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Marjana Gaponenko: Wer ist Martha? (Who is Martha?)

Our hero is Luka Levadski. He is a ninety-six year old Ukrainian ornithologist. At the start of the novel, his doctor has told him that he has small cell bronchial carcinoma, a fatal disease. With treatment (chemotherapy) he could perhaps live another few months but he has decided that, at his age, it is not worth it.

Levadski has two interests in life – classical music and ornithology – and one great love – his library of ornithological books. While he seems to have – briefly – had girlfriends in his youth, there does not seem to have been anyone permanent. He seems to have always been getting older. He aged when he kissed a girl for the first time and suddenly in the dusk saw a shadow flit past. “I’ll be damned! A pygmy owl!” he shouted into the frightened, astonished eyes of the girl. He himself summed it up. So what if I was never capable of love?” Levadski asked.

He gives us a summary of his life. He was the son of a forester in a count’s woodland and a mother who was a Viennese ornithologist who visited East Galicia. They had met when she came to study birds in the area. His father lost his job and killed himself when Levadski was still very young. His father was a bird lover so he was influenced by both parents. One day you too will know the birds,” Levadski’s mother promised. And one day this really was the case.

Mother and son moved to Vienna where the mother worked as a nanny and Levadski went to concerts with his great-aunts, where he learned to love classical music. But his mother missed Galicia, now in Poland, so they returned and Levadski went to a Polish school. When he was older he went to Vienna to study ornithology. However, his mother had studied the birds and knew that something was amiss. A catastrophe is on its way. The starlings and sparrows have disappeared from the surrounding villages, my son. She takes him away from his studies and the pair head to the Caucasus to avoid the coming catastrophe. In Chechnya, Levadski works as a shepherd while the Germans invade Poland. Eventually, after further adventures, they return to what is now Ukraine, in the Soviet Union.The mother died soon after in Lviv. Levadski went on to become a professor of zoology.

He had been in Vienna in 2002 at the Conference for the Advancement of the Mobility of the Northern Bald Ibis. All expenses had been paid by the Konrad Lorenz Research Centre as he came up with a brilliant idea to help save the bald ibis. He stayed at the Imperial Hotel and loved the luxury. Now that he is dying and has not got long to live, he decides that is where he is going to go. He draws out all of his savings and heads for Vienna with the Konrad Lorenz Research Centre willingly helping him get a visa. He had been warned of frightful symptoms that would soon appear but they do not.

So he settles into the very expensive Imperial Hotel. The hotel has a personal butler service and Levadski is allocated Habib, a young Palestinian. Habib’s initial role is to help Levadski get out of the magnificent Imperial bath but he soon becomes something of a friend, indeed, initially, the only person he converses with. Clearly, from the literary point of view, he is the comparison with the elderly Levadski and obviously has a somewhat different outlook on life.

But Habib is not the only person he converses with. One day, he bumps into another elderly man. Witzturn. (Witz is the German for joke and turn could come from the German word turnen, meaning to do gymnastics. Make of that what you will.) Their meeting does not go well and though they eat together and go to a concert together, they also bicker with one another like two seven-year olds.

Mocking humour is key to this book. Gaponenko has been mocking our hero throughout this book – his misogyny, his cantankerousness, his often petty behaviour and even his frailty but once he gets together with Witzturn, she turns it up. At the concert they have their own box and behave badly, talking, falling, snoring, even lying on the floor and when they get back to the hotel and there is a power outage, they adjourn to the bar and behave rather badly there.

We presumably have to admire Levadski for having made it to the age of ninety-six and seemingly not yet too senile, even if his behaviour is not always exemplary. Gaponenko, you feel, is both mocking age and cantankerous old men while having a grudging admiration for them. The most important thing in Levadski’s life is apparently birds, yet even that is mocked. He has a copy of a rare book – Dictionary of the Language of Ravens by Dupont de Nemours. (Another little joke as Dupont de Nemours is, of course the full name of the famous chemical company.) But this too is mocked with one raven word even taken from the Greek. He will later claim that birds have a universal language but then why a separate dictionary for ravens?

One thing she seems to take relatively seriously is death. Levadski is faced with death when he gets his diagnosis and contemplates it more than once (albeit with relative equanimity). We learn of the sad death of both of his parents. Witzturn has lost two wives to cancer. Habib talks about caring for his father and his subsequent death. Indeed, we get a sad story of a flying swan that flies into a power line and is badly injured and will presumably die which, Habib says, reminds him of the death of his father. In short old age is to be laughed at but death treated seriously, a valid if contentious viewpoint.

And Martha? Who is she? We learn early on who she is but Levadski will struggle to recall her, though remembering her name.

Publishing history

First published in 2012 by Suhrkamp
First published in English in 2014 by New Vessel Press
Translated by Arabella Spencer