Next World Novella
by Matthias Politycki
My favourite of Peirene's first three releases, Beside The Sea, had an ending that was quite simply devastating. In its own way their first release for this year has a beginning that packs a comparable punch, although presented in a much softer fashion. Hinrich wakes in the morning and comes into his sun-filled room, 'a world of stucco moulding and decorative wallpaper, book-lined walls, chairs with silk covers.' He can spot his wife, Doro's hair above the back of his desk chair and there is something incredibly tender about the way he moves closer to her.
Before he planted a kiss on her neck, stealing up quietly like a man newly in love, a few of the little wooden segments of the parquet creaking slightly, a fly buzzing somewhere (but even that sounded familiar and homely), before he bent over Doro, to the little mole at the base of her throat he knew so well - any minute now she would wake with a start and look askance at him, half indignant, half affectionate...But before any of those things can happen he catches once again the smell that had hit him on walking in, 'as if Doro had forgotten to change the water for the flowers, as if their stems had begun to rot overnight, filling the air with the sweet-sour aroma of decay.' Only when he is right by her does he realise with a shock that Doro has passed away in the night from an apparent stroke. This is the first of many shocks for him and us and in this novella Politycki uses this rather ingenious set-up to explore weighty topics like marriage and death with a surprising lightness. What dialogue you might wonder is possible between a man and his wife's fresh corpse, but the surprise is not only that there is one but that it contains wit, humour and genuine bite.
Their marriage was founded on a very simple promise. Having met whilst both were studying ancient Chinese texts, Doro an expert on the I Ching and Hinrich a Sinologist, Doro's fascination with what comes after death and her fear of the 'cold, dark lake' that she would have to cross into the next world made Hinrich's daily devotion to her, bringing her tea whilst she worked, and his promise to accompany her on that journey into the afterlife enough to tie herself to him for this life and even to step back from her own promising future in order to support his work. Despite having worked as his editor for many years Hinrich is surprised to see a stack of papers on the desk that morning having not written much since an operation to correct his eyesight. What he finds is the long-abandoned manuscript of his only foray into fiction and this is where things get rather clever for along with the standard editorial corrections Doro seems to have gone beyond her brief.
...soon the marginal notes became more extensive, forthright, cutting. Doro had always been a model of discretion, but now the sharp tone of her comments was unmitigated by lenience, she sparkled with icy elegance.
What begins as a series of corrections becomes 'a second text superimposed on his own', Hinrich's fiction is exposed as little more than thinly veiled autobiography with only the names changed (only to be changed back by Doro) and her editorial comments become the means by which she is able to accuse, cajole and mock her husband as she lies lifeless in the room with him. That's some black humour on display as a man moves from grief to recrimination, sensitively noticing the subtle changes in her appearance one minute and then shouting out accusations at her the next.
Behind his back she had maliciously compiled a reckoning, had left him all her resentment in black and white, and he couldn't even contradict it. Oh no? He'd see if he couldn't!
We read the text of his story along with him, with Doro's corrections mentioned too. This is similar to the reading experience of Tony and Susan by Austin Wright although Polyticki uses the shifts between Hinrich's real-life fascination with a waitress and its fictional counterpart to blur further the distinction between fact and fiction. We'd do well to remind ourselves of the hard-to-rationalise I Ching once more, for in the same way that that text and its symbols are open to interpretation rather than clearly representing single concepts, so too can partners in a marriage fail to fully understand the actions and motivations of those closest to them. Hinrich's eye-operation quite literally alters his view of the world and gives him all the encouragement he needs to forestall his progress towards old-age and death by having another go at acting like a young man with a woman he is ill-suited to. He will be surprised even further as he reads through his palimpsest-like manuscript and discovers just how much his new-found sight blinded him to what was happening around him.
If Doro's text is a note of farewell then Hinrich's reading of it is a chance to move on from recrimination to remorse.
Being dead, he thought, means first and foremost that you can't apologise, can't forgive and be reconciled, there's nothing left to be forgiven, only to be forgotten. Or rather there's nothing to be forgotten, only forgiven.This tone is perhaps the reason for the novella's coda, something that I'm still a little unsure about and can't really discuss until you've read it so please don't hesitate: Peirene have brought another compelling narrative into English that demands to be read and talked about. I've got the ball rolling, it's time for you to add your own notes...