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Uwe Timm: Rot [Red]

This not the first book on this site narrated by a dead person – see for example Cemitério de Pianos (The Piano Cemetery) and La amortajada (The Shrouded Woman). Thomas Linde, the hero/narrator of this novel, is killed on the first page, while crossing a street against a red light. He is hit by a car and killed instantly. The story starts with his spirit looking down at the death scene and being somewhat concerned that his briefcase has been thrown away from his body and no-one is paying any attention to it. He is particularly concerned as the briefcase contains explosives. The rest of the book is about his life and what led him to be carrying a briefcase containing explosives. It is also about Germany over the previous sixty years with emphasis, as this is Timm, on the events of 1968 and the period around that time, when left-wing opposition in Germany was strong.

Linde has two professions. He is a jazz critic for the radio and he is also a professional funeral orator, which means that people pay him to give funeral eulogies, either because they want a secular eulogy and therefore do not want a priest giving the eulogy or because they themselves do not feel comfortable doing it. Timm uses this both to tell fascinating stories about the recently deceased (and their survivors) but also as a way of having Linde meeting various people, including his girlfriend and the son of his friend, whom he had not met for many years. His girlfriend is Iris. She is married and twenty years Linde’s junior. They meet at a funeral and soon start a relationship, mainly at her instigation. She designs light fittings for a living. They frequently meet at the Zoo, which gives Timm ample opportunity to comment on the behaviour of the animals, compared to humans. We see a python swallowing a live mouse and a lynx with a chicken in its mouth, for example. However, Iris eventually feels guilty about her husband, Ben, and finally tells him of the affair. Ben’s reaction is to move out but he comes and joins Iris and Linde at their meetings at the Zoo and all three have discussions about life and politics.

Linde also has two other interests, which he generally keeps hidden, though he does, eventually, tell Iris. Firstly he is in a jazz band – an old man’s band, as he calls it. Secondly, he is writing a book about the colour red. He is clearly obsessed with red – the red of clothes (particularly women’s clothes), cars, blood, traffic lights and so on. He knows the names of all the variations of red. Linde also has a past. He was a radical left-winger. He used to stand outside a factory with his friend Aschenberger (the name, of course, recalls Aschenbach from Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) and, if it doesn’t, one of the characters, inadvertently refers to Aschenberger as Aschenbach), handing out the left-wing newspaper they produced. Many of the factory workers refused the paper. Those that did not immediately put it in a rubbish bin. Linde has long since lost touch with Aschenberger.

Timm tells many fascinating stories about the recently deceased, such as the woman who had been married for fifty years to the same man and, on his death, immediately went out and bought a complete new set of furniture from Ikea to replace the old furniture she and her husband had, primarily because it was the first time she had had access to the family money, as her husband kept strict control over it. She died a year later. However, one event is key. He is told that a deceased man has specifically asked for him to be the orator. The deceased man is called Peter Lüders, a name Linde has never heard of and he is mystified as to why he has been chosen. Peter Lüders’ son flies in from Cologne to meet Linde in his late father’s flat. When Linde gets there and meets the son, he is none the wiser as the son has had relatively little contact with his father and has no idea why Linde has been selected. The father has clearly been a left-winger, as the flat is full of left-wing books, many of them now old fashioned. Indeed, when the house clearer turns up, he says they are all rubbish and cannot offer any money for them but will take them to the rubbish dump. The son and house clearer depart and Linde is left in the flat to check things out. He finds two things – evidence that Peter Lüders is Aschenberger and explosives, with details of his plans to blow up the Victory Column in Berlin. In order not to cause problems for Aschenberger’s memory, he takes the explosives, intending to dispose of them but does not manage to do so. He is worried about leaving them in his own flat, as his Polish cleaning lady might find them. (Iris is also jealous of the Polish cleaning lady, thinking that she might be, as she puts it, providing Linde with other services.)

Much of the novel consists of Linde’s attempt to find out about Aschenberger, what he became after Linde had known him and what led him to consider blowing up the Victory Column. But Timm mixes Linde’s own story, both his actual life story, such as childhood, education, girlfriends, political activity and so on, as well as his continuing relationship with Iris. Indeed, a good part of the story comes out, either by Linde telling Iris about it or about the two of them discovering information about Aschenberger by talking to others who had known him. All the while there is the political background, which is Timm’s abiding interest. Wer die Mentalitätsgeschichte der Bundesrepublik verstehen will, der muss bloß die Werbeslogans von VW studieren [If you want to understand the history of the mindset of West Germany, you only have to study the advertising slogans of Volkswagen.] From the deportation of the Jews (people claim they thought they were merely been taken to the Lebensraum area to live) to the East-West Germany split and reunification, via the tumultuous political upheavals of the late 1960s/early 1970s, political events are never far from the story. The story does wander a bit, but Timm is a wonderful story-teller and his stories are never boring.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Suhrkamp
No English translation
Published in Dutch as Rood by Podium in 2006
Published in Italian as Rosso by Lettere in 2005
Also published in Croatian, Hebrew, Slovenian and Turkish