To fervent readers, in truth to any members of a cultured society, the burning of books is always shocking. Whether motivated by a desire to blot out the past, an exercise of social hygiene or an insidious attack on a particular writer, book-burning is a uniquely nauseating form of criticism. The burning of The Satanic Verses in 1989, lead by Bradford’s senior imam seemed somehow more alarming than the subsequent fatwa against its writer Salman Rushdie. It is impossible to think of book-burning today without a mental image of blonde-haired Nazis in 1933 rejecting their rich cultural heritage.
In Daniela Cascella’s Singed, the book-burning is not a public auto-da-fe but a more intimate concern: a house-fire. “The smell of singed paper haunts me”, Cascella writes, “The smell of singed paper haunts me with a song.” Although her conflagration is no atavistic urge to cleanse society, it still inspires an act of spiritual reconquest, an excercise of memory to recall what was lost, the absent voices–books and CDs–of her library.
“Could I turn the fire inward,” Cascella writes, “use the charred remains as material to write with?” Writing only from memory, from the voices that remain after literature and music, Singed is a wholly exceptional treatment. It is difficult to recall another book that combines erudition and melodic intonation in the same way; the closest is Clarice Lispector whose voice runs through this book with its repeated words and rhythmic gradation of sounds.
I once read that novice monks lose their voice in the first months of chanting the Divine Office. This marks the point after which a monk learns to sing lightly enough to sustain the extensive chanting of his office. “A scar from ear to throat: the mark of necessity, the mark of muteness through a great effort of voice,” writes Cascella. The force of a voice that arises from an unexpected or unthinkable situation, a house-fire that destroys literature, can become the voicing of an emptying, a clearing. I read Singed in a few days, while travelling around Berlin, marvelling at its precision, its extraordinary rhythm. It will add richly to my library, physical and internal, of discourses of muteness.