[BOOK REVIEW] Susan Grace Reviews Harold Jaffe's New Book, Death Café

text by Susan Grace


Harold Jaffe, progressive, social activist, and author of 24 innovative books, including Othello Blues, Revolutionary Brain, Anti-Twitter, and Induced Coma, has planted another mine in the minds of readers worldwide with his latest work, Death Café

The title alone, Death Café, is compelling, and perhaps, in a sense, satiric.  For the unfamiliar, a death café is an actual thing, an experience, but Jaffe’s version goes far beyond to become in effect the sine qua non for exploring the 21st century human condition. 

The online-defined death café experience, better known in continental Europe, has, over the last decade, been introduced into other countries, including the US.  But be aware that Jaffe’s concept of a death café is not a small eclectic group gathered together over tea and cakes in someone’s living room or in a conveniently-located coffeehouse to discuss the taboo of all taboos—death—and leave an hour later feeling purged. 

For Jaffe, the venue is the dying planet and the participants are the suicided, the martyred, the murdered, the murderers, the victims and perpetrators, those who love them, the known and unknown, past and present.  From Africa to China, India to Europe, the US to the Middle East, Jaffe’s Death Café opens wound after festering wound, challenging a technopiated culture that seems to have erupted like a pustule on the backside of a capitalistic globalized corporatocracy to let go of its scripted thoughts and do something better:  Feel.  Not purged like a lowercased death café, but pent.  How else does a revolution, if one is still possible, begin? 

In his opening text “Orfeo,” an allusion to the mythic Orpheus, Jaffe weaves a first-person narrative in which the events take place underground, starting in the basement of a hospital complex filled with “discarded old people” and continuing to an underground train station men’s room where 20 men stand at urinals masturbating “while peering at the masturbating male to his left.”  The multiple layers in Jaffe’s work leave considerable space for interpretive debate, but the symbolism is fairly clear between Orfeo’s underground and Orpheus’s underworld.  After he finally manages to pee, Orfeo boards his train heading north.  Symbolically, there is a sense that each story thereafter might function as an underground stop as he makes his way to the surface.

Along the stops, a particularly impactful passage, and not without political currency, happens near the end of “Auschwitz Crumbling,” a narrative about the difficulties faced by those charged with preserving not only the eroding Nazi death camp but doing so in the face of aging/dying witnesses, fading memories, and Holocaust deniers. The current director sums up the situation:  “If we do not change that, this exhibition will say always less to the next generation until it will say nothing at all.” The narrator closes the piece by pointing out that even as Holocaust deniers are spreading rapidly around the world, “newer, sanitized genocides are occurring on every continent.”  This insight seems to conjure an image of past genocided victims dropping off one end of a conveyor belt as a steady influx of new genocided victims enters on the other.  The reader is left to ruminate on what difference it might make if there were space in our memories for all.

Nineteen provocative fictions and docufictions comprise Death Café.  Each narrative is independent of the other yet connected thematically by what perhaps can be described as “daring not to avert one’s eyes from the unjustified pain and sorrow that populate the globe.”  Jaffe’s work examines, through different eyes, eyes of the other—the oppressed, the marginalized, the mad, the inevitable—until the examining seamlessly gives way to inhabiting.  This ideality is underscored in “Inhabit,” a multiple-discourse docufiction that explores the deeper aspects of suffering as the narrator seeks to inhabit crucial moments during the lives and deaths of individuals who have made artistic, loving, even ugly impacts on the world.  In one section, the narrator inhabits the nearly failed suicide of the “Maladroit when not masterful” Vincent Van Gogh and recalls Artaud’s words, “Suicided by society.”  He dwells in the deathbed moments of the Aldous Huxley and later Blake with his beloved Catherine.  When interrogated as to whether he wishes to inhabit Theo Van Gogh—the great-great grandson of Vincent’s brother—filmmaker, racist xenophobe, who is murdered and martyred, the narrator replies simply, “No.”  Later he concedes that while Vincent would not wish for a descendant like Theo, he would understand.  “The world moves forward and back. Proceeds by oppositions.”  It is the opening discourse, that of a young virgin who leaves her village in Yugoslavia to join the order of Loreto—nuns who tend to the poor and dying in India—where the lyricism of the “unsituated dialogue” and the narrator’s self-interrogation set the tone for this text.

I’d like, respectfully, to gain entrance to the range of feelings she was experiencing when she made her arduous journey from Skoplje to Dublin.

When she was admitted to the order of Loreto.

When she slept that first night among the sisters of Loreto.

You want to gain entrance to the range of feelings she experienced?


And do what with it?

Inhabit it.

If this last line is not a roadmap, perhaps it should be.  What better way to approach the dimensions of this book; what better way to approach human interaction in general?  Certainly it affords one the potential for feeling, for compassion—integral components for navigating below the surface of a dying world. 

The literary genre, docufiction, has been created and deftly utilized by Jaffe in Death Café and other works.  It includes the art of taking historical, news, or other media-based accounts and teasing out the hidden assumptions, essentially by deconstructing, re-imagining, and often, though not always, satirizing, to obtain an alternative point of view that exposes a higher level of socio-cultural awareness. 

In the docufiction “Stockholm Syndrome,” Jaffe draws on the reported account of Wolfgang Priklopil who kidnapped a 10-year-old girl in Austria, held her captive for eight years, and eventually committed suicide when at age 18 she escaped.  Afterward, the girl says of her captor that he “was a part of her life and ‘in a certain way’ she mourned his suicide.”  Further, we learn that she wept inconsolably when she was informed he had killed himself.  As the narrator interrogates the story, the girl expresses that she does not feel that Priklopil robbed her of her childhood, “I don’t have the feeling I missed something important. As far as I can see, children are robbed of their childhood one way or another.” Later, alone, she pays her respects at the morgue before his burial and lights a candle for him. 

With just a subtle massaging of emphasis, Jaffe manages to expose the hidden assumption in the original reporting—the girl is better off back with her society.  But with her conflicted thoughts carefully articulated in Jaffe’s treated text, along with the egocentricity of the so-called authorities, the barrage of media attention, her dysfunctional family and the pointed reminders of the historical complexity of her society, the reader cannot help but wonder to what degree that assumption is valid.

The crystallizing moment comes in the end section, subtitled “The Movie.”  The narrative jumps ahead five years; the girl is 23.  She has finally “decided to reveal the sordid truth because the movie producers had already seized the file, which was not to be released until 20 years after her death.”  It is no surprise that the movie capitalizes on repeated rape scenes and depictions of brutality.  What does give pause is her attending the premier in a low-cut, Lagerfeld evening dress displaying “what appeared to be fresh implants,” posing for photos, but declining interviews.  By carving out the core and dispensing with the noise, Jaffe raises the question, how shall we define subjugation?  

With rapier-sharp wit, Jaffe misses no opportunity to strip the fairytale out of the plight of the aging, endangered species, artists, war, consumerism, capitalism, corporatism and politics.  In one particularly jarring narrative, “Butcher Love,” Jaffe juxtaposes a “maso” scene from a Disney-affiliate-owned SM club named after Jean Genet and the torture and pain endured by stock animals, notably in kosher slaughterhouses.  The end?  A smooth shift into parody with corporations taking a sharp uppercut—nobody is intended to leave the text unscathed, least of all the reader.

The signal question is, how does a writer weave the theme of pain in its myriad facets through 19 such narratives and still manage to avoid any hint of repetition and, in fact, achieve a uniqueness that surpasses expectation.  One thing is certain: Jaffe has an uncanny ability to shape his ideas through the use of multiple discourse, unsituated dialogue, and argumentative and dreamlike interrogation, to prune them with tonality and rhythm, to sharpen them with satire and juxtaposition.  Technique aside, Jaffe is exquisitely attuned to each character in his narratives; in other words, he inhabits them.  The synthesis here is an originative mode of storytelling that facilitates a visceral understanding of the complexities of, and ultimately the dark humor that emerges from, an expiring world utterly incapable of comprehending its own death.  

How will you die?

That is the question that underpins everything.  It is one that once bore the obligation of being answered or, at the very least, contemplated.  Today, for the all-that-glitters consciousness of a consumerist, techno-fed populace the question is almost too painful to articulate.  As the narratives unfold in Death Café, it becomes obvious that the pain resides in the not answering.  How will you die? is the other half of How will you live? For any society unwilling to answer these questions, Death Café is an illuminating depiction of the human stress response when an uncaring power structure answers it for them. 

From “Inhabit”:

You, then.

Will you die like Blake singing songs to Catherine?

Like Vincent with his head turned to the wall?

Like Theo, dissident film-maker, hate-monger, violently set upon, murdered, martyred?

Like Huxley, his thin legs in tweeds, sideways mover, ingesting sight?

Like the teenage virgin from Yugoslavia en route to Dublin then India on a prayer?

In the final, titular narrative, “Death Café,” Jaffe parodies a San Diego living room death café event.  If the original symbolic supposition holds, that is, Orfeo’s ascent through the underworld, this might be considered his arrival at the surface.  Interspersed with attendee dialogue that volleys from the absurd to the very absurd are sobering scientific commentaries on the plight of the planet in a sort of post-modern Greek chorus fashion.  The final commentary: “Scientists attribute the sixth mass extinction to man and his institutions.”  This, just before the attendees stroke their smart phones and “savage the key lime pie.” 

You can purchase Death Café hereFollow Autre Magazine on Instagram @autremagazine.