Next World Novella – Matthias Politycki (trans. Anthea Bell)

This is my first review as part of German Literature Month and I don’t think I could have chosen anything more stunning as an opener.  Peirene Press claim to offer translated fiction that can be read in one sitting.  Next World Novella (Jenseitsnovella) packs a punch in its 140 pages.  It is a compelling and quite spellbinding tale of love, death, relationships, deception and disappointment.

Hinrich, a Sinologist in his 60s, enters his study one morning expecting to find his wife Doro, also an academic, editing his work as usual.  She is there, but upon close inspection Hinrich realises the smell he thought was rotting flowers is actually the beginnings of death decay.  His wife has died at the desk while working.  He is devastated, but wants to spend time with her, so doesn’t phone a doctor, ambulance or funeral home.  This day he spends with Doro, while she becomes ever stiffer, will be the most enlightening of his life.  The church tower clock in the square strikes the hours as Hinrich discovers things about his relationship with Doro that he had no inkling of while she was alive.   Doro and Hinrich’s relationship was based on a promise which was a lie all along.  When they were still students, Doro tells Hinrch she is petrified of dying and obsessed with a painting depicting the lake the dead must swim across to reach the afterlife.  Hinrich adores the distant and unattainable Doro, so to win her over he promises to help her when the time comes to cross the lake – she is convinced, but he doesn’t truly believe in the lake and Doro eventually realises his lie.

Before she died, Doro was editing a piece of long forgotten fiction Hinrich had once attempted to write.  She annotates the story with her own commentary, remarking on its similarity to a recent episode in Hinrich’s life.  This episode is triggered by laser eye treatment to correct extreme myopia.  After the treatment his life comes into focus, and he notices things which were previously a blur.  This revelation brings about a sort of mid-life crisis, he becomes infatuated and obsessed with a woman he sees in a bar.  Doro’s annotations reveal that his wife befriends the same woman.  The more he re-reads his fictional story and his wife’s notes, the more he feels disassociated from the woman he married and loved.

In New World Novella Matthias Politycki has created a piece of short fiction that reveals so much in just a few pages.  Through his wife’s notes, Hinrich’s marriage is revealed as something very different to what he thought.  Doro – who is dead at the beginning of the book, reveals her intellect and forthright personality through her annotations.   As Hinrich reads his wife’s vitriolic scribble, the reader is shown that a small change can cause a ripple effect and devastation to relationships.  It is a sad, sad story – I felt really quite emotional reading it.  At the same time, however, I loved the writing so much (and Anthea Bell deserves serious praise here for a fabulous translation), I felt strangely quite uplifted by it.  On a purely personal note, I was reminded of scenes from my student days while studying at Trier University.  I had a job at a Kneipe called Pumpe on a tiny side street in the town centre.  The bars described in this book reminded me of that dingey place where I waited tables or worked behind the bar, with its host of oddball regular drinkers, guzzling beer and Feigling, arguing into the night, the pub regularly staying open until dawn.  These are happy memories for me, and this book brought them to the fore, having not thought about Pumpe for several years.

I will admit that I wasn’t immediately convinced by the ending, but having thought about it a bit more over the last few days, I’ve realised it is there to remind us not to take things for granted and to be honest in our relationships, so I think it is apt.  I’m really pleased to have picked this up as part of German Literature Month and I will try to seek out more translations from Peirene Press as a result.

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20 thoughts on “Next World Novella – Matthias Politycki (trans. Anthea Bell)”

  1. Of the peirene, s I’ve read I have yet to come across a dud, my favourite being Sea of Ink, although I thoroughly enjoyed Tomorrow Pamplona.

  2. This is one of the few peirene books that I’ve not read. Of the ones read I’ve yet to find a dud, my favourite so far is Sea of Ink, although Tomorrow Pamplona was enjoyable more filmic.

  3. Wonderful review, Sarah! This looks like a wonderful book from your review. I will add it to my wishlist. Pereine Press’ novella length books do look quite interesting. It was also nice to know that this brought back memories of your student days.

  4. I’m so glad your first choice was a success. So far I have been really keen on the German titles Pereine have published. I enjoyed the book because it’s so unusual and unexpected. I liked the ending as well, as far as I remember.
    What I like about your review is the memory you added. Oh those student days and staying up all night in smoke filled bars.

    1. Yes Caroline, too many nights staying up waiting for the drunken regulars to leave the bar so I could sweep up and count my tips, before worrying about how I was supposed to get home!

  5. You’re right – it is a stunning piece of fiction even with that ending. OK – I grant it makes the reader reappraise everything that has gone before in the same way as Heinrich must reappraise his marriage. But I still don’t like it!

  6. I’m one who liked the ending, but not everyone does (I know Lizzy doesn’t!). There were a lot of reviews of this last year, and one I remember was Caroline’s, in which she posted a picture of the painting Hinrich and Doro see at the gallery.

    I loved this, and I actually read it twice – there’s a lot more you can get from a second reading (as I said in my review!).

  7. Thank you for this review. You have whetted my appetite so much that I have ordered the book for my Kindle! Looking forward to my first foray into German literature!

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