Saturday, 15 October 2011

What Lies Beyond

Greetings to all those visiting Tony's Reading List as part of the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop (and I hope you are going to visit all the other participants too!).  Today on my little blog, there will be a giveaway - the down side (just like last time) is that you'll have to sit through the review first - it's only fair ;)

Today's offering is another slice of contemporary German literature, Matthias Politycki's Jenseitsnovelle, which some of you may have heard of in the guise of Peirene Press' translated version, Next World Novella.  This slender book begins in a most unusual and dramatic fashion when Hinrich Schepp, a professor of ancient Chinese literature, wakes up one morning to find his beloved wife Doro... well, to put it bluntly, dead.  As he struggles to cope with the shock of her demise, he notices some papers which she had obviously been working on shortly before she died - and this is where the story really begins.

You see, Schepp's claims of a happy and fulfilling married life are not exactly shared by his wife, and in editing an old story of his that she has stumbled upon, Doro lets out her true feelings, revealing that she has been more aware of Hinrich's shortcomings than he could ever have imagined.  In this story within a story, the message to her husband from beyond the grave will turn poor Hinrich's life upside-down - but then should we care?  The more we learn about our academic friend, the less inclined we are to take his part in this (one-sided) argument...

It's a rather Kafkaesque beginning to a puzzling tale, and that's no coincidence.  Hinrich comes across at times like a Kafka anti-hero, full of bluster, monologues and constant contradictions, and (as suggested earlier) our respect for him goes downhill very quickly.  Even taking into account the effects of grief and the possibility of trauma, it's hard to feel sorry for a man who seems more concerned with exonerating himself for past sins than with taking care of his dead wife's body.  Towards the end of the book though, we see that he is not the only one with secrets - and the twist in the tail (or tale!) puts everything in perspective.

While Kafka has already been mentioned as a potential point of reference, another possible influence was suggested by the relationship problems of the hapless Schepps.  With the introduction of the charismatic Dana, a woman who seems to exert a magnetic pull over both Hinrich and Doro, the book began to remind me of a certain Japanese novel, namely Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's Quicksand.  In both, a middle-aged couple flounder in the depths they are lured into by a seductive siren...

...which brings us on nicely to the title of the piece, Jenseitsnovelle.  The Novelle part should be self-explanatory for even the most monolingual among us, but the Jenseits part refers to the next world, the afterlife, which Doro (drawing on her knowledge of Chinese mythology) envisages as an enormous, unending sea, which each of us is condemned to swim into alone.

However, jenseits has many connotations which do not come across in the English translation 'next world': ' the afterlife' is one, and another important interpretation is the idea of 'the other side'.  I found this to be a more accurate translation, and one which works on so many levels - not least of which is the idea that whatever someone tells us about a story, we should always try to hear the other side before passing judgement...

All in all, Jenseitsnovelle is an intriguing book, with a final section which will make you reconsider everything you've read up to that point.  The key to understanding the story is vision: how clearly have we seen the events unfolding, and how clearly do the protagonists see what the other has been doing?  The answer?  Well, you'll find it on the other side... of the cover ;)

So, on to the giveaway!  I will be giving away a copy of the book reviewed above, either in the original German or in the 2011 Peirene Press English-language version.  If you want to enter, simply:

  - comment on this post, stating whether you want the English or German version
  - write the word 'please' somewhere in your comment; manners are important :)
  - a contact e-mail would be nice, but I will endeavour to track down the winner!
  - commenting on my review is welcome but not obligatory ;)

This competition is open to all, but please note that I will be using The Book Depository to send this prize, so it is limited to people living in countries where The Book Depository has free delivery.  Entries will close at midnight (Melbourne time) on Thursday, the 20th of October, 2011, and I'll be announcing the winner shortly after.  Good luck to all, and... sweet dreams ;)