Der GefesselteHere’s an idea I had a while ago for a series of columns: take two completely unrelated stories that happen to have the same title and analyse their parallels, just as if they were commentaries on each other. It’s a fun idea in theory but not in practice (I don’t read enough literary criticism to be able to parody it well), so in the meantime let’s take a look at one of the stories I would have talked about. (This would have contrasted nicely with The Bound Man by Mary Robinette Kowal, which is available here and also well worth checking out.)

The Bound Man starts, rather literally, with a bound man. He’s lying at the side of the road with no memory of what happened. One long thin rope is wrapped around his body, starting from the ankles and encircling him again and again until his legs and torso are fully bound. It’s not too tight – he can flex his arms and legs – but he can’t escape. His pockets are empty; he assumes he has been robbed.

He lies out there for a whole day before he manages to curl himself onto his feet, and with a mix of hops and shuffles he manages to travel along the road at a fair pace. The first person he meets is a lion tamer who works for a nearby circus, and when the circus proprietor sees the grace with which the bound man moves, he recruits him to be a performer.

The difference between him and the other performers was that when the show was over he did not take off his rope. The result was that every movement that he made was worth seeing, and the villagers used to hang about the camp for hours, just for the sake of seeing him get up from in front of the fire and roll himself in his blanket. Sometimes the sky was beginning to lighten when he saw their shadows disappear.

[…] For the bound man’s fame rested on the fact that he was always bound, that whenever he washed himself he had to wash his clothes too and vice versa, and that his only way of doing so was to jump in the river just as he was every morning when the sun came out, and that he had to be careful not to go too far out for fear of being carried away by the stream.

The bound man is contented by this new life, and spends his free time learning new tricks, new ways he can move by the limits of his bonds. But the circus proprietor is more sanguine. The same trick can’t be performed forever. It is becoming autumn, and the bound man’s clothes are growing increasingly ragged. Already the proprietor has had to fire several performers who’ve tried to cut the rope while the bound man is sleeping. There will come a time when the bound man will have to let himself be freed.

I assume this story is taught in schools somewhere. A cursory online search throws up a plethora of essays and articles debating what the meaning of this story is. And I don’t deny that this story is ripe for metaphorical interpretation.

Still, it reminds me that there are many classic stories whose appeal entirely escapes me. When I confess this to people (and some really are embarrassing to confess) they often say: ah, but have you considered these layers of deeper meaning, this greater complexity that elevates the story? And my response is: no, and often I’m not terribly interested. All the deeper meanings of a piece are for naught if the shallowest reading doesn’t satisfy. All the classical allusions in the world don’t matter if they’re buried six feet below the ground; there’s got to be something on the surface that inspires you to dig for more.

And The Bound Man is a good story at its surface. The first few pages are devoted to what the bound man experiences on his first day, offering a wealth of tactile detail that really gets across what his predicament feels like. After this the story shifts to a more detached perspective, with the weeks and months of the bound man’s time at the circus blurring together, but because of the grounded opening the more abstract parts always have an immediate sensory anchor to them.

Besides, there’s genuine tension running throughout the story. You know the bound man can’t spend the rest of his life tied up like this. His happy life is going to fall apart at some point; the question is how.

The Bound Man by Ilse Aichinger (translated from German by Eric Mosbacher)
Availability: print, e-book
Word count: 5,000
First published: Der Gefesselte, 1956, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.
Where to find it: The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories, edited by Daniel Halpern, 1986, Viking Penguin Inc.
Fiction 100, edited by James H. Pickering, most recent edition 2011, Longman


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