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Verena Stauffer: Orchis.

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Vienn: Kremayr & Scheriau, 2018.
ISBN: 9-783218-011044.

Verena Stauffer


This book takes its readers on a journey into the mid-19th century and exotic locations deep in the Madagascan and Chinese interior. Yet it is nothing like reading a historical novel or an ordinary travelogue: we are given no dates, facts or figures relating to either a concrete topography or a historical chronology.
There is an orchid growing on Anselm’s shoulder, and the point in the text where this growth is described clearly demonstrates the story’s ingenious way of knitting together three levels of linguistic representation: the imaginary level, what is simply pictured in the mind; the thought of what it would be like if something like this were to happen – which, on the symbolic level, it does; and at the same time it also happens on the real level, in the "actual", invented reality: Anselm turns his eyes to "the actual flower on his shoulder". Like transubstantiation in Catholic dogma: take, eat; this is my body.
Verena Stauffer follows where her poetic imagination leads. The reader believes Anselm may simply be imagining the orchid growing out of his shoulder, yet at the same time the skilful description makes us feel it actually growing within him. Anselm is clearly ill – psychologically ill – so the travelogue is also a kind of clinical history, and the story of a miraculous healing. Anselm is hospitalised against his will; his parents help him to get out, and he is able to embark on a university career as a botanist.
Woven into the plot are the discourses of the day in the fields of psychology, biology and politics, indicating that the story is not as naively ahistoric as it appears. The novel tells of a liberation from an alarming situation any of us might find ourselves in were we to focus as intensely on an object as Anselm does with plants and flowers. In the last section he describes a healing effected by means of a therapeutic journey to Utopia.
The protagonist continually misconstrues reality. The misconstruction is scientific and social-historic, but it is clearly also Freudian. More than once Anselm’s perception of the flowers is depicted in words suggestive of genitals, as in the silhouette scene (see sample).
Written in a language that focuses on sensory impressions – colours, shapes, voices, sounds, smells – the story has no need of the temporal and spatial framework of realistic narrative. It is a ductus of continual self-enchantment, language circling an enchanted body.

Abridged version of the review by Walter Fanta, 18 April 2018
English translation by Charlotte Collins

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