Every time she has this dream someone in her village dies

By Mariana Leky
Translated by Tess Lewis

Everyone has heard of the kiss that turns a frog into a prince. But the story of the Brothers Grimm “The Frog King; or, Iron Henry ”also belongs to the prince’s servant. When his master is cursed to the amphibious, the faithful Henry wraps his own heart in three bands of iron to keep it from bursting into grief. The spoiled princess who frees the prince also frees Henry’s heart.

Iron Henry is only a fleeting metaphor in Mariana Leky’s charming new novel, “What You Can See From Here,” translated from German by Tess Lewis, but the reference is significant. Set in West Germany at the end of the Cold War, the novel concerns a motley crew of villagers, each characterized, in the Grimm tradition, by one or two fixed qualities. There’s the narrator, Luisa, an imaginative 10-year-old girl; his wise grandmother, Selma, “who helped invent the world”; the optician who loves Selma but hasn’t told her; Luisa’s fearless, globetrotting dad, who thinks everyone should “let more people in”; Luisa’s mother, who has an affair with the ice cream seller; and various modern witches and loggers.

When Selma dreams of an okapi (“an incongruous animal, much more incongruous than death”), the village is plunged into crisis. Always, it means that someone is about to die. Everyone is making preparations, but the inevitable still shocks them all. Luisa’s grief is the most acute, menacing, like that of Iron Henry, to characterize her entire being – that is, until years later, when a handsome Buddhist named Frederik arrives. With a happy ending now in sight, the village rushes wildly to secure him.

The Grimm’s have been charged with many offenses, from misogyny to horror, but Leky isn’t particularly interested in the troubling aspects of their legacy. On the contrary, she writes in their tradition of ethical teaching, with her faith in ordinary people, who dominate the original tales.

She also shares their frank acceptance of the difficulties. Life is full of chaos and pain; stories like religion and psychotherapy help us tolerate and even transform it. With that in mind, every occurrence of “What You Can See From Here” is made light, even the death of a child, even the literal darkness: “When you look at something that is brightly lit for a long time, then close your eyes, your inner eye sees the same thing again as a static afterimage: what was actually light is now dark and what was dark appears bright.

In his optimism and playfulness, Leky aligns himself with other folklore enthusiasts like Helen Oyeyemi and Ali Smith, rather than the more gritty tastes of Elena Ferrante and Carmen Maria Machado. Her charm may border on preciousness, especially when it comes to sex and love, but for the most part there is a satisfying sparkle in her short, declarative sentences; they induce reflection, and perhaps even learning, like the folk tales and the Buddhist koans that inform his work.

Western psychology also plays a role. Leky comes from a family of psychoanalysts and writes a monthly column for the German magazine Psychologie Heute. In his vision, we are all loyal Hens, foolishly manifesting our emotional lives physically. Luisa’s father gets a dog named Alaska to externalize her pain. Selma literally carries Luisa everywhere in the days following the novel’s first death. Characters are constantly opening and closing real doors in their relationships. This is how the most difficult circumstances become bearable, for there is no pain or loss that cannot be turned into a metaphor – or, as a Buddhist might say, a friend.

Sometimes that’s exactly what we expect from fiction – a reminder that suffering is also part of the comedy of life. Other times, we prefer to sleep for a hundred years or see the evildoer boil alive. For this we have the original fairy tales. For more civilized magic, there is “What You Can See From Here”.

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