Category: Fiction

Bodo Kirchhoff
Verlangen und Melancholie
[Longing and melancholy]

Novel

A virtuoso at repressing his feelings goes on a journey in search of the truth - Bodo Kirchhoff's complex novel Verlangen und Melancholie

Bodo Kirchhoff is one of Germany’s most prolific and versatile authors born shortly after the Second World War. He has been publishing short stories and novels, plays and screenplays, essays and commentaries since 1979, and incorporates his personal experiences, enigmatic fantasies and political reflections into his prose. Kirchhoff has experimented with parodies of trivial genres, while traversing the limits of popular literature, and as so many reviewers have observed, he has achieved a remarkable artistic maturity as a novelist in the last few years.

This maturity is especially evident in his latest epic, Verlangen und Melancholie, a text for which he has discovered a new, complex, and dynamic narrative mode for subjects he has been focusing on since he first began to write: eros and death, desire and loss, deception and truth, and he does so in a linguistically unpretentious fashion. The author—who in the 1980s bid farewell to German locations and subject matter, who went searching for his material on travels around the world and residencies abroad—creates in this new story of love and revelation, a sharply nuanced image of contemporary German life, using incidents straight out of Kirchhoff’s hometown Frankfurt, wherein the closing of a Woolworth’s is tantamount to losing yet another piece of home. And he creates a subtle portrait of a generation of West German intellectuals, himself included, in which he exposes their vanities, relationship problems and incurable longing for Italy.

Hinrich, a retired editor for the local arts and culture section, lost his wife Irene almost ten years ago: She committed suicide by jumping from the Goethe Tower, a 43 meter high wooden structure in Frankfurt City Forest. The widower lives in a high-rise, the urban symbol of reviled postwar modernism, which he calls a “spaceship of mourning.” He consoles himself with animal films, tutors his grandson for his exams, and works part-time as an attendant for the Pompeii exhibition his daughter curated. He is constantly haunted by memories and tortured by unanswered questions that might explain Irene's suicide. The verbose retrospective recapitulation of their time together, predominately consisting of happy vacations, especially to Italy, and intense erotic moments, allows the reader—and this is Kirchhoff’s artistic ploy—to realize how little they knew about each other, without the first person narrator realizing as much himself.  

In order to put Hinrich, the virtuoso of repressed feelings, on the right track of finding the truth, he needs to make a few detours: he decides to give his ex-Polish lover the dirty money he had smuggled out of Switzerland while on an adventurous journey across the Swiss border with his grandson. He travels to Warsaw to give the woman the money, and meets two old friends and colleagues, who reveal Irene's double life and the cause of her despair. The story gains an added dimension by the fact that one of the men, Jerzy Tannenbaum, is the descendant of deported Jews. Kirchhoff credibly integrates this plot point into the story, much as he does the mysterious letter with black border, which Hinrich had left unopened throughout the journey. We discover later it contains the news of his son’s death, whose existence he was completely unaware of.

The author has not stopped playing with trashy narrative tricks, but in this story they create an organic whole that help expose the illusions and delusions of his protagonist. By the story’s end, Hinrich becomes a likeable character, and this is brought home when we watch him befriend a stray dog during a ‘walk down memory lane’ in Pompeii: Here the term “love” gains a new meaning that makes the vast erotic representations in the Pompeian villas pale - undoubtedly one of the most beautiful conclusions to a novel in contemporary German literature.
Kristina Maidt-Zinke

By Kristina Maidt-Zinke, 20.01.2015

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

Translated by Zaia Alexander