The Creation of the Grotesque in Klara Buda’s novel Chloroform

…taking possession of the girl’s identity is a very violent act, which, together with the mystery, creates tension for the reader. The change of the girl’s name, the first element of the lie, and the manipulation that enables the tragic crime around which the narrative is framed builds into a tense situation in which the reader does not dare to breathe.  The secret remains closely guarded until the last pages of the novel, when the reader is surprised and shocked by the ease, deftness, and “simplicity” with which the alienation of identity, a kind of death in essence, appear…

Viola Isufaj

The novel opens with the description of cold clinical chambers, where a girl’s name is changed in her presence for a mysterious reason. Taking possession of the girl’s identity is a very violent act, which, together with the mystery, creates tension for the reader. The change of the girl’s name, the first element of the lie, and the manipulation that enables the tragic crime around which the narrative is framed builds into a tense situation in which the reader does not dare to breathe, especially during the dragging dialogue in which the girl’s new identity is slowly construed without any apparent reason. From the start, we are given a warning that arouses our curiosity but does not give the mystery away. The secret remains closely guarded until the last pages of the novel, when the reader is surprised and shocked by the ease, deftness, and “simplicity” with which the protagonist, Alma, is buried under a new identity. The experience of reading these passages is one of alienation (of identity), a kind of death in essence.

The grotesque in modern literature,” Kayser[1] emphasizes, “is related to the alienation process of human beings. Something undefined, unclear and unidentifiable manifests through it, and attests to the destruction of the concept of identity”. Furthermore, this alienation is essentially interconnected with a formal alienation, which in turn unmasks the base and vulgar machinations of the totalitarian system. These carefully built premises create suspense from the first pages of the novel. The narrative style is characterized by a sudden interruption (since the story begins in medias res), which returns to anxiety and suspense at the end of the novel. There is a moment when a character appears with a folder in his hands, through which he searches for an amount of time that Alma finds too long and unjustified, since the folder contains only two forms that he keeps stacking on top of each other without selecting one. The reader is likewise tormented with the long wait.

At last, it looked like he reached a decision, took one of the forms out and asked her quite abruptly: -Name! -Alma,- the girl answered. – Lu – i – sa, he immediately corrected her, enunciating syllables that had nothing to do with her name, rolling them off his tongue for as long as he needed to write them down (pg. 9). The girl shivered in front of her new identity: Luisa Kodra, born on January 31st, 1959 in Kir, Mirdita” (pg. 11).

The situation then develops further; this time, Alma becomes a part of it through the stream-of-consciousness technique. The first-person narrative (Alma’s inner monologue) interweaves the rational and the irrational.

The narrative style that describes the train of thought and associations whirling in Alma’s mind exposes two important elements of her inner state of being. First, she maintains control because, even when she recognizes the direness of her situation, she finds the courage to make fun of the “nincompoops” she faces. By jumping into complicated and delirious math calculations of units that cannot be calculated within one equation – like muscle mass and the average longevity of individuals, she joins the monstrous and the ridiculous, thereby creating another element of the grotesque.

“The age of the nails plus the age of the hairs, divided by muscle mass, multiplied by the average of longevity…equals the days left to live: surely more than twenty years…until the date of the process…when the time comes…it is just a matter of time…ha ha ha…just a matter of time!” (pg. 13).

The above paragraph is part of the description of the difficult situation in Alma’s life. She does not yet know what her future holds, but she is still curious about the age of the individual in front of her, even if he is surely only an unimportant link in a well-organized hierarchy. This unpleasant, unsightly, and disgusting situation, which describes the dislike and uncomfortable feelings elicited by the bizarre, is the essence of the grotesque. A detailed analysis of the characters, their language, and the situations surrounding them illustrates the bleakness, abnormality and tragedy of life in the totalitarian system.

Second, Alma wants to know the age of this individual so that she can divine the future and see if he will still be alive “to get to the process due him!” She knows that this irrational hierarchy will end one day, and its players will all be judged. The stream-of-consciousness technique describes everything that goes through the mind of the character, without any sort of order or rational phrasing structure. That is why ellipses appear at this point in the text, with other punctuation becoming scarce; rather than directing the monologue explicitly to the self, as it is usually done with inner monologues, Buda simply weaves it into her own distinct style.

This procedure allows for a natural penetration of the soul and mentality of the character, which is the first function of the apparent inner monologue that appears in the italicized passages. The second function of this “inner monologue” is the transmission to the reader of that part of the dialogue that cannot be spoken aloud due to the characters’ censorship and self-censorship. This is also one of the basic features of chloroform as a metaphor, as shown through the hampered speech of the characters, who often leave their sentences suspended. The paragraphs in italics thus represent fragments of those unexpressed thoughts that individuals are unable to voice, either because of fear in a totalitarian system or because of their vulgarity or lack of education in a free – thinking system. This situation, in which the individuals do not finish sentences that they realize midway through may be considered inappropriate or unacceptable, creates an unusual atmosphere that makes them look dazed (or chloroformed, the first stage of anesthesia).

Grotesque characterization through physical description

Buda seems to prefer to blend realistic and modern techniques in the introduction of her characters. The penetration to the characters’ consciousness and subconsciousness is achieved through the description of seemingly nonsensical, superficial, and unimportant acts, such as the insecurity and fear of the morgue guardian:

“The man started for the door […] but then turned in the opposite direction” [insecurity].

“Wait here please, he mimicked, apparently afraid of eavesdroppers” [fear].

The novel’s characters seem empty, devoid of strong feelings and emotions. What distinguish them is their physical descriptions – descriptions of the features that express their inner dilemmas, as if these dilemmas have been etched on their bodies through a somatic process. This characterization introduces us to a character whose low moral character is represented in his vulgar and ugly appearance. Physical deformity is an allusion to spiritual deformity, hinting at the expression of the spirit through the body and vice versa.

Marenglen, also called Qani, is a person with a mutilated body and soul. Parts of his extinguished soul have survived or assimilated; thus, he is a necrophiliac. Below are descriptions from the novel that describe how Marenglen has survived violence but has not escaped completely unscathed:

“[…] who he had survived […] this was the reason why his existence dragged along lifeless fragments, and also why his vision emitted such deep wounds (pg. 21).

The hand, whose velvety nails betrayed an old typewriter, handed her a form… (pg. 10).

The movement exposed a large, hairy wrist with curly black hairs that contrasted with those old nails. Some of his features indicated youth, and others would look more appropriate on a doddering old man, making him appear like a body glued from limbs gathered here and there and everywhere in time (pg. 11).

These seemingly purely physical descriptions help the reader to discover the psyche of the character. Frequently, innocuous expressions herald a disfigurement and extremely inhuman features.

When talking to the organs preserved in formaldehyde, Marenglen, the morgue guardian, apparently talks only to his preferred features. For example:

“Good morning my arched eyebrow! Don’t you feel comfortable in my jar?”

Furthermore, the stream-of-consciousness in the following paragraph warns us of the murderous aspirations of Marenglen, even though the term “murder” is never used.

 “God help her! A thin or arrow-shaped eyebrow is missing from the collection. I might never meet the moon-brow of tonight again. I wish I could draw it, preserve it in formaldehyde, and collect it. I wish people were born with check boxes. One could tick the original feature to be collected and extinguish life conveniently at the same time!

Nobody would worry about a death motive then” (pg. 28).

His obsession has transformed into perversity, and he dreams only about killing all individuals who possess the features he wants to collect. Buda deepens her irony, presenting this in a positive light through scientific and professional descriptions.

“The morgue guardian had his own way of thinking, a scientific method of evaluating things […] He was a true and thorough professional […] no different from any other pure specialists, maybe only for the following: he did not really see a big difference between humans and lab rats” (pg. 29)

The author encourages the readers to discover by themselves what Marenglen/Qani stands for, giving hints in details like his inability to see a difference between humans and lab rats. The difference between the two species, of course, is that one can do anything to rats, including on them and even put them down at will. Thus, it is easy to see that this passage alludes to the fact that Qani is a murderer and the representative of a system. Therefore, the same expression used as an epigraph makes another appearance: “…the poor animal…” This alienated and grotesque man both appears to be a poor animal and treats his peers as animals.

Grotesque characterization through denomination

The grotesque names of Buda’s characters further hint at the depersonalization of modern humans. Grotesque alienation is used in contemporary literature often and, according to Kayser, always in relation to changes in reality that are outside our control.  “The world we live in,” he states, “is controlled by outside powers that either turn people into puppets, or drive them crazy.It is for this reason that this narrative contains characters with obliterated souls, broken and mutilated by the pressure applied to them. This is also the reason that they are effigies of lost people, embodiments of human souls murdered by the relentless onslaught of demagogies and ideologies of dictatorship. Qani is presented as grotesque and disfigured because he embodies the distortion of man under dictatorship. The denomination of this character has negative emotional connotations.

…Marenglen, but they call him Qani for short.

 – Why? How come?

 -Yeah,-the other said, -Qani has no connection to Marenglen, it is not his shortened name. I don’t know why they call him that. Maybe they just picked it because Marenglen did not fit him at all.

– He looks exactly like the famous Baba Qani!

– I remember, -the older one continued without paying any attention, – when he first started working here. People used to laugh whenever he said his name. Every time he introduced himself, people thought he was joking since such a wretch could never be called Marenglen.

 – Surely, someone classier should have the name that derives from the ideators, -the new nurse said.

– But Qani stuck to him immediately, nobody knows why. Maybe he was a copy of his boar of a father.

-Oh yeah?-She reacted a bit too late to her coworker’s comment.

-Yes, they call him Qani after his father, Baba Qani, -she concluded.

Luisa Kodra’s character does not speak in the novel. She is not given a voice because the narrator focuses on her story rather than her as a character, showing more interest in the message than in its messenger.

Luisa Kodra’s character is extremely shocking but also difficult to visualize; She is an individual at the lowest level of the social hierarchy, almost a slave. This is the reason she does not have a voice. She is a simple woman without an individual consciousness, which condemns her to a tragic fate. Undoubtedly, she is the most tragic victim of the novel, which is why she cannot be a secondary character.

The characters in the novel are unveiled very gradually, first with physical descriptions that hint at their souls, then with their most typical actions, and finally in dialogue. They are also shown through the ideas they support, but because they can never express everything due to their censorship and self-censorship, to not implicate the author voice, the most intimate and hidden parts of themselves are expressed by using the stream-of-consciousness technique or excerpts from personal diaries, which enable the author to discuss real facts and analyze ideas that could not otherwise be discussed in the novel (such as the ideas on society and art expressed in Alma’s lover Adrian’s diary, which is discovered by the Sigurimi, the secret police).

Characterization through behavior

Literary authors may introduce their characters by describing either their inner worlds or their actions. The connection between the characters and their actions is unavoidable, because their personalities come through in these descriptions. F. Stancl says, “The character and his or her actions are the main source of epic literature. Behavior is a sign of individuality. In any action, the pure purpose of the acting individual is to unfold the image for his character”. The characters of Chloroform (Qani, etc.) are presented through grotesque actions. These behaviors are a sign of depersonalization, suggesting, as Henry James suggested, that a character is no more than the sum of his actions. According to Freudian psychoanalysis, our actions, words and feelings are limited by society and its rigid rules. Ass the superego pushes the ego to compromise, the individual exhibits what is considered normal and moral behavior in front of others. From this point of view, a part of the soul dies without having a chance to express itself when its owner is surrounded by others, since the true self is never shown; all that is shown is the part of the self that others perceive to be appropriate. The principal characters of the novel embody the notion of the individual who is free from the pressure of the superego and thus can be genuinely him- or herself, regardless of how “ugly” that self might appear to others. The actions, at the beginning of the introduction of the characters, are very grotesque. The characters perform random acts that serve to demonstrate the monotony and uselessness of their lives. Links to the outside reality are sometimes deliberately obscured by the author, so that attention can be directed to the characters’ consciousness and subconsciousness. The most important events happen inside, giving the impression that objective time is frozen. However, the rhythm of experiences is unusual. Time moves lazily, because the protagonist (Alma Fishta) cuts all relations with her surroundings and uses her conscious and subconscious mind (both of which work very slowly) to ponder and express sensations, experiences, impressions and memories of an undetermined time.The attention is deliberately focused on Alma’s feelings, sensations, dreams and fantasies, so that the whole human soul drama can unfold. Innocent dreams of love and motherhood cannot be realized where human freedom is executed at every turn. In order to transmit this fundamental message, Buda brings the grotesque to a maximum through a strange and ridiculous situation where the inappropriate becomes violent and ends in horror. This is expressed neatly during Alma’s delirium during the operation scene, a state between dream and reality,

“This is a holy orifice, the doctor continued, while pushing the index finger (encased in a surgical glove) towards the vagina, but why not this one? […] The gloved finger now returned to the anus piercing the body like a pike. […] Alma, like a pinned butterfly, writhed at the operation table but could not escape the surgeon’s hands. Suddenly, she jumped too high and found herself up in the air, falling. Aaaaaaarghhh!” (pg. 170).

Once more, this extreme situation brings to light the treatment of people like animals – in this case, like insects, which are even lower than mammals on the evolutionary scale. The unique narration interposes hallucinations on the confused and murky reality, hinting at a long period of numbness, isolation, violence, and terror. The scene in the surgery room – whether a hallucination or a real episode, a question purposefully left unclear by the author – is the materialization of the figurative rape of Alma by the regime.

The atmosphere at the end of novel is imbued by deliriums, hallucinations, and uncertainty. We never learn whether Alma had her abortion or whether she managed to escape the clutches of the perverse surgeon.

The last phrase – “She didn’t understand that she was waked up from the anesthesia” (pg. 189) – has a double meaning: the awakening of Alma Fishta from the “nightmare,” and the identification of the totalitarian period indoctrination with narcotic substances. In other words, this represents the treacherous shot from the regime while under the numbness of ideology. There is a dual allusion to a possible awakening, a potential escape from twilight zone.

“Someone will surely come and drag the poor animal away…”

Someone will surely come and drag the poor animal away. This intriguing epigraph gives insight into the novel’s background. It is in fact more than intriguing; it is shocking. Because of its sudden shock, it appears to muddle thought and associations; in reality, however, it is the mediator and introduction to Buda’s novel. It is a byline that presents the conception of grotesque; it takes the reader to the inner monologue of Alma Fishta, during her night fugue, as things were really at their lowest point for her. The narrative starts in medias res, and the beginning and end both refer to the same situation. This excerpt from Alma’s monologue during her nocturnal fugue (pg. 177) is one of the most meaningful lines in the book. The phrase, which occurs when Alma hears a dying dog and hopes that someone will rescue the poor animal, traces the central idea of the novel. By putting it in the epigraph, the author uses Alma’s destiny as an allusion to the destiny of the individual in an oppressive regime.

The loss of human identity is expressed through theriomorphosis (infusing human traits with animals). This is accomplished through the grotesque, which makes real forms tragic through exaggeration to the point of hideousness. This inversion paints a very ugly picture of reality, in which man and animal are so similar in the treatment imposed upon to them by the regime that they can be easily confused. They have become one being, which exhibits traits of both creatures. Homo sapiens is not a unique animal anymore. Contrary to the Darwinian theory of evolution, humans are no longer on top of the food chain. The dominant instinct of death and destruction (thanatos) has turned Alma Fishta’s character into a tragic being.

Klara Buda takes on the task of mapping out the labyrinths of this irrational and inhuman system, together with the conflicts and aftereffects experienced by her characters. This novel is a criticism of totalitarian society, which, by imposing extreme rules, forces the individual to be false. The intelligent character of Alma Fishta is going through her own dilemmas and inner turmoil, but she objects to the system’s machinations.

In conclusion, we can say that the tragic and grotesque premise of this novel is compounded by circumstances that have nothing to do with reality, due to their exaggeration and disfigurement, and whose intent is to cause pain, anxiety, suffering and other negative feelings. These feelings are related to the fate of the protagonist and the message the novel brings. The impossibility of a relationship between the individual and the regime is accompanied by grotesque details, which indicate that the latter party sees this kind of relationship as abnormal. Through these artistic means, Klara Buda succeeds in skillfully illustrating the destruction of individual freedom in Chloroform.

Original language of this paper is English, translated from Albanian by Blerta Alikaj

[1] Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature.