The Danube Testament by Ingrid Mann (London, United Kingdom)

(A ‘previous concept’ post)

Now here’s something I hadn’t really thought about. This second blank page is even more intimidating, what with all its intolerance of any continued introductory blues and its expectations of neat verbosity. So, I’m jumping straight in…

My first spontaneous book trip was to Word on the Water, a boat/bookshop on the canal by Paddington station. I walk past it every day in the morning and evening – and what a treat it is to be coming back from work at dusk, in the springtime, to the sight of books being brought back in from where they have been luring strangers all day under the sounds of music over the water.

And it was only when I went in for the first time that I became acquainted with its two lovely assistants (only one of them pictured here).

But enough about the London bookbarge. There is a lot on the Internet about it and the fascinating people behind the idea. I’m moving on to the main thing – the book I picked up.

My first completely uninformed and unbiased book expedition in years didn’t start all too smoothly. As was to be expected, I caught sight of a few titles that I had always wanted to read but managed to resist the temptation.

One lengthy browse later, I came out with this.

I was initially drawn by the title, and somehow thought it fitting to pick a book referring to the Danube whilst in a boat on a London canal. Which is just a standard example of my self-indulgent fascination with personal associations, however remote. The Danube is only a couple of hours away from my Bulgarian home, and continues eastwards to flow into my beloved Black Sea. The journeys of border-spanning rivers have always intrigued me.

Set in and around Vienna, The Danube Testament has S. for narrator, a man who has lived through some terrible events, and struggles at the edge of sanity. In light of this, it is impossible to completely trust anything he shares. S.’s tone is light-hearted, even when things like infanticide are introduced. The many characters in his life are wonderfully diverse – his sister Eva, a martyr of circumstance; aunt Mia, an impressive, canasta-loving old lady; cousin Hannah, S.’s childhood crush/love, who now lives in the USA and is a doctor with a penchant for the unconventional; a conflicted priest; the psychiatrist Dr. Rosen. Most interestingly, untrustworthy as they are, S.’s stories about all these lives offer a chance to touch upon what is barely discernible, concealed as it is beneath the self-deception resulting from S.’s condition – the loneliness of the self, and perhaps most achingly, what struck me as the loneliness and misery which S. believes imposed upon everyone else, all hope for true connection lost. The narrative itself is a consequence of S.’s obsession with creative writing as a way of coping with problems. This really made me qualify and question my own ideas about the power of imagination.

I loved the intermingling of the idea of Old Europe, in some of S.’s little anecdotes, with the realities of the modern everyday – flights, deadlines, rock music. One of the most memorable stories was that of the city fathers of Marseille, who provided cups of poison to those wishing to end their lives if the latter could provide a good reason for doing so. So far, I have found absolutely nothing to back the historical veracity of this. Given that it is part of S.’s narrative, this is unsurprising, though. At the very end, the last chapter/appendix, which is a fiction story written by S., wiped away all the carefully crafted evasiveness and even humour of the preceding parts. The Danube just happens to be the rain-swollen backdrop to this testament imbibed with the anguish and the imposed escapism of illness. This could be the plight of any individual, and is therefore the plight of humanity as such.

Lastly, the story of the book itself is quite interesting. Its first edition apparently vanished, and copies are extremely rare. Mine is a second-hand first edition of the reissue by another publisher. Still, there are very few results for The Danube Testament online, which is a shame. And I have absolutely no idea who the author is. All that the blurb says is that “Ingrid Mann was born in Vienna”. If you do know more, please drop me a line – whether now or at whatever point in the future you happen to come across this.

I liked this book, if this is the appropriate verb to use for a story that often disturbs, raises questions without answers, and really stays with you, underneath all the hubbub of the day.

Two subsequent notes (13 April 2018): 

Months after writing this post, I received an email letting me know that Ingrid Mann had passed away on 17 August 2015, in New Jersey, US. This is a link to her obituary in the Bangor Daily News, which also outlines her story.

Unfortunately, in 2014/2015, Word on the Water lost its Paddington mooring. It can now be found at Granary Square (Regent’s Canal), near King’s Cross. Here’s a New York Times article about the story of the London Bookbarge.

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