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Peter Rosei: Die Milchstrasse [The Milky Way]

This book is not really a novel (but then many 20th century novels are not really novels) but rather seven linked short stories (the seventh being letters to Ellis from the six characters, a sort of update on where they are). The link is Ellis who wanders round the fringes of the lives of various characters, themselves hanging around the fringes of society. Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way Pink Floyd succinctly remarked in Dark Side of the Moon, quoting Walt Whitman, and, on the basis of this book, it might well be the Austrian way as well. The blurb on the back of my copy of this novel, quoted from Der Spiegel, says Reading about these people gives you no pleasure but is, rather, somewhat disturbing. After all, these are people you know. And those two quotes more or less sum up the book.

It’s not that the people in it are all necessarily miserable, though many of them are but, rather, they are alone, isolated, desperate for love (the thirst for love is the only thirst that cannot be quenched, one character says). Many of them accept their loneliness as an inevitable part of their lives and even come to like it in a strange sort of way but, when there is a chance to reach out, they often try and often fail. Over all the stories hangs the aura of death – the suicide of Maria, the casual discovery of a dead body, the smell of death all around. And the Milky Way? One of the characters reads about the history of cosmology, how man first thought he was at the centre of the Universe, then realized the Earth revolved around the Sun, then the Solar System was just a small part of the Milky Way and, now, the Milky Way is itself just a pinprick in the Universe which, ironically, puts man back at the centre of things and where everything is the centre the concept of place loses all meaning. All of which is a pretty good summary of one of the key concerns of 20th/21st century literature.

Publishing history

First published 1981 by Residenz Verlag
No English translation