Relationships, Repetitions, Parallels

Dorothee Elmiger, trans. Megan Ewing, Out of the Sugar Factory

Two Lines Press, 280pp, $16.95, ISBN 9781949641400

reviewed by Jim Henderson

Dorothee Elmiger’s Out of the Sugar Factory is classified as fiction, but halfway through it, the narrator, an author at work on a book that seems to be Out of the Sugar Factory itself, tells her editor that what she’s writing is a ‘research report’, not a novel. Argufying over categorisations only gets you so far in coming to grips with a book like this, but her description isn’t wrong. The plot of Out of the Sugar Factory consists of this narrator, whose life tracks with the details in Dorothee Elmiger’s author bio (both are Swiss German writers), reading up on topics as disparate as sugar production in colonial Haiti, Saint Teresa, the scholarship on the inscrutable utterance at the end of James Joyce’s story ‘Eveline’ (‘derevaun seraun’), and the Montaukett, the indigenous inhabitants of what is now Long Island.

What connects these subjects is that they all intersect with the history of European colonialism and the economic circuits it gave rise to; the narrator tries to chart the links between them. Sometimes she turns the focus on herself and writes about the circumstances of her life (meals, conversations, routines, travel, etc.), the idea being to tip her hand and show what makes her pay attention to the things she pays attention to. But a lot of Out of the Sugar Factory is made up of her research notes, fragments of a few paragraphs apiece; they combine her often brilliant analysis of the material with quotations from it (in another non-novelistic move, the last couple of pages give citations for these).

One way into the whole complex of the book is the life of the ‘lotto king’ Werner Bruni, a plumber who hit the Swiss lottery jackpot in the eighties, netting him a million-odd francs, which he lost a few years later. Like most of the stories in Out of the Sugar Factory, this one is true; the narrator revisits it several times. At the start of the novel she talks about a moment in Bruni’s life that obsesses her: he got so broke he had to liquidate everything he owned. The people in the small town he lived in gathered at the local hotel for the auction. They resented Bruni for the stroke of luck that took him out of the life they were stuck in and exulted in his downfall. A video shows the auctioneer sneeringly displaying two statuettes of black women, which Bruni said he got on a trip to Haiti, and starting into a patter that’s full of racist invective. This last part is what haunts the narrator: she describes it as ‘a brief convergence of the most diverse strands of history,’ which she can’t explain and can only ‘rediscover in circumstances of similar or analogous structure — as relationships, repetitions, parallels.’

That’s a good description of what Elmiger is up to. The novel is like a big lumbering switchboard patching in people and epochs from all over, full of sudden unexpected connections, staticky interruptions from disembodied voices, and signals that cut out. Apparently unrelated phenomena are brought into contact with each other. Bruni’s fire sale is echoed in a detail from an account of Toussaint Louverture’s last days, which he spent in a French prison: after he died, his possessions were auctioned off. The juxtaposition is startling, maybe outlandish at first, but Elmiger brings the commonality between the two into focus. Both went ‘through a portal, an opening, and suddenly found themselves freed from the conditions that had determined them up to that point’ — Louverture was born into slavery and became the leader of a newly sovereign Haiti; Bruni was released from the miserable plodding that seemed to be his future—only to be punished by those who felt threatened because they stepped outside the station in life that was allotted to them.

Parallels like these mount until they snowball into dense agglomerations of motifs. The narrator points out that Emma Bovary eats ‘a heap of sugar’ in bed; so does Chantal Akerman in the movie Je Tu Il Elle; historically the sugar consumed in francophone Europe was from Haiti, and these scenes are grimly contrasted with records of plantations there during French rule, which bring us full circle back to Toussaint Louverture. These efforts may come off as an exercise in lining up coincidences, or as symptoms of what shrinks call ‘apophenia’, but as the narrator realises in an indelible fragment,

Coincidence plays no role in it: The routes of the merchant and passenger ships, the intercontinental flights that emerge here, this network of transatlantic relations touches my concern at its innermost core: what has not been carried across this body of water, this rift between continents in the course of time?

No less than in Emma Bovary’s day, the stuff for sale in Western metropolises gets there through globe spanning pathways that conceal all the debasement that goes into their manufacture, at least from those on the consumption side of the equation. But whether ‘end users’ realise it or not, these goods link them with people on the other side of the world — or as the narrator, paraphrasing the anthropologist Sidney Mintz, puts it, ‘sugar production connects unknowns across time and space.’

A fascinating perspective on the workings of global capitalism emerges over the course of the book. To Elmiger what drives it is hunger, but by that she doesn’t just mean the need for food. Quoting Ortega y Gasset, she defines hunger as ‘the urge . . . to get out of oneself,’ something you can see in pursuits of ecstasy like ‘drunkenness, mysticism, infatuation,’ and so on. Sometimes this sort of hunger can be a healing force — revolutionaries and religious ascetics also try to ‘get out of themselves’ — but in many cases it takes the form of libidinous acquisitiveness. The abstemious discipline that supposedly wins fortunes for big magnates has no role in Out of the Sugar Factory. Instead, there are stories about people running around in the grips of a senseless and often destructive cupidity, like the one about Adam Smith taking ‘sugar cube after sugar cube from a bowl at tea without even sitting down at the table, until the hostess, an elderly lady, at last had no choice but to take the bowl “on her own knees,” in order to save the sugar from Smith’s “uneconomic grasp”’; what’s more, the narrator quotes the philosopher Susan Buck-Morss, who speculates that the sugar cubes were really ‘a displacement of Smith’s sexual desire for his cousin.’

Nobody in the book makes money by patiently amassing it through investment cycle after investment cycle; it comes by chance (e.g. the lottery) or through underhanded methods. The narrator recounts the life of E.G. Wakefield, an early proponent of Britain’s colonisation of Australia (Marx cites Wakefield’s books about it in Capital) who kidnapped a 15-year-old girl with rich parents and forced her to marry him so he could lay claim to the family money.

Such anecdotes are the decoction of an impressive breadth of research, and Elmiger’s skill at unearthing them is a big part of Out of the Sugar Factory’s appeal. Taken together, they might seem like some kind of counterhistory, but things are more complicated than that. The narrator pokes holes in the stories she tells. In the case of Werner Bruni, she talks about a well-documented part of his life: in a ceremonious photo op, he gave his former boss power of attorney over his lotto money (he sold Bruni an apartment building that operated at a loss, precipitating his downfall). The signing over was reported in a Swiss tabloid called BLICK, but when the narrator looks into it, she gets stuck on contradictory details. The dates in the newspaper’s archive don’t match the ones in Bruni’s ghostwritten tell-all memoir, and the photographer credited in the archive says he wasn’t involved. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of misconceptions:

Times, numbers, formulations that contradict each other indicate that the memories are faulty, the research inaccurate, or the dating can be wrong. And because the video reporter, the BLICK photographer, the journalist, the lotto king, and his ghostwriter quote each other and rely on each other’s accounts, each other’s reports, there is no actual narrative, no true incident, no reliable source to go back to.

So Out of the Sugar Factory may be a research report and not a novel, but most of what we think we know about the world is compounded of fictions anyway.

All the same, the narrator is acutely conscious of how her own standpoint could distort the history she wants to relay, and she is at pains to show the reader the angle she’s coming from. These more self-reflexive passages are full of quotidian details: getting a data roaming warning, falling asleep after taking a walk, seeing a woman on a bus holding an outsize basket. The narrator says that this stuff must be included ‘because these are the conditions under which the text is created, the circumstances in which I write’; they thereby exert an influence on the direction the book takes.

Moments like this raise the spectre of ‘autofiction’, which often trades on the thrill of authors confessing, by way of novelistic avatars, to various embarrassing or unseemly acts. But Elmiger undermines the book’s apparent facticity on this score too. At one point the narrator describes an awkward run-in with the director of Max Frisch’s archive; the anecdote seems plausible, but she ends it by saying that ‘to be honest, the whole story didn’t go down like that.’ The narrator is also pretty circumspect about personal matters, at least by the standards of the compulsory self-revelation that predominates in a lot of literary culture nowadays. She proclaims that ‘it’s actually uncomfortable for me to get so far into the personal side of things’ and refers to Montaigne’s preface to the Essais, which promises to show his ‘native form, so far as respect for social convention allows’; the quotation is telling because her writing about herself seems to be tempered by concern for propriety too. And even if it weren’t, it would be impossible to map out every single factor that could have affected the composition of the book, as the narrator concedes when she notes that it’s ‘quite impossible for me to bring these things into the text in their simultaneity.’

Nor is there any end to the connections the narrator draws. She exasperatedly proclaims that ‘everything becomes too much for me. At the beginning, I thought I had to somehow gather everything together, bring it all together, but now things are imposing themselves on me virtually — I see signs and connections everywhere, as if I had found a theory of everything, which is of course utter nonsense.’ The mental state works herself into might seem feverish; the book’s dot-joining approach might seem strange or avant-garde; but there’s nothing all that odd about Out of the Sugar Factory. If anything, Elmiger has found a way to describe something fundamental that gets overlooked, both because it’s so ingrained that it passes unnoticed and because you literally can’t see it.

Needless to say, the global system whose history Elmiger plumbs still exists, and in some ways it’s not that different from how it was: a few pages into the book, she describes a TV documentary she saw about a Swiss farmer who bought land in the Caribbean to set up a pineapple farm. These days it has gotten more complex, as attested to by the ongoing supply chain breakdown, which shows how people’s lives depend on long concatenations across space they don’t understand. No one person can take in all the endless ramifying of suppliers giving way to secondary suppliers giving way to tertiary suppliers, and so on down the line into the millions; there’s no vantage point that will reveal it all to you. Instead, we’re all a little like the protagonist of this book, trying to make out patterns in an onrush of fragmentary, discontinuous information.

Jim Henderson lives in Minneapolis.