German Book Prize Winner 2009
Translated from German by Christina Les
On the day her second novel was published, Kathrin Schmidt, age 44, mother of 5, suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. She woke from a coma facing a long rehabilitation, which she negotiated successfully with her husband’s unwavering support. While these details are shared with the protagonist, Helene, Schmidt has been keen to point out that “Helene’s life is not mine”. Hold that thought …
I don’t actually know when the novel starts. From the moment of Helene’s collapse or from the moment when she starts to regain consciousness following an induced coma? I’ve read the first section several times now and I could argue it both ways. What that shows is how effectively Schmidt puts the reader inside Helene’s disoriented brain. She hears a clattering sound. She believes herself to be in her parents’ kitchen where they’re clattering cutlery and checking the temperature of their hands and feet. Then she realises she cannot open her eyes.
The first section takes us through Helene’s fragmented almost hallucinatory impressions of a three-week stay in intensive care. It’s only after transferring from there that she begins to understand what has happened and the catastrophic impact on her body: paralysis in the right-side of her body, and the loss of language. Indignities which she must bear passively are borne, though there are early signs, such as refusing to open her eyes when asked, that indicate she won’t always be such a compliant patient. They’re evidence also that she will refuse to be broken by this experience.
The whole novel is written from Helene’s point-of-view and documents the painstaking effort and patience required by all in her recovery. That narrowness of focus, however, is broadened as Helene’s memory returns. She remembers her husband, their blended family of 5 children. As she is reconstructing the kitchen cork board in her head, she sees a list … “the list of things she meant to take away with her … she had been planning to move out”.
This memory is a catalyst. The gates open and a torrent of emotional turmoil pours out. How can she face the man, who visits her faithfully each day, now that she has remembered this? Actually she has no choice; she can’t yet communicate clearly. So she has time to look back over their relationship, to remember the good times, and the not so good. To think back to their life in the DDR, to her time as an unmarried mother and other woman, and how the state eventually forced them to marry before it would allocate them a flat big enough for their growing family. His affair … and eventually, as her memory comes ever closer to the present day, the fragments of her own ill-fated affair with a transgender woman coalesce.
Helene’s life pre-medical crisis was complicated, and this is where Schmidt was so keen to disassociate her own stable emotional life from her creation in the interview I alluded to above. Not only is Helene weathering a physical storm, but an emotional one as well with the emotional being the far greater tempest! Though the prolonged time she spends alone assessing her confused and conflicted emotions allows her to realise just how much the Matthias-ship means to her.
You’re not dying is introspective and intense. Not a quick read by any means. Nor would it have been quick to translate! There are a number of creative challenges here such as conveying the limitations of Helene’s speech and her progress back to fluency. But I particularly liked the informal tone in places – you know a translator who uses the term faffing about does it for me!