Winner of the Adalbert Chamisso Prize 2013
Translated from German by Arabella Spencer
It’s no spoiler to tell that Martha was the last passenger pigeon who died in Cincinnati Zoo on 1 September 1914; the day on which Gaponenko’s protagonist Luka Levadski is born. 96 years later Levadski is facing his own cancer-related extinction. The last of his line, he relates strongly to Martha.
What to do? Take the chemo to extend his life by a couple of months and wait out the end in his cramped appartment in the Ukraine, or, enjoy his savings with one last adventure in a luxurious hotel in Vienna. He takes the option I find rather appealing.
To hell with radiation theapy and all those other highly poisonous drugs. Instead, he would treat himself to a piece of chocolate cake every day in honour of his mother, a widow who, between the wars, had been in the habit of ordering chocolate cake for Levadski in Vienna’s finest hotel.
For Levadski, Vienna is the scene of his childhood memories; his mother and two music-loving aunts, who took him regularly to concerts in the Musikverein; a place of happiness in contrast to the drabness of his life in the Ukraine, despite him being a world-renowned ornithologist. Decision made, the adventure begins and he kits himself out to die in luxury and style, and to confirm that we have a character on our hands, his favourite purchase turns out to be a black polished drinking stick with an eagle-throat handle in sterling silver and a built-in glass tube for liquids of his choice!
Once settled into the Hotel Imperial, he revels in the luxury but cannot entirely escape the frailness of his condition or the loneliness of his old age – This is no Little Old Man Who Jumped Out of a Window, but a thoughtful poignant reflection on age and advancing death. Nevertheless Levadski’s spirits never sag and he finds comfort in the understanding, even tender care, of his butler, Habib, and enjoyment in a new, if fleeting, friendship with another old man, Mr Witzturn. Their night out to the Musikverein and post-concert drinking session can be considered the highlight of the novel.
Interspersed throughout are his memories of an almost migratory existence populated wih many avian metaphors and similes. The musical heritage of Vienna and Europe is handled similarly. This is a cultured and elegant composition abounding in originality. I quote my favourite metaphor to demonstrate.
The pathetic sparkle and the paltry entertainment to which the old women desperately clung could be likened to a sparsely populated lake, where a mollusc counts as half a fish.
As Levadski approaches the unavoidable, the narrative slips suddenly into a surrealism at odds with the rest. I suppose this reflects the disorientation of a dying man, but it ruined the poignancy of the inevitable for me. However, this is the only spurious ingredient in a very fine dish, which I recommend for those with palates desirous of literary haute cuisine.
© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016