The English Garden
THE ENGLISH GARDEN
Short story by Walter Abish, 1977
"The English Garden" is the first of seven short stories (referred to by the author as "fictions") that Walter Abish published in In the Future Perfect (1977), his second collection. However, to label these pieces "short stories," or their presence in the same volume a "collection," would be to underestimate the fact that they resist subsumption under one generic heading and cannot be easily summarized or explicated. In the most general sense, they can be seen as "metafiction"—fiction about fiction, less concerned with the traditional categories of plot and character than with the representational qualities of language itself.
"The English Garden" undoubtedly is a precursor to Abish's later novel How German Is It (1980). The novel's examination of the strategies of displacement undertaken by the Germans in the wake of the Holocaust and World War II is clearly foreshadowed in the story. The epigraph of "Garden" is a quotation from John Ashbery's "The New Spirit" (in Three Poems ) that programmatically announces the story's epistemological approach: "Remnants of the old atrocity subsist, but they are converted into ingenious shifts in scenery, a sort of 'English Garden' effect, to give the required air of naturalness, pathos and hope."
Abish sums up the text's narrative thrust and thematic concerns as follows: "The story describes an American who has come to Germany to interview a German writer. On his arrival the American buys a coloring book, really a children's coloring book, at the airport. During his brief stay he keeps questioning the signs in the coloring book and comparing them to other signs in Germany. That immediately reduces the landscape, everything I describe, to a set of signs and images and also introduces, not the interpretation itself, but the need for interpretation as well as the level on which the speculation is to be conducted." The narrator, a writer, visits Brumholdstein, a town named after Germany's preeminent living philosopher (clearly modeled after Martin Heidegger) and built on the ruins of Durst, a concentration camp. Throughout the narrative, the device of the coloring book serves as a foil to contemporary German life, and its images of normalcy and quotidian activity are juxtaposed with the sense of the past constantly breaking through the veneer of the guiltless present Germans attempt to construct.
This sense emanates from the following passage from the story: "After a careful search that afternoon I found the old railroad tracks. They run parallel to the main highway. There was very little traffic at that hour. I parked my car on the side of the highway and followed the tracks on foot for a mile or so. No one saw me. I encountered no one. In the distance I could make out the taller buildings of Brumholdstein. On a siding I passed an old railroad freight car. Its sliding doors wide open. It was a German freight car. For no reason in particular I scratched a long row of numbers on its side."
This passage anticipates a similar one in How German Is It. In both cases Abish makes the point that in a postwar dispensation, an innocent or even prewar look at a "railroad freight car" in and of itself, or even as a distinct object functioning within an economy designed to move goods expeditiously, has simply become impossible. Any viewer of this specific image would by necessity see the railroad freight car as automatically implicated in the Nazi economy of moving humans, Jews, as expeditiously as possible to the locus of the Endlösung (Final Solution). Objects that are presented as innocent in postwar Germany cannot be seen innocently any longer. They always refer back to their implication in the unspeakable and carry a referential, if not always immediately visible, remainder/reminder of that past.