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The Bound Man and Other Stories by Ilse…

The Bound Man and Other Stories

by Ilse Aichinger

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I first read Ilse Aichinger's The Bound Man when in college and felt a deep, instant connection with this powerful tale. I reread The Bound Man in my early 30s. And here I am, in my early 60s, drawn once again to this amazing short piece. The story opens with the main character, a man who remains nameless, waking up with the sun on his face and under the buzz of flies; however, "when he tried to whisk them away, he discovered that he was bound." Bound by a thick rope, that is. "His legs were tied all the way up to his thighs; a single length of rope was tied round his ankles, crisscrossed up his legs, and encircled his hips, his chest and his arms." He reflects, "perhaps children had been playing a practical joke on him." We are only given a few hints of his character, but one I especially enjoy is his sensitivity to natural beauty. "A few paces away lay the path across the plateau, and in the grass were wild pinks and thistles in bloom. He tried to lift his foot to avoid trampling on them, but the rope round his ankles prevented him." Here we have a man who wakes up bound in rope, struggles to his feet, can move only in hops, yet still is mindful of not destroying flowers in bloom!

A circus proprietor/animal tamer sees the bound man moving down a path. We read, "He moved slowly, to avoid being cut by the rope, but to the circus proprietor what he did suggested the voluntary limitation of an enormous swiftness of movement. He was enchanted by its extraordinary gracefulness." How impressed was the circus proprietor? The author writes, "The first leaps of a young panther had never filled him with such delights." So, we understand the bound man is sensitive and extremely graceful. It doesn't take that much imagination to see the bound man has the qualities of an artist, which adds to the charm and power of this fable-like story. The next thing we know, the bound man is the main attraction in the circus. The bound man's movement are nothing short of stupendous. "His fame grew from village to village, but the motions he went through were few and always the same; they were really quite ordinary motions, which he had continually to practice in the daytime in the half-dark tent in order to retain his shackled freedom. In that he remained entirely within the limits set by his rope he was free of it, it did not confine him, but gave him wings and endowed his leaps and jumps with purpose." Here we have metaphorically an artist working within set boundaries, say, for example, like a composer working within the framework of a string quartet.

The bound man's art reaches such a zenith, the author writes, "The result was that every movement that he made was worth seeing, and the villages used to hang about the camp for hours, just for the sake of seeing him get up from in front of the fire and roll himself in his blanket." Wow! The bound man is such an extraordinary artist he transcends the boundaries of simply performing as an artist for a set audience; for him, all of life is art. And to underscore how the bound man's art can be viewed as bound up (no pun intended) with life and death issues we read, "He was just the opposite of the hanged man--his neck was the only part of him that was free." Further on, the author notes how the circus proprietor's wife would see how much free play the rope allowed the bound man and also touch his tender wrists and ankles and how "he told her that sometimes he felt as if he were not tied up at all."

Toward the end of the tale, a wolf roams the countryside, killing livestock and terrorizing the countryside. The circus performers join the villages in an attempt to hunt down the wolf but their efforts fail. The bound man makes his way out to a distant hill and, predictably, encounters the wolf. The wolf pounces and the bound man seized the wolf by the throat. The author writes, to my mind, one of the most beautiful lines in all of literature:"Tenderness for a fellow creature arose in him, tenderness for the upright being concealed in the four-footed." Unbelievably, the bound man kills the wolf. The language the author uses to portray the struggle is pure poetry. Rather than tell how this magnificent tale ends, let me simply conclude by mentioning how, after learning how the bound man miraculously killed the wolf, the audience turns on the bound man. The circus proprietor's wife takes his side. "She shouted back at them that they needn't believe in the bound man if they didn't want to, they had never deserved him. Painted clowns were good enough for them." As in literature, as in life: the general population with their middle brow artistic values doesn't deserve the bound man-creative artist; for them, painted clowns are quite good enough. Existentialism? Surreal fable? Magical realism? This is a tale defying category. ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ilse Aichingerprimary authorall editionscalculated
Mosbacher, EricTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Contains 10 stories: Der Gefesselte, Die geöffnete Order, Das Plakat, Der Hauslehrer, Engel in der Nacht, Spiegelgeschichte, Mondgeschichte, Das Fenster-Theater, Seegeister, Rede unter dem Galgen
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