Category: Fiction

Michael Kleeberg
Das amerikanische Hospital
[The American Hospital]


At first blush, literary works with a strong formal aspect seem to run counter to readers’ interests. Most people are as disinclined to think about the structure of a novel as they are to look under the hood of their car. But novels aren’t just plots; they are constructions made of language. We all know that, but prose works are usually considered most successful when their machinery is kept hidden from the reader. While understandable, this attitude is also a little dishonest: why should I care about my car’s motor as long as it gets me where I’m going? But the question can be asked in another way. What was it that got me here? Michael Kleeberg’s latest work The American Hospitalhas two answers to that question: one is form and other, content.

Kleeberg, born in Stuttgart in 1959, has a penchant for complex narrative structures. The American Hospitalis relatively short compared to his previous novels. At the beginning of the 1990s, Hélène is in her early thirties and insists on going to the tradition-steeped American Hospital in the Paris suburb of Neuilly to undergo in vitro fertilization. Her husband, from time to time visible as the origin of the otherwise neutral narrative voice, also strongly supports her choice: “The name instilled trust. It stood for efficiency, self-confidence, and the latest in medical technology.” The incident which precipitates the novel’s plot happens in the lobby of the hospital: a young man, an American, collapses a few yards from Hélène. With one hand he struggles to loosen his tie. He’s trembling, his teeth are chattering, and he clutches at the French woman so that the seam of her dress gets torn. She thinks he’s having an epileptic seizure.

At first, it seems like a minor incident. The medical staff takes charge of the American and Hélène undergoes the usual inconveniences of the in vitro procedure. A few months later, the two meet again by chance in the hospital cafeteria. While for Hélène The American Hospital is not really a hospital but rather a place where dreams come true, the American’s story carries the attributes of death. The career officer David Cote has fought in the first Gulf War and is being treated for anxiety. In the early nineties, there was as yet no name for what the contemporary reader already guesses is his problem: post-traumatic stress disorder.

While Hélène undergoes a string of artificial inseminations and repeated spontaneous abortions in pursuit of the dream of motherhood, the American seeks nothing less than release from his torments. With increasing fatalism, Hélène must abandon her dream while step by step and literally at Hélène’s side, Cote is able to rid himself of his demons. It is she who shows Paris to the American, takes his arm and pilots him through every crowd of people, makes possible his reintegration into society.

Kleeberg has the American recount traumatic memories of the war. At first, it is wild animals who die in agony—a flock of ibises fatally mistake a pool of spilled oil for a welcoming lake. Later the reader hears of Iraqi soldiers with their Achilles tendons cut to keep them from surrendering and children shot dead in broad daylight. Between these recollections, another miscarriage, a “bloody mess” as they both call it.

There can be no more doubt that Michael Kleeberg is one of the most accomplished German novelists of his generation. Not only a master of linguistic resources but also of all the narrative means at his disposal, he is in full control of the novel’s structure. The American Hospital itself is laid out as a sort of artificial insemination. In a location that can stand equally for birth and death, two lives remote from each other are brought together and nourished in the petri dish of the novel until the organism can survive and flourish on its own in the reader’s head.

It is no accident that at its end, the novel develops an organic dimension. A general strike is paralyzing the city; nothing moves. Hélène and Cote—their actual relationship left discreetly open by the narrator—are forced to take their lives in hand themselves. “The whole spectacle had something archaic about it, something of a stone-age population fleeing from ice and erupting volcanoes. Such events, thought Hélène, been signs not only of fear, strain, and conflict, but also of improvisation, new discoveries, courage, friendship, and solidarity.” This mixture of anarchy and calculation constitutes the special attraction of The American Hospital and makes it a unique literary event.
Katharina Teutsch

By Katharina Teutsch, 01.04.2011

​Katharina Teutsch is a journalist and critic. She writes for newspapers and magazines such as: the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, die Zeit, PhilosophieMagazin and for Deutschlandradio Kultur.

Translated by David Dollenmayer