by Judith Hermann
translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo
The Clerkenwell Press
2011 in English
translation, in original German 2010
Awards: Shortliste, The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2012
one of the jackets from the cellar she found something she was utterly
unprepared for – even though she’d tried to be prepared for everything.
It was something small, it was almost as if Raymond had left it for her
– a crumpled paper bag from a bakery containing the remnant of a little
almond horn. The curved end of the little crescent, so old as to be
almost petrified. And like a shell in a fossil, a smooth almond silver
Reviewed by Arja Salafranca
German writer Judith Hermann examines the loss of a loved one through these five interlinked short narratives in Alice. Her gaze is cool, detached, the writing style
almost blandly obvious. The central character of Alice seems ephemeral:
she appears in each story, death is linked to her through her
relationship to each dying character: whether a friend's husband is
dying, or whether an old friend, a man in his seventies, is about to
We get to know and empathise with Alice through the
layering of these stories, like burrowing down deep into the text,
until, by the final story, the one whose loss recounts a man central to
Alice's existence, we feel we have, at last, become acquainted with the
character who moves so centrally, so determinedly through these
narratives. It's gratifying, this slow peeling away at the onion skin
of Alice; at last, there's a sense of completion. Death is a character,
a fact, early on, yet these stories are as much about loss as the
central figure of Alice.
The first of these stories, Misha,
concerns the death of a young man, Misha, husband to Maja, father to
his and Maja's daughter, who remains unnamed. Alice is a sometime lover
of Misha, and her relationship to Maja, the soon to be widow, is a
rather awkward one.
Friendship would be too strong a term,
acquaintanceship too distant. After all, acquaintances don't take
trains and temporarily relocate in order to help Maja care for her
child in another city where Misha lies dying in a hospital. In fact,
the uncertain boundaries of their relationship are never explained, but
rather gently hinted at, a device Hermann uses often in this collection.
gentle, delicate, almost watercolour gaze is reflected early on, the
narrative reading at times like a dream. She eschews quotation marks
for direct speech, which, for me, always adds a somewhat dreamy quality
to a story.
Misha, the man, lies dying in a hospital not far
from the flat where Alice, Maja and the child go through the motions of
the days; death looms large, preparations both mental and emotional are
being made. Yet this lends a rigidity and stiffness to the everyday
actions of eating, drinking, visiting a dying man. Everything is not
what it seems, although the mundanity of quotidian details belies this.
the threesome move to a bigger flat, they are greeted by their new
landlords and Alice is immediately struck by the scars on the side of
the man's face:
It looked peculiar, but then everything seemed
peculiar, had to be accepted for what it was. Alice carried her bag
into the front garden and up the broken paving stones of the front path
while the child on Maja's arm kept saying, Rabbit. Rabbit. Rabbit. As
if to calm everyone.Through such almost throwaway lines
Hermann indicates the strangeness of the wait for a young man's death.
Later on she thinks to herself, "astronauts. We're just like
astronauts, there's no place to hold on to". In this world of death and
dying there are no rules, and nothing to grab on to.
In the second story, Conrad,
Alice travels with two friends from Germany to the Italian home of her
elderly friends, Conrad and Lotte. She is travelling with her friend
Anna ("she didn't want to go anywhere without Anna") and another male
friend, simply called the Romanian.
The setting is beautiful,
the villa magical, the lake gorgeous with its cold water in the heat of
an Italian summer, and yet, once more, death and uncertainty hover.
When they arrive Lotte informs the trio that Conrad is a little unwell.
A little unwell turns deadly, and once more a hospital becomes the
centrifugal force for the action. While the trio enjoy their holiday,
soaking up the sun, there's the underlying awareness that a man is
passing from this life. And yet, there's little that is morbid or
negative about this story, or any of the others that follow on. Death
as a character, death as part of life, as Hermann appears to be saying.
It lends an unsettling air to life, yet we carry on reading. Alice
grows stronger, comes into focus as we read on, and our attention
remains riveted on her; she is most certainly fully, and richly, alive
as the narrative attests, and so while death is the link, it's Alice's
life that leads us.
In the third, Richard,
a friend is again in need. Richard, the husband of Margaret, dying of
cancer in midlife, Margaret phoning, needing cigarettes. Through it
all, the vibrant summer of Berlin swirls around Alice, introducing us
to her live-in lover, Raymond. Once more we are being led further into
Alice's life. And further still in the fourth story, Malte,
as Alice uncovers family history, finally researching the life of her
unknown gay uncle Malte, who committed suicide. She meets Frederick,
her uncle's lover from the 1960s, now a man of seventy something,
dignified in his sharing of secrets and reminisces.
And then, the final story, Raymond.
We witness Alice as an older woman now and her lover, Raymond, passes
on. We're deep into the depths of Alice's character as she grieves. She
matter-of-factly starts to get rid of his things, but grief catches you
when you least expect it. She finds that "she couldn't choose the
memories; they came of their own accord; the memory of the garden,
Raymond in the aviator jacket – soundless and yet part of it all". When
she discovers a dried piece of an almond horn, she crumples – small,
everyday, innocuous objects have the power of memory, and remind one of
loss, grief. This is a moving, meditative piece.
This is the
closest person in Alice's life, as we move through the early, raw
stages of her loss, "the days would never again be this clear and
luminous; maybe she would have to learn how to find pleasure in it; any
other way was impossible".
|Arja salafranca is a short
story writer, poet, travel writer and personal essayist. Author
of The Thin Line (Modjaji
Books 2010), a debut collection of fiction, as well as two poetry
collections, edited two anthologies, winner of the Sanlam award for
fiction and poetry, and the Dalro award for poetry. Lifestyle and books
editor at The Sunday Independent (Johannesburg).