Herbert Rosendorfer - 600 nuns, dildo-brandishing dwarves, conmen, cannibals, and psychotic psychics.Four men led by the Architect of Ruins construct an Armagedon shelter, in the shape of a giant cigar, so that when the end of the world comes they can enter eternity in the right mood, whilst playing a Schubert string quartet. They amuse themselves by telling stories




Herbert Rosendorfer, The Architect of Ruins, Dedalus, Trans. by Mike Mitchell, Dedalus, 2011.


The Architect of Ruins is considered one of the masterpieces of 20th century German fiction. An archetypal Dedalus novel with its literary game-playing and story-within-a-story technique. It has the labyrinthine brilliance of Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Four men led by the Architect of Ruins construct an Armagedon shelter, in the shape of a giant cigar, so that when the end of the world comes they can enter eternity in the right mood, whilst playing a Schubert string quartet. They amuse themselves by telling stories, which take on a life of their own, with walk on parts for Faust, Don Juan, da Ponte, and G.K. Chesterton etc as the narrative flashes back and forth between the Dark Ages and the Modern Day, like a literary Mobius strip. Although for European readers it will call to mind Jan Potocki's The Saragossa Manuscript, for English readers the wit and humour of The Architect of Ruins will make it read like a 20th century sequel to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.

This novel was actually published in 1969 by the German author Herbert Rosendorfer, but this translation (by Mike Mitchell) has now seen it made available to an English speaking audience. It’s an end of the world fantasy and in it four men, led by the Architects of Ruins, construct an Armageddon shelter, in the shape of a giant cigar, so that when the end of the world does come, they can enter eternity in the right mood, while playing a Schubert string quartet... They amuse themselves by telling stories which take on a life of their own, with walk-on parts for Faust, Don Juan, da Ponte and G. K. Chesteron, with a narrative that flashes back and forth between the Dark Ages and The Modern Day. It’s all very clever clever, Kafka-esque in parts with its box-in-a-box structure, and consequently not what I’d term a page-turner. It’s very inventive however and many of the ideas and situations contained within it, will stay with you long after you’ve closed up your time here. - GM in The Crack
Last November, the German author Herbert Rosendorfer(born 1934) won the Corine Prize for life-time achievement, a Bavarian award previously given to Nadine Gordimer, Imrie Kertesz and Amos Oz. That role of honour could lead readers who approach The Architect of Ruins never having read Rosendorfer before to expect something more melancholic than this dizzying, highly enjoyable escapade, which is one of four Rosendorfer translations published by the doughty independent firm Dedalus.
We meet the novel's unnamed narrator on a train to Lourdes. Eventually finding an empty compartment-there are six hundred nuns on board - he stretches his legs and feels someone grab his feet, stowed away under the seat opposite. A disarmingly courteous exchange ensues in which our narrator's travelling companion reveals himself as a conman peddling an implausible get-rich-scheme. He is on the run after organising a pockpocketing racket at a peep show. Police arrive and he escapes, leaving behind a scrap of paper mysteriously covered in dots. Is it a code?
No, it's a McGuffin. Questions of meaning aren't on the agenda;our only job is to enjoy the ride. In an abrupt shift typical of the novel's structure, no sooner does the fugitive make a break for it than we find our narrator exploring a rural idyll, and savouring the cold beer handed to him by an old man who tells him the story of a dissolute Scottish king who likes baking his stable-wenches into a pie. The next thing we know, we're on a steamship in the company of Dr Weckenbarth, the eponymous Architect of Ruins, who is the brains behind a cigar-shaped bunker that runs deep into the earth, designed to shelter three million people from an anticipated nuclear fallout.
The novel concerns itself less with the fear of the bomb than with getting lost in a maze of storytelling. The narrative, nested like a set of Russian dolls, offers a surfeit of plot, as the steamship's passengers swap increasingly outlandish tales. Before Weckenbarth can explain his construction to the narrator, he gets sidetracked by an anecdote about a Milanese paediatrician who establishes an apocalyptic cult that is in thrall to psychic communications from his deceased sister. Digressions follow digressions...
Rosendorfer's matter-of-fact style(as read in Mike Mitchell's English) heightens the humour as well as the horror. One of the very best stories concerns a bungling bureaucrat named Heino Pramsbichler who helps run a sinister 'deovulation' iniatitive. Falling for a patient named Emma, he tirelessly but mistakenly woos her twin sister, Bobbi, with the aid of funds embezzled from his elderly lodger. Of course, Bobbi isn't sterilised; a detail that leads to some catasphrophically grisly comedy.
The end of the book, the narrator is back on the train, having just witnessed a human sacrifice and been cuckcolded by dildo-wielding dwarves. Was it just a dream? After this shaggy-dog story that collapses time and space, melding postmodern literary gamesmanship with elements of science fiction and fantasy, we're none the wiser. But it's certainly good, morbid fun. - Anthony Cummins in The Literary Review



Herbert Rosendorfer, Grand Solo for Anton, Trans. by Mike Mitchell, Dedalus, 2007.

When Anton L. wakes up one morning and gradually discovers that he is the only person left in the world, he accepts the situation with greater sang froid than most. Survival presents no great problems: he moves into a hotel, then into the royal palace, dining on roast venison, chocolates and champagne. Rather a shlemiel, his memories of people and places generally end in minor disasters, leading to bizarre dreams and nightmares. Finding out about people who have vaporized becomes his passion, especially when he finds himself on the possible trail of others secretly searching for The Book -- a tome that contains all knowledge, a world between two covers. He discovers it, reads it and wonders: Has the world achieved its ultimate aim? The amusing episodes are a gentle satire on modern society, yet raise the ultimate philosophical and theological questions.

On Tuesday, June 25, 1973, small, odd Anton L. wakes up as the only person left in his city and, apparently, the world. Everyone else has vanished. The omniscient narrator leads us through the succeeding several months of Anton's solitude as well as many episodes in his and several acquaintances' pasts. The narrator even intrudes a bit, rather undermining our suspended disbelief but supporting the conceit that takes over the novel and Anton; to wit, Stephane Mallarme's proposition (and this book's epigraph), "The ultimate aim of the world is a book." For in his foraging and hunting in the rapidly renaturalized city, Anton discovers traces of a circle of eccentric scholars searching for a book that explains everything and is located somewhere in the city. While reacting to winter freezes, spring floods, and the surprisingly rapid collapses of many unmaintained buildings, Anton finds the book. This is high-end sf/fantasy: impeccably literary, eruditely witty, deliciously open-ended. Its admirers will love it to distraction. - Ray Olson

This is a tremendously inventive novel that attempts to ask some important questions about how Western culture has developed. - The Independent on Sunday
What would you do, if waking up one morning, you discovered everyone else in the world had vanished? Would you take a peek into the finest private art galleries, raid the kitchens of the best restaurants, mourn the loss of your fellow human beings, or would you steal a gun and shoot some dogs? Anton L. the eccentric hero in Rosendorfer's off-kilter novel goes for the latter option and thus begins a good old philosophical debate about the nature of man, society and other such high-minded palaver. Ideas punctured only by dirty pants, champagne binges and lots of dead dogs: weird and yet strangely amusing stuff. - Peter John Meiklem 
Anton L. Wakes up and he is the only person left on earth. All that is left of the world's population are the clothes. As Anton wanders around his empty world he encounters rabid dogs, escaped circus animals and finds a letter that hints at what happened to the rest of the world. The book is wonderfully odd, with Anton's dreams and memories gently crisscrossing with the real world. The writing is superb, brimming with satire, humour, and most other things you'd ever want. - LD in Buzz Magazine

Anton L., a neurotic and rather unpleasant little man, wakes to a strangely quiet morning. Gradually and with increasing fear and confusion he discovers that all other humans seem to have vapourised sometime in the night.
The book won't sound promising when I say that the bulk of it treats Anton's changes of residence, methodical explorations of the city, his ferrying firewood and paintings about, occasional recollections of earlier times, and search for a certain book and is written in matter-of-fact, almost flat, prose. Yet the book is terrifically interesting (and very funny at times) and the style is perfectly suited to the content: There are no life-or-death moments and Anton seems to come to accept his situation quickly, without a single moment of anguish. Rosendorfer's descriptions of wild animals invading the city, floods undermining and demolishing buildings, and vegetation splitting the pavement makes the reader feel these things in a second-hand sort of way, just as Anton seems to have seen the world, especially people, at one remove.
I was reminded of Glavinic's Nightwork whilst reading this. I liked Nightwork a good deal, and certainly recommend it. But while the subject and some of the details were much the same the books aren't terribly like. Rosendorfer's book is richer than Glavinic's--the humour, the abnormal becoming mundane, the fact that by the end Anton L. seems rather endearing--and has more depth: One is left with questions about unexplained elements in the story--indeed, about the story itself--but also with questions about redemption and whether our knowledge should be limited. It will, I'm sure, reward re-reading and has made me eager to read another of the author's books. - monica at Amazon.com


Herbert Rosendorfer, Letters Back to Ancient China, Trans. by Mike Mitchell, Dedalus, 2007.

A 10th-century Chinese mandarin travels to the 20th Century in his time machine, and writes letters home reporting on the strange land of ‘Zha-ma-ni’, in which he is surrounded by giants with big noses, and frightened by the iron carriages called ‘mo-tao-ka’. We gradually realize that he is in present-day Munich, and the hapless voyager’s encounters with modern life and love make delightful reading.

Excerpt:


My dearest friend, Two more days have passed, days during which, as always, I have been subjected to new, astonishing, strange and inexplicable experiences. However, for the moment I will continue with my description of the events immediately following my arrival. The street I told you about, the one I wanted to cross, was an avenue. On either side of the cobbled carriageway is a wretched, neglected strip of grass. The stones, too, have been set in the road in a very slipshod manner, making it pretty bumpy. If the Exalted Son of Heaven had driven along this street just once, he would immediately have had the mandarin in charge of road construction beheaded. In the strips of grass there are ugly, unkempt trees growing. All unsuspecting, I was just starting to cross this avenue when I heard an unimaginable roaring, grinding, rattling noise approach; there is simply no comparison for it in our world. At the same time a huge animal or a fiery demon, that was the thought that flashed through my mind came rushing towards me at lightning speed; no, even faster than lightning, so incredibly fast that I could not see the animal or thing at all. Since then I have found out, more or less, what these things are (they aren’t demons, though they are at least as dangerous as demons are for superstitious people) but on that first day I was naturally completely unprepared. I was half-way across the road when, as I assumed, this snorting beast noticed me. Everything happened in the time it takes a bat to beat its wings. I realised that the demon was not after me. It made an even more hideous roaring noise, if possible, and tried to avoid me. I too tried to get out of the way and, with a couple of bounds, reached the safety of the bridge. But, like a wild boar in a frenzied charge, the animal (bigger than ten wild boars) could not change direction so quickly. Still roaring, then making a bang such as you would only get if you set off the whole Imperial stock of fireworks for the New Year’s celebrations at once, the demon, so it seemed to me, leapt up a tree. I collapsed to the ground and fainted. By the time I regained consciousness an even greater crowd of bignoses had gathered, and again each one looked like the next.

Letters back to ancient China (Olympiazentrum)

Next to the tower is a building, if one can call it that, which was a complete enigma to me. Even Yii-Ien-tzu, who in most things is a man of intellect and discernment, was as proud as if he had cast it himself. The building has virtually no roof at all, just part of it is covered with with a grubby thing that vaguely recalls a huge tent. All the building consists of really is an incredibly large oval that descends in steps from the circumference towards the middle. On the steps are countless seats, all ,fixed so they face. toward the middle. Almost one hundred (thousand people can sit inside this gigantic oval at once. (I can imagine the noise and the stench very vividly!) In the middle is a large lawn, though it looks fairly small from the back of the oval. Mr Yii-Ien was rather surprised that I had not heard of this edifice. (He knows I come from a long way away, but not that I come from a different time.) He talked about what he clearly thought were world-shattering events that had taken place in this oval building, and still take place. there at regular intervals. The expressions he used were as clear as the mud in the bignose streets to me. As far as I could understand, he was talking about some kind of ritual, possibly public executions, involving twentytwo men and three judges. This giant oval is also cast from stone paste. In principle this asting in stone is naturally a good thing. But, as so often, making a difficult activity easier has led to all kinds of nonense. The best of inventions become perverted, so that ultimately it would be better if things were left as they were. If the bignoses had to go to the trouble of building their houses out of rammed earth and baked-clay bricks, then they would think very carefully before erecting such pointless edifices as ihe half-li tower and the great oval!

Letters back to ancient China (First Impression)

There is no splendour in this city. We always assume that a great city radiates splendour, that those who live in a great city, in Kai-feng, in Hang-chou, in Fu-chon, or in Kuangchou, absorb and reflect something of the splendour of the great city, that the splendour and glory of our Exceedingly Gracious arid Celestial Ruler is increased by a great city, and that the Imperial Splendour is then reflected back on the city and its inhabitants. There will be none of that in the future. It seems cleaer that the larger cities grow, the dirtier and greyer they become. I have the impression that the people here can no longer comprehend their city; it has literally outgrown them. Filth and noise have long since taken over here. Filth and noise are stronger than the people. I wonder whether there is such a thing as a city administration any more. If there is, it must long since have lost control, and the mandarin Kiseng probably spends all his time in his harem or breeding dogs. Maybe that is the reason why there is no longer a wang here? Did I perhaps misunderstand Mr Shi-shmi, and Wang Lu-wing, the third of that name, was not deposed but abandoned this inferno of his own free will to retire to somewhere more tranquil? Leaving this ungovernable hell of stone and iron to itself and to its ultimate downfall, which must inevitably come? Or are there no tranquil areas left any more? Have all the distinct cities of the Empire grown together into one single rash covering the whole Empire? A frightening thought. It makes me happy again to think that I will be returning to our more humane times in a short while. Yes, the future definitely is an abyss. - www.goethe.de/

Letters back to ancient China (Pinakothek)

Our conversation touched on various subjects and eventually came round to the art of painting. Mr Te-cho soon realised that I knew very little at all about painting in his world and very kindly offered to show me some the very next day - yesterday that was - since, as he said, he happened to have the time.
I assumed that he perhaps owned a collection of works of art and would take me to his palace but that was not the case. Mr Te-cho owns neither a palace nor a collection of works of art. We went to a large, indeed enormous building that is open to the public, where the state has gathered together a variety of paintings, statues and other art objects for anyone to come and see. I think such an institution is not a bad idea at all. We ought seriously to consider whether we might not introduce something similar, suitably adapted of course, at home; it could be of great value for the education of the people. However, as always with the bignoses, there was a flaw. They make virtually no use at all of this facility. Mr Te-cho told me that and I could see it for myself; we were as good as alone in the huge building. According to Mr Te-cho, there are several art buildings, both large and small, in Min-chen, but the people do not go to them. Visiting them is voluntary and there is neither law nor custom to encourage it. The people of Min-chen, he explained, only went to see art buildings elsewhere, when they were staying in other cities for some reason or other, while those who visited the art buildings here were people from other cities who happened to be in Min-chen. Very strange.
Again, I do not propose to take up your (and my) time by describing my tour round the collection and the insights it gave me into the bignose world, step by step. I will just sum up my overall impression.
It is undeniable that the bignoses have a certain, perhaps even considerable tradition in the fine arts, though it is nothing compared to the impression their music has made on me. Their pictures are coarse, brightly coloured and remarkable for the fact that everything, even down to the tip of the tiniest leaf, is almost compulsively painted in, right down to the very last detail. It seems clear to me that the reason is not a simple desire not to waste the least bit of space, it is their obsessive need to understand everything. They always feel the need to understand absolutely everything. Now it is true that we, or at least the educated ones amongst us, want to understand things, perhaps even to understand every thing, although we know that it is not possible. The bignoses do not agree. They have a superstitious belief that one day they will understand everything.
'Everything?' I asked Yii-Ien-tzu. 'What is everything?' He had no answer to that. I argued that there was no such thing as everything, no more than there was such a thing as nothing. He then explained several mathematical concepts which were extremely impressive but, as far as I was concerned, only served to show how close this science, which the bignoses regard as exact, is coming to idle speculation. 
 - www.goethe.de/
  ... the hapless voyager’s encounters with modern life and love, make delightful reading. -- Andrew Crumey in Scotland on Sunday


...witty, lively and idiosyncratic. -- Meren Meinhardt in The Times Literary Supplement

Dedalus is to be thanked for introducing us to Herbert Rosendorfer. -- The Historical Novel Review


Letters Back to Ancient China is a satire on modern life in the vein of Gulliver's Travels, with a little bit of Asterix thrown in. And though it may lack the imaginative scope of the latter, it is not without its own peculiar charm.
The story sees a tenth-century Chinese civil servant journey forward through time to 1980s Munich. From here he sends home a series of letters filled with fantastic tales from the future.
Our hero, Kao-Tai, is beautifully drawn as an inquisitive and sexually voracious time-traveller. Appalled by the noise and dirt of our world, he comes to view our society as terminally obsessed by progress, without care for the consequences.
Whilst some of the observations are a little obvious -'aren't we silly rushing about all the time'- Rosendorfer's lightly comic touch and the effervescence of his main character, keep things racing along. And here translator Mike Mitchell should take great credit too.
More contentious is the elitist nature of the few things Kao-Tai comes to value. Our ‘neutral’ hero, unsullied by this filthy world, likes expensive champagne, Beethoven, Mozart, Goethe and Titian, but sees nothing worthwhile in modern music, sport, TV, beer; in fact just about everything popular apart from sex.
The marriage of high-culture snobbery with playful fantasy is a combination that, strangely struck a chord in eighties Germany. Since publication more than twenty years ago, Letters Back to Ancient China sold over two million copies.
Of course this new paperback translation won't repeat that success in Britain, but it shouldn't be without readers. People who think modern life is rubbish, and find pleasure only in champagne, Beethoven recitals and sex will adore it. Everyone else will be gently entertained.
Luke McLaughlin in Big Issue in the North 


Herbert Rosendorfer, Stephanie, Trans. by Mike Mitchell, Dedalus, 1995.


An elegant, elegiac novel, its titular character goes back to a past life in which she is a Spanish duchess who has murdered her husband. The book's first half, narrated by her brother, tells of the start of Stephanie's strange experience and her eventual disappearance from the present, to which she returns only to die of cancer. The second is composed of letters written by Stephanie, in 1761, to her brother. The conceit sounds trite, yet it works well. Characters are evoked economically, and the claustrophobic world to which Stephanie regresses is detailed deftly and dispassionately. - Scotland on Sunday
Her story is interwoven most skilfully with her 20th century life, which holds strange parallels and reflections and allows Rosendorfer some acute and occasionally darkly comic, social comment. This is a quality book from a first-rate mind of considerable sophistication. Dedalus is to be thanked for introducing us to Herbert Rosendorfer. - Elizabeth Hawksley in The Historical Novel Review
Turmbach Eppan Idylle 2011

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