knig's Reviews > The Rings of Saturn

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
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May 12, 12

bookshelves: 2012, taking-the-piss
Read from May 11 to 12, 2012

A travelogue of East Anglia interspersed with random ‘musi-cons’: digressions covering ostensibly unrelated historical events but with an underlying theme of the capacity for human destruction and ‘laying to waste’.

I was really, really, going for it, until a certain moment, my ‘event horizon’, and then, I wasn’t. The book didn’t take I turn: I did. Perhaps unfair prejudice and resentment overwhelmed me and I went over to the ‘dark side’.

I will confess to being an ignoramus: I didn’t know the first thing about Sebald. I started reading and thought him an Englishman suffering from ‘white man angst’. Poignant exposes on the cruelty of the Belgium empire, spearheaded by King Leopold, in exploiting the Congo, where during 1890-1900 nearly one million Congolese lost their lives each year (!!!) due torture, starvation and exploitation of the most atrocious kind, appalled me. I could almost forgive Sebald for going on a bender with this extraordinary sum-up of the events:

‘All passerbys in the streets (of Belgium) seemed to bear the dark Congolese secret within them. And indeed, so to this day one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness, dating from the time the Congo colony was exploited, [.....]manifested in the macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere. At all events I recall my first visit to Brussells in 1964. I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year’.

Let me spell this out clearly: the Belgians today are ugly and deformed as penitence for their exploitation of the Congo in the 19c. I don’t know quite what to say here, so I will say nothing. I usually adopt this (non ) course of action when faced with lunacy.

That aside, there is more: the British come out badly in the wash for their exploitation of the Amazon, their military suppression of Ireland and execution of Roger Casement. The Croats get a nod fora their bloodthirsty ways in killing off a million Serbs in 1940. And so on.

And I am sitting, nodding wisely, oohing and aahing at all this wanton destruction when I come across a little ditty: Sebald is resting on a Dutch beach, half delirious with tiredness from all his walking about, when he realises in a moment of ‘suspended’ consciousness that he can understand every word the locals are saying about him. Well. Alarm bells start ringing. Panic buttons, everyone. The thing is, I, like every other member of the European population, have been known to be delirious in Holland. Granted, not on the beach, more like in the Coffee Shop, but lets not pick any bones. Delirious is as delirious does. At no point did I ever come even remotely close to understanding a single word of Dutch. And, so, this was the moment, (aided and abetted by Google) (and from the first page where it says ‘translated from German’, which I missed), that I realised Sebald is a Kraut.

And, my outrage swelled higher than a tsunami. This is why: having exposed practically every European nation as murderous tyrants hellbent on conquering and subjugating the world, which country, do you think, he conveniently forgets to mention in the melee? No prizes for this one. Oh yes, its Germany. Actually worse. He does mention it, once. Speaking to the Head Gardener of Somerleyton, he chooses to recollect this snippet of the conversation, where the Gardener postulates:

‘When I was in Luneburg with the army of the occupation[........] to my astonishment, I found out no one at the time had written about their experiences (of the bombing)....As for myself, whenever I close my eyes, to this day, I see the formation of bombers, Lancasters and Halifaxes, Liberators and Flying Fortresses going out towards Germany across the North Grey Sea’


Going, of course, to bomb the Luneburg and Area. Which so traumatised the residents they couldn’t bring themselves to speak about it. Aaaw. Hankies all around. I mean, can you believe it? After what the Germans did to England in the Blitz, Sebald finds the one English guy willing to imagine the horrors the Germans might have suffered when England dared to defend herself. Thats ALL he has to say on the subject of Germany? The poor Germans? Having lambasted the British throughout for their Irish, Chinese and South American forays? The gall, I say.

To be fair, I understand from wiki that Sebald was never an apologist for the Germans, but it he hid this fact well in ‘The rings of Saturn’.

Otherwise, not a bad book. One zany thought will stand out for me from this sprawling book.
Sebald postulates civilization follows a pattern of building westward.

‘A strikingly large number of settlement are oriented to the west...the east stands for lost causes. Especially at the time the continent of America was being colonised, it was noticeable that the townships spread to the west even as their eastern districts were falling apart.’


Cute. Given the settlers landed on the east coast, its hard to imagine how they could have ‘spread eastward’: I mean, its not like they had Kevin Costner to advise them on ocean living. If only they’d seen ‘Waterworld’........



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message 1: by William (last edited May 13, 2012 02:36AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

William This is a novel, my friend. A fiction. Don't forget that. I think he gotcha.


knig I know, I know, I have to practice my 'oms'. And hug some Krauts so Gaia is rebalanced.


William I only meant that you have reviewed it as if it were nonfiction, and it is not. This distinction is crucial to any appreciation of Sebald.
PS And I though I was anti-German! I hate what they're doing to Europe now with their stupid austerity policies.... Take care...


knig I agree about the austerity measures: isn’t self evident that can only fail? Austerity will reduce GDP and reduce economic growth (to negative figures). How can any country balance its budget under such a scenario? Having said that, earlier the opposite was tried: QE with abandon, and that didn’t work: because mainly the banks didn’t lend on the money but used it to prop up their own ailing balance sheets. (I still think at that juncture central governments should have bitten the bullet, and set up a temporary ‘state bank lending facility’ directly to consumers, but as that smacks of dirty commi practices, of course it was never contemplated. But, I think it would have worked). So, as expansion didn’t work, and as doing nothing won’t work , now its austerity measures. Which I think is just panicked knee jerk reaction: gov has to be seen to be doing something. They don’t know what to do. So, its headless chicken flapping time.


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