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Category: Fiction

Heinz Helle

Die Überwindung der Schwerkraft
[Overcoming Gravity]


Communing with the Dead

Heinz Helle, a Munich native and graduate of the Swiss Literature Institute in Biel, writes short novels that cut quickly and disturbingly to the fundamental questions of existence. His début, Superabundance, offered a glimpse of a kind of ‘thinking degree zero’ on the question love and relationship skills. If Niklas Luhmann had tried his hand at confessional fiction, the end result might have been this book. Helle’s second novel, Euphoria, by contrast, is a dystopia that avoids the current fashion for lurid post-apocalyptic fantasies and instead offers something more akin to a scientific experiment: five young men spend the weekend in a remote Alpine chalet only to discover that the world has ended while they were away. Just like that their former lives are reduced to a machine-like struggle for survival.

Now, in his third and latest novel, Helle tells the story of a difficult reconciliation between two very different brothers. Helle is a versatile stylist. In contrast to his previous two novels, here he writes in long, meandering sentence cycles, some spanning several pages, which are so elegantly constructed that the reader is able to follow them effortlessly. A stream of consciousness, an attempt to remember, a work of mourning.

Two brothers go out drinking. The elder of the two is the kind of guy you typically try to avoid, especially in a bar at night. He talks a lot and is convinced of the weight and validity of everything he says. He is highly intelligent and deeply misanthropic. And as is so often the case with such figures, we soon come to realise that he is a humanist who has gone over to the dark side, a man who has had to let go of his hopes. He is obsessed with the evils of mankind; he has delved into the history of the Second World War and can tell you the minutest details about the Belgian paedophile Marc Dutroux’s despicable acts. He who has seen through the façade of the human, one might conclude, has no other choice but to turn his back on humanity.

His brother, the narrator, is twelve years his junior and serves initially only as a conduit for this endless torrent of words. But the elder brother, as we quickly discover, is dead. And hence what appears at first to be an unmediated monologue is in fact a reconstruction based on the younger brother’s unreliable memory. On the one hand, this act of writing is his attempt to get closer to his deceased brother. On the other hand, of course, this also means that the younger brother has ultimate authority over the narrative: he decides what his brother says and how he says it.

Helle has this enormously dense web of images, perspectives, and temporalities firmly in his grasp. Overcoming Gravity is a novel about the peculiar combination of affection and distance that informs the relationship between siblings (though strictly speaking in this case they are half-siblings) and also about the question of guilt and responsibility—especially also in the context of family. And last but not least, it is a novel whose twists and turns frequently lead into the realm of the grotesque. As this uncommonly intelligent author well knows, there is a close relationship between comedy and despair.

Translated by Kári Driscoll

Book cover Overcoming Gravity

By Christoph Schröder

​Christoph Schroeder is a freelance writer (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, Die Zeit) based in Frankfurt am Main and is a lecturer in literary criticism at the university there.