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Whenever She Has This Dream, Someone in Her Village Dies

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By Mariana Leky
Translated by Tess Lewis

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

Iron Henry is just a passing metaphor in Mariana Leky’s charming new novel, “What You Can See From Here,” translated from the 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; her wise grandmother, Selma, “who helped invent the world”; the optician who loves Selma but hasn’t told her; Luisa’s feckless, globe-trotting father, who thinks everyone should “let more of the world in”; Luisa’s mother, who’s having an affair with the ice cream man; and various modern witches and woodsmen.

When Selma dreams of an okapi (“an incongruous animal, much more incongruous than death”), the village is thrown into crisis. Always, this means someone is about to die. Everyone makes preparations, but the inevitable still shocks them all. Luisa’s grief is the most acute, threatening, like Iron Henry’s, 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 it.

The Grimms have been charged with many offenses, from misogyny to gruesomeness, but Leky is not particularly interested in the troubling aspects of their legacy. She’s writing, instead, in their tradition of ethical instruction, with its faith in common people, who dominate the original tales.

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

In her optimism and her playfulness, Leky aligns herself with other folklore enthusiasts like Helen Oyeyemi and Ali Smith, rather than the grittier likes of Elena Ferrante and Carmen Maria Machado. Her charm can verge on preciousness, particularly when it comes to sex and love, but for the most part, there is a satisfying spark to her short, declarative sentences; they induce reflection, and maybe even learning, like the folk tales and Buddhist koans that inform her 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 her vision, we are all faithful Henrys, foolishly manifesting our emotional lives physically. Luisa’s father gets a dog named Alaska to externalize his pain. Selma literally carries Luisa everywhere in the days after the novel’s first death. Characters constantly open and close real doors in their relationships. It’s in this manner that the most difficult circumstances become bearable, for there’s no pain or loss that can’t be turned into a metaphor — or, as a Buddhist might say, a friend.

Sometimes that’s just what we want from fiction — a reminder that suffering is also part of life’s comedy. Other times we’d rather sleep a hundred years or see the evildoer boiled alive. For that, we have the original fairy tales. For a more civilized magic, there’s “What You Can See From Here.”


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