Read an excerpt from Andy Schumacher’s debut novel »Sack of Potatoes« by the newly founded Viennese publishing house Therapy Press.
Maybe Andy Schumacher is writing about guidance and control, refuge and escape or perhaps he is simply trying to tell the story of an average woman in the art world slowly eaten up by her inner demons. Whatever the case, while reading the painter’s first novel one can’t avoid the feeling of displacement in a no-man’s-land between future, past and present where naïve hopes live next door to the worst nightmares. One can easily identify with the medieval maiden staring down into the steaming swirl of her stew while reading this excerpt––but in the end, good medicine always tastes bitter.
I don’t understand a lot of things. I do what I have to do; I do what I’m told to do. I used to tell people what to do. Not anymore, I need to get healed. Then I can tell my stupid friends what to do. And I have only a confused understanding of what I’m being healed from and how I came to be here. Someone told me what to do. I heard a voice, telling me to get back to a city. What city? And to a hospital. And that’s why I was running; I was told to run. My boots stepping down hard on the dry trampled grass of the migratory landscape. So little moisture and a mouth so thirsty; I stumbled over a rock and fell down with my face landing beside another rock. I turned over the rock and there was moisture underneath. And living in the moisture was a salamander. A moist red-backed salamander, a small woodland salamander inhabiting wooded slopes as far north in Canada as southern Quebec and the Maritime Provinces. But I wasn’t in southern Quebec; I was in northern Quebec or maybe northern Europe. Far north, but not in the woods, only grass and rocks. No water, only some moisture under the rocks. And my tongue became moist because I ate the salamander. And I ate it because I was hungry, a hunger that came on from moving quickly. I thought I was being chased. Chased by the ones who betrayed me. I have a lot of betrayers. They were all closing in on me. A lot of things can close in on you, even a tree, even a bookshelf. I am a tree and I am a bookshelf. A bookshelf made of trees made of myself closing in on me. All of the books. All of my books closing in on me. Destroying my mind with their minds, killing me. I must not read the books. Put them back on the shelf. Put myself back on the shelf. I can’t think about myself anymore…
I have three friends, or maybe four. Where are they now? Now that I’m ill but safe and protected? Maybe the refugees ate them, the roaming Horde of Refugees. I heard rumours and saw evidence of cannibalism. Images of chewed up corpses rotting in the concrete haze of sunlight under overpasses and next to gas stations. But maybe it was false, fake news and paranoia. Maybe they are safe and maybe we are all still loving friends, and with the migrants too. I hope we can all still be great friends. But they betrayed me. Friends are the ones who pretend to like you until they find the perfect opportunity to betray you… And maybe I betrayed them too, I was told I betrayed them… victim guilt… Catholic guilt… speaking for me, no, no… I’m no betrayer…
[Several pages omitted]
He couldn’t know anything for sure. He simply stated this was my condition and this was the task the facility administrators had determined was the right price for the treatment. If I were a plumber, they’d make me plumb. That’s how labour payments work. And if I didn’t like it, I was free to seek treatment from another medical services company. I didn’t even need to seek. My contract was shopped around all the firms; anyone could make an offer. But I didn’t listen to their offers. It’s too complicated. I’m already here. They already made the deal with the Academy. The equipment was all set up. No more decision making. The specialist told me so.
It’s all statistical to him, he deals with cunts like me and mine every day. But as I lay there on the bed trying to focus on my assignment, I decided I didn’t care either way. The hospital room had grown on me with its calm blue walls and the bed had wrapped around me like a cocoon, all nestled in and warm, as if it were my childhood sanctuary… I could rest and I could sleep. Lots of sleeping and thinking and dreaming. Isolated with pen and paper I could do my work in the relative silence of a room freed from the distractions of a world outside in ruins and darkness. Only a window looking outside and my computer screen giving me a look into the cave. I didn’t know what it all was. I just watched and listened. Because I still had to work. And I wasn’t even being paid. I was being healed. Healed from standard workplace injuries. Working to get healed from the injury of working. But I liked the work and maybe it would be better done here in pain from a distance through the camera. I didn’t want to be there deep underground in the cave with the students and the migrants. Sickly dust and fumes with the sense of being unable to escape. But up here I couldn’t really escape either. Though to my artistic benefit, the benefit of my journalistic work, I could not escape myself. Stuck in my own tormenting brain. I can’t be alone anymore; please hang out with me. And then I will make the chronicle. And my chronicle of what was happening in the cave on this afternoon will necessarily be tinged by the helpless pain of my position. A position I am put in by the same social welfare art system that puts the students in the cave along with the migrant workers. And being so, any authentic account of such an occurrence should be shaped by the pain and displacement a chronicler is forced to endure––as endless and eternal as the pain and displacement we try to capture with shitty phones, limited artistic supplies and minds never really in a well functioning state. The very stupidity enabling the aesthetic perplexion that draws us to the pencil and page in the first place. A good painter is always a little bit stupid. I am a little bit stupid, but this is not a painting. It’s a misunderstanding.
[Several pages omitted]
It’s not how it used to be. The artistic dimensions of war… The Wikipedia article on war art continues: “Society has become so economically advanced and socially conscious that artists, in the manner of traditional war artists, are hired to artistically document almost every socially relevant situation: The building of a school, the weekly collection of city garbage or pigeons in a church organ giving birth. But simple photography or other documentary mediums applied straightforwardly are not enough. The deeper spiritual levels of these situations must be captured with avant-garde and emerging contemporary techniques. Non-official civilian artists often make the most significant contributions to these war records.” That’s us, chroniclers, too psychotic for military service, we donate free artistic labour to the history books. We are separated from the state, floating from squad to squad, picking up whatever scrap of cultural garbage we can find and gluing it to a canvas, so to speak. And I’m now lying in this bed working in an official capacity for the doctors; but when I get out, I’ll be an individual belonging to no collective. I’ll have to find something. My old friends, or maybe some new ones, or maybe something more professional. The doctors said something about Doctors Without Borders wanting me to join their squad. They could use their connections with the Northern Refugee Horde to get me some work. But I’d be under their control––it’s not how it used to be.
Significant war art already in existence according to the Wikipedia article: Francisco Goya with his 3rd of May 1808 painting of a firing squad and his corpse mangled Disasters of War prints. Painters hired by armies in WWI to follow the soldiers and capture the experience; German gas attack expressionism; French impressionism with gangrene. This was not the problem. WWI was a cultural war, WWII was ideological, and the Middle Eastern Wars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries were barely even real for us kids in the West. But now war was everywhere for everyone and about everything. So much to do, so much to paint, so much funding to apply for—so many disasters. »We need more war artists, more chroniclers!« they would say on news bulletins. Children of three already in pre-art schools, preparing their bodies with finger paint for a life of private enterprise subsidized deformity and prostitution. Now we artists must work. We must document all of society in all its artistic dimensions. The artistic dimensions of war.
[Several pages omitted]
Nevertheless, sometime after I heard the migrant’s story about his mother’s stew, or maybe before, I was online reading about and researching perpetual stews. And I picked up on the origins of the perpetual stew in our Western culture––a lineage entirely separate, as far as I could see, from the perpetual stew Simiko spoke of in his Eastern culture. For us, the perpetual stew is a staple of our concept of the medieval inn; if not an actual staple of actual medieval inns. It is difficult to ascertain their true prevalence, as their poetic force as concrete images in things such as fairy tales and medieval inspired video games has likely over emphasized their ubiquity. In any case, I feel I have gleaned my conception of them over time through diverse sources. It is quite easy for me to form a mental picture of a woman in grey raggy clothing stirring a pot on the fire perpetually, staring down lost in its steaming swirl. She looks a little like my mother or me, or maybe just a generic looking traditional woman of European origin. I have seen the type on various food product label packaging from cheeses to oats and biscuits. The field workers, peasants and labourers of all sorts would come up to the village inn after a day’s work for a hot bowl from one of these pots. I guess it would be people who didn’t have some kind of family dwelling where meal making could take place without the aid of a third party. And maybe a lot of people and a lot of families lacked the means—mental, physical, and equipmental—to prepare a nice stew; a recipe they could follow, a strong arm and a proper iron cauldron. Whatever the reason they did not have their own meal or their own stew, one thing was for sure, and it could keep them happy all day long, they could find at day’s end a stew brewing from which they could have a hot bowl for a reasonable price. And it would taste different every day and even at different times of day, for the woman in grey raggy clothing would perpetually refill the stew with new ingredients almost as fast as it was being eaten: »To eat good food is to be close to God and knowledge of God is the bread of angels.« Or maybe once a day they would add new stuff, but most certainly before the pot was emptied, for the preceding flavours must always linger. Except during the holy season. The season of Lent. No meat. But fish was allowed. Jesus had a connection to fish. And so, the stew would be more or less drained if the stew maker were to abide by the Lenten tradition, but this was seldom the case as no matter how religiously devout a stew maker would be, a true stew maker would always put the integrity of their stew first. And a perpetual stew with integrity is a stew that always carries forth a significant portion of its past lives. That is to say, that by general principal, a perpetual stew who is allowed to reach below one third the volume of a full pot forgets too much of its past, and one who forgets their past loses a corresponding portion of their soul.
Andy Schumacher, born 1989 in Kitchener, Canada studies with Daniel Richter at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Austria. He lives and works in Vienna.