Category: Fiction

Lukas Bärfuss
Hagard
[Hagard]

Novel

Hunting scenes from the metropolis

Every season of new book releases we witness just how much contemporary German-language literature is enriched by the works of Austrian and Swiss authors. With the release of his most recent novel, "Hagard," Lukas Bärfuss has been one of the most widely discussed Swiss authors of the year. Looking back on the career of the writer and playwright (b.1971 in Thun), this should hardly come as a surprise. He became famous with the play Die sexuellen Neurosen unserer Eltern [The sexual neuroses of our parents] and continues to provoke with his political statements and literary works that focus on the smugness and complacency of his home country.

The French word "haggard" can be translated as "wild, shy, disturbed". In the lexicon of hunting, it refers to captive animals, especially birds of prey, which can be trained, yet are never fully tamable. Philip, the protagonist of the novel, is a real estate manager in his late forties, who is trapped in an average everyday life—the pressure to increase efficiency and concomitant sense of emptiness in his own life. While waiting for an insolvent business partner on a March afternoon in Zurich's pedestrian zone, he experiences a strange break in his life, which possibly begins as a whim, but grows into a full-fledged obsession As if under a mysterious spell, he spontaneously begins to follow a young woman, who has just stepped out of a department store wearing a pair of plum blue ballerina flats. She nimbly winds her way through the city, and though Philip is unable to see her face, he is fascinated and irresistibly drawn to her. He frequently loses track of her but manages to stay on her trail.

The chase, which turns the hitherto inconspicuous, well-earning father (he has a son) into a wild stalker, leads the hunter into the desolate periphery of the metropolis and into increasingly bizarre and macabre situations. It also becomes a race against time as the battery of his cell phone is low and he depends on it entirely as a bridge to his middle class existence.

Bärfuss stages the breathless, tragicomic odyssey not only as a parcours of a personal obsession, but also as a panorama of a prosperous modern world with its hostile precincts and latent threats. The plot is insouciantly dated to the exact two days of March 2014, in which the Boeing 777 of Malaysia Airlines had disappeared, the occupation of the Crimea, and Asian avian flu, all of which had dominated the media at the time. The topography of Zurich also can be traced to the real city, even though it is never mentioned by name. The author's art consists in creating a completely surrealistic ambience from this realistic time and space constellation, in which digital machines inevitably will lead to "the abolition of humankind," through an easily accepted external control.

Against this background is the stalker’s intoxicating crazy love, whose fantasies have turned the object of his hunt into a being made of light, even a "goddess," which ultimately turns out to be a final desperate escape from his dystopic present. Even though the frame story, consisting of a retrospective look back at Philips' biography, as well as the somewhat enigmatic catastrophic conclusion, is not as convincingly portrayed as the oppressive, satirically exaggerated sequence at the center of the novel, "Hagard" is nonetheless one of the most important and exciting German-language prose works in recent times.
Kristina Maidt-Zinke

By Kristina Maidt-Zinke, 03.11.2017

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

Translated by Zaia Alexander