Heinrich Eggerth: Die Papierrose [The Paper Rose]
The worst thing that can happen to a parent is for a child to die. This is what this book is about. The story is narrated by the unnamed father, who visits the grave of his daughter virtually every day over a period of many years. He is married, with two daughters. His wife and other daughter are not named and, indeed, barely mentioned. The daughter who dies, Clara, is named only once, and then by a nurse. He refers to her and addresses her only as My child.
The book starts sometime after Clara’s death. The father visits the grave alone and there he talks to his daughter, discussing her life and death, her illness, what is happening with the family after her death, the cemetery and various other issues, including, in particular, bemoaning the fact that she had to die before her time. He talks to her as though she was very much alive and, indeed, she comes across as far more alive than his still living daughter.
At the beginning of the book, he remembers her, while still alive, asking for just one more bedtime story, which he often had to deny her, in order to get her to go to sleep. Now, of course, he regrets having denied her. Then there was her warm hand to hold, now there is only cold stone. He keeps hoping that a small ghost will appear but it never does. So he tells her stories, asking her if she can hear them while knowing full well that she cannot.
When she was alive he read her lots of things but, as he sadly says, you wanted the Story of Life but you got Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. To expand her repertoire, he read her stories from the Bible, from the Odyssey and even from Plutarch.
She was buried with a doll, Isabella, which no-one really liked – her sister was happy to give her up – but you cannot bury a girl without a doll in her arms can you? There were lots of flowers but then the other children buried in the the children’s part of the cemetery had lots of flowers as well. It is almost as if there were a competition. He saw a paper rose on a grave but knew it would soon be covered in snow and then, when the snow retreated, all that would be left would be a bit of wire.
He remembers her childhood. When they went on holiday to Italy, she did not want a playmate, only her bucket and spade and sand. He remembers there was a large mirror in the room and they laughed, looking at one another together, looking at their reflections. When he went back, five years later, after her death, the owner is surprised that all he wants to do is look in the mirror.
He remembers her illness, such as her frequent bronchitis, which naturally worried her parents. He remembers the first time she had convulsions, when they were on holiday, out hiking. She was examined by a local doctor, who said there was nothing to worry about. Children have convulsions occasionally. It is of no concern. Initially, they thought it might be epilepsy. She again had convulsions. It was revealed that she had some damage though only at the very end do we learn that it was an Ependymoma.
She had an operation – two doctors disagreed over the necessity for one – and when her parents arrived at the hospital, they found her bed empty and no nurse. Eventually they found her helping one of the nurses. She seemed to be cured but was not. They were worried that she would not be able to come home at the specified time, as a huge snow storm blocked the road but, fortunately, the workmen with a plough turned up just in time and cleared the road. She needed a second operation, during which she tells her father that she is ready to die. She may have been ready but he definitely was not and, when she did die, he and his wife were not surprisingly devastated. Indeed, as he later says, she was more ready to die when she was not yet ten than he is when he is over sixty
He wonders what was to blame for her condition. Was he to blame? One day, she was riding on top of him and fell off and bumped her head. Did that cause the problem? Or was it her difficult birth? He remembers seeing the doctor with a fearsome set of forceps. He even feels guilty, feeling God may have punished him for not quitting smoking.
He tells her what is going on – about the new dog and then, much later, about the death of the dog. He tells her about his boat and his retirement. He remembers she always preferred chit-chat to stories. She often spent time with the neighbour, which made him a little jealous. When he told her stories, she would comment and criticise but now, he comments, she is the perfect listener, never answering back.
He no longer thinks of her as a little girl. A long time has passed since she died and, had she lived, she would now be a young woman, perhaps with a child of her own.
But death is always present. He was nearly killed in a car accident but she saved him. His regular visits to the cemetery remind all the time of death, her death. Someone must be to blame. Who was it? Himself, the gynaecologist, fate, God? He does not know. What he does know is that he and his wife continually say to one another What would it be like if…?
I have no idea whether Heggerth lost a daughter as the narrator did but whatever the case, he does tells an excellent story about how a father comes to terms or, to a great extent, does not come to terms with the premature death of his daughter. It is not mawkish or overly sentimental but Heggerth certainly shows the father’s grief at the loss of his daughter. Sadly, neither this nor any of his novels have been translated into English or any other language and this book, like most of his books, is long since out of print in German.
First published in German 1988 by Verlag Niederösterreichisches Pressehaus