The Writer You’ve Never Heard of That Made My Book Possible
Mark Haber on the Life and Writing of Mila Menendez Krause
One of a writer’s most frequently asked questions is the question of influence, a subject as thorny and precarious as it is subjective, fraught with problematic words like taste and opinion. Additionally, the authors whom the writer acknowledges often have very little to do with the book they’ve written (or only in the writer’s mind, which, if we’re being honest, should be left in a locked room). In my case, I felt compelled to write something ahead of my novel’s publication, to give voice to a long-neglected author that’s been consigned to the distant past, a writer whose acclaim is long overdue.
My forthcoming novel, Reinhardt’s Garden, was heavily influenced by several writers I admire and who are all internationally celebrated: Thomas Bernhard, César Aira, Saul Bellow, to name a few. These influences I wear proudly on my sleeve and nothing I shy away from talking about. Any reader familiar with these writers will see their impact with little trouble. However, there’s a little-known author, as significant as she is obscure, whose hands unmistakably shaped the structure, style and themes of Reinhardt’s Garden, a writer ostensibly erased from literary history.
There’s that well-known expression, a writer’s writer, the authors whose influence is profound and far-reaching, writers who single-handedly invent their own language, surpassing their contemporaries and extending across genre and generation to influence other writers: Toni Morrison, Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka, come to mind. Then there’s those other, more rare cases, those of the writer’s writer’s writer, often more important but lesser known. Mila Menendez Krause, a Swiss-Colombian writer, is one such example.
Often, the more obscure a writer and their works, the closer the reader holds them to their hearts. I’m no exception; the more selfish part of me wanted to keep Mila Menendez Krause to myself, to horde her and her few translated books (secured on my highest shelf like private treasures), yet the more generous part of me realized this wasn’t only unfair, but a disservice to potential readers and Krause herself. For someone, anyone, to read Reinhardt’s Garden, and feel I’d arrived on those shores by my own talents, by sheer will and narrative stamina, to have, in a sense, swam in creative seclusion towards the sands of completion, would’ve been terribly deceived, for ultimately it was Krause and the Krausian influence that enabled me to write Reinhardt’s Garden.
Mila Menendez Krause was born on the Swiss-Austrian border in 1894 and moved to South America as an infant where she was raised in the Cordillera Azul outside of Bogota, in a small village as pastoral as it was poor. Her father, Elias Krause, was a Jewish bookkeeper who fled with his young family to the Americas after the battle of Lake Constance in which the first virulent heads of Anti-Semitism reared their despicable heads. The shtetl where they lived, St. Gallen, was pillaged and Elias, rather wisely, felt Europe was no longer hospitable.
Krause began as a poet and her earlier work, virtually impossible to find, were small chapbooks filled with pastoral sonnets devoted to the Cordillera Azul, the region Krause never lost her affection for. These were published by small presses in Bogota that were soon defunct. Virtually nothing is known of Krause’s early years until 1914 when Krause attended Del Rosario University in Bogota and became friends and later an integral member of the Minsky Gang, a radical group of leftist poets, failed architects and rowdy artist types eager for revolution. Five years later, at twenty-three, Krause abandoned politics for the implacable call of literature.
So what did Krause write? Novels mostly. What makes Krause so influential? Her voice certainly, the honeycombed complexities of her mind, but her innovative approach to fiction is what truly grabs first-time readers. Krause was the first novelist to ever write in the fifth-person, entirely skipping the fourth, a rare feat that hasn’t been attempted nor replicated since. The Savage Detectives was Bolaño’s failed attempt, in fact, to write in the fifth-person, a subtle—though much overlooked—nod to Krause. His failure, of course, is a victory for us readers. Moreover, Bolaño, notorious for filching from the bookstores of Mexico City in the 1970s of his youth, nearly fainted when he came upon Espadas de Fuego, Krause’s second novel, in a book stall in Nápoles. Long out of print, Bolaño pocketed the book and rumors maintain he wept as he read it in a nearby cantina.
Espadas de Fuego tells the strange and prophetic story of Hans, an officer in the Prussian artillery who, upon finding God in a tangle of wisteria, abandons his post and tramps a war torn and blood-soaked Europe that is not the past, present or future but a region of earth wholly unique in that birds can’t fly, fish don’t swim and monkeys speak in aphorisms ala Emil Cioran. It is filled with incident and anecdote and the book where Krause fully finds her voice, embracing the notorious fifth-person. The second half, when Hans escapes imprisonment (and certainly the firing squad) on a schooner, or English corvette, which eventually lands him in the Cordillera Azul, is where the novel opens like a strange poisonous flower; filled with religious symbolism, hallucination and a full embrace of hyper-modernism. Traditional narrative is abandoned and Hans has a series of philosophical conversations with Vishnu, Lord Buddha, Cervantes and Maeterlinck.
Krause continued writing novels in this vein, books which can only be described as intrepid mixtures of Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. and what I imagine the second book of Gogol’s Dead Souls (the manuscript famously burned by the author amidst a bout of religious hysteria) resembled. In any event, Krause’s works quickly ran afoul of the critics and politics of the time, a time seeping with aversion to anything experimental or avant garde. Undaunted, Krause continued to produce bold works while traveling through Spain, Russia and Asia. Krause also married and divorced several times while raising three children, products of her first nuptials.
Soon her novels were being read in Europe where a young Vladimir Nabokov, in exile from Russia, was studying at Trinity College, and upon reading Nuestros Vientres Huecos, her fourth book, became an immediate, albeit, hidden convert. I say “hidden” because, be it pride or misogyny, Nabokov never once uttered Krause’s name in an interview or lecture, yet I can confidently say Pale Fire would never have existed without the presence of Krause’s fifth book, Vasos Oscuros, a fictional tale of literary comeuppance about, you guessed it, a fictional poem.
Without her knowledge, Krause’s books began to influence the literary landscape of England, France and Germany. The continent, of course, had a lot on its hands with the rise of fascism and the invasion of Poland by Hitler and, like so many artists of the past century, her works, just as they were beginning to find readers, fell into oblivion. She was rumored to have stayed in Europe for several years, helping the Revolutionary cause during the Spanish Civil war, living in a small house in Catalonia and fruitlessly assisting in routing the Red Terror or Catalan purges. Later she fled Spain to live in Malta (briefly), Mallorca (also briefly), Lisbon (drastically brief) and finally back to Colombia.
Critics, of course, claim Krause was a fifth columnist, or worse, a Falangist. Rumors of treachery, infidelity and treason, all unfounded, clouded her work for decades. The stories are mixed, convoluted and hard to decipher but it seems hardly possible that the author of such experimental and mind-altering works would fall for the temptations of fascism. Still, no one really knows and the one existing biography of Krause (Nuestras Vidas en Reposo, 1959) largely ignores her years in Europe.
Meanwhile, in Latin America, only a handful of serious critics and writers knew of Krause’s works, her name a hidden key, a password to an acutely small and rarefied world of literature, but literature with a capital L. Readers and devotees of Krause were rabid in their loyalty. Though he never wrote about her, Borges was a close friend, staying in her Tumaco guest house several times in the late 30s, deflecting the now-reclusive author from visitors. José Morales was a devoted friend. Eduardo Vega too. Juan and Ursula Gomez, of the infamous Gomez Clan, called upon Krause whenever they were in South America. Ezra Pound dedicated his Cantos of Hieroglyph to her. Unruffled, her novel-writing continued through the 1940s, Krause appearing both indifferent and flippant about their publication and success.
There exist few photographs of Mila Menendez Krause, although the reports of her beauty are stirring and unreserved. Borges confessed his biggest regret in going blind was not, in fact, the inability to read, but the inability to gaze at Krause’s aquiline nose, winsome lips and, in his words, “enigmatic eyes that betrayed an unspoken unhappiness disguised by otherworldly powers.” Going online one of the few photographs I’ve found (sans photo credit) shows a woman sitting upon the steps of a small hut in the Pampas, her dark hair in a bun, a long cigarette in her hand and the Andes looming behind her like angry Gods. Resembling a Goya, her eyes are both somber and driven, possessing tiny explosions or brush fires and whether or not she knows she’s being photographed, she has the determined shoulders of a sphinx. I’ve tried contacting her one surviving child, Rigoberto Delgado, who lives in Salamanca, with no success. Krause retired from writing in her fifties but is rumored to have lived well into old age in the small Afro-Colombian village of Chimayoy in the Atriz Valley.
I came upon Krause’s book by happenstance, vacationing along the Skeleton Coast with my two sons. Vaguely aware of her importance by my dear friend, Colombian author, Santiago Gamboa, I picked up her seventh novel, Canciones de Verdad, in a book stall curiously both primitive and chic. I had once been told by Gamboa: whatever the price, if you see a Krause book, buy it. And, by my good fortune, it was an English-language edition! Translated by the late Lindsay Price-Stewart, celebrated translator of Marco Fuente-Rojas’ memoir, The Zenez Quartet, as well as his bildungsroman El Toluco Seminario, I read the book on the sands of the Skeleton Coast, completely neglecting (I can admit it now) my sons, throwing shells and shards of broken glass in their direction to keep them at bay, to buy myself more time with a book that, once finished, took me weeks to recover from.
My reaction is nothing new to initiates: the quickening pulse, the bated breath, numb, speechless; I was in a permanent state of vertigo. My limbs felt lighter though my soul was weighted down. Something astounding had taken place and I couldn’t go back. Literature hadn’t been invented (that’s taking it too far), but surely it had been reinvented.
Anecdotes abound: Djuna Barnes, an unspoken devotee to Krause, was known to snatch up all of her books whenever she visited England. A college in Belarus (before it was bombed) named their literature department after her. If you love Faulkner and Joyce, Lispector and Perec then, by default, you also love Krause or have, at the very least, Krause to thank. Miguel Unamuno and Porfirio Barba-Jacob kept diaries bursting with fervent adoration for Krause and Krause’s style, a writer both had discovered by happenstance. Happenstance, in fact, is what most devotees claim when asked how they discovered Krause; left on the nightstand of a provincial hotel, a used bookstore or perched in a stall beside a Turkish bath. This is what fate dictates when a writer as significant but outside the canon exists: happenstance, that frivolous and arbitrary augur, always decides who finds the treasure.
I have an abiding faith in the serendipity of literature. I’ve always believed the books you’re meant to find, find you, the reader, or perhaps the reverse, that the reader finds the books they’re meant to read; whatever the case, serendipity plays a vital role in the books that speak to us and leave the most prized wounds, wounds that, if we’re lucky, turn into scars to be exalted and lionized like the inflictions obtained in glorious battle.
I may as well confess: much of the narrative devices in Reinhardt’s Garden, not to mention the humor, storyline, the repeated digressions, the accelerated movement through verdant jungle, was my attempt to imitate Canciones de Verdad, one of only three Krause books translated into English, and though my book is a pale substitute, it’s in my reverence for Krause that I admit to it now. Realizing the deep artistic debts I owe Krause, I come forward as an enthusiast and a devotee to Krause. My imitation is not mere caricature, I assure you, but the ultimate way, in fact the only way I know of paying my respects.
In the village square of Tequtez, the town in the Cordillera Azul where Krause grew up, stands a bronze sculpture of four children holding hands, forming a circle with one missing link; the two children furthest apart are reaching their hands (respectively their left and their right) towards the missing child representing the fifth person Krause invented in her novels. The sculpture, made by Japanese master Hidari Watanabe, is visited by both tourists and locals alike, most of them, sadly, uninitiated to the works of Krause herself. The sculpture is both inspiring and disheartening; as the sightseers take photos, posing with the sculpture, one can’t help but ponder our collective destiny as well as the destiny of literature. In a sense, aren’t we all that fifth person, reaching out or being reached for but always out of reach, every one of us the invisible link toward communion?
All of this is to say that no piece of fiction is written in a vacuum; influences seen and unseen flourish, and this should be welcomed, encouraged even. If you read Reinhardt’s Garden and see the glimmer of a new idea, turn of phrase or inventive plot, you have Krause to thank. In the end, if my work does nothing more than bring about a renewed interest in Krause, perhaps bringing about a Krausian Renaissance, with new editions of Krause and translations of Krause and literary panels on Krause and cloying Krausian souvenirs bandied about and sold on the internet along with accompanying gifs and emojis and all the ephemera of our lovely and foolish planet than I say so be it. I’ll feel like I have done my job. Lastly, if you happen upon a book by Krause don’t hesitate for even a second, buy it and cherish it forever.
Here is a partial and by no means comprehensive bibliography of Mila Menendez Krause’s books:
Cazadores Salvajes. Bogota: Papel Rasgado Press. 1921 Wild Hunters in English, Trans. by Lindsay Price-Stewart
Espadas de Fuego. Bogota: Editorial Bandada, 1924 (not translated)
Un Lapso en la Direccion (not translated)
Tierra Silenciosa. Corazones Y Mentes Press. 1939 This Silent Earth in English, Trans. By Lindsay Price-Stewart
Canciones de Verdad Jubiloso Press. 1942 Songs of Truth in English, Trans. by Lindsay Price-Stewart
Nuestros Vientres Huecos (Out of Print)
Vasos Oscuros (Out of Print)
Mark Haber’s Reinhardt’s Garden is out now from Coffee House Press.