Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Review: Doubling the point

A Happy Man by Hansjörg Schertenleib seems to pull from a variety of influences: Albert Camus's The Fall and a similarly titled work A Happy Death and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. The premise is simple: a Swiss man, a jazz trumpet player who goes by the name This Studer (probably a pseudonym), is embarking to Amsterdam in order to be reunited with a friend who also has made a career out of music. Nothing major: they're just going to play a gig at a place and This was called in when the former trumpeter was unable.

The work is unassuming. It starts: 'The night train rolled purposefully northward toward its destination. That's how mundanely our story begins.' And when we think back to the plot of A Happy Man, in many ways it can be referred to as mundane: there isn't much excitement, the tension remains somewhat level - though whether it is engaged in humour or drama is another question. The narrator is just interested in showing the structure of someone's life, much like the structure of the Amsterdam city layout: how defined a life can be, how rigid certain barriers can become, and how sometimes the impossible - like building a city below sea level - is actually possible.

A Happy Man is really an experiment in narrative structure and style. The first part of the book showcases a more external look at This and his colleagues, his wife, and his daughter. We get to see the playful aspects of his romantic life, as he and his wife cook up schemes on what they're new assumed names will be in Amsterdam, which makes us think that this is something that they do frequently. The second part shows a flip side of his life, the drama and anger that these characters have, how This's daughter isn't the most loving and appreciative offspring (though perhaps this is because of This), how This's friend and his wife don't have the best marriage going, how This somewhat brushes off a fan who was also someone on the train with him, with whom he had spent hours together, talking about this and that. In that way, it really works like Dostoevsky's great work, showing two sides to a coin, creating expectations and then denying them, forming perceptions and then qualifying them. This doubling and duality of position works well with a background of Amsterdam, where several languages are spoken at one another and no one voice rules supremely.

Finishing A Happy Man (Glücklische in its original German, which suggests more of 'the lucky one') I wondered why this author, who seems quite well respected in the German-language world - at least according to his German Wikipedia site - isn't as translated into English as perhaps he should. For this novella was well worth the trip, a subtle and fantastic experiment into writing, and seriously puts him into dialogue with some of our foremost stylists.

Review copy provided by publisher.

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