Verena Stefan - Doe a Deer
The lead-up to the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003 saw mass protests around the world. People rose up and took to the streets, the cry of “No!” in their throats. It didn't do much good, except perhaps to show that when the ruling political parties of Great Powers wish to commit an atrocity, they will. And while that's always an important lesson to learn, it's undoubtably disheartening, and speaks to the often futile enterprise of the individual and the working class collective.
Verena Stefan's Doe a Deer tells three stories in parallel, all narrated from the reasonable, educated, left-leaning perspective of the narrator, who knows how to read the signs, but can't for the life of her decipher them.
In the woods I'm illiterate. The cold preserves a script of paws, hooves, claws, of bellyfur, of tailhair which has brushed the surface layer of snow – stories of encounters, trysts, of the hunt and the chase – which I could read word for word, if I only knew how to decipher the signs.
The three strands of the story are loosely woven together, and appear in an approximation of stream-of-conscious chunks of text. The first involves the corpse of a deer, the second the Iraq War and the dehumanising vocabulary contemporary conflict brings with it, and the third Ciudad Juarez, that terrible Mexican drug city where hundreds of women have been brutally murdered over the last fifteen years or so (for an exemplary account of Ciudad Juarez in fiction, see Roberto Bolaño's 2666).
There is very little action to speak of, or dialogue – this is a story of its concept, which is to say a story of language, its effects, and how a word or phrase helps to shape the culture within which it was created and is used.
To take a simple example, I read and hear L'OTAN as a random arrangement of letters with no resonance whatsoever. L'OTAN is not NATO, L'ONU is not the UN. Even boucliers vivants remains abstracts; human shields by contrast hits me as close as the German menschliche Schilde.
Is it more palatable to read that three hundred and seventy-five women have been killed in Ciudad Juarez in ten years, than it is to see the pictures of just one of the murdered women? Of course. The old truism that a man feels more strongly about the toe he has just stubbed than a million Chinese dying in an earthquake holds because people are inherently proficient at abstraction. We place layers between ourself and what is real to protect ourselves, to avoid facing something horrible, or perhaps even to remain blissfully ignorant.
Language can only ever be an approximation, but this abstraction has a deadening effect. Stefan describes the dead deer in great detail, coming back to the corpse over several days as it decomposes in the snow and is torn apart by the hungry teeth of foxes and other wild animals. She luxuriates over this detail, lingering over a ripped ear, a missing leg, an exposed flank. Of the murdered women, she mentions Amnesty International, a documentary, websites. Of the Iraq War, she mentions the new words used to discuss the 'problem' (and here I myself use abstraction as a literary device, one that is no less deliberately dishonest than both the American Government in its savagery, and Verena Stefan in her irony) – collateral damage, friendly fire, humanitarian bombing, embedded journalists; and briefing, compliance, containment, defection, deployment, deterrent.
We can add our own words. A bad thing is now a terrorist of some sort or another. An “Enemy Combatant” is a recently co-opted term that, through the use of sheer language, allows the US Government to avoid treating Prisoners of War as agreed under the Geneva Conventions. Such sleight of hand isn't really trickery at all, as it all happened under our noses.
As a story, Verena Stefan's Doe a Deer is underwhelming. As mentioned, there isn't a plot to speak of, nor any dialogue. A few characters exist, but they are ciphers, appearing as memories and not as people. The strongest mark remains the deer, and it's no accident that Stefan links the rotting, half-eaten deer to the song used to teach scales:
Do, a deer, a female deer, re, a drop of golden sun, mi, a name I call myself, fa, a long long way to run*
Indeed, the culmination of the story is when Stefan abandons narrative altogether, and inserts the dictionary definition of the word, cakewalk, a definition which notably refrains from mentioning the word as a possible use in describing the ease of victory in war-time. And that, of course, is because the dictionary is dated 1981, years before the first Iraq War, let alone the second, and decades before the word would have another, sinister definition added to it.
Words have meanings. It behooves us to use them appropriately where properly, to avoid confusion, to remain concise, to eschew elaboration or obfuscation when clarity would suffice. When a word is used to disguise a terrible concept, think to yourself – why? What is the benefit to the speaker to abstract hundreds of murders under extreme and terrible conditions to a forgettable statistic? Was it three hundred seventy-five women murdered, or three hundred sixty-five? I guess it doesn't matter much. What is the benefit to the speaker to spend nearly a decade calling a prisoner of war – with all the implications of prisoners, battles, death, destruction, and war that such a term carries – an enemy combatant, which retains a negative, hostile meaning. An enemy combatant might very well murder me or hurt my family. A prisoner of war? Nope, not a chance.
Verena Stefan understands the complexity of words and their tendency to drift in meaning. She weaves together several languages and spans continents, with each shift reinforcing the inherent ambiguity of communication. Doe a Deer is a thought-provoking story, light on the elements traditionally found in narrative fiction, but strong in its efforts to invoke an emotional and intellectual response.
* It's interesting to note here that when I was a child, I learned this rhyme differently to the translation above. An error of translation or is the rhyme different elsewhere? Either answer would shed additional light on Stefan's story, just as either assists in reinforcing her central thesis.
Doe a Deer by Verena Stefan is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011, include:
---United Kingdom: Welsh: Roberts, Wiliam Owen - The Professionals
---United Kingdom: British: Mantel, Hilary - The Heart Fails Without Warning
---Turkish: Üldes, Ersan - Professional Behaviour
---Swiss: Stefan, Verena - Doe a Deer
---Spanish: Catalan: Ibarz, Mercé - Nela and the Virgins
---Spanish: Castilian: Vila-Matas, Enrique - Far From Here
---Slovenian: Jančar, Drago - The Prophecy
---Serbian: Arsenijević, Vladimir - One Minute: Dumbo's Death
---Russian: Gelasimov, Andre - The Evil Eye
---Romanian: Teodorovici, Lucian Dan - Goose Chase
---Portuguese: Tavares, Gonçalo M. - Six Tales
---Polish: Tokarczuk, Olga - The Ugliest Woman in the World
---Norwegian: Grytten, Frode - Hotel by a Railroad
---Netherlands: Uphoff, Manon - Desire
---Montenegrin: Spahić, Ognjen - Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead
---Moldovan: Ciocan, Iulian - Auntie Frosea
---Macedonian: Minevski, Blaže - Academician Sisoye's Inaugural Speech
---Lithuanian: Kalinauskaitė, Danutė - Just Things
---Lichtensteiner: Sprenger, Stefan - Dust
---Latvian: Ikstena, Nora - Elza Kuga's Old-Age Dementia
---Italian: Candida, Marco - Dream Diary
---Irish: Barry, Kevin - Doctor Sot
---Irish: Dhuibhne, Éilís Ní - Trespasses
---Icelandic: Eiríksdóttir, Kristín - Holes in People
---Hungarian: Krasznahorkai, László - The Bill
---German: Schulze, Ingo - Oranges and Angel
Index of Best European Fiction 2010 under review
Index of Best European Fiction 2012 under review
Index of short stories under review
David J Single