions happening in, between, and around the borders and borderlands. It should be noted that some parts of the storyline are heavily connected to the traditional way of thinking, in which the space was divided into sacred and profane. Sacred spaces carried traces of the divine and differed from profane spaces in their symbolism and other characteristics, which shall also be proved in the course of the analysis.  

A border as a space of encounter or connection, but also of separation and division, has the potential to create its own mechanisms, symbolisms, and aesthetics, and it is considered an in-between space of hybridity or a third space. These concepts suggest a different reality for the (permanent or temporary) residents of such space, created by the constant contact between cultures. It could be noted that border space has its own semantics and that different rules apply within it, which has an impact on an individual residing within that space. In this paper, the accent will be on a novel by Slobodan Šnajder Doba mjedi [The Brass Age], in which border spaces represent a crucial element of a storyline. 

The story focuses on the history of the Kempf family, which starts in the 17th century, and gradually approaches the 1990s, marking significant historical events. Within this paper, I shall analyze two storylines that have the Danube River as a central place of happening. First, I will focus on the first part of the novel and, so to say, the consequences of the decision of the ancestor Georg Kempf to move to Slavonia. Second, I will explore an additional, mythically layered story of the destiny of Sofija, young Georg Kempf’s girlfriend, who lost her life in WWII. Accent will be on the Danube as a so-called “natural” border, where I aim to analyze representations of the river. 

At the very beginning of the novel, a stranger arrives in the village where the ancestor Kempf lives. The plot, in which the stranger arrives to a certain place is very common, and it usually announces a change in the peaceful way of life. This stranger is a royal messenger, who extends an invitation by Queen Maria Theresia to the peasants, to leave their homeland and settle in Transylvania, where wealth and peaceful life should await them. This stranger has a peculiar set of characteristics and integrates for the first time mythical and fantastic attributes are into the novel. Stranger’s arrivals and departures are always shrouded in a veil of secrecy. No one in the village knows when exactly he arrived, or how did he depart (did he use the door or a hole in the wall). The villagers claim he has non-human, mostly animal-like features – he looks like a rat, has a snout instead of a nose, a tail, and he limps. The impression is created that the stranger bears evil or devil-like attributes. The limping devil is a constant in South Slavic folk literature and culture. Moreover, he brings young men to the boat which should lead them to a happier future. The motif of the rat leader coming for the youth and bringing them to difficulties and often death is constantly repeated throughout the book and in various historical circumstances. The stranger is an emissary from another world, from the other side, outside of the borders of the village’s peace and security, and he represents an impact from the outside on the community which already has an established way of life. In terms of border thinking, the stranger is crossing an imaginary border of everyday peasant life, and this “trespassing” induces a series of events that bring about changes with ominous symbolism. The characteristics of border writing also subsume aesthetic elements such as trickster figures and dwelling into magic realism.

More interesting, however, are the events that take place on the Danube River, in the “Ulmer Schachtel,” which is supposed to transport people from Ulm to Slavonia. As already mentioned, the ancestor Georg Kempf decides to follow the stranger into the “promised land.” The time spent on the Danube takes a different form than the time spent on land, and the Danube as a space has characteristics of a sacred place, in Eliade’s sense. It has a mythical and symbolic shrine, and the characters are aware of the specific place they are now a part of. Even though in this case the Danube does not represent a typical border between two territories, where it separates them, it still represents a border and a space of liminality: The ancestor Georg Kempf enters a bark in Ulm and leaves it in Slavonia. In this sense, the Danube is a border between the past and the future, between two worlds, the old and the new one, and as long as Kempf is on that boat, he is residing within a border space, or within a third space, as Homi Bhabha puts it. Kempf must abide by the rules of the third space in order to move safely from one territory to another. And indeed, the way of life in the third space is significantly different from the one on either side of that border. In this particular part of the fable, I would like to address two things. First, the symbolic and mythic dimension that surrounds the whole journey. Second, the assumed rite of passage that the ancestor Kempf undergoes. 

The boat is implicitly compared to a fair or a circus, and the captain poses as a ringmaster, who leads the ceremony and punishes his subordinates: 

Kempfs home on the water is as colorful as a tent in front of a church on kermess; in that tent, various specimens of the human race, as well as other things born on Earth, are exhibited for the purpose of astonishment. There is no woman with a beard, no calf with two heads, and no one is shouting about their miraculous ointment. But there is a Turk, a merchant who travels from afar, even from Hamburg, where he has a warehouse of carpets; there is a Jew, a Polish Hasid, there are Lutherans, whose nervousness grows as the border approaches […] behind the wooden partition, a pig squeals.

(„Kempfov dom na vodi šareni se kao šator pred crkvom na proštenju; u tom su šatoru izloženi razni primjerci ljudskog roda kao i drugo što se narodi na Zemlji u svrhu čuđenja. Nema doduše žene s bradom, nema teleta s dvije glave i nitko ne izvikuje svoju čudotvornu mast. Ali tu je Turčin, trgovac koji putuje izdaleka, čak od Hamburga, gdje ima skladište ćilima; tu je Židov, poljski hasid, tu su lutorani, čija nervoza raste s približavanjem granice […] iza drvene pregrade skviči prase.“ Šnajder: Doba mjedi, p. 17.)

The narrator suggests that various examples of human race reside on the ship, as well as other curiosities. He underlines Kempf’s astonishment by the scenery which he now he belongs to (What is to be found in the world, wondered Kempf.). It seems that, by entering the boat, Kempf stepped into a different reality. As the journey proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear that the passengers reside inside a space of liminality, and multiple obstacles appear. Floating above the Dipstein ridge, being the most interesting one, was a point in the journey along the Danube, where it was never certain whether the boat shall crash or pass safely. Until that moment, the various “species of human race”, as Šnajder puts it, mostly keep to themselves, but when the moment of the greatest threat arrives, all the residents begin to cooperate, creating a mixture of prayers, languages, and cultural codes, in order to overcome it. The captain of the ship declares, there is nothing else to do, but to pray: 

Like silk weaving golden or silver on a sheet of very dark, almost black water, floating Babylon writes its messages in a mixture of Arabic, South German, Hebrew, Polish. The raft suddenly shrinks, it looks like a helpless flounder that is being guided by a terrible force… No matter how small it is, that raft is now spinning in the whirlpool like a place of worship under the sign of the cross, like a synagogue, like a mosque.

(Kaosrmatkanje zlatno ili srebrnona čohi od vode ovdje vrlo tamne, gotovo crne, ispisuje plutajući Babilon svoje poruke mješavinom arapskog, južnonjemačkog, hebrejskog, poljskog. Splav se odjednom smanji, čini se bespomoćnim iverkom kojim ravna strašna sila… Koliko god da je sitna, ta se splav sada okreće u viru kao bogomolja pod znakom križa, kao sinagoga, kao džamija.“ Šnajder:Doba mjedi, p.1819.)

What was important for the captain, the leader of the ship and the ringmaster of this peculiar circus, was that the (fish)net of languages is developed in order to capture something of God’s mercy in it. In this case, the diversity of the passengers was to be cherished. The presence of any additional language and religion (the narrator cites Chinese and Buddhism as an example) would increase the chances of passing the ridge safely.17 The multiplicity of cultures in one place, artificially brought together, resembles a concept of border textures, or a network of different cultures interacting within a border space. The situation is described with traces of magic and myth as if it were the only chance this floating Babylon to successfully reach peaceful waters. The reason for this is that more is attributed to the Dipstein ridge than just a potentially dangerous natural phenomenon. In fact, the danger that emanates from this place also has a mythical explanation. The whirlpool within the Dipstein ridge “invites” passengers to an underwater castle and the realm of the ruler of the Danube the great Catfish-Tsar. The writer goes on to describe his underwater kingdom: 

At the bottom shines a glass court, in the middle of which is a huge table and around it sits the emperor in the form of a huge catfish and his servants, while the luminous fish cast the shine of their scales on their feast; on the table are jars, exactly the kind in which boiled fruit is stored; in those glasses are the souls of the drowned. Some are inhabited by these souls, others are empty, they are waiting; those full of souls Catfish-Tsar caresses with his brows.

(Na dnu blista staklen dvor, usred kojega je golema trpeza a oko nje sjede car u prilici golemoga soma te podanici, dok svijetleće ribetine bacaju sjaj svojih krljušti na njihovu gozbu; na trpezi su staklenke, baš onakve u kakve se sprema ukuhano voće; u tim stklenkama su duše utopljenih. Neke su nastanjene tim dušama, druge su prazne, one čekaju; one pune duša Car-som miluje svojim brčinama.“ Šnajder:Doba mjedi, p.18.)

The described underwater world is full of mythical creatures, that remind of Claudio Magris’ The Danube, which was one of the inspirations for Šnajder’s novel. However, the legend of the mythical creatures of the river and the symbolic attribute of the Danube is much older than the depictions of Magris and Šnajder. It can be found in some of its forms in the literary expressions of almost all the people whose lives revolved around the Danube. For example, South Slavic folk literature depicts the Danube as a river that has the power to predict and influence a hero’s destiny and historical events; it is also present in medieval literature as one of the four rivers, that have their source in heaven. Apart from its rich mythical layering, it is often perceived as a border between people, cultures and civilizations, which is partly what conveys symbolic meanings. 

In addition to the obstacle in a form of the Dipstein ridge and the Catfish-Tsar kingdom, the narrator marks several other points along the Danube that are eventually successfully overcome. What awaits on the other side of this borderland journey awakes the fear of the ancestor Kempf. The narrator indicates that the “promised land,” Transylvania, was “the nameless threat,” apart from the Danube. What Kempf didn’t know, according to the writer, that it is the land where decadent nobles drink the blood of virgins, and wolves and vampires dwell. On the other hand, legends and stereotypes about the Turks and the Turkish Empire are also reproduced in order to emphasize the uncertainty of arriving in an unknown land. Kempf wonders whether his soon-to-be homeland is safe from the Turks, what they might eat, and whether they rape throughout the country (even old women and mares). The narrator again draws on myths and legends to describe the space on the other side of the river border. Here, the concept of phantom borders becomes clearly visible. Kempf refers to Transylvania, which once was part of the influential sphere of the Turkish empire, then gradually a zone between two empires before becoming part of the Austrian empire, but still bears the traces of past territorial orders. Kempf constructs his mental map, based on the information he possesses. The empty, “promised” land that awaits colonizers is perceived as a potentially dangerous zone because its quality as a phantom border space has its consequences in present. In other words, traces of past territorial orders carry prejudice that still influence mental representations, even though they are not in effect. 

At last, the journey successfully comes to an end, which is marked by another symbolic action – the captain opened a bottle of wine and proposed a toast. 

Another thread of this episode that I would like to discuss is the rite of passage the ancestor Kempf undergoes. Arnold van Gennep discusses rites of passage and argues that an individual’s life consists of a series of initiations and evolutions from one position in the social order to another. Such transformations are often followed by a series of symbolic acts that ensure that the process is complete. The rite of passage can be seen symbolically as a crossing of borders, and such a process could take place at a sacred site or, as in the example of Šnajder’s novel, at a natural border. Van Gennep distinguishes three phases that together constitute a rite of passage that a selected individual is expected to go through: the pre-liminal, the liminal, and the post-liminal phases. If we follow the episode of the ancestor Kempf’s journey to Slavonia, we should be able to trace all of these phases and, in addition to that, recognize patterns of traditional culture that include sacred elements as well as mythically and symbolically inspired actions and features. In the first, pre-liminal phase (or the rite of division, as Van Gennep puts it), Georg Kempf leaves his home and village near Ulm and decides to seek a better life in an unknown land. This phase is moderately associated with the symbolism of leaving one’s own, safe, familiar space and crossing an imagined border toward uncertainty. In Ulm, Kempf enters the second, liminal phase of initiation (known as the rite of the liminal phase), which we thoroughly analyzed through a somewhat different prism. In this phase, the character passes through various obstacles, which he successfully overcomes. He develops as an individual, learns things, and acquires skills needed to proceed to the next phase, the post-liminal one. The toast on the boat marks the end of the liminal phase, and the beginning of life in a different social role, that of an independent individual, able to raise and care for a family. This sequence of events might remind us of mythical heroes (often portrayed in legends or fairy tales), who leave their parental home, perform a series of tasks, and return as worthy of a new social role. Kempf, on the other hand, never returns to his village, but remains in his new homeland, the “promised land.”  

Another noteworthy rite of passage is described later in the novel and concerns the young Georg Kempf, who was an SS soldier during the Second World War. Before leaving his hometown of Nuštar, Kempf looks at the map and reflects the meaninglessness of borders, questioning the concept of b/ordering, in terms of border studies research. He is prescribed to go to Poland, a land that at this point no longer exists. From the moment he reaches Stockerau train station, the liminal phase of his unfortunate initiation begins. After a series of wartime events that mark the second phase, Georg Kempf is once again on his way home. When he reaches the Drava River, he is certain that across the river lies his homeland. The Drava reminds him of Bosut, a small river that flows through Nuštar. The narrator poses a question: “Who was that young man, Đuka Kempf, who swam with otters, and who is now Georg Kempf?22, suggesting that they are two different persons. He adds an interesting detail: Georg Kempf wants to shave his beard before he enters his homeland: “Like a groom approaching his bride, he wanted to go back to his homeland: shaved, with a clean face (and conscience), not like a satire, a wild man. In other words, he wants to be recognized when he comes home. This is a common pattern, especially in folk literature (or in the Odyssey, for example), where the hero arrives home, but since he went through a rite of passage, no one can recognize him. Here, too, the river represents a border, the crossing of which signifies entering the homeland. In the case of Georg Kempf, the rite of passage does not mean that he moved up the social ladder. Everything indicates that he returns downgraded and irreparably broken and that it is a reverse, somewhat paradoxical rite of passage. 

One detail from Kempf’s story represents a good introduction to the story of Sofija, which I am to analyze. Namely, as he stands on the shore of the Drava River, a corpse floats down the river, into the Danube and to the Black Sea. At that moment, Georg Kempf does not know what happened to Sofija, but her destiny repeats itself right in front of his eyes. 

The story of Sofija, young Georg Kempf’s girlfriend, is one I would like to discuss and analyze, again from the border research perspective, and as one more rite of passage. This episode takes place during the years of the Second World War. Sofija was imprisoned in a concentration camp in Stara Gradiška, where she was executed, and her body thrown into the river Sava. The journey of Sofija’s body from Stara Gradiška and the Sava River to the Aegean Sea and the shore of Greece is described in detail, and the whole story is infused with mythical and symbolic elements. The body floats from the Sava, down the Danube to the Black, and finally to the Aegean Sea. There it gets caught in the net of a fisherman, who is convinced that he caught a mermaid. He proceeds to invite people, including the priest and English soldiers, to verify his discovery, all of whom end up laughing at him. The author gives Sofija borderline fantastic features. He repeats on more than one occasion that her pupils are white, and by the end of the story, the Greek fisherman, and his guests are eating “large and very tasty fish, the most tender white flesh, well-done, which means: with white pupils. The other attribute, that is supposed to form a relation between Sofija and fish, or underwater creatures is her skin. It is said that her white (or pale) skin tone glows throughout the night, much like the fish from the Catfish-Tsar’s castle, that emanate light from their scales. Sofija, it seems, gradually obtains the characteristics of a mythical creature. The narrator highlights her beauty (saying that even the fish are astonished by her), and when the Greek fisherman claims he has caught a mermaid in his net, the narrator states he was not mistaken. Sofija, of all the women in the concentration camp, sang most beautifully. As Sofija slowly glides through the waters, her body also undergoes a transformation. Apart from white pupils and skin glowing in the dark, by the time she reaches the Greek shore, her lower body takes on a fish-like shape. The narrator claims, it is even possible that she met Orpheus’ head on her path. Her skin, initially described as white, becomes dark red because the fish of the Aegean began eating it the moment she was caught in the net. Sofija is located in an in-between space, in a different reality, which appears to be enough for her to become part of this strange world. This space of liminality represents, on the one hand, a border between two worlds, a realistic and fantastic one, and between life and death.  

Sofija’s rite of passage, the final initiation from life to death, can be traced through three phases of liminality. The pre-liminal phase ends at the moment Sofija loses her life and is thrown into the river. The liminal phase, which is the most significant for this analysis, is her sojourn in the mythical underwater world. In this liminal phase, she gradually changes but is still between two worlds. The underwater creatures are amazed by her, but she is still floating and is visible from the human world, which doesn’t grant her attention anymore (the writer says no one was bothered by another floating body. After she transforms into a mythical creature, a mermaid, she reaches post-liminal phase and is definitely no longer a part of the human world. Her death initiation ends somewhat grotesquely and absurdly, similar to the rite of passage of the young Georg Kempf.  

Within the notion of border aesthetic palimpsest, textual references are often interconnected, and these layers reveal a broader context of cultural or historical change and relations between the present and the past. In the novel Doba mjedi, such cultural and historical development could be followed in several storylines, but relevant for my analysis, within natural borders, and in particular, the Danube River. The author creates a story using different motifs, which might seem familiar to the reader, even if they are interpreted in a new way. By doing this, he creates layers that have their sources in different cultures, legends, symbols, or traditions, thus obtaining the characteristic of border aesthetic palimpsest. At the end of his book, Slobodan Šnajder lists some of the sources (“Neki izvori”) he used while writing the novel. They range from relevant academic studies to literature, and, perhaps the most interesting, his father’s works and his parents‘ written legacy. In this way, the writer refers to the intertextuality of his novel and allows readers to further explore the world he tried to represent.  

The Danube River, which was the focus of the analysis, obtained features of a border in two different ways. Firstly, it was a border between two (home)lands, which could be perceived similarly to state borders. Second, it was a border between life and death, leading Sofija through her journey to the Aegean Sea. In both cases, it featured mythical and symbolical characteristics, being mythical creatures, different religions, or other elements of different (traditional) cultures. The fact that Šnajder opted for exploring that dimension indicates the abundance of the so-called “natural” border-related narratives that include some form of supernatural elements. This novel is one example that goes towards proving the hypothesis I posed, that the “natural” borders are more plausible to recall mythical and symbolical layers, than the artificial ones. This analysis is supposed to be continued on the examples of other works of post-Yugoslav literature, and preliminary results are showing that in other novels (for example by Laslo Vegel and Bekim Sejranović), river as a border has similar characteristics. 

Danica Trifunjagić (1992) is an associated researcher at the Institute for Danube Swabian History and Regional Studies. In 2022 she defended her PhD thesis Imaginary Europe in Serbian Documentary-Artistic Prose in the 18th and the First Decades of the 19th Century at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Novi Sad. Apart from shorter research stays at the Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, the University of Graz, the Humboldt University of Berlin, and the Institute for German History and Culture of Southeastern Europe in München she conducted a post-doctoral research project titled Perception of Borders in Post- Yugoslav Literature. The Danube Prism at the Institute for Danube Swabian History and Regional Studies in Tübingen.

E-Mail: danica.trifunjagic@gmail.com

Erschienen in: Spiegelungen. Zeitschrift für deutsche Kultur und Geschichte Südosteuropas, Heft 1 (2024), Jg. 19, Verlag Friedrich Pustet, Regensburg, S. 105-113. 


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