Winner of the Leipzig Book Fair Prize 2012
Translated from German by Tim Mohr
I was a little nervous going into this Leipzig Book Prize award-winning novel, having previously abandoned two others. I needn’t have worried – this one is a bit of a page turner!
Somewhere in the Sahara of the early 70s, two local policemen get drunk and take an IQ test for 12 to 13 year olds. Polidoro scores a measly 102. His colleague, Canisades, 130. Soon they are interrogating a suspected murderer. Allegedly he drove into the nearby American commune and killed 4 people. During the interrogation, it is not at all clear whether he is innocent or guilty. Regardless he is going to pay with his life. And then he escapes and disappears into the desert.
At the same time a nameless man – known later as Carl, because of brand of his suit – regains consciousness in a barn somewhere in the desert. He has a bad head injury and no memory whatsoever. But he knows he is in mortal peril. Fortunately he hasn’t lost his resourcefulness, because he needs it and will continue to do so for the rest of the novel. It seems that everyone is out to get Carl – gangsters, American molls, cod psychologists, enemies posing as friends. If only he could work out his identity, there might be a resolution. As it is, he is beaten and tortured, chased from pillar to post, or rather from sand dune to underground mine, in the course of which he effects escapes worthy of Houdini.
At one point, as he is being chased across the dunes:
Two flat slabs of rock stood in the sand next to each other as if in a toaster. In their slipstream a deep trench had formed. He threw his body into it, his head between the slabs of rock , and shoveled sand onto his legs and torso. He burrowed his arms sideways into the ground. It wasn’t difficult to make little avalanches of sand pour down on himself from the slanted sides of the trench. Finally he rotated his head back and forth between the rock slabs. …. He breathed deeply, closed his eyes and rotated his head back and forth again. Another load of sand slid down over his forehead to his cheekbones, dusting his eyelids, cheeks and the corners of his mouth like powdered sugar. He had only a very rough impression as to how much of his face will still uncovered. Probably his chin and the tipof his nose. But he couldn’t turn his head any more now. With a little puff he blew a few grains of sand out of his nose and waited.
Buried alive. Hellish. And yet it’s not the scariest thing that happens to him.
The mystery of Carl is the central mystery of this novel. It may, or may not, involve espionage, drug-dealing, gold smuggling. It certainly involves a man named Centrois, who may, or may not, be Carl. After Carl’s appearance, the first crime disappears from view. Why its inclusion? As far as I can see, it purpose is to signal some of the games that Herrndorf will play in the main narrative. He’s not going to pander to reader’s expectations.. The question of innocence or guilt – answered in the first case at the half-way point – is never clarified with regard to Carl, although I find myself presuming guilt (for, otherwise, all these bad people wouldn’t be after him, would they?) Yes, guilty even though we can do nothing but sympathise with the poor, persecuted soul. There is also a comic element to Polidoro and Canisades, with comedy reappearing from time to time – possibly to relieve an ever darkening mood. Regardless, the scene with the “psychologist” is very, very funny. And the word play on the French word “mine”, ingenious.
Written when Herrndorf was suffering from a terminal brain tumour, it’s telling that Carl has a severe head injury.
He tried to turn his head and felt pains he couldn’t pinpoint. As if a fist were trying to push his eyes out of his head from the inside …
Is Carl’s experience a projection of the inside of Herrndorf’s head at the time of writing? Other reviews have used the word nihilistic. Certainly Herrndorf allows something to happen to Carl that I would find unforgiveable elsewhere, and yet, knowing the author knew his own struggles to be futile, I understand completely.
This post is stage 8 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project.
Next stop: Denmark