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Jens Dittmar: Sterben kann jeder [Anyone Can Die]

Our narrator is Lorenz Kaufmann, He is currently unemployed but his wife, Andrea, has a well-paid job as a teacher. His mother, Ilse, is in an old people’s home. His father, Jodok, died in a fire when a building called the Höfle, burnt down in October 1972. His older brother, his mother’s favourite in Lorenz’s view, drowned in a sailing accident. Lorenz admits that he does not loves his mother. The expression he uses is that he tolerates her. She always claimed that she understood him perfectly. He claims that she did not. Nevertheless, he does visit her regularly in the home.

Despise her age – in her nineties – she seems to be perfectly sound from the mental health point of view. She does complain a bit – about the food for example – but the manager is quick to defend the policy of the home.

Lorenz is learning about his father. Ilse says that, unlike most couples, she remembers the first words he said to her: does it bite?. She had the family dog, Rex, with her. She remembers their first kiss and also how her father was totally opposed to their having any relationship with him. She was sent off to Jena and he managed to get a job with Carl Zeiss there.

We follow Jodok’s story. After the Carl Zeiss job, he tries various jobs and even considers becoming a sailor. He ends up as a long-distance lorry driver. He and a couple of friends get the opportunity to buy a lot of furs. The furs, however, are in Irkutsk and they are in Leizpig. They will have to travel via Shanghai. As it is 1940, it is perhaps not the best time to be travelling around. Ilse tells of their highly colourful journey, including running out of petrol in the desert and their stay at Mme Tissaud’s pension in Shanghai. I had never heard of the carpet beetle before and, sadly, nor had they.

Jodok and Ilse get married soon after his return from their unfortunate travels and though he is a Liechtensteiner national, he joins the German army and spends some time in Norway. He then disappears. After the war, Ilse is in Kiel, with her parents, after having been bombed out in Leipzig, and fleeing from both the brutal invading Russians and the swarms of refugees, coming from the East. It is not till 1948 that she gets word of Jodok, who is in Buchenwald. While Buchenwald was a Nazi concentration camp, it seems that the Russians used it for a similar purpose and a large amount of people were interned there, often those deemed to be former Nazis. Jodok only gets out by being a Liechtensteiner national.

Jodok gets back home (to Balzers (where Dittmar lives) and moves into the Höfle. Ilse joins him from Kiel and we are given a lively account of her journey. Though Liechtenstein is German-speaking, Ilse finds it difficult to adapt – the accents the idioms, the food, the customs , even how they name and number streets.

This is something of a modernist novel and Dittmar decides at this point to go off on various tangents, such as discourses on death, footwear and novelists beginning with D and then focussing on Leonid Dobychin, a not particularly well-known Russian novelist, whose suicide is described in some detail.

However, there is one main plot line, even though it takes only a few lines a the beginning and a few pages at the end, and that is Jodok’s death. We know from early that he is killed when the Höfle burns down. The end of the novel is devoted to the whys and wherefores. We learn how the fire started (a cigarette), why it spread so rapidly (the foehn) and the outcome. However, how did Jodok die? Was it an accident, suicide or murder? Ilse is arrested for the murder and she admits that she is treated well and is comfortable in her cell. She is released after two weeks, with no charges pressed, though many of the locals still think she is guilty. Inevitably, we get an idea of what actually happened at the end.

While this is not a bad book by any means, it is a bit rambling, with its tangents and its main plot line limited to only a few pages. A couple of characters – in particular; Aleph Kraus-Góngora, a somewhat odd book dealer and book lover – who have appeared in some of his other works, put in a brief appearance here. Despite the modernist touches and interesting view of Liechtenstein and Germany during and just after the war, I cannot see this book being translated.

Publishing history

First published in 2012 by Bucher, Hohenems
No English translation