Friday, 25 March 2011

Thomas Pletzinger: Funeral for a Dog

How hard is it to write a review of a book by someone you know? On a scale of one to ten, where one is like making microwave popcorn and ten is a three-course Christmas dinner with all the trimmings (plus a vegetarian in the family and a small, fussy child and someone with a nut allergy), I’d put it at seven. But there are rules:

1) You have to admit that you know the person, and how.

I know Thomas Pletzinger because I once wrote something unflattering about him on my blog and he remembered it verbatim. So when I was once looking for eloquent young German writers who could go on British radio (which then fell through because strangely enough there was shit-loads of other German stuff on the radio around the ninth of November 2009) and contacted him, he knew full well who I was.

I also know his translator Ross Benjamin because I met him at the Leipzig Book Fair some years ago and tried to persuade him to move to Berlin. He remains stubborn to this day.

2) You have to say whether you like the person, and why.

I like Thomas Pletzinger because he has impeccable party manners and always looks after me on occasions when I hardly know anybody. I hope this isn’t because he’s been building up to this review for the past year and a half. I also like him because he’s clever and entertaining and loves a good chat.

I also like Ross Benjamin because he’s a fabtastic translation nerd. Although I’ve never been to a soiree with him because he refuses to move to Berlin, I’m sure he’d have impeccable party manners.

3) You mustn’t assume the book is in any way autobiographical.

Or you will never be able to look the writer in the face again. Luckily in this case, the entire novel is one big warning against doing so.

4) You have to try and overlook points one and two while writing the review.

So I’ll start by telling you what everyone else I know in the whole world thinks about Funeral for a Dog. They bloody love it. All of them, with only a single exception.* One person I know even cited the novel as an example of how to write well about sex. I hope that’s not because everyone else I know in the whole world has been swayed by Thomas Pletzinger’s impeccable party manners. I strongly suspect it isn’t though.

A word or two about the nature of the book. Some of its appeal lies in the complex structure. The ethnologist Daniel Mandelkern has ended up in journalism, married to a domineering woman who is now also his boss. She sends him to interview the children’s writer Svensson, who lives with a three-legged dog on a lake on the border between Switzerland and Italy. But while Mandelkern is prevaricating and not writing his article and overstaying his welcome ever so slightly, he finds out more and more about Svensson – including a hidden manuscript of stories about a love triangle between him, Tuuli – who is in the house now with her son – and another man, Felix Blaumeiser.

So we intrude upon the lives of Mandelkern and his wife Elisabeth while he intrudes upon Svensson’s privacy, all the while assuming an ethnologist’s gaze to try and figure out this rather enigmatic man. The prose wavers between Mandelkern’s narration, divided into very short, concise passages, and longer stories from Svensson’s perspective. These latter sections, for me, were at times sources of unadulterated literary adrenalin, macho story-telling just the way I like it. And then we cut back to the dithering, ineffective Mandelkern, who is a magnificently irritating narrator, constantly complaining of headaches or drifting off the subject matter to contemplate his marriage. Which is where most of the sex comes in, and I agree it’s very well done.

So, while ultimately the plot is rounded and we follow a kind of paper trail to satisfy our curiosity about Svensson, the novel itself is cleverer than that. Yes, Pletzinger looks at how much of storytelling is about truth and all that kind of ‘book within a book’ old hat. But he also introduces another dimension, that of the ethnologist reader looking on from outside the book itself. While Svensson’s character is tight-lipped to the point of rudeness, Mandelkern reveals some very intimate things about himself, but almost more so about his wife. And while he tells us all about his ethnological approach, we ourselves are voyeurs looking on at their life together. What helps is that Mandelkern ultimately breaks all his own non-interventionist rules.

On a slight tangent here, I had a discussion with one friend about the female characters, particularly Tuuli and Elisabeth. I found them slightly two-dimensional, Tuuli constantly reacting to men and Elisabeth constantly controlling them. Whereas my friend maintained that Tuuli is actually in charge of the situation. I didn’t find that. But this discussion is interesting in itself, in that a) we could have been talking about relationships and shoes and stuff but in fact started on about female characters in Funeral for a Dog, and b) I do wonder if I’m less forgiving of two-dimensional characters when they’re female, because one might argue that Mandelkern and Svensson are equally caricatured for the purpose of the novel’s structure. You’ll note, then, that the book provides much food for thought.

One thing I didn’t like about it was all the deliberately exotic settings. Italian-Swiss lakes, 9/11 New York, Brazilian slums, Finland at New Year. What tempers this show-offy worldliness (of the kind that German critics love to love, especially when written by writing school graduates, of which Pletzinger is a prominent but very likeable example) is the emotions Pletzinger gets across – yes, magnificently – in these situations. And also Mandelkern’s rather cynical view; at one point he comments, “Svensson’s characters have endless possibilities and no obligations,” and he later compares his narration to Nick Carraway (although Svensson is not in fact his Gatsby). A sweet reference that makes you want to shake him, and possibly the author too.

So, the book is indeed very good. As I write this I’m beginning to appreciate how very good it is, in fact. Standing alone, the two strands would make two rather annoying and probably pretentious novels. Together, they make you think. Funeral for a Dog is not a book that makes you dizzy. I wouldn’t say it’s entirely a novel of ideas either, though.

While I enjoyed reading Ross Benjamin’s translation, I did feel it was almost slavishly close to the original at times. There were occasional phrases where I saw the German shining through quite clearly, as though Benjamin had taken the thinnest cloth of silk and laid it over Pletzinger’s naked prose, rather than tailoring the material to make it more English. I know that’s how he likes to work and I assume these were conscious decisions. Presumably they’re the kind of thing only I would ever notice anyway. All in all, though, the language the two of them have given us is a joy to read, at times sparse and unobtrusive, at others beautifully melancholy.

You probably ought to read it.

*Said exception could be considered a rival of Mr Pletzinger’s, but did in fact admit when pressed that Funeral for a Dog is “a good book, good light fiction”.

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