Some of the pieces that drift furthest from the facts and make the most of the unknown are the most satisfying. The book ends with a Gottfried Adolf Kinau’s drawings of the moon (lost to fire again), from which Schalansky creates a fantasy about a man whose obsession with the moon leads him ultimately to live there, abandoning his wife and children: “Each one of us must leave everything behind, as if he were crossing the final threshold.” It makes for a captivating conclusion, more serene in tone than elegiac: loss must be accepted. And this is not generally, it should be said, a sombre book. There’s a playful quality even in the paradoxical title, and also in the preface.
Schalansky is marvellously adept at enabling “everything to be experienced” but most especially from the point of view of those who are lost to view. As translators are often among those lost to view this is a moment to hail the singular achievement of Jackie Smith in rendering An Inventory of Losses into English. Her translation of Griefswald Harbour, for example, is a miracle of exactness. If loss abounds in this book, translation loss is not one of them. As we deal with the consequences, emotional and material, of a pandemic, it is hard to imagine a better guide to the resources of hope than Schalansky’s deeply engaging inventory.
For writers working at the interstices of fiction and non-fiction, such questions of how to balance form and content, art and accuracy, will be resolved in different ways — each must occasionally give ground. Schalansky is at her strongest, it seems to me, when she has least need to compromise. But there is no doubt that at these times, her work is very strong indeed.
An Inventory of Losses is a collection of 12 pieces, some essays, some short fictions, some pitched in between, on various things that have been lost — from the Pacific island of Tuanaki that vanished around 1842 and the Caspian tiger last sighted in 1964, to Sappho’s complete poems and the East German Palace of the Republic. Some pieces are excellent, some are dull. The most stimulating section is the preface, which, in musing on national consciousness and the implications of cultural memory as a global organism, couldn’t be more German in its philosophical idealism.