In his first work of creative non-fiction, the 13-year old Eric Valdemar wrote about war and childhood. Inspired by his hometown of Rostock in northern Germany, the site of numerous pioneering aeroplane-manufacturing facilities, and home of the first turbojet aeroplane to hit the skies, the Heinkel He 178, Valdemar wanted to express, in so many words, excitement.
The coastal air of the city bore a distinct aroma of supremacy. He could taste it in the sounds of all those latest and greatest aeroplanes zipping overhead testing weaponry, and the He 178, loudest and fastest of them all, thundering above like Hercules.
But by 1944, after Allied bombing had destroyed large parts of Rostock, the book turned sour. What started as a youthful examination of delight turned quickly into a tale of loss and horror: “Stitches the cat got launched through the air so high I couldn’t even see her no more. That’s when I started to be less excited about this war and even started getting real sad about it. Stitches the cat never never did nuthin’ to hurt no one.” It was eventually hailed as one of the great critiques of the war.
Now, on the cusp of his 86th birthday, Valdemar has completed a second book, The Epic Journey of the Flame of my Childhood Now That I am Older. According to the publisher, Sofie de Minsk Inc., after having spent much of his life in silent exile, the idea came to him as he read through old journal entries — specifically, the entry describing his parents’ funeral. Their corpses were tragically set aflame by a nearby aeroplane crash. “They din’t even wanna be cremated!” exclaimed the young Valdemar.
His new idea was to light a fire and follow it from conception to the fading of the last embers. He would set the fire to an abandoned schoolhouse and guide the reader through the epic tale of their journey together — himself, the fire and the schoolhouse. He imagined it as a retelling of his first book, and planned to fill out the fire’s tale with a semi-autobiographical narrative.
The idea promised brilliance, and, to be fair, it delivers in the first pages. But then, rather than examining his youth by the light of a flaming schoolhouse, he merely drones on like an old crank. He explains the idea and carries it out, but then forgets about it entirely for the bulk of the book.
Perhaps the idea was too good and its flame burnt out the rest of the book, bequeathing cinders of minutiae fit for any banal pensioner, with such gems as: “[ . . . ] then the fifth maid, Rose, well she always put the kitty food into the wrong bowl, and, now, if you want to know the truth — mind you I haven’t a stitch of hard evidence to back this one up — but dammit I’m just certain — call it a gut feeling — well, Rose, bless her soul, I’m almost positive was doing it on purpose. She just never liked my cats very much. Nope, she didn’t like them very much at all. Then, the sixth maid, Aven, [ . . . ]”
Indeed, the rest of the book is all but unreadable. Save your time and money and steer well clear.
In fact, I can save your time and your money for you: so that you needn’t purchase the book if you are somehow still curious, here is the first part of the introduction, the only comprehensible part of the book. It could very well be that this brief portion of the intro is the only important moment in Valdemar’s entire life; it’s the only event in either of his memoirs where he’s actually doing anything.
“I’ve set out with my little notebook this evening. It’s quite nice, wrapped in leather, only $14. The weather is mild. Seems like a bit of rain might come, but then again, channel nine said it wouldn’t.
“I found an abandoned schoolhouse on the outskirts of the city this past February. It’s rotten on the inside, but looks quite stately from outside. Sort of mossy, but not all that lively. I’m there now. Looks as though it hasn’t aged a day. It almost looks fresher now, but it’s dark so it’s hard to say.
“I picked up a case of Ace Crackling Firelogs from Schaller’s. Those are the ones I use at home. I’m piling them up around a corner of the building. It’s tough work, but it should do the trick. Before I know it the whole building will be flaring up. This is so exciting! I hope this helps me write a good book.
“Finished piling the logs. Put a starter under the pile. Started a modest blaze. I will now write what I’m seeing and thinking as the fire builds and eventually dies. It seems like a good idea for this book. I just hope I can follow through. I bet I could manage about 5,000 words just with this bit, and then the rest I’ll fill up with odds and ends. It’ll come together.
“It’s crackling and making that pine scent. Very nice.
“The fire has been creeping up the wall for about 30 minutes. This is duller than I would have guessed. Maybe only 2,000 words for this part. The problem is I’ve been watching, but it’s not really getting me thinking about much. All I could really write about this part is things like: ‘It’s still pretty small,’ and ‘It’s gotten a little higher, but only a litte.’ Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“What else could I do? Maybe just pure memoir, no gimmick?
“Ah, it’s just now reached the inside of the building, through that window there. It’s quite large now really; I can feel the heat a bit. It creeps up the wall like a . . . like a flame. It’s like a slowly growing fire, getting bigger and hotter. Funny how you don’t really notice it growing until bang! It’s big now!
“It’s also louder than I might have guessed. It rumbles like an aeroplane (I’ll have to include a chapter about the rumbling of aeroplanes, like in my last book). But as it gets to the innards of this old building it actually seems like it’s snorting.
“Now it’s almost yelling, almost like a battle cry. Such is life. It reminds me of when Stitches was blown up. I remember, at the time, the sounds reminded me of the He 178. Life is ironic sometimes that way — the way some things remind you of other things in funny ways.
“A man has hurled himself out of the top window. I hear sirens coming from the city. This is the same building I found last year, is it not? Yes, it must be. Oh, where are my glasses? It’s so smoky now.
“I’ve come round to the front of the place now to get a closer look. I can see some words by the light of the fire. Let me just get my glasses from their case.
“There we go. ‘Louis III of Thuringia Abode for Seniors.’ Oh dear, I see. I seem to have made a bit of an error.”
The following chapter reveals Valdemar’s adventure fleeing to Lithuania. He talks less about evading the law and the guilt of killing 400 or so seniors that night, and more about the irritation of having to catch a train on short notice at a station he’s not very familiar with. The entire first chapter is about the stress of not having been able to pack everything he wanted. He spends the rest of the book on similar rants, passively alluding to aeroplanes and fires every few pages.
His current whereabouts are unknown, but it is said he moved into exile in Siberia where he’s working on a new book about different types of shoes you can wear depending on weather conditions.