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Juli Zeh: Nullzeit (Decompression)

Sven and Antje are a German couple who run a sports diving company in Lanzarote. Sven had studied law at university. He had done very well and looked set for a successful career as a lawyer. At the oral, he had been interviewed with another candidate. The other candidate got a lot of the answers wrong and Sven felt confident, as he could answer all those questions. When his turn came, however, the first question was how to spell Montesquieu. He got that wrong and things seemed to go wrong after that. In fact, he did not do too badly but the whole experience made him realise that he did not want to be like Brunsberg, the examiner who asked him how to spell Montesquieu and, even more, did not want to be in Germany. He had a row with his father who, perhaps not unsurprisingly, was quite upset at having wasted so much money on his son’s education and fled to Lanzarote. As part of his national service he had learned to dive and was now a competent and qualified diver, so he set up his own diving business, catering primarily to well-off Germans. He had been doing this for fourteen years at the start of the novel.

When he was younger, as an only child, Sven felt the need for companionship and finally persuaded his parents to get him a dog, Toby. For some time, he eagerly walked Toby and enjoyed his company. However, once he got into his teens, he was less enthusiastic, leaving Toby often neglected. One day, a local girl, Antje, some ten years his junior, offered to walk Toby. Sven had actually known her, he claims, from before she was born, as he knew her mother when she was pregnant with Antje. He agreed and she became the dog’s regular walker. This continued, even while he was away studying and doing national service. When he was back home, Antje still walked Toby and still came to see Sven. Once she was sixteen, Sven realised that she was an attractive young woman, and they started having sex. So, when he decided to flee to Lanzarote, Antje, who was clearly in love with Sven, came with him. He could see no reason why she should not. Fourteen years later, they are still together. She does the website, the business, the bookings and so on, as well as managing properties for others, while he focuses on the diving.

The novel starts with the arrival of Sven’s latest clients. They are Theo and Jola. Usually he has several people at a time but they have agreed to engage him for just the two of them, for a cost of €14000. Theo is a writer. He had something of a success some time ago and has published nothing since. He claims to be working on a multi-volume social novel and has also written (but not published) some short stories. Essentially, he is living off Jola, seven years his junior. She is the daughter of a highly successful film and TV producer and is the star of a German soap opera. Searching her on Google produces 384,000 hits. She is also very beautiful. Jola has one ambition. She wants to play the role of Lotte Hass in a forthcoming biopic of the diver, which is why she has come to Lanzarote to learn diving.

Initially things go well. Both seem to more or less competent divers. However, we know things are not really going to work out as Sven tells us at the beginning of the novel that he is moving, apparently alone, to Thailand. We soon learn that things between the couple are not going well. The story is partially narrated by Sven, but we also follow Jola’s diary. Very soon the two diverge, telling clearly different perspectives of the same event. Who is telling the truth? Zeh tries to make us think that Sven may be the more reliable narrator but it is not entirely clear. What we do know is that it is possible that Jola is being abused by Theo, certainly verbally and possibly physically. We also know that she is quite capable of having a go at him, for example one time disconnecting his oxygen supply while they are underwater, and also continually calling him old man and taunting him because he has difficulty getting an erection.

The relationship between Sven and Antje has continued but is certainly not a passionate one. She clearly loves him and always has but he very much takes her for granted and considers her more as a useful business partner than a lover. Indeed, Sven seems to be a man that lacks passion, except, perhaps, for his diving. However, he is clearly attracted to Jola and she seems to reciprocate. As both give very different accounts of their relationship, it is not entirely clear how far it progresses but there is no doubt that she flirts with him and that he is not indifferent to this flirtation. Moreover, Theo is not unaware of it and is not surprisingly not entirely happy with it. It is also noticed on the small island community and Sven is criticised for it. Much of the novel is about how the relationship between Jola, Sven and Theo develops. Inevitably something unpleasant is going to happen and it does when Sven goes hunting for a wreck at the bottom of the ocean, with the aid of Theo and Antje.

The story is essentially about two relationships and how these two relationships collide. On the on hand, we have Theo and Jola in a relationship which is clearly failing where there is possible abuse and, if not actual abuse, certainly not a warm, loving relationship and, on the other hand, we have Sven and Antje, a relationship where there seems to be little passion, where he takes her for granted and she loves him but is not entirely happy, having a circle of friends (whose names he does not even know). When these two relationships collide, sparks are going to fly. Zeh makes it clear that the first relationship is based, to a great extent, on games and lies, while the second is a straightforward, conventional, passionless relationship, where games and lies are unknown. The latter cannot cope with the former.

While Zeh tells this story well and the unreliable versus reliable narrator idea is well done, I found what I consider to be three inconsistencies in the plot. The first concerns Sven’s departure from Germany. He is doing very well in his law course. He is enjoying it very much. He has no doubts about it. He seems destined to be a successful lawyer. Then comes the oral exam. Yes, it is awkward but, ultimately, makes little difference to his excellent result. Yet, because of it, he gives up the law and a good career. He gives up Germany (and is highly critical of Germany throughout the book). He also seems to give up his parents, as there is no mention of them after his departure and no indication of his returning to Germany to see them or of them visiting him in Lanzarote. This all seems highly improbable. Yes, of course people change career paths and, indeed, countries and they do flee from their parents but to do so when he had no apparent doubts about the law, Germany or his parents beforehand seems highly unlikely.

The second concerns his reputation in Lanzarote. He had been there for fourteen years. It seems highly likely that he would have been attracted to another woman during that time and that his colleagues would have been, too. (And, of course, it seems highly likely that Antje and the other women there would have been attracted to other male visitors.) It seems highly likely, indeed certain, that some flirtation would have taken place and, no doubt, much more. Yet, for his behaviour, Sven is universally condemned, to the extent that virtually everyone refuse to speak to him because they think he is having an affair with Jola. Let me stress the word think here, as it is not certain that such an affair takes place, though there is undoubtedly evidence of flirtation. This might well be sexist but I feel that, had this book been written by a man, this issue would not have risen. It would have been accepted that a man such as Sven could well flirt with an attractive, very attractive, female client and it would not have been beyond the realms of possibility that he had a fling with her.

The third inconsistency I cannot discuss in any detail without giving away key plot elements. However, I will just say that Jola’s apparent (I stress apparent) dastardly plot seems very unlikely, both given what went before and what happens after in the book. Yes, she may well be mentally unstable or worse and the mentally unstable, who appear stable to other characters are undoubtedly a mainstay of literature and cinema, but her subsequent behaviour indicates that her mental instability is not enough to justify what she is alleged to have done.

Novels do not, of course, depend on plot alone. The relationship theme mentioned above is obviously key to this novel. However, unless the novel clearly is post-modernist, experimental or non-realist in some other way, the reader is entitled to expect some consistency of plot or to be given some clues that it is not consistent. Zeh, I feel, fails in this respect.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Schöffling
First English translation 2014 Harvill Secker