- Frozen Time by Anna Kim
Frozen Time is the translation of Die gefrorene Zeit (2008), the second prose book by Anna Kim, who already garnered considerable attention her first book, Die Bilderspur (2004). Both works share a preoccupation with the experience of alterity and the destabilization of identity. Especially Die Bilderspur—which opens with a quotation from Wittgenstein—reflects in a philosophical way on the role of rhetorical imagery, of Bildersprache, in the creation of alienation as well as the power of the imagination, Einbildungskraft, to de-construct alienation. The experiences in which these reflections are grounded have an autobiographical core: Kim was born in South Korea in 1977 and moved as a small child with her parents first to Germany and then to Vienna, where she has been living since 1984. As the translator Michael Mitchell records in his introduction to Frozen Time, Kim considers German her mother tongue “even though it is not the tongue of my mother” (1) and writes only in German.
Frozen Time explores the experience of alienation in a fictitious story strongly connected with a particular historical reality: the aftermath of the war in Kosovo in 1998–99. The first-person narrator, a female Red Cross employee, has returned to Vienna after a year’s work at the office in Pristina, Kosovo, that coordinates the identification of dead bodies, many of them found in mass graves. Her work in Vienna focuses on the collection of data from missing persons in order to facilitate the identification process in Kosovo. In the course of the many interviews with surviving relatives and friends, a love relationship tentatively unfolds between the narrator and one of her interviewees, a Vienna-based immigrant who has been looking for his missing wife for nearly seven years. When her remains are eventually found, the narrator accompanies the husband on his visit back to Kosovo.
Though the story can be summed up in these few lines, Kim has written a highly complex and condensed book that tries to find an adequate literary form for the narration of and reflection on the continuing impact of war on its survivors. The narrative explicitly presents itself as mediated: though the desperate search of the husband for his wife stands at the center, his story is told by an outsider, a woman at first merely professionally involved. Both the narrator, as a data collector, and her former friend, the forensic anthropologist Sam, who in Kosovo operates as a bone collector, are supposed to [End Page 197] maintain an absolute distance and noninvolvement with their subjects in order to guarantee professional efficiency. Systematizing, controlling, and reconstructing information, be it verbal accounts or the bones found in mass graves, while at the same time “closing our eyes to the surrounding circumstances” (96) characterizes both their jobs. And both fail: the narrator as she gets involved and falls in love with her interviewee, Sam as he feels a stranger in his own body, an alienation he tries to conquer even as he considers his job a meaningful way to immortality: “he feels he’s been chosen, his work is more than just work, it is work that makes sense of things, living work, since it will live on after him and his colleagues” (101). In the character of Sam, the novel questions the motives of professional post-conflict help; the position of the narrator, on the other hand, leads to the literary and ethically relevant question on how to give an account of another person’s grief and struggle for survival. The narrative seeks an answer to this dilemma in a hybrid language and form. Different discourses and narratives are juxtaposed: the documentary style of questionnaires and reports, accounts of Kosovar traditions and tales, recollections of the husband’s Kosovar youth, and philosophical thoughts on the time of waiting, of that “frozen time which doesn’t count” (26), on the language of despair, articulated in “sighing” (17) as a corporeal “metaphor for the act of crying” (17), and, most strikingly, on the “inhuman” (98) nature of a human corpse that the narrator struggles...