Category: Fiction

Peter Stamm
Weit über das Land
[To the Back of Beyond]

Novel

The Dream of Disappearing

Ever since his short story collection Blitzeis was published in 1999, Swiss-born writer Peter Stamm has been considered one of today’s most interesting German language authors. Stamm (b.1963) discovered his calling as a writer by way of a series of detours that would lead him to become a master of the art of omission and indirect character psychology. His matter of fact laconic language, which steers clear of folksy Swiss turns of phrase or decorative flourishes, makes his works extremely translator-friendly. His major theme is human relationships, preferably between men and women, yet beneath the cool polished surface of his prose, he always manages to reveal complex and disturbing realities.

This holds true for his latest novel Weit über das Land, which for its opening gambit, draws on a plot point from "Wakefield" written by the American transcendentalist Nathaniel Hawthorne. A man in the prime of his life, who lives a perfectly ordered existence, suddenly decides to leave his home and submerge himself in an entirely new life, without leaving word of his whereabouts. Unlike Mr. Wakefield, who rents an abode close to home and lives there for twenty years without being recognized; Peter Stamm’s protagonist, Thomas, embarks on an equally long and restless journey through his Swiss homeland. Unlike Hawthorne’s hero, Thomas not only leaves his wife, but also leaves his two children behind. And while Hawthorne’s character at least had made prior arrangements for his departure, Thomas abruptly gets up from the patio table and begins his journey into the unknown, shortly after having returned from a harmonious family holiday.

He leaves without a word of farewell, without luggage, and armed soley with a credit card and a handful of cash. He finds temporary accommodations and takes on odd jobs to make ends meet. He distances himself from civilization, roams through unpopulated mountain regions, and gains a newfound passion for nature and life inspired by the "joy of a future that was not predetermined, and with each step that could take a different turn." He has left behind a listless affluent social class along with his career as accountant, the epitome of a rigid routine, which the author apparently had experienced himself.

The fantasy of simply disappearing, dropping out, changing your identity, and trying out a new lifestyle without the need to justify your actions to anybody is a literary topos, but it also is likely the secret fantasy of countless middle-class family men in the Western world. Peter Stamm depicts this yearning neither as a dropout fantasy nor as a psychological study: he merely describes precisely and from a distance the events and thoughts of those involved. He not only traces the steps of the wanderer Thomas, he also depicts the strategies his wife employs to cope with her husband's inexplicable absence.

The change of narrative perspective, however, does not provide an explanation or causal interpretation; rather it leads the plot navigate a fine line between being plausible and surreal, which at times proves dizzying. By the end of the story, we are confronted with as many questions as we had in the beginning. A thrilling and irritating, yet easy to read novel, written by a specialist of the abyss that lies beneath the safety net of Europe’s comfortable everyday life.
Kristina Maidt-Zinke

By Kristina Maidt-Zinke, 10.11.2016

​Kristina Maidt-Zinke is a literary and music critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and writes reviews for Die Zeit.

Translated by Zaia Alexander