Asylum Piece and Other Stories by Anna Kavan
Review by S. D. Stewart
The stories in this volume comprise two discrete types. The collection begins with a series of first-person pieces, many of which conjure up strong parallels to Kafka’s The Trial, and in general portray a narrator consumed with the interior life, specifically its decay under the assault of depression, while being oppressed by some unidentified official body (as in Kafka’s work, the faceless nameless authority never explains itself).
Following these stories is the eight-part section from which the book takes its name, Asylum Piece. In these sketches, Kavan switches to a third-person omniscient viewpoint, thus taking a step back from the action of the stories and allowing for a wider commentary on her subject. These tales are set in a Swiss mental health asylum, possibly the same or different ones, and each piece describes the situation of a particular patient. Kavan is pointedly distant in these descriptions yet also clearly on the side of the patients. There is an overarching sympathy toward these people who have been placed in this ‘clinic’, not of their own free will, by others who purport to care about them and think they are doing what is in the patients’ best interests. In these stories, Kavan also displays a subtle yet distinct disdain for the staff and administration of such places.
As an asylum patient herself, it seems natural for Kavan to have developed these attitudes, yet it’s interesting to see how she chooses to divulge them. In the initial story cycle, she lays herself bare in first-person, quite clearly describing the horrors of what is possibly her own depression, suffered alone in her own home. And yet, when she takes on the enemy of the asylums, she retreats into a more impersonal tone, allowing for the stories of others to illustrate the injustice of this type of mental health ‘care’, including the callousness of family members who clearly used the asylums as dumping grounds for their ‘problem’ loved ones. In this way, utilizing these two separate viewpoints, she manages with this collection to present a remarkably balanced snapshot series of those struggling with mental health issues. That the book is not solely her telling about her problems through thinly-disguised fiction lends credence to both the asylum critique and the very real despair of chronic depression.
The final two stories continue the first cycle, bringing it to an ominous conclusion, with the maddening titles ‘The End in Sight’ and ‘There is no End’. The juxtaposition of these stories after the asylum sketches is interesting and raises the question of whether Kavan ordered the pieces in this collection herself. If so, she clearly knew what she was doing. The last piece in particular is crushing and leaves one wanting for more of Anna Kavan.