Reinhard Jirgl: Mutter Vater Roman

Mutter Vater Roman is Reinhard Jirgl’s first published novel, and in a way it also is one of his more recent ones. The author gives a sketch of the convoluted publication history in an afterword: After several years or working on it, the novel was shelved by GDR authorities for not conforming to the Marxist view of history  (hardly a surprise to anyone who has read more than ten pages of anything by this author); it was finally published during the final year of the GDR, but without any publicity and with a tiny number of copies which soon disappeared without a trace (and today are sold for astronomical sums). The novel I have read and am writing about here is the re-issue from 2012 which was revised by the author – a revision which is only mentioned in the book’s imprint and not in Jirgl’s afterword, so that there is no way to tell how far those revisions intruded on the original version.

This version of Mutter Vater Roman, then, is not the original, but the original as viewed through the lens of the matured author, a strange bastard of uncertain parenthood and as such it touches on some central thematic concerns of the novel – as if the publishing history had become part of the novel itself, reality folded into fiction, or maybe fiction prescribing reality. Which, judging from the two novels by him I have read so far, seems to be a motif which also pops up quite frequently with this author who certainly deserves to be counted among Germany’s foremost postmodern novelists.

Whatever revisions Reinhard Jirgl might have made, he did not attempt to erase the traces of Mutter Vater Roman being an early effort – most noticeably, the reader will find hardly any trace of the idiosyncratic orthography which is usually the first thing anyone notices about this author. In general, this novel seems less refined, much more raw than Jirgl’s later efforts (well, the one of them which I have read so far), which is not always a bad thing – while the way Jirgl treats his shifting narrative viewpoints here does appear somewhat awkward compared to the mind-boggling complexities of Abschied von den Feinden, the prose here is even closer to the language of German expressionism than in the late novel, and a richness of imagery surpassing that of the later novel, and which may be undisciplined and unruly but is also intense and powerful in its impact on the reader. And finally, maybe most surprising of at – there are actual traces of humour in Mutter Vater Roman. Admitted, it is of the grim satire variety and not what anyone would call cheerful, but still worth remarking upon considering how far removed from anything comical Abschied von den Feinden is.

This, on the other hand, is something that has not changed from the earlier to the later novel, and is maybe even more of a hallmark of Reinhard Jirgl’s writing than the orthography – its relentless negativity, its unremitting bleakness which elevates misanthropy to an entirely new level, a level all Jirgl’s own. Jirgl’s world is in the state of permanent doomsday, no matter whether he is writing about the end of Nazi Germany and the first years of the German Democratic Republic or whether he goes back several centuries to the time of the Thirty Years War – his excursions into the past are not really  historical because underneath his apocalyptic gaze there has been no change at all between then and now. This is of course emphatically not how Marxists view history, so Jirgl can’t have been surprised when GDR censors refused to publish his novels. But it’s also not a world view which would sit comfortable with late Capitalism, which shares at least that much with Communism that both assume things to be steadily improving, history moving towards a goal of commonly shared happiness. In Jirgl, there is no promise of happiness that is not almost instantly destroyed, perverted or used to oppress the people it was supposed to make happy – no man-created system will be able to raise man above his own infamy and his drive towards self-destruction.

But Mutter Vater Roman is a novel, not a treatise, which takes us once again back to the language as the reason for why it succeeds as a novel, and succeeds so admirably. One hesitates to call a writing beautiful that finds nothing but destruction and decay wherever it directs its gaze, that burrows into phenomena, digging deeper and deeper, throwing up fragments of images and parts of  metaphors, until it uncovers the violence at the heart of things, then drags it out, still quivering and bleeding, to hold it forth in a gruesome display, accompanied by continuous maniacal cackling. But it is writing that has an impact, even if that impact consists of leaving the reader as if he had been put through a wringer, reeling and panting – reading Mutter Vater Roman is not (like all of Reinhard Jirgl’s novels) a pleasant experience, but an experience it is, and one which might furnish the reader with a richer, more nuanced and refined sensorium for what is wrong with this world.

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