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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Excursus—Hurbinek-Odradek: A Postcard from the Edge

This excursus from my doctoral dissertation concerns my pairing of two of the strangest—and most compelling—figures of twentieth century Europe: Primo Levi’s Hurbinek as the ruptured, “perfect witness” of Auschwitz and Franz Kafka’s Odradek as an “epistemological rupture” in our reading of literature.

Franz Kafka’s Odradek

The narrative begins with these words:1

Some say the word Odradek is of Slavonic origin, and try to account for it on that basis. Others again believe it to be of German origin, only influenced by Slavonic. The uncertainty of both interpretations allows one to assume with justice that neither is accurate, especially as neither of them provides an intelligent meaning of the word.

From this brief story, I have culled these descriptions:

One is tempted to believe that the creature once had some sort of intelligible shape and is now only a broken-down remnant.

Of course, you put no difficult questions to him, you treat him—he is so diminutive that you cannot help it—rather like a child. “Well, what's your name?” you ask him. “Odradek,” he says.

Even these anwers are not always forthcoming; often he stays mute for a long time, as wooden as his appearance.

I ask myself, to no purpose, what is likely to happen to him? Can he possibly die? Anything that dies has had some kind of aim in life, some kind of activity, which has worn out; but that does not apply to Odradek.

In an online site called “The Kafka Project” by Mauro Nervi,2 Anya Meksin3 offers this analysis:

Odradek is a metaphysical rupture in the reality of the family man, and the story is an epistemological rupture in the reality of the reader. The need to normalize this rupture constitutes the “cares” or “worries” of the family man—a series of circular musings on the origin and destiny of Odradek, an effort to integrate him into the domestic regularity that it is the family man’s duty to preserve. For the reader, these same efforts at normalization give rise to a series of equally circular and anxious interpretations of the text, all proving inconclusive, but each fueling the need for the next. (italics added)

Primo Levi’s Hurbinek

In The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi, Judith Woolf4 introduces Hurbinek this way:

As we have seen, some of Levi’s most searing testimony involves children; at the start of The Truce5 he shows us the end product of the Nazis’ attempt to reduce their victims to the condition of animals in the depiction of a dying child so deprived that his very name is a meaningless sound, yet who nonetheless struggles indomitably to acquire human speech:

Hurbinek, who was three years old and perhaps had been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the world of men, from which a bestial power had excluded him; Hurbinek, the nameless, whose tiny forearm – even his – bore the tattoo of Auschwitz . . . (The Truce, p. 235)

At least one biography gives primacy to the figure of Hurbinek in Primo Levi’s published work. Francesco Lucrezi’s book in Italian is entitled, “The Word of Hurbinek, The Death of Primo Levi” (my translation).6


Am I the only one to notice a resemblance between Primo Levi’s Hurbinek and Franz Kafka’s Odradek? No, a few others have made the connection …

1)    In an article in French which I translate as “Storytelling: Witnessing in the face of the silence of language,” Esther Cohen (2003, p. 66)7 wrote:  

Tout comme Hurbinek-Odradek, il semble qu’ils n’aient pas non plus pu faire face à l’authentique catastrophe ; ils devinrent muets, sans pouvoir donner de réponse. La langue, écrit Celan, « est passée à travers et n’a pas eu de mots pour ce qui s’est passé ».

Just like Hurbinek-Odradedek, it seems that they have also not been able to confront to the authentic catastrophe; they become mute, without being able to give a response. Language, Celan wrote, “passed through and did not have the words for what happened.” (My translation)

2)    In a Brazilian text I translate as “Still-life: Finitude and Negativity in T.W. Adorno,” Maurício Chiarello mentions Hurbinek and Odradek.8

3)    Another Brazilian author, Jeanne Marie Gagnebin presented, “Odradek, Hurbinek. Annotations in the margins of a text by Kafka,” at the 5th International Michel Foucault Colloquium in Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil.9

Uma das mais enigmáticas das pequenas narrativas de Kafka, no centro do “Médico rural”, trata da “preocupação do pai de família” em relação a um ser híbrido e inútil, chamado de Odradek, que escapa de sua compreensão e de seu controle. A partir de uma análise desse texto e de alguns comentários, tentar-se-á explicitar como e por que essa existência sem sentido pode despertar no leitor uma sensação de alegre resistência e de eficaz impertinência - em oposição à dor que provoca a descrição de seu irmão gêmeo, pelo menos no nome e na falta de sentido, Hurbinek, a criança sem palavras evocada por Primo Levi no início da “Trégua”.

One of the most enigmatic of the short stories of Kafka, in the middle of “A Country Doctor,” deals with the “preoccupations of a family man” concerning a hybrid and useless being called Odradek, which escapes his understanding and his control. Based on an analysis of this text and commentaries, an attempt is made to explicate how and why this existence without sense could awake in the reader a sensation of happy resistance and effective impertinence – in opposition to the pain provoked by the description of his twin, at least in the name and in the lack of sense, Hurbinek, the child without words evoked by Primo Levi at the beginning of “The Truce.” (My translation)

4)    In a doctoral dissertation in the German Department at Berkeley, David Jennings Gramling discusses Hurbinek and Odradek separately and does not link them in his studies of Levi and Kafka.

5)    Anny Dayan Rosenman’s article, “Hearing the voice of the witness,” connects silence as the best account of the suffering inflicted on children in Binjamin Wilkomirski’s purported memoir of a child of the Holocaust, Fragments, Jerzy Kosinski’s mute Gypsy-Jewish child in his novel, The Painted Bird, and Primo Levi’s Hurbinek in his memoir, The Truce.10

C’est encore le silence qui rend le mieux compte de la souffrance infligée aux enfants, de cet assaut d’autant plus violent qu’il est incompréhensible, qu’il fige la parole, emporte l’être, défait la conscience. Tel le petit Binjamin Wilkomirski qui sent en lui tout se défaire, se liquéfier, qui se sent se dissoudre dans la boue colorée où il est assis et, pour un temps, renonce à parler. Tel le narrateur de L'oiseau bariolé de Kosinski, enfant pourchassé, torturé et errant dans les campagnes d'Europe centrale qui, devenu muet au cours de l’une des épreuves qu’on lui inflige, met des années à retrouver sa voix perdue. Tel le petit Hurbinek, évoqué par Primo Levi dans La Trève, enfant né et mort au camp, qui n'a jamais appris à parler et qui reste le symbole de cette souffrance silencieuse. Sur un autre mode que celui des personages silencieux, le blanc, l’ellipse, les points de suspension, signalent ce qui dans l’écriture fait silence, traçant les limites qui ne seront pas franchies, permettant de cerner les zones où elle ne peut ni ne veut s'aventurer, d’appréhender ce qui ne sera pas dit, ne sera pas écrit, mais est pourtant là, dans l’entre-deux entre parole et silence.

Once again, it is silence that gives the best account of the suffering inflicted on the children, of this assault which is all the more violent as it is incomprehensible, that flees the word, sweeps away being, defeats the conscience. Such is the little Binjamin Wilkomirski who feels in himself that all is coming apart, liquifying who feels himself dissolving in the colorful mud where he is seated and for a time, renounces speech. So it is with the narrator of The Painted Bird, a child who is hunted, tortured and wandering in the countryside of central Europe who, having become mute in the middle of one of the trials that is inflicted on him, takes years to find his lost voice again. And so, too, with the little Hurbinek, evoked by Primo Levi in The Truce, a child who was born and died in the camp, who never learned to talk and who remains the symbol of this silent suffering. (My translation)

A Postcard from the Edge: “Return to Sender”

There are some disquieting aspects of this thread.

Rosenman’s article was published in 1998-99, when the veracity of Wilkomirski’s memoir was just beginning to be questioned by a Swiss journalist and only later declared unfounded. This is a very complex state of affairs. It is still not clear if the Wilkomirski affair was totally made up or stitched together in the life of the empirical author and constructed over decades as a regressive fantasy and above all as a therapeutic device induced by his therapist. For an overview of this episode by a medical anthropologist who is a key scholar on trauma, see Allan Young’ (2007) essay on this subject which he sees as a case of “traumatic mimesis.”11

Kosinski’s novel is powerful and seems to capture reality better than documentary films against Zizek’s assertion that we have to invert Adorno’s infamous pronouncement about poetry after Auschwitz. Zizek claims that it is prose, not poetry that is impossible after Auschwitz. The denouement of the two novel-memoirs cited here would seem to bear that out. Wilkomirski turned out to be at best a misguided fantasy, at worst an outright fraud, the real purpose of which is opaque to us. Kosinski never actually claimed that the experiences of the mute tormented Gypsy-Jewish boy were his own, but it was assumed as such and this hounded him until his eventual suicide. So it seems that Zizek is right: we can tolerate and accept the most painful documentary film (Lanzmann’s Shoah) or factual witnessing (Primo Levi’s memoirs) but prose has become much more difficult, if not impossible. Witness: Wilkomirski’s Fragments. Witness: Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. A possible counter-example: Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness. Kertesz won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his treatment of Holocaust themes, but his work was never well-received in his own country of Hungary.

In an extended treatment of “Odradek as a Political Category,” Slavoj Zizek adds to these associations to Odradek another parallel in Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge about a “creature that is perfectly harmless” (Rilke) that turns out to be “the monstrosity of the neighbour” (Zizek).12 Although this passage occurs in a discussion of Levi’s Muselmänner and Agamben’s treatment of this category of “bare life,” Zizek does not connect Odradek with Hurbinek. The Muselmänner (German for Muslims) were prisoners who had given up on life and were considered the “walking dead” or “bare life” in Agamben’s terms.13

And now we come to Hurbinek-Odradek. The connection was sitting at the back of my mind in some inchoate but disquieting form for decades. It became explicit for me in a seminar with Judith Butler at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland in the summer of 2011 while we were reading Kafka’s brief narrative on Odradek. As I was working on Levi’s account side by side with Agamben’s commentary at EGS, this new reading in Butler’s seminar finally pushed the parallel into conscious awareness. And it gave me a frisson.

I had a flight of ideas about it … Hurbinek-Odradek … the Slavic names that Levi invokes in trying to decode the name of Hurbenek, the putative Slavonic origins (but perhaps German only influenced by Slavonic) of the name of Odradek … Kafka as an Ashkenazi Jew from a Slavic country who wrote in German in contrast to the Sephardi and other Jews like Levi at Auschwitz who did not have Yiddish as the lingua franca among the Jewish prisoners there, acting as a shibboleth separating them … the Slavonic form of the two names which together repeat the K sound in Kafka … the combined place name and dual identity of Auschwitz-Monowitz (the death camp and the work camp) mimicking the combined names and dual identities of Hurbinek-Odradek …

And another, more disquieting thought: I have been immersed in the literature of the Holocaust for decades. The Muselmänner were described by many different survivor-authors. I clearly recalled both Bruno Bettelheim and Victor Frankl writing about them. But Hurbinek? Surely his case was among the most unique in the concentration camp world where millions died and uniqueness was extirpated. Were there other witnesses? Who else bears witness to this diminished life?

Let’s reread how Levi concludes his account of Hurbinek:

Hurbinek, who was three years old and perhaps had been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the world of men, from which a bestial power had excluded him; Hurbinek, the nameless, whose tiny forearm – even his – bore the tattoo of Auschwitz; Hurbinek died in the first days of March 1945, free but not redeemed. Nothing remains of him: he bears witness through these words of mine.

Born at Auschwitz? And tattooed, allowed to live? Who fed him? Who protected him? “Hurbinek, the nameless,” Levi calls him. Why would no one name him? Orphans and adopted children are named—often renamed in fact. Pets are named; some people go so far as to name inanimate objects: boats are christened, the English name their homes and place the moniker at the gate and on the household letterhead. Levi gives his Häftling Nummer 174517 or “prisoner number 174517” tattooed on his arm and often cites those of other Häftlinge. Hurbinek … “whose tiny forearm – even his – bore the tattoo of Auschwitz” … touches us. Although we want to know more, “Nothing remains of him ….” We want to know his tattoo number, the better to let him bear witness. Levi asserts that “he bears witness through these words of mine.” All we have are Levi’s words: no name, as Levi ambiguously avows (“Hurbinek” is a name after all), and no number, as the meticulous chemist Levi unaccountably omits it.

Jacques Lacan in his seminar on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” famously concluded that a letter always arrives at its destination.14 In his gloss, Jacques Derrida transformed the letter into a postcard (The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond).15 With a nod to Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge,16 which is a memoir (later filmed) about her limit experiences of suffering, some messages from the edge do not arrive because they are garbled or because they die in the throats of suffering victims. Some post cards are not, in fact, posted.

In a strange reversal, Kafka’s fiction about Odradek is an “epistemological rupture” in the way we read literature, compelling us to turn away from literature to examine the facts of Kafka’s life, while the story of Hurbinek, narrated in order to “bear witness,” by Levi whom Giorgio Agamben calls the “perfect witness,” creates a rupture in our understanding of history, forcing us to ask questions about how narratives are constructed. Isn’t Hurbinek too much like Kafka’s Odradek or Rilke’s neighbor, perhaps? Kafka’s Odradek, concerning a recognizable human in a strange form is the emblematic story of his own life. We see this again and again in Kafka’s anthropomorphic creatures, notably in the beetle Gregor Samsa (notice the isomorphism of the names, reiterating a syllable—Kaf-ka, Sam-sa), who have conflicts with the father of the family. Kafka’s own famous (to us) letter to his father was never sent. As I have tried to show, Levi’s post card from the edge on Hurbinek generates more questions than it can possibly answer. Mark this one “Return to Sender.”



1 Franz Kafka (1971). The Cares of a Family Man. In: The Complete Stories (pp. 427-428). New York, NY: Schocken Books.

2 Mauro Nervi. “The Kafka Project.”

3 Anya Meksin. “Ragged Bits of Meaning, Wound on a Star-Shaped Spool for Thread” in Accessed 2012/01/07.

4 Judith Woolf (2007). From If This is a Man to The Drowned and the Saved. In: Robert S.C. Gordon, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 35-49; citation: pp. 45-46.

5 Primo Levi (1965). The Truce. Trans. by Stuart Woolf. London: Bodley Head.
(Published in some editions with If This is a Man starting in 1979. Italian original, La tregua.)

6 Francesco Lucrezi (2005). La parola di Hurbinek. Morte di Primo Levi. Florence: La Giuntina. [Translation: The Word of Hurbinek, The Death of Primo Levi]

7 Esther Cohen (2003). Raconter: témoigner face au silence de la langue. Intermédialités : histoire et théorie des arts, des lettres et des techniques / Intermediality: History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies, n° 2, pp. 63-76.
[Translation: Storytelling: Witnessing in the face of the silence of language]

8 Maurício Chiarello (2006). Natura-Morta: Finitude e Negatividade em T.W. Adorno. São Paulo: Editora da Universidade de São Paulo. [Translation: Still-life: Finitude and Negativity in T.W. Adorno]

9 Jeanne Marie Gagnebin (2008). Odradek, Hurbinek. Anotações em margem de um texto de Kafka. Presentation given at: 5º Colóquio Internacional Michel Foucault (10/11/2008 a 13/11/2008), Campinas, SP, Brasil. Dra. Jeanne Marie Gagnebin – Docente, Departamento de Teoria Literária - IEL/UNICAMP e Departamento de Filosofia / PUC-SP. [Translation: Odradek, Hurbinek. Annotations in the margins of a text by Kafka]

10 Anny Dayan Rosenman. Entendre la voix du témoin. Plurielles n°7 Hiver-
Printemps 98-99: pp. 155-163. [Translation: Hearing the voice of the witness]

11 Allan Young (2007). Bruno and the Holy Fool: Myth, mimesis, and the transmission of traumatic memories. In L. Kirmayer, R. Lemelson,  & M. Barad (Eds.), Understanding trauma: Integrating biological, clinical, and cultural perspectives (pp. 339-362). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

12 Slavoj Zizek (2006). Odradek as a Political Category. In The Parallax View (pp. 111-123). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

13 Giorgio Agamben (1999). Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Homo Sacer III (Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen). NewYork, NY: Zone Books.

14 John P. Muller and William J. Richardson, eds. (1988). The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida & Psychoanalytic Reading. Baltimore, MD: The Johns  Hopkins University Press.

15 Jacques Derrida (1987). The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. by Alan Bass. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

16 Carrie Fisher (1987). Postcards from the Edge. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.


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