Monday 28 October 2013

Terézia Mora: Das Ungeheuer

So this is the novel that won this year's German Book Prize. There have been times when I haven't bothered reading the winner, but although I had a different personal favourite I'm glad I didn't sulk this year.

Das Ungeheuer features two different protagonists, who also populate Mora's previous novel Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent. In fact the book is part two of a trilogy - but no, I haven't read the first one so it's obviously not necessary. The first character is Darius Kopp, a German “sales engineer” whose wife has committed suicide. He retreats into his shell, never leaving the house, and then suddenly drives off on an aimless odyssey around south-eastern Europe. The second is his wife Flora – Darius found notes in her native Hungarian on her laptop and had them translated. After he leaves Berlin he begins reading the translated notes, almost a diary, in chunks. The chapters run along the top and the bottom of split pages, and are numbered so it's obvious enough what order to read them in, mirroring Darius’s experience. What we get is a combination of a melancholy road novel and some very dark writing on depression from an insider’s perspective.

Ostensibly, Darius is looking for a place to scatter Flora’s ashes. His long journey takes him to Flora’s Hungarian village and Budapest, then on to the Croatian island of Losinj, Albania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and finally Athens. He meets interesting characters from place to place and has some odd adventures, including getting locked in a graveyard, surviving meningitis, going fishing, sheltering from the snow in a sauna, and celebrating Christmas with a strange family.

Alongside these structuring road adventures, he looks back on his married life. Flora was an intellectual, although unable to make a living, while Darius is a simpler soul. He likes food and TV and sex and hanging out with his mates, and he loved his wife. His chapters reflect his melancholy humour as they alight on bizarre details or describe his thoughts. As he reads his wife’s notes he finds out more about how debilitating her depression was, and remembers his frustration with her. She only refers to him a handful of times and he’s shocked by that, as I was. Towards the end of the novel, a woman he meets says the same of her husband. She read his diary after he killed himself and found he was capable of thinking only about himself – but she doesn’t hold it against him and just gets on with life with her three children.

Darius, however, is incapacitated by his grief almost as much as Flora was by her illness. He imagines conversations with his dead wife, sees her on the passenger seat and at one point considers rubbing her ashes into his body. The ending is confusing, deliberately so. I won't reveal it here but I found it both incredibly well done and terribly frustrating. I think that's a sign of good writing. And there's always part three to look forward to.

Flora’s notes are significantly more disturbing than Darius’s chapters. While Darius’s story is told in the third person with occasional switches to first-person exclamations, sometimes mid-sentence, Flora writes her own narrative. It is disjointed and changes style from one computer file to the next, each of which has a Hungarian title. It starts more or less with her first few years in Berlin, struggling for money alongside her degree, unhappy and sexually promiscuous. Flora is a feminist and takes discrimination personally. As a young, unqualified Hungarian in Germany, she experiences plenty of it. We learn about her childhood – her mother was mentally ill and committed suicide, she grew up with unloving grandparents and was bullied at boarding school. When she meets Darius her life stabilizes for a while, but not permanently. Many of her notes are attempts to deal with mental illness on a cognitive level, personal reactions to books she reads on the subject. Or there are translations of Hungarian poetry, accounts of her time in hospital after previous suicide attempts, descriptions of the structure she gives to her dull days, stories about her awful jobs. It makes for unpleasant reading and as such is very convincing.

The monster of the title refers to both love and depression, and the writing also skilfully interweaves the two. Flora’s visceral notes contrast well with Darius’s above-the-line rambling, emphasizing the differences between the two characters. I found myself identifying more with Darius, who tries so hard to do everything right – and then readjusting my opinion of him as I turned the pages, just as he reappraises his own life. And I thought that was a very clever thing for a writer to achieve. I also appreciated all the minor characters and unusual locations for the colour they added. 

This is not a feel-good travelogue but more a novel for Sylvia Plath fans – there is little light relief other than the quality of the writing itself. But what quality that is!

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