“We always live at least two lives, especially after a big decision: the life we decided on and the life we decided against.”
Yes! It’s German Literature Month, and I may be off to a slow start, but at least it’s a good start. My first pick for this month is Dirk Kurbjuweit’s novel Fear, and while this novel can be classified as crime, it’s much more than that.
The novel opens with our narrator, Randolph Tiefenthaler, a successful married architect in his 40s, visiting his 78 year-old father in prison. Randolph’s father, a man with no prior history of crime, is incarcerated for manslaughter. He’s a model prisoner, and the guards like him. What drove this elderly man to kill another human being? What is the backstory?
The rest of the novel unfolds as Randolph, with more than a little guilt, tells of the events surrounding his father’s incarceration. The Thiefenthalers, Randolph, Rebecca and their two children, Paul and Fay moved to a beautiful apartment in a pleasant middle class neighbourhood. There their formerly peaceful life is thrown into chaos thanks to their basement neighbour, Dieter Tiberius, an overweight, unemployed, chronically institutionalized man who is the product of childhood abuse. The situation between Dieter and the Thiefenthalers becomes intolerable, and something is going to explode: Randolph acknowledges: “we thought, said and did a great deal that contradicted the image we had of ourselves, and what I call our enlightened middle-class values.”
At first Dieter seems to be a pleasant, friendly man, but as he becomes more disinhibited around the Thiefenthalers, he becomes obsessed with Rebecca; he leaves her love letters and poems, and there’s evidence (thanks to an abandoned ladder) that he spies on the family in their most secret moments.
Things escalate, however, when Dieter starts accusing the Thiefenthalers of sexually abusing their children which results in repeated visits from the police. Randolph and Rebecca desperately seek police protection only to be told there is no case, so they turn to legal means which prove to be equally useless. They find themselves behaving stiffly in the face of accusations, wondering how to act with their children. Even discussing the situation with friends fails to draw sympathy.
Even before Rebecca had finished talking, I saw her school friend’s wife purse her lips. Was it not possible, she asked eventually, that Dieter Tiberius was just a victim? After all, he’d grown up a ward of the state, and we all knew what went on in children’s homes.
Underneath this drama, however, there are undercurrents. Randolph is experiencing some sort of need to distance himself from his wife and family, and he has to curb his behaviour due to his wife’s fear of being alone. Randolph also reminisces about his childhood, his father’s love of guns, and how he disliked weapons, even becoming a pacifist.
Fear explores several issues such as the limitations of law though various encounters with several institutions. Also under scrutiny is the idea of masculinity. Dieter Tiberius is seen as the victim, while Randolph suffers comments from his brother and others about being ‘less than a man’ for not taking matters into his own hands and beating the shit out of Dieter. It’s interesting that no one expects Rebecca to find a solution: everything rests on Randolph’s masculinity. Also, I’m going to add that the book takes a look at telescopic empathy. When reading the newspaper, it’s easy to sympathise with someone who’s spent a lifetime in various institutions and now is basically non functional, but it’s an entirely different thing to have to deal with someone who’s severely damaged when they live in the basement flat.
Anyone who has ever known the frustration of trying to get legal help for a slippery situation will identify with Randolph’s feelings of helplessness as he tries, repeatedly, to get help with this untenable situation. As he deals with the police and social workers, Randolph finds his faith in the ‘system,’ and the Rule of Law slipping. All of the things Randolph believed in, the person he thought he was, slip away.
The loser is strong because he has nothing left to lose. People like me, apparently, life’s winners, are weak because they have so much they want to hang on to. The upwardly mobile are particularly afraid. We are afraid of losing what we have attained, because it is not secure. neither morally nor financially.
Fear is a gripping read. The ending went on a bit too long IMO (quit while you’re ahead,) but that’s the only criticism I have. Finally a word on the cover: the novel has a way of pulling the reader into the drama here, so that we find ourselves what we would have done in Randolph’s shoes. Similarly, the cover hints of being drawn, step by step, into a claustrophobic nightmare of paranoia and fear.
Translated by Imogen Taylor