Translated by Tim Mohr

There is a pattern developing to my #germanlitmonth reading.  This is the third novel in a row that takes me back to Hessen, where I lived for 8 years.    1) Goetheruh in which the main protagonist commutes between Weimar and Frankfurt am Main  2) Big Bad Wolf – Set on the surrounding areas of Frankfurt 3) Bronsky’s latest which starts in Berlin but migrates to Einhausen near Darmstadt. Is there a subliminal message being sent that I need to go back?  No – nothing subliminal about it.  All I need is … (Let’s not start that conversation here.)

Not that Einhausen fares particularly well in Bronsky’s novel, in comparison to Berlin:

i stood before a gray box that was mostly hidden behind a meter-high hedgerow that smelled like cough syrup … The place was a nightmare in concrete. After all those years in our historic landmarked building, I wasn’t prepared for this.

Then again, Einhausen is described through the eyes of a majorly disaffected teenager.  You know how teenagers get so hung up on their looks?  Well, Marek has reasons for that. Following a Rottweiler attack, his face is badly disfigured. The title of the book stems from this incident.

I didn’t step between you and the animal because I was unbelievable chivalrous.  You can call me a superhero for all I care, but just bear in mind that I never was one … it was first and foremost a reflex, and secondly an accident …..

The formerly handsome, confident boy retreats behind his sunglasses, confines himself to barracks and nurses the chip on his shoulder. When we meet him, the psychological disfigurement is uglier than the physical. 

His mother, who he calls by her first name, Claudia (I hate that), persuades him to attend a self-help group for cripples. (Marek’s vocabulary is uncompromising – it is an indicator of his self-disgust.) The group is attended amongst others by a blind person, someone suffering from a mysterious chronic illness, and a beautiful girl in a wheelchair, with whom Marek falls in love. It is led by a guru, who is anything but. 

The lessons to be learned are clear.  There is still value and worth in a person who is disabled.  There is more to a person than looks.  Real friendships are possible but a person must possess some nobility of character. That may seem obvious but this is Marek’s bildungsroman and for an adolescent with a ravaged face, those are lessons that are going to take some learning.

Bronsky is a quirky and un-PC writer and it may be the bluntness of Marek’s narrative and the black humour in association with disabililty that sits uncomfortably with some reviewers.  It did with me for a while but then, knowing the self-absorption, jaundice and bitterness that can infect a chronically-ill teenager, and the impact that has on the rest of the family, I decided that there was more truth to Bronsky’s tale than not.  Humour is not a sugar coating.  It’s a survival mechanism.  And when Claudia finally snapped, I applauded.

“Don’t talk to me about your face,” said Claudia, “I know it is a lot better than you at this point.”

To be frank, the novel’s not always in the best possible taste, and it is packed with some mighty screwed-up folk.  Nevertheless, in an object lesson for Marek, Bronsky leads the way in stripping back surface layers to reveal the deeper psychological truths below.


© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2014