Tag Archives: German fiction

Fear: Dirk Kurbjuweit

German Literature Month 2017

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.

Fear

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.

Review copy

Translated by Imogen Taylor

 

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Filed under Fiction, Kurbjuweit Dirk

The Truth and Other Lies: Sascha Arango

But first he sat down in his wing armchair and leafed through the Forensic Journal–an extraordinarily informative periodical about evil. Anyone planning a crime or in the process of committing one should read special literature. It provides information on the risks of discovery consequent upon developments in forensic technology. At the same time it makes clear the futility of battling against human evil, for no science or punishment can contend with the bloodthirstiness innate in us all. From a historicultural point of view, greed, vengefulness and stupidity are all natural causes of death, just one facet of the human condition.”

I’ve read a few books lately that sounded good but then, in one way or another, failed in the execution. And that brings me to The Truth and Other Lies from Sascha Arango–a book that sounded so good, I was sure I’d either be terribly disappointed or absolutely love it. There was never any doubt with this book–I loved it.

the truth and other liesWhen the story opens, author Henry Hayden has the sort of life most of us would envy. He’s a world famous, immensely wealthy author with a string of bestsellers to his credit. He has a quiet, reclusive wife, Martha who adores him, he drives a Maserati, and he has a beautiful country estate near the coast. Yes, Henry leads a wonderful life. So let’s take a step back from first appearances. … Henry also has a mistress, well there have been innumerable affairs to be honest, all those adoring fans on the book promotion circuit. After all, what’s Henry to do when a grateful fan throws herself at him? Martha, a remarkably self-contained and intuitive woman knows that there are other women, but chooses to ignore any evidence that may come her way.

The book’s first pages find Henry in the throes of a crisis. His current mistress, gorgeous blonde Betty, his ambitious editor at Moreany Publishing House, has just handed him a picture of an ultrasound and announced that she’s pregnant. Henry finds himself in a dilemma when Betty asks him what they are going to do:

The right answer would have been: My love, this is not going to end well. But that kind of answer has consequences. It changes things or makes them disappear altogether. Regrets are of no more use then. And who wants to change anything that’s good and convenient?

“I’ll drive home and tell my wife everything.”

“Really?”

Henry saw the astonishment on Betty’s face; he was surprised himself. Why had he said that? Henry wasn’t given to exaggeration; it hadn’t been necessary to say he’d tell Martha everything.

So that’s the plan. He just has to break the news to Martha

Yes, he would be a great man. He would drive home and put truth in place of falsehood. Reveal everything at last, all the nasty details. Well maybe not quite all, but the essentials. It would mean cutting deep into healthy flesh. Tears would flow and it would hurt dreadfully, himself included. It would be the end of all trust and harmony between Martha and him–but it would also be an act of liberation. He would no longer be an unprincipled bastard, no longer have to be so ashamed of himself. It had to be done. Truth before beauty–the rest would sort itself out.

He put his arms around Betty’s slender waist. A stone was lying in the grass, big enough and heavy enough to inflict a lethal blow. He had only to bend down to pick it up.

You can see where the story is going, but there’s an added complication. Henry isn’t the author of that string of bestsellers. He’s just the front man for Martha. Henry, who was once a homeless drifter, met Martha on a one-night stand. After sex, he planned to steal from her and split, but he found one of her manuscripts, read it (“the story was not unlike his own,”), and sensed he’d found the golden goose. So here they are years later, a strange couple, and yet they’ve managed to map out a life together that is composed of very specific geography and terms on which they agree. The reclusive, former psychiatric patient Martha sees color auras around people and lives in another zone. Disinterested in fame and fortune, she writes at night, content to allow Henry (who spends his time building gigantic matchstick drilling rigs) to have all the fame and the glory as long as they maintain their contained, quiet private life together. So while Henry plans to break the news gently to Martha “in her hermetically sealed world,” in reality, it’s not so easy to do….

Lively, wicked and packed with dark, treacherous humour, The Truth and Other Lies is the story of a devious man who has the perfect life until he’s forced to choose between his wife and his mistress. Driven by pure self-interest devoid of any moral restraints, Henry makes an entertaining, nasty protagonist. He doesn’t hesitate to consider murder–but which woman should he kill? Martha, who can “read the X-Rays images” of Henry’s “guilty conscience” is boring but she does write those books, yet Betty, as equally a self-interested person as Henry, “deep down, she was as spoiled and unconscionable as he was,” won’t be shaken off lightly.

While the three main characters are enough to intrigue any reader, author Sascha Arango populates this novel with fascinating, troubled and equally intriguing secondary characters. There’s Claus Moreany, founder of the publishing house, a dying man whose last wish is to marry Betty. Claus is blissfully ignorant that his long-time secretary Honor Eisendraht nurses unrequited passion for her employer and hatred for Betty, a woman she sees as her usurper. Honor reads Tarot cards to assist her in her mission and nurtures a dragon tree for its promise of “grant[ing] unspoken wishes.” Hot on Henry’s tail to uncover his secret past and to exact revenge is Gisbert Fasch, and how does Obradin, the anti-social Serbian fishmonger, known for “berserk” rages which end with a tranquilizer gun come into the scheme of things?

Henry is a completely despicable character whose self-interested drive dominates–ameliorated in hilarious ways by moments of grand gestures that appear to be kindness but which in reality either cost him nothing or contribute in some devious way to the scheme of things. This is a wickedly nasty tale of deceit and murder with many twists and turns which include an unfinished manuscript that’s missing its final chapter.

While The Truth and Other Lies doesn’t quite hit the supreme pitch of biting nastiness achieved by either Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here or Phil Hogan’s superbly smooth A Pleasure and a Calling, the book should appeal to those of us who crave this sort of book. After all, nasty, self-interested people are always great fun to read aboutDistance and all that.

Translated by Imogen Taylor

Review copy

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Filed under Arango Sascha, Fiction

F by Daniel Kehlmann

Initially from German author Daniel Kehlmann seems to be something from a Woody Allen film, and that’s partly due to the insertion of the nebulous influences of a magician, but it’s also partly due to the dysfunctional family dynamics and the relationships between 3 male siblings–two are twins who are almost telepathically connected and yet vastly different from each other.

The book begins in 1984 with unemployed, would-be author Arthur, married to an ophthalmologist, taking his three sons to see a magician. There’s an immediate sense that Arthur is a slippery individual: an irresponsible disinterested father, husband, and human being, so it doesn’t seem too surprising to read that his oldest son, 13-year-old Martin, waits for over two hours for his father to show up for the outing or that it had been “fourteen years since he had tiptoed swiftly” out of Martin’s mother’s life. Martin’s step-brothers, Ivan and Eric, are identical twins who dress alike, are practically impossible to tell apart and “seem like an optical illusion.” And these early scenes set the tone for the novel in which chance, Fate, illusion, fabrication, and identity play large roles.

FArthur takes the boys to see The Great Lindemann: Master of Hypnosis, and since Arthur firmly believes that hypnosis doesn’t work on him, the choice to see the magician seems a little odd, but it’s a choice that indicates Arthur’s wish to stay always on the boundaries of life, skeptical, superior, and ready to slip out the back door if the feeling takes him. When Arthur is called up on the stage, a strange event occurs, which may or may not occur under hypnosis, and which acts as a lever to spring Arthur, yet again, from the domestic life he secretly despises. Abandoning his second family, he disappears to pursue a writing career.

No matter how often Martin thought back to that day, and no matter how much he tried to summon up that conversation from the shadows of his memory, he always failed. The reason was that he had imagined it too often before it took place, and the things they actually said to each other soon merged into the things he’d imagined so often over the years. Had Arthur really said that he didn’t have a job and was dedicating himself to thinking about life, or was it just that later, when Martin knew more about his father, he simply attributed this answer to him as the only one that seemed to fit? And could it be that Arthur’s answer to the question of why he had walked out on him and mother, was that anyone who gave himself over to captivity and the restricted life, to mediocrity and despair, would be incapable of helping any other human being because he would be beyond help himself, succumbing to cancer, heart disease, his life cut short, rot invading his still breathing body?

Arthur becomes a famous author, with his most memorable book being: My Name is No One. The book, which adds a meta-fictional aspect to the novel, with a main character known only as F provokes complicated  “theories” regarding its meaning, a “well-known radio talk-show host [who] voluntarily checked into a locked psychiatric ward after declaring on the air that he was convinced of his own nonexistence,” and instigates a “wave of suicides.” While Arthur more or less disappears and then reappears later in the book, his books and their meaning (if any) weave throughout the novel as the plot follows the subsequent careers of Martin, Ivan and Eric. Unable to make a living with his mastery of the Rubik’s Cube, Martin becomes a Catholic priest who munches bars of chocolate in the confessional. This section is hilarious, and poor obese Martin, unable to get a girlfriend, finds security in his identity as a priest, even though part of his job is to listen to the salacious details of the life of a chronic philanderer. Eric becomes an investment banker whose private life spirals out of control in conjunction with his professional malfeasance, and Ivan, an art historian becomes an art forger, manipulating the market as he bids on his own fakes. All of the sons are inauthentic in their own way–fakes, frauds, and a forger. Add to that the last name of all the male characters: Friedland, shaped by the example of a shifty irresponsible father, and it’s clear that F stands for a lot of things in this book, but more than anything else, F stands for Fate:

“Fate,” said Arthur. “The capital letter F. But chance is a powerful force, and suddenly you acquire a Fate that was never assigned to you. Some kind of accidental fate. It happens in a flash.

Each of the three sons narrate their own chapter on a particular day August 8, 2008, and these chapters are very funny indeed as we see how the three brothers have grown up, their lives intersect, and exactly what messes they’ve made of their lives. There’s a sense of both design (fate) and chaos here, as Ivan and Eric, in particular, attempt to scramble out of the webs of deceit they’ve created by their own Finagling. The chapter Family however is an exposition of genealogy, and it detracted from the novel overall. By the time this chapter appeared, it created not a diversion as much as a distraction. I wanted to return to the main characters.

F is a very clever, complex, Existentialist novel which asks some big questions about identity & the absurdity of life: how ‘Free’ are we (there’s that F again)? Can we escape our Fate? And how much does chance play a role in our lives? What of Family (role models & genetics)? F shows how Fate, Chance and Family all influence the lives we build for ourselves, but in the case of the males in the Friedland family, there’s equal emphasis on how these characters attempt to dig their way out of those messy lives.

There’s the sense, at times, that the author places Ivan and Eric under the microscope recording the absurdity of their actions as they scramble around attempting to disentangle themselves from the chaos their lives have become. Their father managed his quest for Self effectively by Abandonment: dumping his wife and children, and looting the bank account along the way in his quest for Self & the authentic life. Will his sons achieve the same? With its frantic energy and humour, F is funny & entertaining, and, for the most part the novel manages to juggle dense philosophical ideas well with plot; if you felt so inclined, you could probably write a paper on “Symbolism in F” or “Existentialism in F. Some readers may not enjoy the novel’s cleverness which at times seems to tug at the narrative and leaves the characters less than whole human beings and more ‘types.’ I appreciated the Woody-Allensque humour, the chaos, the absurdity, and the moral dilemmas everyone seems to ignore.

Review copy

Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

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Filed under Fiction, Kehlmann Daniel

Decompression by Julie Zeh

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for the unreliable narrator, so throw in a holiday setting, and it was guaranteed that I’d be interested in Julie Zeh’s book, Decompression a torrid tale of a love triangle told in alternating views by two sides of that twisted relationship.

Years before, Sven slipped the leash of a legal career in Germany and now, looking at his 40th birthday, he’s a resident of Lanzarote and runs a tourist business which allows him to combine his love for diving with independence. He’s lived on Lanzarote now for 14 years. He’s in charge of the diving side of things while Antje runs the actual business. That means she cleans the guest accommodations, cooks the meals, maintains the website, and manages all the finances. Note that I didn’t say that Antje is Sven’s girlfriend or S.O, and there’s a reason for that. While Sven and Antje live together and have sex, she occupies an undefined space in Sven’s life. She probably thinks she’s his girlfriend, but Sven sees the relationship more as a convenient business arrangement. And if you’re thinking that I don’t like Sven, you’re right.

decompressionThe book opens with Sven picking up two tourists from the airport. Usually he books several guests for the same period, but this is a special arrangement. This time Sven is exclusively under contract for the next two weeks to only two guests: writer, Theo and soap opera actress Jolanthe, also called Jola. Theo, who, at 42, is 12 years older than Jola, has one book to his credit, and Jola, who intends to bust out of television into film, is there to learn all about scuba diving hoping that she will land a major film role in a biopic about Charlotte Hass. Jola, the daughter of one of the world’s greatest film directors, sees the role as her “last chance” to leave television roles behind, so the diving lessons are of primary importance.

In very little time, Sven, who lives in the beachside cottage right next to his guests’ quarters, establishes that Theo and Jola have a twisted sick relationship which, as it turns out, includes violence as an erotic component. Sven is attracted to Jola, and the feeling appears to be mutual. While there’s a definite attraction between Sven and Jola (with both of them fantasizing about a future together), Theo, the odd man out in this sex-triangle, conveniently seems to step aside to allow Sven access to Jola.

The story unfolds through two dueling narratives. There’s Sven’s version, and then there’s Jola’s version of events. While these competing narratives agree on the basics: date, location, and weather, on everything else, all agreement ends. According to Sven, Jola teases and plays dangerous games, creating some very awkward and embarrassing situations since, as a client, she’s theoretically off limits. But listen to Jola, and she’ll tell you that Sven can’t keep his hands to himself. In this increasingly dangerous and risky situation, who do we believe?

Part of the sick joy of reading a story told by the unreliable narrator is the feeling that we, as readers, recognize the way truth slowly peels away from the narrative. Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here and Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks are both excellent examples of the unreliable narrator and give the reader the experience of being in the minds of total nutjobs who do terrible things while justifying all their actions quite merrily. Decompression is more a he said/she said scenario, and yes, while that gives us possibly two unreliable narrators, one of them may be telling the truth. Or at least a partial truth.

While the novel’s premise is intriguing, one of the problems is that Sven, Jola and even Theo are all unlikable characters–not that there’s a problem with unlikable characters as I enjoy reading about people I would not tolerate in my life. But Sven, who’s got this hot babe throwing herself at him under the nose of Theo, alone at night, begins masturbating to episodes of Jola’s soap role in Up and Down, and yet by day, according to his narrative, he’s prudishly pushing her away telling her that she’s off-limits. He’s drawn to Jola but simultaneously gets very bad vibes about the situation. He isn’t honest with himself, so is he honest with us? His confessional narrative which includes a wisp of victimhood could make him a reliable narrator–a man drawn into the very sick relationship between Theo and Jola, or this could make Sven somewhat unreliable too.  He’s certainly struggling to stay focused on his better self, and that struggle remains until a very dramatic but foreseeable scene which occurs towards the end of the book.

Jola’s diary, which forms her part of the book’s narrative, reads like the confessions of a spoiled teenage girl flexing her sexuality for the first time rather than the devious, seasoned mind of a femme fatale, and this is part of the novel’s weakness. While the two narratives verge and diverge, neither of them are strong enough or appealing enough to carry the plot. Sven had his problems before this famous couple arrive and play havoc with his island paradise. He can’t commit to his long-suffering girlfriend and seems embarrassed to admit that there’s anything between them other than business. When it comes to sport for Theo and Jola, he’s ripe for the picking, and he never quite gets the rules of the game. As a morally compromised character drawn into a relationship in which he’s out-of-his-depth, his questionable narrative doesn’t quite work. For this reader, Theo remains the most interesting side of this sick triangle, and yet we only see Theo opaquely through other people’s eyes. Ultimately, the novel’s best scenes describe the landscape or the underwater moments between Sven and his troublesome clients.

The Spaniards had long since given up tinkering around on their half-finished houses; instead they would sit on their driftwood fenced roof terraces while the salty wind gnawed the plaster off their walls. Wooden cable spools served as tables, stacked construction pallets as benches. Lahora was a terminus. A place where everything came to a halt. Furnished with objects that would have landed on the rubbish pile long ago if they were anywhere else. The ends of the earth.

 Review copy. Translated from German by John Cullen

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Love, Pain, and the Whole Damn Thing by Doris Dörrie

German literature monthDoris Dörrie is one of my favorite German filmmakers (Cherry BlossomsNobody Loves MeAm I Beautiful?), so I was delighted when I discovered a few years ago that she was also a published author, and, what’s more, that some of her work is available in English. This makes her a perfect read for German Literature month. Back in 2011, I read her wonderful novel Where Do We Go From Here? , a very funny look at how a middle-aged couple seek Enlightenment in various ways. In Dörrie’s short story collection: Love, Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, the theme is the toxicity of domestic life and in these 4 stories, we see people altered by suburbia and routine go off the rails in spectacular ways.

love pain and the whole damn thingIn the first story, Straight to the Heart, a young impoverished, seemingly unconventional music student named Anna, who has blue hair and plays saxophone in the park, accepts an offer from a middle-aged dentist named Armin to become his mistress. To Armin she seems both exotic and approachable:

“I sense an excitement that unfortunately has been missing in my life for the most part until now.”

She understood at once. “What sort of excitement is that?” She smiled because her blood suddenly began to course faster.

“The excitement of just for once becoming a different person than you already are–because of a second person.” Now he was grinning. “An illusion. But so much more intriguing than reality.”

He installs her at his country farmhouse with a year’s contract and pay of 2,000 marks a month. The relationship is awkward at first, but Armin is an attentive and considerate lover. The couple make a trip to America together, and Anna gets a brand new red fiat for her 21st birthday. But all that is unconventional about Anna dries up with the routine of domesticity, and the story’s focus is what happens when Anna realizes that the contract will not be renewed.

The second story is Men, and if you’re familiar at all with Doris Dörrie’s fabulous films then you will recognize the title. In this story, middle-aged Julius Armbrust, who “designed packing concepts,”  is told by his wife, Paula, that she is having an affair with the very scruffy, penniless Stefan. Julius has had many affairs of his own, but after hearing the details, Julius feels threatened:

Was the same age, he was, she said. Name? Unimportant. Occupation? She didn’t know exactly, something in the artistic line, she hadn’t asked him, the most important thing after all was that … That he was good in bed? After that, she had nothing to say to him.

While Julius heads to the office every day, Paula spends time with her lover, a man who drives an old Beetle, and Julius begins spying on the couple. Julius disappears from Paula’s life, using a fabricated affair as an excuse, and he reemerges and reinvents himself as Stefan’s new roommate. Men argues that we lose our identity in the day-to-day grind of making money, paying bills, and holding down tedious 9-5 jobs. Over the years, our relationships stale and we lose sight of who we used to be.

Marriage is also examined in Paradise, my least favorite story in the collection. In this story, the relationship between a long-married husband and wife shifts when an acquaintance from the past re-enters their lives.

My favourite story is Money. This is the tale of a married couple, Carmen and Werner Müller, in debt, hounded by consumer-driven teenagers, and facing losing their home, who turn to a life of crime. This is really a very funny story with some twists and turns. The emphasis is on humour and proletariat reclamation:

Carmen Müller, thirty-five years old, married to Werner Müller for fourteen years, two half-grown children, Karin and Rainier, with a house, a car, television and VCR, a deep freeze, but no vacation for five years now and debts galore, Carmen Müller, cleaning lady with fourteen years experience, she thought to herself as she wiped up the flooded bathroom where a hose on the washing machine had burst during the night, while Karin aloofly scrambled over her, heading for the mirror and ardent application of her make up.

I am my children’s employee.

Karin and Rainier are critical of their parents, and Karin tells her mother that they “could do a little better job keeping yourselves up.” That criticism comes easily and doesn’t stop the teenagers from seeing their parents as living, breathing never-empty wallets. Carmen and Werner are now “fat and flabby,” and Werner hibernates in the bedroom with a terminal case of depression. He works in a toy factory which produces war toys, but, according to Werner’s boss the business is crashing:

“Our specialty is war toys, after all, and orders have been… this whole peace movement thing has played havoc with us. We’ve got to rethink things, here, look at this” –he pointed to small plastic men meant to look like policemen, while down the belt next to them little barbarians rolled. “Those are the demonstrators, and these are the police. The game’ll be called Battle at the Reactor, and if that doesn’t sell, we can close up shop…”

While in Men, one of the characters reinvents himself, in Money, Carmen and Werner undergo a transformation with hilarious results. Leaving suburbia (Carmen doesn’t know what to pack for “the underground,“), and their ungrateful children behind, they embark on a life of crime. Through these stories we see stale relationships worn out by time and familiarity, and husbands and wives who lose sight of who they really are through the day-to-day drudgery of working lives. Doris Dörrie’s mischievous, spirited take on domestic life shows us how people hang on to the familiar and the comfortable, and yet once they’re set loose, things may never be the same….

 Translated by John E. Woods.

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Where Do We Go From Here? by Doris Dörrie

As part of Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature month, I chose Doris Dörrie’s novel: Where Do We Go From Here? Dörrie is one of my favourite German filmmakers, but unfortunately not all the films she’s made or the books she’s written are available in English. If you are at all familiar with her films, you know that her off-kilter work sometimes includes Buddhism (Cherry Blossoms, Enlightenment Guaranteed).  I should mention that Dörrie is a buddhist, so she’s certainly qualified to set the novel Where Do We Go From Here? in a Buddhist retreat. I’ll admit that I had some concerns that perhaps Dörrie’s beliefs might weaken the novel as veiled attempts at ideological conversion can ruin a novel. My concerns, however, were not realised, and Where Do We Go From Here? is a warm, witty, and wise look at the frailties of the human condition told through the eyes of a middle-aged man in crisis.

The man in crisis is Fred Kaufmann. He and his eminently organised, admirable, and practical wife Claudia owned a chain of vegetarian restaurants which they’ve now sold. The void in their lives left by the sudden departure of business responsibilities reveals that they’ve grown apart, and their marriage is on the rocks. Claudia turns to Buddhism,  he has a wild affair, and a weekend in London to repair their relationship serves only to reveal just how bleak things are. Meanwhile their only child Franka has announced that she’s in love with a Buddhist lama named Pelge. When the book begins, Fred leaves Munich with 16-year-old Franka in order to deliver her to a Buddhist retreat in the south of France. There Franka is supposed to reunite with Pelge before they leave for India together. The plan is for Fred to monitor Franka and bring her back to Munich when she comes to her senses. Nothing goes as planned….

Before Fred and Franka get to the retreat, they find themselves reluctantly picking up a depressed passenger, middle-aged hen-pecked-husband Norbert who decides he needs some time at the retreat too. While Fred is initially annoyed by this turn of events, he finds it somewhat reassuring to be confronted with a peer who’s in an even worse state of mind.  As it turns out, the retreat is packed with dozens of similar people–middle-aged lost souls, haunted by lost dreams, broken by failed careers & wrecked by bad marriages. Everyone is there for answers or some sort of peace of mind. There’s a strange other-world atmosphere at the retreat: there are those who are unhappy with the spartan accommodations, and others who appear to thrive on the hours of meditation, vow of silence and the meagreness of a rice diet. Fred is one of those who’s horrified by the sight of what’s in store:

I know we’ve come to the right place, because we’re already passing some of them.

They’re worse than my wildest dreams. Men with long, sparse hair in pale green tracksuit bottoms, women with massive buttocks in baggy lilac pants, their pendulous, braless boobs wobbling beneath faded pink T-shirts, children with fringes in front and page-boys behind. So these are the Enlightened Ones–or the candidates for Enlightenment.

Since Claudia has managed to effectively tune out Fred through her Buddhist meditation, he arrives at the retreat ready to loathe the suckers who’ve lined up to receive wisdom from Lama Tubten Rinpoche, author of How to Transform Happiness and Suffering into the Path of Enlightenment: How to be Happy When You Aren’t. Fred and Norbert are given a daily schedule and shown to a bleak room which holds three smelly foam mattresses. Here’s the schedule and the rules:

5:00 Getting-up time

5:30 Meditation

7:00 Breakfast

9:00 Lectures

12:30 Lunch

14:00 Working Meditation

18:00 Supper

19:30 Meditation

21:30 Lights Out

Please observe noble silence. We request you, during your retreat, to abstain from tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and sex.

You won’t find that too hard, I say to Norbert.

Not where three out of the four are concerned, he replies with a grin, and this time I get a chance to put an admonitory finger to my lips. Norbert gives a start and peers around anxiously, as if scared of being arrested on the spot.

To give away too much of what happens would spoil the experience for any potential readers, but I am going to include a quote which captures some of this wonderful novel’s flavour:

After fifteen minutes the monk strikes the gong once more. Everyone jumps up at once, chattering, and goes to get a bit more brown rice.

I get up too, intending to take my plate over to the plastic sinks, when the telephone in the kitchen rings and something quite extraordinary happens. They all come to a halt in mid-movement and fall silent as though transfixed, as though the sound has put them into a Sleeping Beauty trance. I see Franka standing there with a broom in her hand, more erect than I’ve seen her for years, because she usually keeps her head down so her hair hides her face.

Nobody seems to be going to the phone. I don’t know what to do. Embarrassed to be the only one in motion, I also halt with the plate in my hand. At children’s birthday parties in the old days we used to play a game in which we had to freeze suddenly, whatever we were doing at the time. If someone in the big tent were fucking–which god forbid–would they have to stop short and wait?

After the phone has rung seven or eight times, everyone abruptly comes back to life and carries on as if nothing had happened. I make a beeline for Franka.

You might at least have explained the rules, I say reproachfully. I feel like an absolute idiot. What the devil happened just now?

You’ll find out, Dad, she whispers.

This eternal whispering is getting on my nerves, I say loudly. She simply laughs and turns on her heels.

It seems we each have to wash up our own plate at the series of sinks. We dip it in the malodorous, lukewarm broth and hand it to our neighbour, who dips it in some slightly less malodorous broth and hands it on in turn. Meantime, we go to the end of the washing-up queue, take our plate, and dry it on an already sodden and not particularly clean drying-up cloth. The local hygiene leaves a lot to be desired.In my bagel cafés I’d have had the health inspector breathing down my neck a long time ago.

A bacterial paradise, I mutter to myself.

The story is loosely divided into thirds–with the trip to and from the retreat framing the time spent in France. The book follows Fred’s struggles with the retreat’s rules as he sneaks off for cigarettes and food, tries to meditate and mingles with people he feels he has nothing in common with. Over time Fred discovers that he shares more with the other guests than he initially realised, and alone with his thoughts he must confront the truth about his failed film director career and his marriage to Claudia. With piercing wit and a generous view of human nature Where Do We Go From Here?  explores how the unrealised dreams of youth reappear to haunt us, how we try to imbibe our lives with meaning as we try to adjust our lives to what they’ve become, and just how easy it is to blame others for the choices we’ve made.

Translated by John Brownjohn

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Filed under Dörrie Doris, Fiction