Urs Allemann - There is no life and no death, only a longing for them, a fear of them

Urs Allemann, Babyfucker (Les Figues, 2010)

«A Beckettian character, who may or may not be trapped in a room with four baskets full of infants, focuses obsessively on a single sentence—“I fuck babies.” This virtuoso text by Swiss experimental writer Urs Allemann won the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Preis des Landes Kärnten in 1991 and caused one of the biggest literary scandals in the post-1945 German-speaking world. Translated now for the first time in a new-bilingual edition, Babyfucker will change your idea of what literature can be and do. Babyfucker belongs in the canon of twentieth-century provocations that includes Bataille’s The Story of the Eye, Delany’s Hogg, and Cooper’s Frisk

“A stunning, exquisite, perfect, and difficult little benchmark of a novel that makes literature that pre-dates it seem deprived.” —Dennis Cooper

“In the impressive logical consistency of this narrative, in its other logic, there is no life and no death, only a longing for them, a fear of them.” —Heinz Schafroth

“An experimental text like those of Beckett and the Cabaret Voltaire Dadists.” —Klaus Amann

“The figure Allemann gives voice to is stranded in the middle of an incomplete maturation process, an infantile monstrosity unable to raise itself out of the chthonic fluids of human prehistory.” —Juliane Vogel

«Babyfucker is far more disturbing than the title suggests. The book, written by a Swiss author, spawned a controversy in Germany in 1991. It begins unabashedly with the sentence “I fuck babies,” which the narrator declares to be his sentence. It is the reader’s sentence, too. However, there are no detailed representations of infant pedophilia. There is terse, detached description of an impossible garret, filled with baskets of babies, supplied with a spigot and drain for morphine-laced milk; trepidation at humanity and new life; a man who sees himself in the mirror as a baby — then as made up, limb by limb, of babies. If there are specific sexual visions here, they must belong mainly to the reader, not the text. Among other unsettling things, the volume (which is yellow and pink, tiny, and cute) shows the reader’s involvement in literary atrocities, in any violation committed by shared imagination.» - Nick Montfort

«This is a book to talk about. This is a book you want to carry around with you, just so people can ask you what it’s about. Last week, as I was sitting at a cafe in South Bend, this slender volume lying on top of my usual stack of library books. It’s cover is a lovely yellow, it’s spine an unobtrusive pink. But the title! The title is what interests people most. So someone asks me: What’s that you’re reading? And I say: Babyfucker. Just like that. And that person responds: Hmm. There’s no follow-up question. I have to force their discomfort. I say: It’s a book about a man who fucks babies, or not. It’s this little Beckettian book, this man obsessed with the sentence, ‘I fuck babies,’ constantly repeating, ‘I fuck babies. That’s my sentence.’ Whether or not he actually fucks the babies is irrelevant to the reader, but to that person standing by your chair at the cafe, that’s the only question that matters. Here’s the thing, I haven’t even started touching the substance or the incredible writing in this book, but it’s all solid. This is an inadequate review of a truly stunning book, but I’ve only managed to do exactly what I’ve criticized that person at the cafe of doing: getting lost in the spectacle.» - Lily Hoang

"What does one do with a problem like Babyfucker? When it was first published and nominated for the Ingeborg Bachmann Preis des Landes Kärnten in 1991, the scandal—we're told—was of such monstrous proportions that the book itself was virtually ignored in the squabbles that followed, and a Swiss Beckett was more or less (forgive me) strangled in his cradle. Most of the fuss focused with Puritanical misdirection on Allemann’s admittedly eyebrow-raising title, which—a tricky business for potential apologists—is immediately reinforced by Babyfucker’s fractured, telegraphic narrator: "I fuck babies," is how he introduces himself, and perhaps those with weak constitutions will venture no further. To stop there, however, is to let your scruples deprive you of a severe and ugly gem; and while I would hate to diminish the shock value of the book, let’s be clear: There is no babyfucking here, in the sense of a “scene of babyfucking,” a Sadean blow-by-blow; though, certainly, there is much talk of babyfucking—until, in fact, the phrase could as easily be “I fuck geraniums.” “Babies” are indeed present, but they are rubber, unreal: they do not age; the narrator, supine and immobile (as all our great heroes), picks them up, throws them around, and they bounce; he is surrounded by four creels full of babies (north, south, east, and west), into which, he claims, he can reach at will. And while one supposes there might, in the wide world, be a geophagist who salivates reading about Molloy’s stone sucking, it would take a pedophile of similarly abstract bent to find even a hint of pornographic intent in Babyfucker. The narrator isn’t even certain what sort of genitals he has, let alone how to use them, and it is in this rampant indeterminacy that the book becomes an act less of cultural provocation (certainly to name your book Babyfucker is also to say, “Yes, I have written a book called Babyfucker—and what of it?”) than a raking of the ashes of the novel—what Beckett left us of the novel—until they again give off heat. Here one finds a text both revolting and comforting—comforting because, god help us, Allemann demonstrates that literature can always be made, even if you need to fuck a few babies to get the job done." - Jeremy M. Davies

"What prompted you to write Babyfucker? Did it start as an idea, a sentence, question, challenge?
- It wasn't an idea. It was an image. An image in my head. A vexing image. An image that was just suddenly there. Without reminding me of anyone or anything. Without eliciting any feeling in me. That's what was vexing. A challenge. And then suddenly the sentence was there. As a response to the image? As an escape? As self-defense? I don't know. “I fuck babies.” And then there was the decision to attempt to extract something like a story from this terrible sentence.
Your prose is often hypnotic. Babyfucker evokes its own associative logic by which words generate further words, creating a dazzling rhythmic trip. Yet the beauty of your prose is offset by the disturbing nature of the text. Everything hinges on the monstrous “I fuck babies.” Why did you choose that sentence specifically?
- I'm very happy to hear you use the word “beauty” to describe my prose. Because, as strange as it may seem, it was in fact my intention to make something beautiful out of this monstrous material. To write a beautiful story. In this anything but obvious intention a certain idea played a role: the idea that beauty as an aesthetic category can only have relevance today if it passes the endurance test represented by the most un-beautiful, revolting material thinkable. I had the somewhat megalomaniacal idea that I could put it through that – that I could transform shit into gold by writing. And there was the quite crazy corollary idea: only gold made from shit is true gold.
Ten years after Babyfucker I wrote an ode titled “Censure.” It opens with the verse “The black bar in front of the sex organ.” And the first verse of the second strophe reads: “The axe that – chop now! – that shatters in your hand.” There's a similar crazy notion at work here: the notion that a murder weapon is transformed into its opposite in the last second, before the deadly blow, right when the axe holder is ordered to act. The axe, it is claimed, doesn't just shatter, no, it even shatters “beautifully.” Hard to believe, isn't it?
Few concrete details are given about the narrator or his surroundings. The reader must navigate the narrator's grunts, groans, stutters, and mumbles. He repeats “O I am babbling.” It's unclear whether his activities are a fantasy, dream, real-life telling, or all three, all at once. The instability of the narrator's mental world mimics the physical world he perceives. Was the structure of the text set from the first draft or did it come to you through the writing process itself?
- The character, the first person narrator only has one thing: his sentence. The problem with the sentence – beside the fact that it's monstrous – is that it has no context. The only thing that the narrator does, and he does it incessantly, is this: he attempts to invent something like a context for this context-less sentence. Not to remember, but to invent. Babbling away, he produces and discards his “reality.” It's meaningless to decide in this context whether something is a dream, a fantasy, or reality. Reality is simply what is narrated. And what's narrated is only what could correspond to the sole certainty that is alleged to exist: “I fuck babies.” The “few concrete details” that the narrator tosses us are, at closer examination, just as fantastic as his grotesque hallucinations.
Take the very first sentences in the narrative. Sentence one: “I fuck babies.” The foundational sentence. The theme. The challenge. A sentence that isn't just monstrous, but also fantastic. A sentence that no living person could ever say. The verb's timeless present and the noun's plural make the sentence one of trans-real monstrosity.
Sentence two: “Around my bed there are creels.” An attempt to invent a place for the first sentence where either A) the sentence is spoken; B) the narrated event occurs ; or C) the sentence is spoken AND the narrated event occurs. This sentence, read by itself, in version A, might be a “true story.” A realistic story could begin in this way: a real man lies on a real bed surrounded by real creels. For reasons that we expect to learn in the course of the story, the man utters monstrous sentence: “I fuck babies.”
Sentence three: “They're crawling with babies.” This sentence has no place in a realistic story. A situation in which four creels surround a bed and in which each of these creels “crawls with babies” cannot occur in reality. CANNOT occur. A baby in each creel, ok. Two babies? Maybe, whatever. Three babies? Oh come on, stop already. Four babies? Shut up, you idiot. What does exist is: cans that crawl with worms (on fishing boats). But creels that crawl with babies? Definitely not.
But what if they were there, these babies? Dozens of them? Twelve in every creel? Ok, we are prepared to picture the impossible and against our better judgment accept the assurance offered by sentence four: “They're all there.” But sentences five and six finally, definitively exceed every notion of reality that claims to be adequate to reality. “Always have been. Always will be.” These sentences create a context that corresponds perfectly to the timeless present of the sentence “I fuck babies.” In reality however NOTHING always has been and NOTHING is for always.
I don't know if that's an answer to your question. Hopefully it is. Reality is annulled after six sentences. At that point one can no longer distinguish “from the first draft” and “through the writing process itself.”
The narrator is someone who has lost his identity, is unsure if he even exists. There is the hint of a Linda and a Paul, but their reality is tenuous: “Linda. What if she asked me to substitute a stuffed dog for the dog. If she asked me something. Anything. Could I then claim she exists.” Throughout the text, the narrator struggles to regain his existence through his sentence: “I fuck babies. Therefore I am, maybe.” Repetition-as-comfort. He relies on his sentence to save him, yet by the end, he is unsure whether “I fuck babies” was ever "his" to begin with: “And what if its a mistake. A mix-up. What if I've been saying that Paul's sentence the whole time. Because someone somewhere put in the wrong tape for me.” Can you talk a little about your intentions here?
- That's correct: the narrator has been afflicted with a feeling of total derealization. The world's presentness, the existence of others, his own existence: nothing is guaranteed for him. Only one terrifying sentence - “I fuck babies” - is vested beyond any doubt for him with the reality index that the cogito had for Descartes. That's why it's “his” sentence. That's why he clings to it as if it could save him and catapult him into existence. AS IF – that is the decisive point. It's IMPOSSIBLE that a sentence like “I fuck babies” can help bring a human being into existence. Because it is necessarily an UNTRUE sentence. The person for whom it would be a true sentence – if we want to admit for a moment that such a creature exists – someone who would actually “fuck babies” serially, on a conveyor belt, many of them one after the other, many times a day: such a person would NEVER SAY this sentence.
To whom for heaven's sake would he say it? On what occasion? For what reason? When the narrator says, “And what if it's a mistake,” he begins to realize that “his” sentence, despite the index of reality it bears for him, might be the wrong sentence. He begins to realize this. He has already begun to realize this when he arrives at this “maybe” conclusion: “I fuck babies. Therefore I am maybe.” But it's no more than the beginning of a realization. The narrator doesn't get any further. It's not even possible for him to pose a question about what problems the phenomenon of the “untrue sentence with reality index” might cause for understanding. WE, you and I, can of course come up with some thoughts about it. An idea might be: the sentence is not the thing that is vested with the reality index. Instead, it adheres to the sentence's components, the individual words. To the fact that they come together in a constellation. It's enough that a sentence occurs to the narrator (that a sentence is foisted on him) that brings together “I,” “fuck,” and “babies” – and that's enough for the feeling of security – secure because it promises something like reality – to come about for him. But it's also imaginable that the sentence “I fuck babies” connects the CORRECT words in a grammatically INCORRECT way. False presence. False plural. False voice (active instead of passive). And who would be responsible for the narrator's blunder or parapraxis? Well, me of course, the author. Maybe I put the wrong tape in for him. Maybe on purpose.
Can you discuss the influence of Beckett on Babyfucker, and your writing as a whole?
- I read Beckett intensively ten or twelve years before I wrote Babyfucker. But Beckett's prose – the novels more than anything, and The Unnameable more than any other – has remained the non plus ultra of modern narration for me. Modern in an emphatic sense. Narrating as not narrating. No narrative as narrating in quotation marks. No “I,” no place, no time. Only this tentative speaking and writing movement that hints at a speaker, a place, a time only to immediately revoke them, hint again, and again revoke them. This tracing out of a trail left behind by a successive writing down and crossing out, by a crossed out writing down and a writing down crossed out. This textual tracing that is NOTHING (thus: “Texts for Nothing”), and, yet, no, absolutely NOT NOTHING. The incomparable, inimitable about Beckettian blackness is: this black is not just the blackness of a message, as black as it may be. It's more that this black meaning turns into a black syntax. Into a meandering of sentences knotted together. Into a flowing, branching out, uprooted, blocked rush of black sentences. Phew. Such abominably imprecise metaphors! Sorry, Ms. Hall.
When Babyfucker won the second prize in the 1991 Ingborg Bachmann Competition, the book became one of the biggest literary scandals in recent years. Specifically, Jörg Haider claimed that the text was “inexcusable” and a “sexual perversion.” Were you surprised that many misinterpreted the book, focusing on the title rather than the subject matter? Has your view shifted over the years?
- Here we are again with the contradiction of “beauty” and “monstrosity.” I really thought that everyone would clap and say: this author does such a wonderful job of making us forget how dreadful his topic really is. The aforementioned shit-gold-thing. That was A) naïve of me; B) but also a misjudgment of the text. Perhaps I even underestimated the “Babyfucker” by minimizing for myself the antagonism between beauty and monstrosity. Monstrosity can't be beautified away by skillful prose pirouettes. Beauty doesn't sublate monstrosity. And today I understand much better those people who find that there's nothing beautiful there, nothing at all, just a triumph of monstrosity. However: the fact that there were people who read the text in all seriousness as “Confessions from the Life of a Pedophile” – that baffles me to this day.
How did you get involved in writing? As a young writer what books were especially influential? What texts do you continue to revisit?
- I've always written. But intermittently, with long breaks. At first, poems and plays (when I was eight or nine). Then poems again (at sixteen, seventeen: Celan imitations, with poorly measured doses of obscenity). Then once an isolated prose text, under the influence of Proust: “An Attempt by Martin T. to Remember.” Then poems again (at twenty-five, twenty- six: undoubtedly imitations, I just don't know anymore what of). Then during a long stay in Tuscany in 1978-1979 once again an isolated prose text: “The Condition of Mö or What and how a Story” (now, instead of Proust, Finnegans Wake, a book that, unlike the Recherche, I never read). I've only written regularly (more or less) since 1983. 1983-1988: poems. 1988-1995: prose. 1999-2010: poems.
I read most enthusiastically (idiotic superlative!) Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Beckett. And as far as poets go: Benn, Rilke (despite everything), and, more than anything, Hölderlin. And not to forget the “experimentalists”: Ernst Jandl, Oskar Pastior. Right now I'm reading Kleist. What projects are you currently working on? I'd like to return to prose after a fifteen-year hiatus. An epistolary novella maybe. A man went into the mountains a year and a half ago to write the following letter to a woman: “Dear B., I'd like to strike you down with an iron rod. Maybe I love you. If you feel the same way and your wishes conform to mine, then please please get in touch with me posthaste. We'll discuss this matter together and make the necessary arrangements if everything works out. With warm wishes, Your Bernd.” The letter is, however, never mailed and never written. In further letters to B. from Bernd, he pursues, among other things, the question: why? The last letter could be the one in which Bernd lets B. know that the matter has been settled since he has just been struck down by a group of women with iron rods."

"Peter Smith writes that "Der Spiegel magazine includes the 'Allemann affair' as one of only three cultural events on its list of the top forty-five scandals between 1949 and 1999 [in Germany]". And, as willing as I usually tend to be to suspend moral or ethical judgments on literature, I'm tempted to glower at this book, hunkered down like an accommodated goose on a Thanksgiving dinner table: unwelcome and foreign. And, as if in protest to this book, my iced americano just delivered a dollop of brown water on the cover, right over the word "-yfuck." Who, I must ask, is Urs Allemann? And what has he written that pricks at the confusing conservative part of myself that I thought I had suppressed years ago?
My ability to apprehend this book aesthetically required two readings. The first reading was to adapt my mind to seeing choice words used in the same sentence: "I fuck babies." If ever an opening sentence broke balls as effectively as this one, I have yet to hear about it. Or see it. Or think of it. The only people who can read a sentence like that and not be jerked into a new level of consciousness are, well, pedophiles, who might find this piece of literature particularly fruitful in its accessibility and relatability. I am not a pedophile; therefore, reading "I fuck babies" is challenging, but intriguing, and allowed me to read all the way through—twice.
The first time I read this, I was desensitized to the language towards the end and fell into the impression that this book was purely masturbatory. I believed that Allemann's only effort was to shock and awe. I focused on the surface details that belied my efforts to really dig in. I saw things like: "I don't intend to look in the mirror. I don't intend to fuck babies with the mirror's wooden handle. Like an idiot. Paul's bumhole. My bumhole. Linda's bumhole. O. O. The baby bumholes". The sentence is revolting, but I keep reading.
The second reading was productive. Found a story that wasn't hyper-indie in the tasteless sense. I learned about Linda, the narrator's wife? lover? stalker? And I learned about Paul, who likes Linda and who may be himself: "But Paul. If we if I am made of babies. But Linda". And the pain the narrator's enduring by way of Linda, whose love for him is torturous. In short: this is the creepiest and most original love story I've ever encountered. The babies are like speed, alcohol, sex, fisting: a way to forget. By the end, though, he's entertaining the idea of fucking Linda, who, by the final two pages of the book, in the final scene, is giving birth to a baby, I presume, the narrator will want to fuck.
At the end I pity the Babyfucker. Not afraid. Not that. Never that. He's not a criminal. He gives the babies morphine. He gives himself to absolute suffering, struggling: "Nauseous. I just felt nauseous. Sick. Now I feel sick to my stomach" (15). Linda's fault. Paul's fault. Not babies' fault. The Babyfucker hasn't, at least, withdrawn from himself. He's honest with himself—aware of his patheticism. He rapes babies. The babies grow large. And he hasn't withdrawn from Linda: "Linda claims that I too was once a baby. Like her. Like Paul. Supposedly I too once had a name. Like Paul. Like her. Looks like her. She brought me a mirror [...] I'm not a baby. Never been one".
Read. The. Book.
Give it a chance. Give the Babyfucker some time, some love, some therapy, some morphine, a Fleshjack©." - Arin Fisher


- Interview with Elizabeth Hall

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