Translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett
My second read for #dutchlitautumn is the third novel published in English by Herman Koch, which I approached with trepidation still feeling sleazy after reading Summer House with Swimming Pool. A make or break read if you will. Would this reader/author relationship survive?
Koch specialises in unsavoury characters, and he doesn’t take long to hit his stride here. The opening section is a monologue addressed to Mr M by Herman, a man with a grudge stemming from the appropriation of his adolescent self in one of Mr M’s novels. Herman is to all intents and purposes a stalker. I have plans for you, Mr M, he says with menace.
Mr M’s novel, Payback, was based on a case in which a teacher disappeared without trace. Jan Landzaat, married with two children, had been romantically involved with his pupil, Laura. He struggled emotionally when she traded him in for the rather ugly and gangly, Hermann, and wouldn’t let go. After following Laura and Herman to a remote hideout, Landzaat disappeared without trace. While no case was brought against Laura and Herman for lack of evidence, in Mr M’s novel Laura and Herman are guilty of murder. It was a high profile case, and once can only imagine the resulting impact of the novel on the lives of the two teenagers.
Koch’s novel examines the events leading up to the teacher’s disappearance from the viewpoints of the main characters, and nobody comes out well: Laura, the prettiest girl in the class, and arch manipulator; Landzaat, the teacher with form, and Herman, who owns a video camera, which he uses as a candid camera, filming people during moments of high provocation. This is a foretaste of the stalker he is to become, as well as a delicious irony. The younger Herman is just as intrusive in other people’s lives as Mr M will be in his own. Is the fact that Koch gives Herman his own name a commentary on an author’s keen powers of observation? At what point does such observation become intrusive?
This is just the tip of the metafictional iceberg at the heart of Dear Mr M, which is as much an analysis and satire of the writing life as it is a mystery. At one point Mr M is interviewed about his objectives and decision making processes. In those pages, explanations are given for the necessary simplifications and omissions in Payback which in turn clarifies the occasional bagginess of Koch’s long but clever novel. If you look closely, this interview also hints at the solution of what really happened to Mr Landzaat.
The tone is sly and snidey throughout. Those expecting the shock (as in horrifying) value of Koch’s previous offerings may be disappointed, although there is a final twist which may shock some. I had seen it coming – not that it matters. It’s a satisfying ending in which loose ends are tied … apart from one. Just what did Stella do? The fact that both Mr M and Koch deliberately do not tell niggles the hell out of me ….. I shall ask Koch about that, if I catch sight of him at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Despite that Koch and I are once more friends and I look forward to reading more. I notice that there is a fourth Koch novel in existence, Odessa Star. I hope that Sam Garrett is working on the English translation as I type.