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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Origin Unknown

Oliver Rohe

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To purchase Origin Unknown

Title: Origin Unknown
Author: Oliver Rohe
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 118 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Origin Unknown - US
Origin Unknown - UK
Origin Unknown - Canada
Défaut d'origine - Canada
Origin Unknown - India
Défaut d'origine - France
  • French title: Défaut d'origine
  • Translated by Lauren Messina
  • Edited by Jane Kuntz

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Our Assessment:

B : solid introspective narrative

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Lire . 9/2003 Marie Gobin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Au-delà de la seule réflexion philosophique, c'est la question du langage qui affleure tout au long de ces pages." - Marie Gobin, Lire

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of Origin Unknown, Selber (German for '(him)self'), is taking a trip into the past: though as he notes, he's: "better off just traveling in my head", he has actually gotten on a plane -- a form of travel he does not enjoy -- and is venturing back to what used to be home. The novel is an unbroken monologue and, yes, most of the traveling he does here is in his head -- he actually doesn't get all that far physically, looking instead ahead (and, more intently, back) to what awaits him and what he left behind. The focal point is an old acquaintance (and, at least in a sense, alter ego), Roman, who: "has been playing dead for ten years now" -- and also: "embodied everything I had wanted to systematically destroy for the last ten years". But as much as Selber has tried to put the past (and Roman) out of his mind over the last decade, all this still bubbles to the surface repeatedly -- in particular as, as he ultimately acknowledges:

The past, the country, the language, Roman still embodies them all and will continue for a very long time to come
       Author Rohe, born to a German father and an Armenian mother, and raised in Beirut, left war-torn Lebanon in 1990, and Origin Unknown is clearly influenced by his own experiences.
       There is the horrible absurdity of that conflict itself:
a kind of total, pervasive war, gratuitous, ideology-free war, in a word, a perfectly modern war
       Selber recalls Roman telling him what an opportunity departure and escape were, suggesting he could and should free himself entirely from his home (fatherland) and language (mother tongue), as:
People drag their roots around like a ball and chain, you won't find an exiled writer who doesn't drag his roots around like a big old ball and chain that he can't seem to let go of, which is why you'd better let go of yours, especially since our own roots, our origins, and our language are essentially bastardized. Once you've crossed the borders of this fucked up country, this departure will be a golden opportunity for you to unload it all for good, the chance of a lifetime for you to finally acquire the ontological privilege of not having any roots or origins or fixed culture.
       But, of course, even a decade later Selber still finds himself in some ways deeply rooted in all of what he left behind. Arguably, you can't go home again, but by the same token it is very difficult to leave home completely behind.
       Language, too, is a touchstone -- complicated by Selber's (and Rohe's) multilingualism -- and so, for example, one of the concerns too was what language to retain and work in. To hold onto the native language, the mother tongue, for example, is to hold onto something that then is no longer alive (because it is removed from its environment, and can only be artificially maintained). As Roman pointed out:
It's very simple, he said, shortly before my departure, either I leave this language or I resign myself to the degradation that's in store for me. Even though I'm retelling all this with my current words and syntax, neither of which have almost anything in common with my words and syntax of the time.
       (Roman is also very funny in denouncing the posing of the would-be artists of the time, back in those not-so-good-old days (with its: "disgustingly prodigious artistic glut" and "uppity artists") -- complaining of the widely adopted, Nietzsche-tinged "aphoristic drift" and suggesting:
Now all they need is to add Céline to the mix, and to start using ellipses everywhere to completely annihilate us.
       Origin Unknown is, on some level, nostalgia -- but it is the nostalgia of those who have always sought escape. Selber managed the physical escape, but Roman expressed what they were truly after -- explaining, beautifully, how even as a child he had imagined it:
Dissolve into television: this is the kind of idea, the kind of plan that I dreamt up at the age of six or eight, or thereabouts; first completely dissolve into television, then, the next logical step, become television myself.
       Literature also plays a role in the narrative -- especially Thomas Bernhard (notably his, autobiographical work, Die Ursache (published in English in Gatherine Evidence)), with Roman finding in Bernhard an author who had written exactly those works he could have imagined himself writing in a modern-day variation on Borges' Pierre Menard's Don Quixote. So, too, Origin Unknown is a Bernhardian exercise in self-analysis (note that the French title of Die Ursache -- mentioned several times -- is L'Origine, and the French title of this novel is: Défaut d'origine -- both in clear homage and reaction to Bernhard).
       What Selber really battles here, too, is his sense of self: so many of these words and memories aren't entirely his, after all, they're Roman's:
it's Roman's voice that takes the place of mine and all of Roman takes my place and I can't afford that because I'm just not Roman and because I'm not the same anymore
       But whether he can truly escape the hold of the past, and Roman, remains open.
       A bit heavy-handed in its literariness at times, and very obviously very personal, Origin Unknown is nevertheless a fairly interesting exercise. The unnamed Lebanon of the novel is particularly effectively portrayed -- it's clear that the place he fled, and is returning to, is Lebanon, yet the observations are general enough to apply far beyond it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 May 2013

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Origin Unknown: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Oliver Rohe was born in 1972.

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