As someone who actually likes airports and passing through them, I was drawn to this tale of a brother, a father, and a recently dead sister whose body they have just arranged to have flown home to the USA from Germany. The woman dies in Berlin, but for certain reasons is being flown home from Munich. Naturally, there’s a major delay at the airport, which is where all the action takes place, interspersed with revealing flashbacks. The protagonist’s sister Miriam has starved herself to death. The modern disease has struck her down – the reader guesses she’s in her mid-forties – in Berlin, where she has lived alone for many years. Contact with family has been sparse. It’s not that these people loathed one another. They liked one another, in fact, but the writer doesn’t make a meal of this. There are no terrible traumas lurking in the past to be aired within these pages. None of the usual perversions pop up to ‘explain’ just why Miriam starved herself.
In this unusual and gripping novel, the grief of both father and son is haunting, yet even with grief in the air, there’s more than a residue of humour too, because so many of the situations are so recognisable. For example, there’s the matter of whether to bury or cremate the body, which is decided on the basis of tossing a coin. “Sorry Miriam,” one of the guys says hollowly. In fact, it’s a very manly handling of an affair which often slackens into the drivel of funereal sentiment, so I found this refreshing. And when father, son and Trish, the USA Embassy official who is helping them organise their departure, try to bluff their way into the executive lounge, the speaker says, “I had a script in my head a few moments ago, but now that I see the lounge, now that I am standing in it, I realise that script has no value . . . the woman in the grey suit tells me she’s sorry they cannot accommodate my father. I hang on to the end of her sentence for a moment, because I am certain she’s going to add something – an alternative solution. But she doesn’t. She just smiles.” I reckon the father would need to have had his legs sawn off before he’d get in. One of the flashbacks during which they attend the Philharmonic in Berlin, reveals an amusing game of cultural cat and mouse, as the Enthusiastic American comes up against Tepid European accustomed to ‘culture’.
That the world is an unforgiving, harsh place in which we all dissemble in various harmless ways is in no doubt within these pages. That the son is, even in adult life, tilting his way along frequently impermeable walls of modern social interaction is abundantly clear. The father is a historian, an expert on Charlemagne with several books to his name. His family roots are also in Europe. The son, meanwhile, has relocated to London and has one of those jobs in which he is constantly talking-up business and product. He lives on his marketing wits, but one suspects that his ability to compartmentalise his life is a saving grace, because he seems to be a cypher for the kind of person who has been educated out of their natural tendencies and transplanted into the brave new world which often disappoints them. On the other hand he is someone all too aware of the users and abusers who prowl the planet. Even Miriam’s closest friends are suspect and never quite measure up on the fidelity barometer. Her ex-boyfriend Otis, is conveyed to us as exploitative and calculating, anything but sad as he eyes up her furniture. All too recognisable, he is the guy dancing near every bonfire, the one who has survives all wars, the one who scavenges of himself.
The journey to Europe to collect Miriam’s body becomes more than a meeting-point in which to consider their relationship and its casual neglects as a family; it is very much about Europe itself, about history, about Jewishness, and about excavating something behind the carapace of so-called ‘family’ civilities that bind father and son as men, bringing them, through Miriam’s death, in touch with several histories.
Music is particularly important to the protagonist, and his quoting of various composers and comments made by Adorno carries a lot of weight in the context of death and loss:
“Adorno had said that new music, by which he meant twelve-tone music, has taken upon itself all the darkness and guilt of the world, that all its happiness comes in the perception of misery, all its beauty comes in the rejection of beauty’s illusion. Boulez said, We assert for our part that any musician who has not experienced – we do not say understood, but experienced – the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. Cage said, I am going toward violence rather than tenderness, hell rather than heaven, ugly rather than beautiful, impure rather than pure, because by doing these things they become transformed, and we become transformed . . . Schoenberg said, I do not compose principles, I compose music.”
This is the kind of commentary that suddenly reveals the layers within layers within this novel as father and son hire a car (while waiting for the post-mortem and for the body) and drive through the Rhineland, to Luxembourg and to Belgium on a personal odyssey. It is not just about personal pain and now to bear it. It is more about the fact that within each one of us, there are decisions to be made (much as the composers made them) on how to ‘compose’ our attitude to death, mortality, and life and more importantly, how might our composition/response to death be different from what has preceded us? As they discover certain aspects of the past – for example, they see the house in which the son’s grandmother was forced out during the war – a sense of wholeness building from many mosaics of encounter and information also builds for the reader. At one point they visit the museum of St. Vith, and a local historian who heads up the local society library which contains ten thousand books and fifty thousand documents, records and reports. The encounter with said historian (a fussy little demigod) is dismal. As the father remarks afterwards:
“It’s funny, that guy’s whole career is this little museum, and the local history of this town and surrounds, which wouldn’t even be on the map but for the war, and two people come in and ask him to talk about the one subject he ought to have considerable expertise in – the war – and he has a budget meeting. That’s your local historian in a nutshell, he said.”
For such observations and others, I found myself saying yes, yes, yes. For its faultless and unostentatious commentary on human failure pretending to be human success, I cheered. For its ordinary language which does not feel the need to show off its literary credentials but nevertheless manages to form the texture of highly literary work, I admired the book even more.
By the way, the protagonist son goes slightly insane throughout the narrative. He more or less behaves as if he is in tune with most of what passes for functional society, but he isn’t. Deranged and off-kilter by grief and guilt over the sister’s death, he goes on a buying spree of an outstandingly American quality which, even at a reader’s distance, I found myself enjoying. He gets a boning knife and deliberately lifts a lump out of his abdominal fat – all this in his unarticulated search for an antidote to the unnamed thing: pain. The wound keeps bleeding, he destroys numerous garments, he stuffs the wound with tissues, but it keeps bleeding, all the more so when he has a sexual encounter with a friend of his sister’s, a woman carrying her own vicious physical wounds after a road accident – but the effect afterwords is of a bloodbath. That wound seems somehow significant.
It’s a novel I was sorry to leave – even if I was relieved when they got on the plane and even happier that the coffin was on board too – but for the central character’s observations, which are zesty, amusing, observant and acceptant of the human mess, I could have gone on and on. Because this book will be a conversation for some readers, between themselves and the speaker, and like all the best conversations, there may be no exact finishing point. It is a compelling work.