The Bird Is a Raven – Benjamin Lebert

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Ravens suffer from mixed press. They are known as death birds, secret keepers, portends of disaster, the familiars of witches. But they are also thought to have helped Noah to find dry land after the Flood, hold the key to powerful magic, bring sunlight to the dark and serve as a warning of danger. Benjamin Lebert’s The Bird Is a Raven hovers over the dark side.

On a sleeper train to Berlin, two young men spend all night talking and listening to tales of sexual frustration, painful loneliness, the angst of soured friendships. The talkative one describes a platonic ménage a trios that ventures into connection, rejection and physical danger. The other traveler listens but says little. His story is that he fell in love with a prostitute, who was not interested in love—or him. The train barrels on; the one story unfolds in exhaustive detail. An obsessive bond with an obese man and an anorexic is difficult and doomed. The other story lies hidden until the journey’s end. It cannot be shared in a sleeper on a train.

Lebert examines and re-examines the sorrow of isolation, the desperate compulsion to be seen and wanted, the frailties and failures of the human body and the broken places in the human spirit. It’s a very short book. The writing, translated from the German by Peter Constantine, is spare and evocative. The story is depressing. That’s basically it. Misfits on a train as stand-ins for humanity. I can appreciate the craft but I’m not a somewhat unbalanced, sex-fixated twenty-something, loser guy so I can’t relate. Benjamin Lebert has talent. His characters have big problems. End of story.

The Bird Is a Raven   Benjamin Lebert | Alfred A. Knopf   2005

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