Sabine Gruber, Daldossi oder Das Leben des Augenblicks (Daldossi or Life in the Moment). Munich: C. H. Beck, 2016.
Sabine Gruber’s new novel moves in the world of war photographers and war correspondents. Bruno Daldossi is a war photographer from South Tyrol whose mixed German-speaking Austrian and Italian identities are only the beginning of his ambivalances and ambiguities. Having spent much of his career in combat zones and scenes of revolution and forced migration, he cannot really come to rest, even though he needs rest and belonging. He is compulsively competitive: with his colleagues, with his romantic rivals, and even with his romantic interests. One of his coping mechanisms is the act of photography itself. “Solange ich photographiert habe, war ich ruhig” (“As long as I was taking photographs, I was at peace”), he reflects late in the book. Another coping mechanism is self-medication with alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, and sedatives. And a chief mechanism is not staying in one place. He knows these habits are destructive, but less destructive than the dangerous worlds he inhabits, and which now inhabit him in the form of memories.
Much of the novel consists of memories: short-term, long past, triggered by or hardened into images. The few days of present action of the novel, which take him from the Austrian countryside to Vienna to Venice to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, are filled with Daldossi’s memories. The theaters of war crowd into his head nearly as randomly as articles in an online news feed, except that they have a subjective causal logic and a persistence that allows them to outdo the here and now. “Daldossis Gedankenschalter hatte die Angewohnheit, hartnäckig in seinem Zustand zu veharren, es war kein Standby möglich, die Bilder ließen sich nicht wegklicken, die Wörter nicht streichen, es sei denn, Daldossi hatte getrunken oder er war endlich, meist mit Hilfe von Beruhigungsmitteln, eingeschlafen” (“The toggle switch in Daldossi’s mind had the habit of sticking tenaciously to his condition. There was no standby. The images could not be clicked away, the words couldn’t be deleted, unless Daldossi had either been drinking or had finally—usually with the aid of sedatives—fallen asleep”).
Personal connections or visual reminders call up pictures of Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt in the Arab Spring, or South Sudan. These images tear Daldossi out of the present moment so that life, past or present, gets stuck in the moments of the subtitle. The narrative thread consists less of continuity than of interruptions, torn by personal conflicts, the intrusion of others’ needs, or moving on to the next location. Even when escaping his assignments—and his assignations—Daldossi reacts to the new emptiness (emptiness of experience, of emotion, of the landscape) by giving himself new assignments.
The narrative permits empathy with this damaged man even as it reveals his self-destruction. The novel does not come down on one side or the other of the classic conflict of the war photographer: he records extremes of human suffering without doing anything to alleviate them. This dilemma hounds Daldossi, although he also knows that those who make that judgment would not be able to sympathize with the victims without first learning of them through war journalism. A crucial subplot involves his helping out two female refugees in Vienna, but he hardly recognizes his own altruism because it is obscured by a sense of obligation, of the built-in guilt of the observer who doesn’t act.
The human connections that could bring him some peace and quiet cannot stand up to his restlessness and contradictions. So he loses his lover Marlis, who escapes to Venice. He rashly travels to Venice to find her, unsure what he will do when he does, and ends up drunk and on the streets, a refugee for one night. At the same time, Johanna is attracted to him and has asked him to accompany her to Lampedusa, a tiny southern outpost of Europe, where she has been sent to fill in for a colleague reporting on the refugee situation. He finally decides to join her there, where he does not have to distinguish so neatly between his professional and personal identities, but is no less restless.
Sabine Gruber’s novel is set squarely in our times, with invasions, civil wars, refugee crises, and the identity crisis of the educated, liberal middle class of Europe (but not only of Europe). This is our world, where instant communication both enables and threatens interpersonal relations as well as international relations. We have too much information, and yet not enough information that could guide us. We are forced into improvising and constantly adjusting to the conditions on the ground, and Daldossi’s moments are a particularly concentrated version of this circumstance.
Yet the novel does not depend on current events for its relevance; rather it proceeds from the particular human predicaments embedded in these events. Thus the narrative makes current events relevant, not the other way around. All globalism is local. While Daldossi’s moments are associated with each other thematically or visually in his roving mind, they are anchored in particular times and places. Gruber fixes these times and places with the narrative invention of describing rather than reproducing Daldossi’s photos, which are then summarized in captions. Local events are given global significance by photography—or by narrative—but only if they are not wrested from their time and place, or from the hands of those who live, suffer, or die there and then.
Daldossi oder das Leben des Augenblicks is steeped in the melancholy of its protagonist, but it is remarkably free of antagonists, of the easy but made-up targets we all know from online comments sections. Nearly every character is trying hard, but that is never enough. The author allows the moments of human connection, of recognizing the humanity of another, to shine among all this tarnish. They do not outshine it, but they make it bearable—at least for the moment, and moments are all we have.