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Transcript: A book review

Updated July 20, 2013

I need more freight trains if I’m going to take care of things quickly.

Sifting through shelves in one of the many little bookshops dotted around the Soho / China-town area of London one can find any number of hidden treasures, or indeed terrors. In the charmingly pluralist expanse you get the sense that the literature traded here has physically seen every corner of earth, and that you are nothing short of privileged to be able to find at your fingertips such a diverse collection of work penned by anyone from Omar Khayyam to the late Russian poet and historian Valerii Bryusov. It tends to be in places such as this that you encounter some of the most vital works of prose and poetry that have ever been released, whether to mass critical acclaim or not, and it was in one of these modest east end retailers that I first found Transcript.

A thin and innocuous looking paperback, black text set against a white page, Transcript makes no exceptional effort to draw attention to itself. All of the essential information; the ISBN, publication date, RRP and so on are typed and bordered indifferently on the front cover, and one wonders why a publisher or author would choose such a discrete arrangement for their work, that is until reading the blurb or taking a peek inside.

In the bluntest terms possible, Transcript is a book of visual and concrete poetry documenting with no embellishment the administrative world of the German Nazi party and mass extermination of the Jewish people. This little document explores the atrocities of the holocaust from a first-hand bureaucratic perspective, using the language of those involved in the attempted mass extermination of 2.2 million individuals. It is one of the most harrowing manuscripts I have ever read. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Bäcker’s work is the utter reality of it. Every word within the book is lifted from real documents written by those who were alive during the years of the Shoah, both victims and perpetrators. It includes excerpts from speeches at the Nuremburg trials, haunting standalone train schedules, lone written statistics and exclusion zone lists. Some of the text blocks can seem ostensibly meaningless upon first reading, but when referenced reveal themselves to be some of the most disturbing extracts in the collection. Here’s one poem, to pick at random, giving a fair indication:

up to 3000 a day about 2000 in 24 hours 300,000 altogether over about 5 months 240,000 over about 4 months with all these reservations, at 500,000

Lists of figures like this one crop up frequently, sometimes even more subtly executed than here (this particular list happens to be an estimation of the number of people killed in the Belzec death camp, and is the only text occupying its page). One thing the collection definitely excels in is delivering maximum impact with minimal articulation. Transcript very much leaves the imagery it conjures up to nag at you as you scour pages of excerpts dedicated as much to allusion as they are to blunt depiction. What the book shows us is that far from being some crude and haphazard massacre, the Holocaust was an event very much pre-planned, rationalised and accounted for. It was an institution unto itself, in organisational terms, one in which language, and the use of necessary language was carefully picked to serve a fixed purpose. Where you would expect perhaps linguistic code, a feature sometimes employed, you far more frequently encounter the bizarre and authoritative office shorthand of the administration, in many ways like reading a company invoice or communication from your bank. What Heimrad Bäcker chooses to do with this methodically scribed genocide is to opt out of fanciful description, to shy away from needless elaboration, and to simply lift the words used by the involved parties to his own advantage, because truly, that is more than enough. Artfully splicing the words together using the techniques of visual and concrete poetry at points, list and cut-up techniques in others (I remember one excerpt in which the words have been moulded into the shape of a cross) Bäcker does something that other commentators of the period have been unable to accomplish, correctly describe the ‘indescribable’.

For this reason an editor needn’t waste time worrying over which glossy cover art to employ, or which colour palate best suits the ‘mood’, because everything you need to understand is displayed both simply and without feeling within the lines, all you need to do is absorb it. There are also points where rightly the horror relents, and this creates a fitting juxtaposition between stanzas, and indeed between poems, an effect that only serves to further sicken during later passages. One page reads solely that:

as a rule hitler’s breakfast consisted of a glass of warmed (but never boiled) milk, a slice of Oldenburg black break (a whole-grain rye bread), a piece of zwieback or Danish crisp bread as well as an apple

Himself an ex member of the Hitler youth and contributor to the Nazi propaganda machine, Bäcker’s visceral and tormenting work gives a real sense of the impact our words can have. As his own words as a collaborator haunted him into printing this collection, the records within Transcript survive to chill future generations, although perhaps for entirely more noble reasons than they were originally penned for. The Holocaust, like any such atrocity, deserves never to be forgotten, not 70 years later, not a thousand, lest history repeat.

Perhaps art, strange art such as this is what helps to prevent future acts of brutality, through education rather than through force or religious or political mistreatment of the masses. Sometimes it’s best to take note of these events, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel disgusted reading Transcript at points, but perhaps we need that disgust to remind us of the poisonous effect of the senseless indoctrination and undue violence in our own homes and on our own streets, and of how these ideas can become so ingrained within a society that the most heinous malpractices can become commonplace. Perhaps books like this are necessary.

All in all, Transcript is a true if underrated classic, not a bad find at all on any dreary Wednesday afternoon, and we should thank whichever deity or philosophy we hold dear that we retain the freedom to print and discuss such works, and to have them readily available. I’m not saying you’ll enjoy it, but this little paperback will make you think, and at any rate, reading books beats burning them, right?