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Uwe Tellkamp: Der Eisvogel [The Kingfisher]

The book opens with Wiggo Ritter firing two shots at his friend, Mauritz Kaltmeister, and killing him. Mauritz’s sister Manuela was present but she did not scream. Wiggo said he felt as though he were not really there, as though he were watching a film. It was so easy to shoot, so unreal.

We next jump to seeing him in hospital where he is suffering from severe burns. Much of the book is Mauritz lying in bed, ruminating on his life and defending himself to an imaginary prosecutor over the shooting of Mauritz.

Wiggo is thirty but has not made much of his life. His father is a successful and ruthless banker. We see an example of this when he plays tennis. He is determined to win at all costs. It is the same in his banking life. He wants his son to follow in his footsteps. (Wiggo is the only son but he has two sisters, Oda and Dorothea). However, Wiggo decides to study philosophy. . However, he has something of cynical approach to philosophy. What is the value of Heidegger, Plato, Kant, compared to a dentist’s drill when you have a toothache? Philosophy has not worked out for him and he has lost his job teaching. He has worked at various jobs, specifically as a laboratory assistant, but not enjoyed them.

His father’s response is to summon him to another one of his chats. Why don’t you come and work at the bank? he asks, not really knowing that Wiggo despises everything that his father stands for. His father asks him if he has a girlfriend, thinking, perhaps, that his son is gay. Wiggo does not have a girlfriend but denies being gay, to his father’s relief. His father even tries to foists one of his assistants, Frau t’Hooft. onto him. He is tempted but resists. Don’t you want a normal life? thunders his father. A normal life, for him, means a wife, children, a good job and the standard house. Wiggo does not want that sort of normal life.

The father had a favourite expression: fly catcher, meaning people who had no drive, no ambition. More recently, he had replaced it with the English term loser. For him, his son was a loser. He also has a favourite expression: the only thing that really helps people is money.

Wiggo did have heterosexual inclinations. He had, for example, been attracted, as a young man, to Jeanne and was optimistic, till he found out that she was having a fling with his father. He will later have an affair with Manuela Kaltmeister.

The family had lived in London when Wiggo was young and then had moved to Nice. When talking to his sisters, he harps back to their time in Nizza. But in Nice, we were happy, weren’t we?, he says to Dorothea. She thinks he is being a bit naive.

But things change when he meets Mauritz and Manuela Kaltmeister, brother and sister. Mauritz is educated and intellectual. Their parents were killed in an abduction. Mauritz does not want to talk about it.

Mauritz is very dogmatic. For example, when speaking of American literature, he says most of it is superfluous and makes him want to throw up. In particular, he has strong right-wing views. He and his sister belong to an organisation called Rebirth. We must destroy to rebuild, says Mauritz. Democracy has failed and must be replaced. The elite must rule.

More particularly, Mauritz says the only way to achieve this is by organised terror. The purpose of this, he says, is to pull people out of their feelings of security. Once this has been done, they will call for the order and security Mauritz’s group can offer.

We follow the story of Wiggo and how he is seduced by the Kaltmeisters. We learn that he lost his job as a teaching assistant in the philosophy department, for which he blames the professor, Professor Hertwig. Mauritz shows him there is a way to gain his revenge.

Gradually, we are moving to violence and gradually Wiggo is being drawn in. However, he is starting to have his doubts. When Manuela starts playing sex games with a gun and Mauritz introduces him to Russian roulette, his doubts increase. Mauritz, of course, accuses him of being a coward, essentially an accurate assessment.

This not the first German novel about terrorism I have read, though the other is far less well-known. Many years ago, I read Die Genossin by Klaus Rainer Röhl. Though known in Germany as a journalist, editor and author, he is probably best-known as the husband of Ulrike Meinhof. Die Genossin means female comrade and is a not very much disguised story of Meinhof and the Red Army Fraction (known more familiarly as the Baader-Meinhof Group). It was never translated into any other language and is long since out of print, though readily available from the usual sources.

Röhl’s thesis, of course, was how Meinhof was led astray, particularly by Andreas Baader but also how she embraced the terrorist agenda. Tellkamp takes a different approach. While his father may call him a loser, Wiggo is more a lost soul. He has lived in three different countries (Britain, France and Germany). His parents are divorced. His mother lives in London with her partner, whom he has never met. He has no real idea of what he wants to do, except that he knows that he very much does not want to be like his father or follow in his father’s footsteps.

His study of philosophy is, as much as anything else, a stand against his father, rather than any real desire to be a philosopher. However, it does seem to work for him. We hear the testimony of one of his students, who is full of praise for him as a teacher. It is sad that it all goes wrong when he upsets his professor with his views, perhaps a revolt against a father figure as much as anything else.

He is therefore an easy target for the smooth operator that Mauritz, is, aided by his attractive sister. Wiggo is looking for a cause, something to give him a raison d’être and Mauritz gives it to him. Of course, it does not work out, not least because he does not have the ruthless streak of either his father or Mauritz. I hate my era, he says, because it hates people like me.

Tellkamp had a certain amount of difficulty in getting this book published but, when it was, it received positive reviews. However, it has only been translated into Polish and it would seem unlikely to be translated into any other language now, which is a pity, as it is an excellent book, both as a study of terrorism but, more particularly, of a young man, who cannot find his way. Sadly, there are many Wiggos out there. Perhaps today they are joining Alternative für Deutschland, the German right-wing party, or similar parties in other countries.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Rowohlt
No English translation
Also available in Polish