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.