Gerhard Roth: Der See

Gerhard Roth is an Austrian author who started publishing in the 1970ies, and it is almost since then that I have wanted to read something by him. It took me over thirty years to finally get around to it – “gut Ding will Weile haben,” as the German saying goes, and while I’m not sure I would not have done just as well to have discovered his work earlier, I’m very glad that I finally did and will be busy catching up on what I have missed.

Roth’s best known work and chef d’oeuvre are two series of books, “Archive des Schweigens” and “Orkus” that consist not just of novels but also of collections of photography, of essays and an autobiography. That diversity of fiction and non-fiction as well as the tendency towards ambitious multi-volume works might remind one of William Vollmann (it definitely did me), but the resemblance is quite superficial and the two writers are very different in temperament. Where Vollmann is encyclopedic and sprawling, Roth keeps a narrow focus and is generally considerably more conventional – which does not mean that he’d not be doing interesting things both with content and form, quite to the contrary.

Der See is the first novel in Gerhard Roth’s “Orkus” series, a comparatively short novel (about 240 pages in the German original) that follows its protagonist Paul Eck over several days. At its heart, it is a mystery novel, although you’ll have to look twice to notice, as that heart is beating in a very unusual place. The vast majority of crime fiction is told from the perspective of the person attempting to solve the crime, a somewhat smaller portion from the perspective of the criminal, but Der See is the first mystery novel I have ever read that is told from the perspective of a red herring, i.e. one of those persons that invariably populate every mystery novel towards which the evidence points and who thus come under the suspicion of the detective (and often the reader) but in the end turn out to be innocent of the crime.

There are no less than three crimes Paul Eck seems involved in – a bank robbery gone violent, the discovery of corpse part at the shore of the lake around which the novel is for the most part set and the disappearance of Paul Eck’s father who was involved in some shady dealings and and to whom Paul has always had a strained relationship. The investigation into these crimes proceeds during the course of the novel and all of them are eventually solved, but all of that happens for the most part at the margin of Eck’s horizon of perception, brought to his notice only occasionally when a pesky detective convinced of his guilt keeps pestering him. During most of te novel for Eck as well as for the reader, the criminal investigation and the crime plot, respectively, are like a irritant buzzing just above the treshold of being audible, or a movement half-caught in the corner of one’s eye. What plays out in the foreground is Eck doing his day job – he is a travelling pharmeceutical salesman, and in that capacity visits a large number of doctors that he basically tries to bribe into prescribing his employer’s pharmaceuticals. I don’t know about other countries, but this is actually a common practice in Germany and apparently in Austria as well, and describing Eck’s tour gives the author ample occasion to vent his animosities towards the medical profession which are considerable (probably not a surprise if one is aware that Gerhard Roth at one time was studying medicine himself), resulting in some splendid satirical passages.

The protagonist’s profession is even more imporant for the novel in another regard: As the reader soon finds out, Eck is rather over-fond of sampling his company’s products and using his job to get at even more drugs (he steals prescreption blocks from the doctors he visits and then uses those to write fake prescriptions for himself). Almost every single of the novel’s 100 short chapters mentions at least once that Eck is downing some pills, and often flushes them down with alcohol, and as we experience events from a close third person perspective focused on him, his drug habit unavoidably begins to tinge the narrative. Roth’s writing throughout Der See is mostly sparse and restrained, reading almost like a report, but it is also brimming over with small, precise observations of often seemingly insignficant details. And time and again, the novel startles its readers by breaking unexpectedly into metaphorical flight, its words arranging itself into stunningly beautiful descriptions, like the flocks of birds that suddenly take from the ground to the sky and that form an imporant thematic tread of the novel. Spending his time mostly in a drug-induced haze, Paul Eck is a highly unreliable narrator, and with its oscillating between sober restraint and glimmering beauty the novel is sustains a weird, eerie atmosphere that pervades even the most trivial moments. It also constitues a hypnotic attraction that pulls the reader through the pages and makes what is essentially a very complex novel also an immensely readable one; even though it is a fairly slim I was surprised at just how soon arrived at the end. Thankfully, there are seven more volumes to the series (and even an English translation of this volume).

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