Translated from German by Sinéad Crowe
Terminally ill, Kurt makes a request of his daughter, Martha. Would she drive him to the euthanasia clinic in Switzerland? That’s quite a big ask, made even bigger by the fact that following a serious accident, Martha no longer trusts herself to drive. So Martha makes a request of her best friend, Betty. Would she play chauffeur?
Betty would and so begins the road trip with two women, one aged 40, the other on the cusp of it, both of whom are disappointed with life. Martha, though, has not yet given up hope of having a child, while Betty hasn’t yet given up her anti-depressants. It turns out that Kurt, the dying man remember, hasn’t yet given up on love! This results in an unexpected diversion leading to Italy and the Greek Islands.
This is not your bona fide sightseeing tour, rather one through some pretty seedy areas. As Betty says:
You don’t get to know a country by looking at its sights, anyway. You get to know a country by its pubs, by bumming around in the sticks or some suburb. You get to know a country in the places where there’s nothing to see.
Betty and Martha pass through plenty of those places and make the most of the opportunity to cement their lifelong friendship by covering each other’s backs and telling each other some home truths (as best friends are wont to do!).
Betty: I used to wonder how many fathers I could lose. I mean, you’d never dream of it these days: dragging home one new dad after another, each one vanishing into thin air as soon as the kid gets used to him, as soon as she really needs him. Considering my upbringing, I think I’m pretty well adjusted.
Martha: I’m not so sure. It’s been years since you fell for a man who’s actually available.
Ah, both women have father issues. Kurt has been an absent father; this request of his – which Martha grants with feelings of resentment and duty – has come out-of-the-blue after a lifetime of absence. While Betty remains obsessively attached to someone who walked out on her and her mother after six years. She sees the unexpected road trip as an opportunity to find him.
So there we have it. Kurt is on a quest for love. Betty is on a quest for her missing “father”, and Martha is stuck in-the-middle of the two!
Betty’s sardonic, disaffected narration is hilarious; anyone who has been through the disgruntlement and the self-questioning of early middle-age will recognise that coming to terms with a life, a self that is less than perfect. Except, of course, she hasn’t. But perhaps that is what is in this road trip cum bildungsroman for her. 40 is as good an age as any to grow up, isn’t it?
Amidst the laughter, there are true insights: the realities of dying, the difficulties of living a blameless life (But who gets through life without doing harm as some point, whether it’s because of incompetence, laziness or weakness?), and moments of such touching simplicity that they bring tears. It’s certainly a roller-coaster read, and Sinéad Crowe’s translation appears effortless. (It wasn’t as the translator’s note attests.)
I loved it!