Tuesday, 26 November 2013

'Leonardos Hände' ('Leonardo's Hands') by Alois Hotschnig (Review)

Alois Hotschnig is a writer whose name you may have heard before as his short story collection Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht was published in English by Peirene Press as Maybe This Time a couple of years back.  After enjoying that book, I ordered a further example of his work - and promptly ignored it for the next two years.  Here then, especially for German Literature Month, is a very belated review ;)

Leonardos Hände (Leonardo's Hands) is about Kurt Weyrath, an Innsbruck ambulance driver who stands out a little from his colleagues.  In order to survive their mentally-taxing duties, most of his colleagues develop a sense of detachment towards their 'clients':
"Gleichgültigkeit war ein Berufsinstrument, ohne das ihnen die Arbeit nicht möglich war, und wie die Handschuhe hatte man sie immer dabei."
p.6 (Haymon Taschenbuch, 2008)

"Indifference was a tool of the trade, without which work was impossible, and like gloves, you always had it to hand." (my translation)
However, Kurt, who gave up a white-collar career to join the ambulance service, is much friendlier with the people he transports, developing relationships with the people he sees regularly.

One day, this turns into a regular obsession when he begins to spend all his free time sitting next to the bed of a woman in a coma.  His colleagues are unable to understand why he has become so attached to someone he doesn't know, but that's because they don't know his secret, the one which brought him to the ambulance service in the first place.  You see, he suspects that he's the one who put her there...

Anna Kainz, the woman in the coma, eventually wakes up, and (as you might expect) she is extremely grateful for the attention she received from Kurt, attention which played a large roll in dragging her back into the land of the conscious.  The closer the couple get, and the longer the deception continues, the more difficult it becomes for Kurt to confess his dark secret.  But will she care?  And does she suspect it already?

Leonardos Hände is a gripping story, even if the description above makes it sound like a plot from a soap opera.  Rather than being a story of love triumphing over adversity, it's a dark, complex tale, and the reader can never quite be sure where it's going.  It takes a while before you get past the initial confusion of Kurt's work in the ambulance service, but once you get to the main story of Kurt and Anna, it all starts to get much more interesting.

Kurt is a well-written, nuanced character, a man suffering through a crisis caused by a momentary misjudgement.  In leaving his girlfriend and changing careers, he is punishing himself, attempting to atone for his crime.  Once he finds Anna and a place by her bedside, he actually feels better:
"Dasitzen, stundenlang, ohne ein wort, bloß da zu sein, nebeneinander.
 Ich habe vorher nicht gelebt." (p.79)

"Sitting there, for hours on end, without a word, just being there, next to each other.
 Up until then, I hadn't lived."
Having found Anna, he feels partially absolved - and happy.

Once Anna wakes up though, things start to unravel.  Suddenly Kurt isn't quite so sure that his actions are welcome, and he hesitates before getting involved with the conscious woman he loved when she was comatose.  Matters are complicated by Anna herself as she has a few secrets of her own, a past which has something to do with the crash that put her in the coma.  In many ways, she's using Kurt as much as he's using her...

The second half of the book then is devoted to unravelling the secrets of the mismatched couple, but there's also a lot to like about the first part, in which we are given an insight into the duties of an ambulance driver.  We see the depressing, soul-crushing grind of the job, whether it's picking up terminally-ill patients for dialysis, rushing to accidents in the hope of finding someone still in a condition to be helped or hanging around waiting for news of 'jumpers' in a high-rise part of town.  It's certainly not a job for the faint-hearted...

However, whether you enjoy the book or not may well depend on how you deal with Hotschnig's style.  As with Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht, Leonardos Hände is always slightly off-kilter.  The story jumps around in time, switching from person to person, moving between different situations in the space of a few words.  At times, it's rather a hard book to read and concentrate on, a novel where much is alluded to, but not always explicitly stated.  I suspect that it wouldn't be to everyone's taste.

Did I enjoy it?  Well, yes, although enjoyment seems the wrong word.  It's absorbing and intriguing, and if you think you can endure the oddities I mentioned above, it's definitely worth a try.  And luckily, even if your German's not quite up to scratch, you can give it a go.  There's an English version, translated by Peter Filkin, available from the University of Nebraska Press.

That's not all though - there's more from Hotschnig coming into English next year.  May 2014 sees the translation of Ludwigs Zimmer (Ludwig's Room) appear courtesy of Seagull Books (with Tess Lewis, the translator of the Peirene book, on duty again).  Maybe this time I've shown you a writer you might be able to enjoy in English - now I don't feel so guilty about all those untranslated books I've been reviewing this month :)