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Christoph Hein: Horns Ende [The End of Horn]

There were two key events in Guldenberg that summer. The gypsies came as they did every year and Mr Horn the museum director killed himself. The story is told from the perspective of five main characters. The first is the mayor, who had known Horn back in Leipzig and who wants to be friends with him but can’t get through to him. Like all the other characters, the mayor has problems. He is fed up with his job and fed up with his wife and at the end leaves both to go to an old peoples’ home. Thomas is the son of the local chemist. His father is very strict and Thomas is in fear of him. He even imagines him as a murderer. Thomas escapes to the gypsies who use him to do work for them but for him (and, to a certain degree, for his friend Paul) they are an escape. There is another escape for him – Elske, a girl a few years older than him but who tolerates him as a sort of younger brother. Of course, when he shows sexual interest in her he is firmly repulsed.

Paul’s mother, Gertrude Fischlinger is Horn’s landlady. He came only for a while but stayed four years, till his death. Her husband has left her (though he appears briefly with his new wife) and she is left alone, to bring up an increasingly difficult son and running a small grocery shop. Her one issue – apart from her husband and her son – is her brief fling with Horn. Marlene appears only briefly. She is the daughter of Horn’s assistant and is simple-minded. She has been raped by one of the local boys and cannot understand why he won’t marry her. She talks incessantly to her (dead) mother. Finally there is Dr. Spodeck. His mother and father never married and his mother struggled to bring him up. His father pushed him into medicine, financing first his studies and then buying him a practice with the condition that if he leaves before twenty-five years, he loses it and if he stays it is his to keep forever. Naturally, he abandons his dream of studying psychiatry and sticks with the clinic for twenty-five years. And his little issue is, after his mother dies, he has a quick fling with the girl staying with him and his wife.

And then there is Horn himself. He does not tell his story and we only pick up the sketchy details from others. He clearly has a past, at least from the point of view of the East German authorities, as his sister has illegally escaped to the West and they think he might still be in touch with her. He touches all the story-tellers. The doctor treats him, the mayor is his boss, Thomas works for him, Gertrude is his landlady and (very briefly) his lover. But none of them gets close to him and our portrait tends to be somewhat sketchy.

This book is no Rashomon, telling the story from several different viewpoints, with each teller giving a completely different view. Rather Hein tries to flit around Horn, giving us glimpses here and there while, at the same time, showing the flaws in the main characters. They do, of course, have different perspectives but not diametrically opposed ones and their stories gradually build up a portrait of Horn but they also build up a portrait of the town and community of Guldenburg, with its foibles, its guilt and its problems and it is this that makes Hein’s book so interesting.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Aufbau-Verlag
No English translation
Published in French as La fin de Horn by Editions Métailié in 1998
Published in Spanish as El final de Horn by Alfaguara in 1990
Also available in Swedish and Hebrew