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Karen Duve: Regenroman (Rain)

Grim, grotesque and Gothic, this was Karen Duve’s most successful novel, presumably because of, rather than despite those features. Firstly, it rains for most of the novel with, as we shall see, profound negative consequences for our protagonists. Secondly, lots of other unpleasant things happen.

Our hero – if that is the word – is Leon Ulbricht. For Germans his name immediately invokes former East German leader Walter Ulbricht and, as much of the book is set in the former East Germany, this become something of a joke. Leon is a not very successful writer. He struggles to make a living, shares a flat with the only other West European in the building. He lives in Hamburg.

Two things change his fortune. First he meets Roswitha at a TV interview. He changes her name to Martina as he does not like Roswitha. They move in together and are married four months later. Her father, a scrap merchant and thug, does not like Leon and the two vocally show their contempt for one another at the wedding.

Just prior to meeting Martina, his writing career changed. Leon’s best friend Harry Klammt is the business manager of the Mai Tai bar. The bar is not just a bar but also a brothel. The owner is Benno Pfitzner, a former boxer and current pimp and thug. Benno wants his biography written and Leon is just the man for the job. He is offered 50000 marks in advance and 50000 marks on completion. Benno even throws in his Mercedes as he is upgrading.

Leon feels he will be able to write much better in the country so he and Martina set out to look for a place and find one for 40000 marks in the former East Germany, a small village called Priesnitz. En route they see the body of a woman in the river, which sets the tone for the book.

The house is down a rutted lane, by a marsh and seemingly remote, so Leon is delighted. Foolishly he does not check the house in any detail. It is decrepit, not so much damp as soaking, nothing works and there is no phone line. Leon, however, is attracted by the solitude of the marshland.

Leon spends much of his time trying to do basic maintenance on the house, neglecting his writing. He meets various neighbours. The first is the local store owner, Kerbel, who is fairly helpful but seems to spend some of his time parking in lay-bys and masturbating.

Their nearest neighbours are the Schlei sisters. Kay is tall and thin, a lesbian and attracted to Marina. Isadora is short and fat and attracted to Leon. Indeed, he first sees her, completely naked, bathing in the river near their house. She pursues him and, as a typical male, he does not put up much resistance. Apart from their sexual predation, the sisters are also quite helpful but warn Leon that the walls of the house are full of water and getting worse. The local children, however, are less friendly and call them Wessi (the German slang for someone from what was West Germany).

Also less friendly are the slugs. There seems to be a plague of them and however often they remove them, many more appear. Also less friendly is Benno Pfitzner. He wants his book and he wants it quickly. When Martina buys a mobile phone, he calls frequently. When the book is not appearing quickly enough nor being written in the style he would like, he gets aggressive. He puts in an appearance, confiscates the car, and his dog savages their dog, Noah, the previous owner’s dog which they have adopted.

Leon tries to write but hurts himself and, full of self-pity, abandons both his work on the house and his writing. Benno Pfitzner is not amused and, when he reappears, makes his views known.

Leon is a weak and fairly unlikeable man. He is happy to bully Martina, proclaim himself God’s gift to women and have casual sex with Isadora. Poor Martina meekly follows him to the remote marshes without a complaint, just as she followed the orders of her father and first boyfriend.

However it is the overall atmosphere of gloom and doom that make this novel. The persistent rain is grim but it also makes for mud, ruts, flooding, difficulty in both walking and driving and, of course slugs. The violence from Benno and from Martina’s father, the unsavoury house where Martina came from, next to the scrapyard with their garden a giant overgrown field, the dead body in the river, Kerbel’s unsavoury sexual practices, the aggressive local children, the slugs, the filthy state of the house, including blocked drains and even a visit from the police all add to the menace and the unpleasant atmosphere of the book. It will not be to everybody’s taste but clearly a lot of people have enjoyed this book.

Publishing history

First published in 1999 by Eichborn
First English translation in 2002 by Bloomsbury
Translated by Anthea Bell