Longing to belong

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 25.02.2022

In spring 2021 Zagava, a Düsseldorf indie press specialising in English-language editions, published Archetypes, 21 short texts by the Luxembourgish author Florence Sunnen. She calls them her ‘animalia’ or her ‘little archetypes’. The collection comes in three different guises: as a paperback, as a hardback numbered edition and as an artist’s edition. Each text is accompanied by an intricate, wafer-thin drawing in which Dolorosa de la Cruz, a visual artist based in Dublin, masterfully captures the puzzling atmosphere of the tales.

No doubt, the various inhabitants of Sunnen’s bestiary will be familiar to you, but they will lure you into their own private spaces and innermost thoughts in all sorts of new ways. Who would have thought that the Vampire was such a disciplined rule follower or that the Mermaid would end up in a ballroom, where ‘she sprawls on a row of chairs, her cold tail heavy beside her’? Did you imagine the Mummy as a rebel princess who feels delighted with ‘her newfound numbness’ or expect the Gorgon to have been to art school? The Minotaur, who is said to have a child’s mind within an adult’s body, is described as ‘innocence caught inside ripples of mature flesh’. Imprisoned within their own limitations, unhappy and isolated – each of these archetypes longs to reach out but most of them cannot communicate or break through walls. For some solitude becomes a matter of life and death. Rejection, mistrust and self-preservation rule a world in which hope is but rarely an option, in which, whenever they appear, humans are trapped in their own selfish conundrums and get bored easily.

Reading turns into an intriguing and unsettling experience – just as it should be! Sunnen explains that her portraits are loosely inspired by Elias Canetti’s Der Ohrenzeuge. Published in 1974, this is a collection of 50 short texts, each concentrating on a particular character type. Canetti’s tone is satirical as well as surreal; the language is tight and sparse. Yet there is one key difference: While Canetti creates new characters, such as Die Selbstschenkerin, Die Archäokratin or Der Saus und Braus, Sunnen picks existing archetypes and makes them her own by setting them within a clearly defined environment. The tone veers from dramatic to tongue-in-cheek, depending on the predicament the various creatures face. The portraits are perfectly balanced and beautifully differentiated. You are made to (sometimes even literally) plunge into a parallel universe as the truth behind various types of ‘otherness’ unfolds.

A key strength of the book is Sunnen’s style – the way she glides from character to character, imperceptibly switching mood and atmosphere along the way. Her prose is tight and perfectly paced. When a more macabre note is added to some of the sketches, they become echoes of Edgar Allen Poe’s darkest tales or Ian McEwan’s early short stories.

Just as in Canetti, you will recognise yourself as well as others in the actions or gestures of these uncanny creatures. Since most of them are loners, insecurity and fear loom large as soon as dreams shatter and expectations crumble.

The deeply empathetic sketches concentrate on archetypes that are struggling to find their place in what is most often a hostile world. Sometimes there is a twist in the tale, a sudden reversal that you do not see coming; elsewhere there are open endings as nothing is resolved and emptiness stares characters in the face.

De la Cruz’s drawings offer a perfect complement to Sunnen’s writing. Exquisitely detailed, both quiet yet flamboyant, they have a haunting quality of their own. You are reminded of René Lalique’s sculpted Art Nouveau jewellery or Fernand
Khnopff’s animal-women. Meanwhile, the 21 texts have a definite modern tone, though they also echo the tradition of the eerie that has been with us ever since writing began. This is a collection full of intense emotion and genuine surprises: it deserves to be on your TBR pile for 2022!

Florence Sunnen, Archetypes, Zagava Press, Düsseldorf, 2021 (ISBN 978-3-949341-00-7)

Janine Goedert
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