There is great dread here, and great humour too
By Lilian Munk Rösing
The young writer and classical philologist Harald Voetmann’s literary fantasy, Vågen (‘Awake’) about the Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder is raw, poetic, melancholic and very, very funny.
With his multi-volume work Pliny the Elder made a magnificent attempt to chart and name all the phenomena of the natural world, although Voetmann does also quote him as admitting that: “A couple of things still remain to be said about the world.” Voetmann portrays Pliny as an overweight asthmatic who suffers from nosebleeds at night and dictates his work to his slave, Diocles, who “has taught himself to listen with his writing hand”. The image we are given of Pliny is that of a human being who, through the naming of things, tries to gain some small control over that nature which his body is both invested with and subject to. Which makes the fact that Pliny died during the eruption of Vesuvius all the more ironic.
The book alternates between extremely graphic, physical descriptions of Pliny himself, quotes from his Naturalis Historia, a freely associative narrative peppered with memories of his childhood and his travels and recounted by Pliny himself and, finally, notes by Pliny the Younger (Pliny the Elder’s nephew) on the Natural History (Pliny the Elder: There are also stars in the sea and on the earth”, Pliny the Younger: “He is confusing stars with fireflies or something of the sort”).
Through Pliny, Voetmann presents a picture of the Roman Empire as a civilisation on the brink of disaster, at the mercy of a brutal Mother Nature who craves sacrifices of blood, semen and human lives. This is the Rome of the gladiators, of gossip and macabre rites. We are told of the green sea-goddess who demands her offerings of semen; of the young woman with no bodily orifices who arouses feelings of uncontrollable lust in Pliny. We are told of an auditorium so heavily adorned with flowers that the great natural historian all but dies of an allergic reaction to the pollen. Voetmann describes our subjection to our bodies, to nature and to death in prose so poised and perfect that it makes it just possible for us to bear teetering on the brink of formlessness. There is great dread here, and great humour too.
Translated by Barbara J. Haveland