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Heimrad Bäcker

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Title: transcript
Author: Heimrad Bäcker
Written: 1986 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 153 pages
Original in: German
Availability: transcript - US
transcript - UK
transcript - Canada
nachschrift - Deutschland
  • German title: nachschrift
  • Translated by Patrick Greaney and Vincent Kling
  • With an Afterword by Friedrich Achleitner
  • With an Afterword by Patrick Greaney

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Our Assessment:

(-) : effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Heimrad Bäcker takes a very direct approach to the crimes of the Nazis against those they considered undesirables in transcript: it is an entirely documentary work and:

Every part of transcript is a quotation; anything that might seem invented or fantastic is a verifiable document.
       Bäcker takes a few liberties -- there are some: "Slight changes and omissions" -- but basically this is a verbatim report, based on several dozen sources on the Nazi era. The art of transcript, however, is in how much Bäcker cuts away -- and how much is still left in the few words and sentences he does offer.
       There are a bit over a hundred separate pieces here, only a few longer than a single page, many consisting of simple lists, some just a single sentence. Publisher Dalkey Archive Press calls it a poetry-collection, and it certainly can be seen as such -- and, as Friedrich Achleitner notes in his Afterword, "Bäcker is drawing on the methods of concrete poetry" here -- but transcript defies any single genre designation.
       Many of the most effective pieces are the simplest -- some almost banal -- whose power lies in the context, the reader led to fill in all that has been left blank. So, for example, the single sentence on an otherwise blank page:
i need more freight trains if i'm going to take care of things quickly.
then he shook the gas into the chute and it went "mmmmm." and the sound gets quieter and quieter until it isn't there any more at all.
       Notes and a bibliography, documenting where the material comes from, are provided, but while these do 'authenticate' Bäcker's pieces they are also somewhat of a distraction. Bäcker's method is of leaving much unsaid, and the transcripts are most effective when it is left to the reader to fill in the blanks; often its obvious what is being referred to, as in:
up to 3000 a day
about 2000 in 24 hours
300,000 altogether over about 5 months
240,000 over about 4 months
with all these reservations, at 500,000
       The endnotes reveal that this refers to the number of prisoners killed at the Belzec camp -- perhaps useful information for the literary or historical scholar reading this collection, but not for the general reader, not on a first reading. Bäcker's point (or rather his method, which makes his point for him), after all, is to do away with most of this specificity. Even the far more ambiguous pieces, such as a list giving only durations (" 66 min / 87 min / 106 min", etc.) works better without the additional documentation that reveals these refer to: "Hypothermic experiments with fatal results".
       Bäcker strips down these records to something essential -- though not always the obvious thing. In paring down the material he often manages to shift the reader's perspective; it is, as Achleitner notes, the use of such "distancing techniques" that makes transcript so effective. In some of the pieces, taken from later trial-transcripts and records, Bäcker uses the familiar and simple technique of only providing one side of the give and take, as in:
what transpired there ?
did anyone say how many were to be picked out ?
were there guidelines ?
is it known to you whether a doctor always gave the order ?
who gave the signal to the medical corp ?
       Elsewhere, as in some of the lists, the distancing is greater. The almost complete absence of capitalization (it is used only in some abbreviations, place- and personal names, and one (foreign-language) quote) -- much more noticeable in the original German, where all nouns are capitalized -- is another transformation of the texts that also helps 'distance' them from the reader.
       The presentation -- often in rows of sentences or numbers -- does give many of the pieces the 'look' of poetry, which Bäcker was clearly also striving for. In one case, he even goes so far as to excuse (or explain) that: "The form of a cross is a direct result of the statistical arrangement" (which again is more explanation than is needed, especially since it feels like a lame explanation: normally a list would be printed justified to the left margin (not centered, as this one is), in which case the cross-effect would have been lost).
       transcript is a quite fascinating and very effective work, another approach to trying to come to grips with what should be unthinkable. Certainly worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 February 2010

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transcript: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Heimrad Bäcker lived 1925 to 2003.

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