Gabriele Eckart

“To blur the Sign”: Miguel de Cervantes’s and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Speaking Dogs in Zsuzsanna Gahse’s Novel Berganza (1984)

Besides Don Quixote, also the theme of the speaking dog that Cervantes introduced with The Conversation of the Dogs (Coloquio de los Perros) into world literature in 1613 has become an active ingredient in the literary life of German speaking countries in the 20th century.  While Fries adapted this text in the context of the downfall of the GDR for political reasons (see Eckart, Glossen 31), Zsuzsanna Gahse re-interpreted it from the perspective of linguistic skepticism.  As a member of a Hungarian family that fled to the West during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Gahse started to learn German when she was twelve.  According to Gert Ueding, this late age of German language acquisition enabled her to develop a critical awareness for those “exotic sounding words” (“exotisch klingenden Wörter”) and to use them as “objects of play in quite wanton, flowing, and linguistic conventions ignoring combinations” (“Gegenstände eines Spiels durchaus mutwilliger, fließender, die Sprachkonventionen mißachtender Zusammenstellungen”; Ueding 48).  Since Cervantes’s dog Berganza learned to speak a human language as a tongue foreign to him, Gahse seems to be predestined to pick up the Spanish canine protagonist and have him perform in a German-speaking context.

Gahse’s short novel Berganza is an eccentric piece of prose that contains intertextual references to both Cervantes’s story The Conversation of the Dogs (1613) and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s continuation of this text in News from the latest Destinies of the Dog Berganza (Nachricht von den neuesten Schicksalen des Hundes Berganza) (1814).  The first-person narrator, a German high school teacher, was told by a friend about the two world-famous Berganza-texts; she read them; nevertheless, when it turns out that the big black dog she finds at a gas station in a Southern German town is Berganza, she is very surprised.

It makes Gahse’s adaptation unique that Berganza performs as a language philosopher.  While he tells the story of his life to the female narrator, he takes the time to reflect critically on relations between perception, thought, and speech.  Berganza’s hybrid identity – neither a dog, nor a man, but something in-between – enables him to observe keenly the processes of language acquisition, thinking, and speaking and to become aware of their shortcomings.  The result of this observation is a new contribution to the literary tradition of a writer’s preoccupation with a crisis of language.  To give an example, Berganza becomes aware of the fact that perceiving us by means of language results in misjudging us:

With every sentence in which I perceive myself I fall into a pose and misjudge myself.  With every sentence in which I think to record myself I fall into a role and distance myself from me.  With every description, especially in regard to the exact descriptions, my pen slips.  Just as well, I could put on a mask and laugh.

(Mit jedem Satz, mit dem ich mich erkenne, falle ich in eine Pose und verkenne mich.  Mit jedem Satz, mit dem ich mich zu fixieren wähne, falle ich in eine Rolle und entferne mich von mir.  Mit jeder Beschreibung, besonders, was die exakten Beschreibungen anbelangt, verschreibe ich mich.  Ich könnte genausogut eine Maske aufsetzen und lachen; 1984, 92)

This example demonstrates that Gahse has a keen awareness of the inability of language to sufficiently express oneself.  In a special issue of the journal die horen on translation that she edited in 2005, she quoted José Ortega y Gasset who states that when man starts to speak he does it because he believes he could say what he thinks.  However, the Spanish philosopher goes on to say, that is an illusion: “But language doesn’t yield that much.  It says more or less a part of what we think and puts for the rest an insurmountable obstacle in the way” (“So viel leistet die Sprache nicht.  Sie gibt, mehr oder weniger, einen Teil von dem wieder, was wir denken, und setzt der Übermittlung des Restes einen unübersteiglichen Damm entgegen”; Ortega y Gasset 45-6).

Besides the fact that exile, although she “merely inherited it,” enriched her as a “chance to receive new artistic inspirations” (Zimmer 385), there is a second reason why Gahse was able to develop such a keen awareness of the problematic nature of language: her work as a translator.  Having translated Hungarian literature into German for years, it became evident for Gahse that, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it in his famous essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”: “a juxtaposition of the different languages shows that what matters about words is never the truth, never an adequate expression; otherwise there would not be so many languages” (256).  In Gahse’s narrative Berganza, there are plenty of indications that language is something not to be taken for granted as a tool, for instance, when the narrator states: “I am writing this narrative already for the third time” (“Ich schreibe diese Geschichte schon zum dritten Mal”; 1984, 22).  For depicting her surprise that the dog she brought home suddenly spoke to her, she would need to use the expression “Oh” (1984, 22).  However, she feels remorse using this word because it comes with an “inner motion” (“innere Bewegung”; 1984, 22) that “contains something old-fashioned, almost inopportune” (“beinhaltet etwas Unzeitgemäßes, beinahe schon etwas Ungehöriges”; 1984, 23).  Afterwards, she tries out different beginnings of the text; one of them stresses the “uniqueness” (“Einmaligkeit”; 1984, 24) of having found a speaking dog; she feels that pointing out this uniqueness should have center-stage.  However, she wonders, who would be interested in such a story right now – during this time of the military “maneuvers of autumn” (“Herbstmanöver”; 1984, 24) the noise of which fills the land.  These maneuvers cause a specific “image of mood” (“Stimmungsbild”; 1984, 24) that influences people’s mind in such a way that the narrator feels she cannot offer her readers a text about a speaking dog.  But, not to write Berganza’s story is also impossible because, maneuvers or not, she feels that it just has to be written.  Finally, the narrator starts writing the story that constantly questions its own narrative technique.

In addition to exploring the inability of language to represent truth, Berganza reflects on the connection between language and feelings of guilt.  In contrast to Cervantes’s Berganza who suddenly knew how to speak at the stroke of midnight, Gahse’s Berganza had to learn it step for step.  Remembering this very slow and strenuous process of language acquisition, he reflects on the transition “from being mute to listening and then to speaking” (“hinüber vom Stummsein ins Hören und dann weiter zum Reden”; 1984, 80) – a transition the painfulness of which he could feel in his body: “a little puffiness, pimples, swellings, little hills of misery and small amounts of glory under the skin as a transition to the bursting of talents” (“Plusterchen, Quellungen, Schwellungen, vorbereitete Häufchen Elend und kleine Herrlichkeiten, unter der Haut, als Übergang, bevor die Talente barsten”; 1984, 80).  However, there is not much time to celebrate this new ability to understand and to speak, because, “when I, for instance, suddenly understood what specific words meant […] I felt mainly threatened” (“als ich zum Beispiel plötzlich verstand, was einzelne Wörter sagten […] fühlte ich mich in erster Linie bedroht”; 80).  Having progressed from listening to understanding and speaking, Berganza feels threatened because he suddenly becomes aware of the human game of blaming:

Everywhere I had made a mess, supposedly all the time.  For everything that came apart at the seams I was guilty, of course that was my fault, I thought.  A glass fell from the table and shattered in front of my feet, I put my ears back.  I jumped over the fence, tore my hind legs open and bleeding, I disappeared into a corner, full of remorse.  For every rattle, every time that there was a noise, when people were arguing, I was the guilty one.

(Überall hatte ich etwas angerichtet, vermeintlich immerzu.  Alles, was aus den Fugen geraten war, war meine Schuld, selbstverständlich, dachte ich.  Ein Glas flog vom Tisch und zersprang vor meinen Füßen, ich legte die Ohren zurück.  Ich sprang über den Zaun, riß die eigenen Hinterbeine auf, und blutend verzog ich mich in eine Ecke, voller Reue, ich.  Bei jedem Klirren, wenn Lärm entstand, wenn sich Leute stritten, war ich der Schuldige; 1984, 80-1).

In other words, Berganza feels guilty even for damage he has not caused – a feeling of which he had been ignorant before he could understand human language.  In contrast to Cervantes’s dog  “who feels like hugging himself from joy that he could speak” (“der sich am liebsten selbst umhalsen möchte, vor Freude, weil er sprechen kann”; Gahse 1984, 17), Gahse’s Berganza is not happy at all about the gift of speech.

Like Cervantes’s canine protagonist, Gahse’s Berganza serves different masters.  Earlier masters were, for instance, a student who went to Great Britain to study English and a scientist who studied animal behavior.  This later master used Berganza as an object of observation leading to ridiculous results: “In this undertaking, he one time distinguished between me and human beings; another time, he compared me to them by transferring my qualities on them; in whatever ideas he was involved he always ignored who actually was standing in front of him.” (“Dabei unterschied er mich mal von Menschen, und mal verglich er mich mit ihnen, übertrug meine Eigenschaften auf sie; ganz gleich, welche Ideen er hatte, er war immer in der Lage zu übersehen, wer da eigentlich vor ihm stand”; 1984, 42).

While these experiences fill only a few pages, Berganza’s narrative about a later master, a woman called Anna, goes on and on.  After she has adopted him, he lives with her and her family, including a husband called Rupp and their three children.  Since Berganza accompanies Anna all the time and can read her thoughts and feelings, he is able to observe her inner turmoil caused by the fact that she loves another man, called Justin, who is married to another woman.  Anna’s inability to communicate with her husband (she is unable to tell him that she would like to leave him and start a new life with Justin) is an occasion for Berganza to draw skeptical conclusions about the correspondence between feelings, thoughts, and words.  After the secret lovers, Anna and Justin, decided to leave their families for a three-day vacation, Anna says to Rupp only that she feels like traveling and would like to leave for a few days.  Rupp answers that he feels the same.  Immediately, he makes plans to take the family on a camping trip to the French Alps.  During this trip, while Anna constantly postpones saying the decisive sentence that is waiting on her tongue “I can’t any more and I don’t want any more” (“Ich kann nicht mehr und ich will nicht mehr”; 1984, 98), she utters other words instead.  For instance, when Anna’s husband begs her to sit down and eat with him, she declines the invitation describing a stomachache while Berganza thinks: “this didn’t seem to lead to the description of an illness, but to conciliatory speeches” (“Das schien nicht auf die Beschreibung eines Krankheitsbildes hinauszulaufen, sondern auf versöhnliche Reden”; 1984, 98).  The following statement of Ortega y Gasset that Gahse refers to in her special edition of die horen corresponds with Berganza’s observation of the failed attempt to communicate between Anna and Rupp:

Stuck to the deep-seated prejudice that we communicate by means of speaking, we talk and listen in such good faith that in the end we misunderstand each other much more as if we had silently attempted to guess our thoughts.

(Entsprechend dem eingewurzelten Vorurteil, daß wir uns durch Sprechen verständigen, reden wir und hören in so gutem Glauben zu, daß wir uns schließlich mehr mißverstehen, als wenn wir stumm wären und uns bemühten, uns zu erraten; Ortega y Gasset 47).

No doubt, if Anna were mute, Rupp would know from reading her face and gestures that the happiness in their marriage was over.  Also, when Anna talks to Berganza, the communication fails because, as Berganza notices, she is addressing not him, but rather Justin, her lover, and even more:  “She is not just speaking to me, but she also comes up with my answers” (“Sie spricht mich nicht nur an, sondern denkt auch Antworten für mich aus”; 53).  To Berganza’s surprise, this ritual of miscommunication seems to give relief to Anna’s lovesick heart.

At one point in the narrative, it occurs to Anna that one should better experience everything, also the event of an “sickening conversation” (“kränkenden Unterhaltung”; 65) as if it were filmed.  Language would disappear with the result that “the hardly noticeable in the mimicry would become the actual event” (“das beinahe Unmerkliche in der Mimik wird wohl das eigentliche Geschehen sein”; 1984, 65).

While Anna goes on talking to her husband Rupp about this and that, avoiding telling him the truth, Berganza’s resulting presentiment about Anna’s future is so negative that he decides to leave her.  He runs away to look for a new master – who finally will be the first-person narrator of Gahse’s text, the high school-teacher whose friend had loaned her Cervantes’s and E. T. A. Hoffmann’s texts on Berganza; at this point, the frame of the narrative closes.

As it was said before, exploring the arbitrariness of language and its consequences from the point of view of Berganza, who on one hand is in a dog’s position and on the other hand is able to reflect philosophically, is Gahse’s important contribution to the literary theme of the speaking dog, which Cervantes had started in 1613.  As Dorota Sośnicka pointed out, Berganza sometimes puts his snout on the first-person-narrator’s shoulder, resulting in a sound of his voice that resembles her own.  From this detail it could be concluded that Berganza is the narrator’s – and very likely the author’s – alter ego.   Therefore, Berganza’s skeptical statements as, for instance, the following about the fact that speaking does not lead to happiness, can be read as a description of Gahse’s own experiences with being a foreigner in a German-speaking context: “You can learn everything, every language, even its refinements, as you also can learn, with some concentration, good taste – a joyless enrichment and I would prefer to withdraw into resignation” (“Alles ist erlernbar, jede Sprache, selbst ihre Feinheiten, wie bei einiger Konzentration auch der gute Geschmack zu erlernen ist.  Eine freudlose Bereicherung, und lieber will ich mich blindlings in das Verzichten einigeln”; 1984, 60).

Interestingly, Berganza’s negative feelings about language correspond with his discomfort in the city.  While he accompanies Anna to the city where she sells the pottery she has made, he complains bitterly.  One of his complaints is that everything is “assigned” (“vergeben”; 1984, 57) in urban space; the major culprit seems to be the line:

Everywhere are lines; the new thing are the lines. They force my eyes to a specific point; I don’t like that.  I don’t like to be cornered and I have objections to these lines above, underneath, and diagonal to my horizon.

([Ü]berall sind Linien, das Neue sind die Linien. Sie zwingen meinen Blick auf einen ausgesparten Punkt, was ich beklagen möchte.  Ich mag es nicht eingezwängt zu sein und habe Bedenken vor diesen Linien oberhalb, unterhalb und diagonal zu meinem Blickfeld; 1984, 57)

With its regime of lines, the city attempts to channel, correct, and control Berganza’s perception.  However, since he, as a dog, is a part of nature, he can feel clearly that, as Nietzsche put it, “correct perception – which would mean the adequate expression of an object in the subject – seems […] a self-contradictory absurdity”; 260). Giving the reason for this absurdity, Nietzsche states boldly: “between two absolutely different spheres, as between subject and object, there is no causality, no correctness, no expression, but at most an aesthetic attitude” (260). With this attitude, Nietzsche means “an illusive transference, a halting translation into an entirely foreign language, which in any case demands a freely creative and freely inventive […] mediating force” (260).  In regard to Gahse’s linguistic skepticism, it is important to point out that the concept of the line Berganza has an issue with appears also in the description of Gahse’s discomfort with language, for instance, as a part of the word “line to remember” (“Merklinie”; 1984, 66).  Her protagonist Anna notes:

Even for that choppiness that Anna imagined as her approximate future, there were always sentences, not only movements and temperatures; and especially

the sentences had a weight that wanted to eliminate everything that existed at random.  She basically thought in statements, assurances, declarations, reassurances, almost in laws, exclusions, lines to remember.  Hardly in anything that would apply to flitting images, speechless, with many visual appearances.

(Sogar für jene Bewegtheit, die sich Anna als ungefähre Zukunft vorstellte, waren immer Sätze vorhanden, nicht nur Bewegungen und Temperaturen, und gerade die Sätze hatten eine Schwere, die alles Beiläufige verschlucken wollte.  Im Grunde dachte sie in Aussagen, Sicherungen, Leitgedanken, Beruhigungen, beinahe schon in Gesetzen, Ausnahmesätzen, Merklinien.  Kaum einmal etwas, was nur vorbeihuschende Bilder betroffen hätte, wortlos, mit viel Optik; 1984, 66, italics added).

In other words, what language threatens to eliminate with such instruments as the “lines to remember” are the incidental and fleeting images.

In contrast to the city, Berganza feels good in a more natural space.  Although the park in which he runs around one day had once been designed geometrically, now, there “trees are growing exuberantly blurring the sign by means of their irregularity” (“wuchern die Bäume, wobei sie mir ihrer Unregelmäßigkeit das Zeichen verwischen”;  81-2).  This expression, “to blur the sign,” could be used to characterize Gahse’s aesthetic program.  In the list of writers who inspired her, she names Peter Handke (see Segebrecht 55).  Although she does not give a specific reason for her attraction to Handke’s work, from reading her oeuvre it can be assumed that what attracts her above all is his obsession with exploring the “spaces-in-between” (“Zwischenräume”; Handke, see title of book Aber ich lebe nur von den Zwischenräumen).  In Gahse’s poetic universe, such “Zwischenräume” are, for instance, the already mentioned things that are only incidental or just fleeting by very quickly – things that on first glance hardly exist at all.  Since in the linear world of the city where stone sits on stone, such spaces-in-between are very narrow, there is not much to explore for Berganza; this causes his frustration, but he does not give up, using his senses of taste and smell.  Examining for instance the different smells of things and people, he discovers that he has the astonishing ability to create new forms of expression out of smell:  “from these stinging and smooth or stubborn notes of smell, I am creating a composition that reminds me of music” (“aus diesen stechenden und glatten oder widerborstigen Duftnoten bereite ich eine Komposition, die mich an Musik erinnert”; 1984, 44).  Composing music-like expressions from different notes of smell reminds us of the romantic ideal of synaesthesia by the means of which one can transcend one’s quotidian experience.  Also Berganza’s preference of words that have a certain color, as for instance the word “tipsiness” (“Schwips”; 1984, 95), testifies to his synaesthetic abilities.

In terms of Gahse’s aesthetic, Berganza’s insistence on expressing himself by means of a combination of linguistic and artistic means could be interpreted the following way: Although Gahse feels frustrated due to the fact that in language everything is already “assigned” in a strict, but arbitrary order of signifiers and signified, silence is not an option for her.  Wisely, Berganza states: “Not to talk is the same as to talk about everything” (“Nicht zu reden ist ähnlich wie alles bereden”; 1984, 94).  Therefore, one must express oneself!  A possible option to resolve the issue of language crisis would be to explore the so-called “in-between” of things and senses, as difficult as this exploration might be because there are no words for it.  In this aesthetic effort, Gahse is clearly inspired by Handke as it was mentioned before – an author who, in turn, was deeply inspired by Nietzsche’s attitude towards language.  As Andrea Gogröf-Voorhees points out, for both Nietzsche and Handke language is the only medium for expressing the relationship between the self and the world; nevertheless, the critic goes on to say, both writers share the same caution with language that “is ambivalent, constructive and destructive, creating meaning and identity as well as distorting them” (330).  As Handke states:

It is so hard to speak: the pure concrete does not lead to truth; and the abstract seduces you so easily to swing merely around given concepts.  To find into-between them – that is what inspires me to speak, but where you seldom proceed with precision.

(Es ist so schwer zu sprechen: das pur Konkrete ist so erkenntnislos, und das Abstrakte, da ist man so leicht in Gefahr, die vorhandenen Begriffe einfach so herumzuschaukeln.  Und dazwischenzufinden, das ist für mich immer… das ist es, was mich eigentlich antreibt zu reden, wo man aber selten genau arbeitet; 54).

The methods of exploring this in-between are different in Handke’s and Gahse’s texts.  While the first author attempts to describe this narrow space in as much detail as possible, Gahse experiments with language, breaking it apart and joining it in new ways.  Ueding describes her methods to undermine the conventional view of language and to change it for the purpose of finding new forms as highly artificial.  Some examples are Gahse’s “forced shortening, reduction to a single word, pulling together und somehow cubistic creation of space” (“gewaltsame Verkürzung, Reduktion aufs Einzelwort, Zusammenziehung und gleichsam kubistische Verräumlichung”; Ueding 49).  Nevertheless, the critic goes on to say, there is “a lot of play, joke, irony, and unconcerned fun with words that makes these texts so much livelier than some other poetic language experiments in modern poetry are” (“viel Spiel, Witz, Ironie und unbekümmerte Sprachfreude darin, die diese Texte so viel lebendiger machen, als es manche lyrische Sprach-exerzitien in der modernen Poesie sonst sind”; 49).

As it was said before, in Gahse’s narrative Berganza, it is the dog that playfully designs this avant-garde program.  At first, he notices that when he speaks there is something missing in what he is saying: “I feel as if I have to throw myself into the speech at the end of all my sentences” (“mir ist, als müßte ich hinter allen meinen Sätzen mich selbst in den Redefluß werfen”; 1984, 52).  He is missing himself, his personality; but how to include such a thing in speech?  He experiments with different types of sentences, shorter and longer ones, until he feels that “the sentence fascinates [him] more than an orderly or also not-orderly description” (“[ihn] der Satz mehr fesselt als eine ordentliche oder auch ordnungsfreie Beschreibung”; 1984, 53).  In Saussure’s terms, this means that the signifier has become more fascinating for Berganza than the signified.  He continues to state:

I want to have patterns, speech patterns with exuberant ornaments […]; then, I have to laugh about this idea and notice that I actually prefer the coarse features, casually jotted sentences along the long strand of which sometimes robust buttons are lighting up; sketches, more is not due to a story.

(Ich will Muster haben, Sprechmuster mit üppigen Ornamenten […] bis ich über diesen Einfall lachen muß und merke, daß ich eigentlich die groben Züge mag, lässig hingeworfene Sätze, an deren langem Strang manchmal widerstandsfähige Körner aufleuchten. Skizzen, mehr steht keiner Geschichte zu; 1984, 53).

During his experiments with different types of sentences, Berganza also notices that language, above all, is a “Stimmung” (possible translations would be: mood, disposition, humor, or ambience):

Probably I could fill myself with every language like with a mood.  That sounds as if I would claim a language is only a mood.  Conversely, it is certainly less correct that not every mood is a language; a mood does not even require a clear expression.  Nevertheless, I must swing myself into a specific mood; I must painfully climb into this mood when I wish to speak in a foreign tongue.  It remains alien to me.  I like it, but I cannot grow together with it.

(Wahrscheinlich könnte ich mich mit jeder Sprache auffüllen wie mit einer Stimmung.  Das hört sich an, als würde ich behaupten, ein Idiom sei nur eine Stimmung.  Umgekehrt ist es natürlich noch weniger richtig, also nicht jede Stimmung ist gleich eine Sprache, nicht einmal einen deutlichen Ausdruck muß eine Stimmung haben.  Und doch muss ich mich in eine ganz bestimmte Laune schwingen, muß in die Laune umständlich hineinsteigen, wenn ich in einer fremden Sprache sprechen will.  Sie bleibt mir fremd.  Ich mag sie, kann mit ihr trotzdem nicht verwachsen; 1984, 39).

In her essay “Main and Secondary Meanings of Language” (“Haupt- und Nebenbedeutungen der Sprache”; 2005), Gahse examines the connection between the different fields of mood and the historic roots of languages.  Her thoughts on this matter reflect once more her reading of Ortega y Gasset, who sees the incongruity of languages based on the fact that they developed in different landscapes and under the influence of different conditions and experiences of life.  He argues that it would be wrong to assume, for instance, “that what the Spaniard calls bosque would be the same as that which the German calls Wald” (“daß das, was der Spanier bosque nennt, das gleiche sei, was der Deutsche Wald heißt”; Ortega y Gasset 21) although the dictionary claims that “Wald” means “bosque.” Gahse states with resignation that in translation this specific field of mood that belongs to a language gets lost.  In Berganza’s case, this loss means that although he is able to listen and to speak, the exact mood of a people’s language is not accessible to him.

Exhausted after his difficult experiences with language, Berganza considers returning to barking – a language with which he could completely identify.  However, he has learned to think about language critically and barking is a kind of language about which he states: “I am too blind in it” (“ich bin in ihr zu blind”; 1984, 40).  To be blind towards language means he is not able to reflect on his original language critically for a lack of distance.  As a translator and writer, Gahse probably feels that she cannot question her native Hungarian language as radically as she is able to question German.

In Ortega y Gasset’s exploration of the forces that generate language change, the Spaniard distinguishes between to speak and to sayTo speak is to use a language “as constituted and as our social environment imposes it on us” (Gabriel-Stheeman 144); to say means “to invent new modes of the language … because those that exist and that it already possesses do not […] suffice to say what needs to be said” (Gabriel-Stheeman 144).  The dynamics between the two, as Ortega shows, create change in a language – these thoughts clearly reverberate in Gahse’s narrative Berganza.  In her questioning of German sentence structure and vocabulary, as, for instance, the word “eternal” (“ewig”; 103) as well as in her criticism of the instrumentalized use of language in everyday conversation, she criticizes what Ortega y Gassett calls to speak.  Her playful testing what kind of images and sounds a word yields and her creation of new forms of language as Ueding has described it, contributes to the dimension of to say.  By undermining the dichotomy between that which is and that which appears,  Zsuzsanna Gahse also undermines the traditional notion of language.

Regarding Gahse’s reception of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s romanticist Berganza-adaptation, Dorota Sośnicka noted correctly that the story of Anna, Rupp, and Anna’s lover Justin is told “before the background of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s unhappy love story with his married voice student, Julia” (“vor dem Hintergrund der unglücklichen Liebesgeschichte E. T. A. Hoffmanns zu seiner verheirateten Gesangschülerin Julia” 432).  While Berganza in Hoffmann’s story does not understand why the sixteenth-year-old Julia who represents the romantic ideal, gives her consent for the “unfitting marriage” (“unpassende Heirat”; Gahse 1984, 19) with Graepel, a rich, but stupid merchant, in Gahse’s story Berganza does not understand why Anna does not leave her husband for Justin, whom she truly loves.  Besides quoting from Hoffmann’s story frequently, as for instance the famous sentence, “Have you never seen a dog cry (“Hast du denn noch nie einen Hund weinen gesehen”; Hoffmann 154), Gahse’s narrator criticizes Hoffmann from a feminist point of view stating that his statement that “womens’ blooming time is their actual life” (“die Blütezeit der Frauenzimmer [sei] ihr eigentliches Leben” 1984, 34) is wrong.  According to Gahse’s first-person-narrator who is a woman beyond that “sweet stage of bloom and raisins” (“süßen Blüte und Rosinenzeit”; 1984, 35), it would be wrong “to underestimate the previous and following stages of life” (“die vorhergehenden und nachfolgenden Zeiten zu unterschätzen” 1984, 35) due to the fact that they have their own beauty.  Also, while Hoffmann’s story is mainly concerned with the position of the artist in bourgeois society and the contrast between devotion to art and dilettantism, Gahse’s text is more concerned with the contrast between lines and nature, signified and signifier, i.e. the issue of language.

Gahse’s intertextual references to Cervantes’s narrative The Conversation of the Dogs that humorously satirized seventeenth-century Spain are mainly focused on the friendship between the dogs Berganza and Scipio as well as on the figure of the witch, Cañizares.  Since Anna is actually talking to Justin when she talks to Berganza, Berganza is unable to communicate with her; he misses Scipio with whom he had discovered the ability to speak and was able to have a true conversation.  Cañizares, on the other hand, appears in Gahse’s narrative for the purpose of delivering a kind of feminist manifesto.  In the most important, almost seven-pages-long reference to Cañizares, Berganza sees her in a dream dancing with Anna: “Resolutely, they held each other at the hips and circled through the room” (“Entschlossen hielten sie einander an den Hüften und kreisten durch den Raum”; 1984, 107).  While they are dancing a waltz together – the witch many-centuries-old and dried out, Anna young and fresh – they talk; it seems that Cañizares attempts to disillusion Anna in regard to her euphoria about Justin by trying to wake her up to the fact that he does not deserve her.  Also in this conversation the issue of language plays an important role.  Whatever Justin says and does – for instance, “how he is dangling from many thoughts and thinks he would be in control of them” (“wie er an vielen Gedanken baumelt und meint, er hätte sie fest im Griff”; 1984, 110) – it makes Anna happy.  In other words, Anna’s concern of whether we really think something or language is thinking us (i.e., by using a language we are being manipulated by its structures) that otherwise would trouble her, in Justin’s case, she finds it not to be an issue.  Because she is in love with him, she is able to smile about such uncertainties of the human condition that otherwise would trouble her.  Cañizares does not like at all this uncritical attitude but, in the end, she fails to disillusion Anna about the man.

To summarize, Gahse adopted the canine characters of Miguel de Cervantes’s and E. T. A. Hoffmann’s texts Conversation of the Dogs (1613) and News from The latest Destinies of the Dog Berganza (1814) mainly in order to examine the issue of language.  While Cervantes uses the speaking dog to satirize the corruption in the Spanish society at the beginning of the seventeenth century and Hoffmann the deplorable position of the artist in Germany two hundred years later, Gahse has Berganza explore critically the ways in which people speak and their consequences.  Simultaneously, she suggests changes to our use of language that point in the direction of an avant-garde program.


Works Consulted


Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. “Novela y Coloquio que pasó entre Cipión y Berganza.”  Miguel de Cervantes.  Novelas Ejemplares.  Vol. II, Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1969, 209-340.

Eckart, Gabriele.  “The Reception of Cervantes’s Don Quixote and The Conversation of the Dogs in Post-Reunification German Literature.” Glossen 31 (2011).

Fries, Fritz Rudolf.  Die Hunde von Mexico Stadt.  Warmbronn: Ulrich Keicher, 1997.  Print.

Gabriel-Stheeman, Luis.  “A nobleman grabs the broom: Ortega y Gasset’s verbal hygiene.” José del Valle and Luis Gabriel-Stheeman.  (Eds.) The Battle over Spanish between 1800 and 2000.  London: Routledge, 2002, 134-66.  Print.

Gahse, Zsuzsanna.  Berganza: Erzählung.  München: List, 1984.  Print.

———-. “Haupt- und Nebenbedeutungen der Sprache.” Die horen 50, 2 (2005): 6-9.  Print.

Gogröf-Voorhees, Andrea.  “Language, Life, and Art: Handke and/on Nietzsche.” David N. Coury.  Frank Pilipp.  The Works of Peter Handke: International Perspectives.  Riverside: Ariadne P, 2005, 310-335.  Print.

Handke, Peter.  Aber ich lebe nur von den Zwischenräumen: Ein Gespräch, geführt von Herbert Gamper.  Zürich: Amman, 1987.  Print.

E. T. A. Hoffmann. Poetische Werke in sechs Bänden.  Berlin: Aufbau, 1963. Vol. 1, 147-226.  Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.” Friedrich Nietzsche.  Writings from the Early Notebooks.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009: 253-64.  Print.

Ortega y Gasset, José.  Elend und Glanz der Übersetzung.  Ebenhausen: Langewiesche-Brandt, 1956.  Print.

Segebrecht, Wulf.  Auskünfte von und über Zsuzsanna Gahse.  Bamberg: Univ. Bamberg, 1996.  Print.

Sośnicka, Dorota.  Den Rhythmus der Zeit einfangen: Erzählexperimente in der Deutschschweizer Gegenwartsliteratur.  Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2008.  Print.

Ueding, Gert.  “An der Spitze der europäischen Avantgarde: Porträt der Schriftstellerin Zsuzsanna Gahse.”  Segebrecht, Wulf.  Auskünfte von und über Zsuzsanna Gahse.  Bamberg: Univ. Bamberg, 1996:  46-50.  Print.

Zimmer, David.  “Ungarinnen im Schweizer Exil: Drei Annäherungen.” Arcadia 42,2 (2007): 385-397.  Print.

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