Category: Fiction

Nina Jäckle


The mere thought of it is a nightmare: realizing you are slowly going insane as you watch the pathological ticks you’d written off as minor eccentricities take hold of your brain and grow into full-blown obsessions and compulsions.

One Tuesday in the year 2010, Herr Schoch started feeling strange in his familiar surroundings. Instead of compassion and kindness, he felt a rage that was hard to contain—towards his neighbors and fellow workers at the carpentry workshop, towards people staring at him in the corner supermarket as he peeled four bananas and put them on a scale: why pay for the peels when you can’t eat them?

The 40-something-year-old lives in an unnamed big city, single and childless. Women are attracted to him, but some signs tell us he has just been dumped: He lives alone in a turn-of-the-century apartment building originally intended for two, apparently another man came in-between. Schoch is the first person narrator of Nina Jäckle’s novel “Zielinski,” a strange yet absorbing story. Rarely has a person’s mental collapse been depicted this vividly. Focusing entirely on Schoch, Jäckle poignantly describes Schoch’s unsettling retreat into a confused world of his own. Often it’s impossible to tell whether the skillfully wrought prose depicts real events or is the work of an overwrought imagination. Schoch reports, for example, that handymen come to his house and spend several days working in his largest room. He doesn’t know exactly what they are doing there, but when they’ve finished, his furniture, books and pictures are gone. In their place is a huge wooden crate that reaches to the ceiling and covers half the room. On one side there is a door and the interior of the box is lined in royal blue velvet. A chandelier is hanging above.

Schoch doesn’t know why the crate is in his room. Nor does he know what the odd looking person is doing inside it. The elegant man dressed in a silk suit and ironed shirt is named Zielinski. He is immaculate from his shiny bald head to his shoes. He holds a walking stick made of ebony and the ivory handle is carved in the head of a greyhound. What are you supposed to do with a stranger who has made himself at home in your own apartment? Call the police? Kick him out? Herr Schoch doesn’t consider either option for a minute. Fascinated, he stares at Zielinski, who introduces himself politely but firmly as his new roommate. Schoch tells himself it’s just a “figment of his synapses.” Zielinski couldn’t possibly exist. But he hears him and smells him. And the man hits him painfully on the head with his stick. So is it real after all?

Nina Jäckle describes a man who realizes he is slowly going insane. He considers taking drugs and going to the hospital, but he doesn’t want to leave the house. So he allows Zielinski to live with him. He stops going to work and his answering machine is full of messages. At some point he is no longer surprised that Zielinski seems to be reading his mind and that he can go for weeks without eating or going to the toilet. Schoch gradually withdraws from the real world and gets tangled in his confused thoughts. He kidnaps his neighbor and when his electricity gets turned off, he starts a campfire in his apartment. “You fit the bill, that’s all,” answered Zielinski when Schoch asks him why, of all people, he moved in with him.

Jäckle’s novel is a shattering psychological thriller. It impressively shows how easily loneliness and mental instability can cause a person to lose their grip on reality, their job, and fall behind with the rent. As he loses control, he begins to take refuge in talking to himself. Herr Schoch realizes that if he doesn’t speak to anybody, the unspoken words produce nothing but chaos in his head. In his eyes, we are nothing more than the “tiny spawn of imbecility living inside our boxes.”

Nina Jäckle has offered us an astounding glimpse inside one of these boxes. What we see stays with us for a long time.
Vorname Name

By Daniel Grinsted, 01.12.2011

​Daniel Grinsted is a cultural critic with a degree in Anglo-American literature. He works as a freelance arts journalist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Zeit Online, Literaturen, Börsenblatt and other media. 

Translated by Zaia Alexander