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The Rings of Saturn

June 08, 2006 ・ Blog

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald’s remarkable stream of conciousness account of walking through Suffolk, and I’m loving it. He presents a refreshing alternative view of places I’m familar with, having grown up there.

For instance, Lowesoft for me was just a crappy, deprived coastal town I’d never consider visiting, but for Sebald it’s the jumping off point for a series of reflections about the effects of imperial power on people.

He recounts falling asleep in a Lowestoft hotel watching a documentary about Roger Casement, who campaigned for the awareness of the abuses of slave labour in the Belgian Congo. Sebald then writes a short biography of Joseph Conrad (author of Heart of Darkness, of course), who had met Casement in the Congo, and had landed at Lowestoft on shore leave during his time as a merchant seaman. They had similar reactions to the awful practices that King Leopold II of Belgium’s regime wreaked on the native inhabitants of Congo in the name of trade and empire making. Sebald then recounts how he feels even the modern architecture of Belgium is infected with this dark past. And even goes as far as to insinuate that it’s infected the Belgian populace itself:

“…to this day [the early 1990s] one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness. … I well recall that on my first visit to Brussels in December 1964 I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year.”

He then remembers visiting the Waterloo Panorama, where you can see a wax recreation of the Battle of Waterloo, and then we’re back to Roger Casement, who was decorated for his efforts but as a diplomatic burden to the British government was carefully sidelined to South America. Born in Ireland, he sympathised with republican interests and was eventually hung for treason in Pentonville Prison for attempting to raise German support for an uprising. Before he was exhumed in 1965, he was buried in its courtyard. As it happens, I walk by Pentonville Prison every day, taking the boy to nursery and back from the station.

So that’s just a single chapter from Rings of Saturn. Wonderfully dense and varied, at heart it’s about the death of things – how everything declines and rots in the end. Sombre stuff, but beautifully expressed.