Terézia Mora: Das Ungeheuer [The Monster]
In Terézia Mora’s previous book – Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent [The Only Man on the Continent] – we left Darius Kopp in an unhappy situation. The computer network company he worked for – Fidelis – had just merged with another company, Opaco. Darius had been sole continental Europe representative for Fidelis but now these responsibilities were to be taken over by the staff of Opaco, based in Romania. Darius was made redundant. In addition, his mother was very ill in hospital. Most importantly, Flora, his wife, had also lost her job and had decided to leave Berlin once and for all and had gone to live on a farm with her friend, Gaby, leaving Darius. The book ends with Darius arriving at the farm and telling Flora that she is the only love of his life. This novel opens some eighteen months later. Darius is living in his house but is in a terrible state. We learn after a while what happened. Flora had moved to a shack and had been living on her own, despite the terrible winter, vowing never to return to Berlin where she had failed to find suitable employment. The following May, she hanged herself. Darius was devastated and has stayed inside his house ever since – it is now spring of the following year – living on pizza, alcohol and television. At the start of the book his friend, Juri, is trying to help Darius get his life back together and, in particular, get him a job both for his mental health and for his finances.
Juri has got Darius an interview but things do not go well, as he gets into a fight with a dwarf on the way to the interview and the police are called. Darius now realises that he is not ready to re-enter the workplace and decides to set off for Eastern Europe, with the ostensible aim of burying Flora’s ashes. We follow Darius’ journey but, at the same time, we follow Flora’s journal. Darius had found this journal but it was entirely in Hungarian. He had had it translated into German – 150 pages – and he is reading it on his journey East. (Mora divides the page with a horizontal line, with Darius’ journey on top and Flora’s journal on the bottom.) Darius is still devastated by Flora’s death and on many occasions he imagines her with him and talks to the imaginary Flora. The diary is devastating for Darius as it is clear that Flora was very depressed, something he was virtually unaware of. She had a difficult early life – her mother was an alcoholic and killed herself – she was sexually harassed and never was able to find any job commensurate with her intellectual ability and aspirations. She had treatment for her depression – she gives many medical details – and contemplated suicide before she finally killed herself. In particular, as far as Darius was concerned the worst was that he was barely mentioned. Many of the names she only mentioned by a single initial. He looked in vain for the initial D. The journal was divided into separate files, with the title given only in Hungarian, which varied from an account of her early life to poems and various remarks about her life. One file was called kétségbeesésröl, which means despair in Hungarian. Its is a short file but has a few pithy quotes such as Arbeit ist das beste Mittel gegen Verzweiflung [Work is the best means against despair]. and Die Masse der Menschen lebt in stummer Verzweiflung [The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.], the famous quote from Thoreau’s Walden. Flora’s ultimate fight against depression (presumably the monster of the title) is, as we know, doomed to failure.
Meanwhile, we are following Darius on his journey, thinking of and chatting to Flora (in his mind) all the time. He has a German’s view of the peoples of the East. In Slovakia he sees a man who looks very suspicious and wonders if the man is going to attack him and prepares his defence. When he realises that he has a puncture, he is sure that the man has done it. In Hungary, he goes to Flora’s birthplace and tries to find traces of her. He is wondering how to bury her. He meets a man called Zoltan, with whom he becomes friendly and when he asks Zoltan if he can just bury her in the cemetery, Zoltan responds Keine Ahnung, sagte Zoltan. Aber hier ist alles Mögliche möglich. Wir sind schließlich keine Deutschen, understand? [No idea, said Zoltan. But everything is possible here. After all, we are not Germans, understand?] He is charged €10,000 for burying the ashes but they stay in the boot of his car, as he travels from Budapest round Eastern Europe/Western Asia. He meets Oda in Albania and travels a while with her, as she reminds him of Flora. He meets Doiv, an English woman. He goes to Croatia, Georgia, Armenia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey. Is he looking for peace and reconciliation? To find himself? To find Flora?
Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent [The Only Man on the Continent] was an excellent book but somewhat tongue in cheek, as we watched Darius stumble in both his job and personal life, without being aware of his failings. We had only the slightest glimpses of Flora’s depression. Darius was a well-meaning if somewhat inept man. This book has a very different and far more serious tone. Both Darius and Flora (as well as Oda, whom we meet later) were from Soviet bloc countries (Darius was from the former East Germany), as was Mora herself. This loss of the homeland and the fact that neither of the couple really fit into modern Germany is part of the story. But Mora’s description of Flora’ depression and Darius’ reaction to it, as he reads her journal, are masterful, as is Darius’ attempt to reconcile Flora’s depression and suicide with his life as it is now. This book deservedly won the German Book Prize in 2013 and I am sure that this book will be recognised as one of the best novels of the early twenty-first century.
First published 2013 by Luchterhand
No English translation