Gaining Fluency: What it Means to be Human in a Gendered, Sexist, Classist World
Blutbuch by Kim de l'Horizon | Book Review By Anna Katharina Schaffner
Literature | Book Review | TLS
Kim de l’Horizon’s debut novel, Blutbuch, explores blood lines, family trees (literally and metaphorically) and the burden of transgenerational trauma, along with the ways in which gender, class and neoliberalism shape our identities. It is not hard to see why the non-binary Swiss-German writer won the Deutscher Buchpreis for their autofictional efforts: de l’Horizon artfully translates the experience of someone who identifies as gender-fluid into an “écriture fluide” – a mode of writing characterized by frequent shifts in genre, register and tone. The narrator, Kim, moves seamlessly between detailed descriptions of brutal anal sex and lyrical meditations on childhood loneliness, academic reflections on Foucault, Goethe, the nineteenth-century fashion for Blutbuchen (purple beeches, with which Kim has a mystical relationship), Ursula K. Le Guin’s carrier-bag theory of evolution and musings on the many analogies between magic and writing.
In the course of the novel Kim reflects on their childhood, and on how their mother and grandmother’s histories have shaped their own. A large part of the narrative centres on a psychopoetic exploration of Kim’s grandmother, to whom the text is addressed. Beneath her repetitively looping stories loom dark family secrets: intimations of abuse, failed abortions, violations of physical boundaries. The grandmother caressed Kim too much, her hard, calloused hands constantly somewhere on her grandchild’s body, “always, nervously, stroking. Like a cat’s tail” (my translation). Yet the text is in no sense a case of j’accuse. It is, in its own queer way, a homage.
The narrator’s core quest is double in nature: Kim is searching both for an appropriate written language and an authentic body language. Just as the “binary fascism of body languages” is represented as damaging and restraining, so are the limits of the narrator’s three main spoken languages – high German, Swiss German and English. Kim’s limbs speak a mumbo-jumbo, “a chewed-up elvish” and “a confusedly staggering betweenness and therewithitness”. The narrator feels at home neither in the maternal nor the paternal language of the body, and wonders whether it is this lack that drives them to write.
What emerges is something splintered and sharp, necessarily fragmentary: “Perhaps this kind of writing is a search for a foreign language within the words that one has at one’s disposal. An attempt to hack a tongue-sized bolt hole into that which exists and that which is inherited, big enough so that one can dance in it”. Kim finds numerous creative ways in which to degenderize common German words: man becomes mensch, jemand jemensch, and many other terms are punctuated by inclusivity-signalling asterisks. The final part is written in English (this being the language of high theory and Kim’s Grindr dates). While it offers a space for reinvention and freedom, however, English feels to Kim like a betrayal of their Bernese mother tongue and class origins.
Although the novel chronicles experiences that are relatively niche, the narrator’s struggles transcend the specificity of what they are describing. This, ultimately, is what makes Blutbuch so powerful: it is not simply about the unique struggles of someone who is gender-fluid, but about what it means to be human in a gendered, classist and sexist world. The deeper themes explored by de l’Horizon – shame, fear, trauma, loneliness, belonging and oppressive social narratives – are relevant to us all. If we have a transgenerational task, Kim writes, it is “to start looking under the obvious wounds at the hidden, inherited ones” and to let the “traumata of our families finally gush out”.
It is no coincidence that a large part of the book is dedicated to the tribulations of Kim’s female ancestors. The women in their blood line, too, rebelled in various and often highly creative ways against the cultural limitations imposed on their desires and bodily experiences. It is entirely fitting that Kim’s wrestle with their psychological heritage aims, finally, for a non-Oedipal solution: “I break the circle of children who kill their parents in order to be free, to become themselves. I don’t kill my parents. I am giving birth to my mothers”.
Anna Katharina Schaffner is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent. Her most recent book is The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten timeless truths, 2021