The legend of Rip Van Winkle looms in the background of Martha Baillie’s surrealist new novel. Our titular protagonist is a 20-year-old German who travels to Canada’s high north in the summer of 1980. While there, he slips through some sort of wormhole, losing 30 years of his life though it feels as if just two weeks have passed. Heinrich Schlögel’s story is gradually revealed to us by an unnamed Toronto archivist attempting to piece together what happened to this young man and how his new journey – to reconnect with the loved ones he left behind – has played out. Like Rip Van Winkle, readers of The Search for Heinrich Schlögel will find themselves in a strange new world, one both unfamiliar and more than a little unsettling.
Baillie employs a number a standard postmodern gimmicks: there is an array of footnotes, lots of fragmented narration, and more than one scene of magic realism involving
animals. She takes an approach to her narrative structure that resembles Russian nesting dolls: Heinrich leaves his sleepy West German town of Tettnang to follow the same route across the high north as British explorer Samuel Hearne; he gets sidetracked to Baffin Island by a wayward friendship and slips through his wormhole; his sister Inge comes looking for him to no avail; he re-emerges in 2010 and, in turn, searches for Inge; our archivist narrator tracks clues that will piece all of this together.
The story moves slowly at first – perhaps too slowly. But Baillie makes a sharp turn midway and her novel becomes less about its well-worn devices and more about the fraught emotions of her characters. Heinrich’s culture shock in 2010 is genuine. His connection to a young girl in Iqaluit is touching. His attempts to get through to his now elderly father, and to find the sister who came looking for him all those years ago, are heart-wrenching to say the least.
Indeed, once this novel abandons its postmodern trickery, it becomes a small beauty – a tale about searching, and about the elusive traces we all leave behind.