Book Review

The Last Days of Mankind

taxidermied rats telling a tale as old as time (100 years of time)

Doppelhouse Press sent me this a few years ago (back when this blog was focused enough and regular enough to get me free books and occasional free money), but I have only come to read it now as part of a little themed series of readings about war, a themed series that I’m not really very committed to, if I’m being honest.

Just, again, in a position of dull stasis in my life, waiting for a change that is still rather a long long way away. Ripples of movement, potential for change, but all in the future: the rest of 2021 is basically a right-off, and that’s ok. 2022 will be better, and hopefully 2023 will be better than that. 

Obviously I do have one thing to look forward to this year, which is the publication of my most esoteric and self involved book yet, hip-hop-o-crit, tho as this is my fourth published work released by a small indie press, I know it won’t be a life-changing experience. Well, maybe it will be, who knows?

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Karl Kraus was a prominent Austrian satirist and anti-war activist, whose magnum opus was an 800-page mixed media near-unperformable play. Though Kraus did adapt it for performance in a much shorter form, and had it performed in the brief window between the fall of the Austrian empire and the Nazi annexation of the country, no “true” performances were ever attempted until the middle of the 2010s, as part of cultural acknowledgement of the centenary of the First World War and the art – such as The Last Days of Mankind – it inspired.

As two big-budget stage versions were being planned, a second generation artist (as in both of her parents were also artists) named Deborah Sengl was already exhibiting a drastically different adaptation of Kraus’ text, and this book is a pictorial representation of her exhibition, accompanied by several essays by art critics discussing Sengl’s piece and career, as well as the origins and significance of Kraus’ own career, almost exactly a hundred years earlier.

Sengl’s version of Kraus’ story was static, but still of mixed media: she produced 44 drawn images and – in collaboration with an expert taxidermist – 44 [groups of items together – I can’t remember the word for this right now] where all of the human characters (except for the character based on Kraus himself) are depicted by white, stuffed, rats.

Sengl made props and costumes for the rats, and displayed the images and the taxidermy together, with an accompanying excerpt from the play. In this book, every image is presented with a few lines, or a paragraph of Kraus’ work in translation, as the exhibition was produced with the expectation that most attendees would have some familiarity with the source text. This is in contrast to this American book, as Kraus’ oeuvre is much less known in the anglophone world.

There was a full translation released in 2015 by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms for Yale University Press, but given how little I enjoyed the last lauded piece of German language modernism I read (Berlin, Alexanderplatz), I’d be wary to go out of my way to find it.

The essays in here explore why the characters are rats, centring this idea not only within Sengl’s wider outlook, but exploring the historic literary (and allegorical) meaning of rats, as well as Kraus’ own wider writing that used animal metaphors.

It’s an interesting project, and the book is beautifully presented and the photographs of the art – shot by Mischa Nawrata – are stunning.

However, Stengl’s artworks feel more like illustrations to accompany a reading of Kraus’ novel, rather than a piece that is fully coherent on its own (without the excerpts and explanatory notes, it wouldn’t be easy to even guess towards the implied narrative of the dioramas), but they are undoubtedly engaging and emotive works of art even when sheared from their context, which is a presumed knowledge of Kraus’ text.

An excellent, interesting, book!

Order The Last Days of Mankind direct from Doppelhouse Press here.

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