Book Review: Christoph Braendle’s Der Meermacher

One of German-language literature’s most explosive works dealing with the devastating effects of the global economic crisis.

Christoph Braendle at Lhotzkys Literaturbuffet in the 2nd district at a reading from Der Meermacher in June | Photo: Lhotzkys Literaturbuffet

Braendle: After the Flood

“When the rain comes,” the Beatles once sang, “they run and hide their heads.”

But what if it just keeps on raining? The theme of rain that never stops is one of mankind’s great mythical stories, tales of the Flood, of the end of the world through man’s own doing, as the Max Dauthendey (1893) and Alfred Kubin (1924) long forgotten plays, Sündflut.

Swiss-born Christoph Braendle, in Vienna since 1987, has brought out a timely novel whose central theme is the global financial crisis, and which consistently comes back to the Flood. The novel was presented in Vienna at a reading at Lhotzkys Literaturbuffet, at 2., Rotensterngasse 2 on Jun. 19.

Written in “timelessly floating prose,” according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, this most recent literary apocalypse seems quite “charming.” But perhaps Braendle’s unusual and brilliantly written book will only be properly appreciated once his prophecy comes true – if anyone is still able to…

An entirely normal middle-aged married couple, not exactly aglow with happiness, sit in their detached home with the pretty name “Zur Augenweide” (i.e., a feast for the eyes). Gustav is thinking that there must be more to life than this house, this neighborhood and perhaps even this marriage. If the planned holiday to the South Seas has to be cancelled because of Gerlinde’s ridiculous fear of flying, and one is never going to be able to see the incredible coral reefs for oneself, one has no choice but to pursue one’s “thirst for the sea” in the “Postwirt” pub that is crammed full of aquariums. While enjoying several glasses of wine there, Gustav imagines in detail how the sea, which he has never seen and probably never will see, could be brought to him at home.

“What do you need the South Seas for?”, an aquarist in the pub asks him. “For me at least, spending an hour with the fish here at the ‘Postwirt’ is like a week’s holiday”. He decides to start with an aquarium, with ornamental fish! (“When I want sea, I will not rest until I have sea, thought Gustav.”) And thus the matter begins to take its quite unexpected course: step by step, Gustav becomes a Meermacher, a sea-maker:

“At that moment the first drops fell from the sky. The great rains started”.

Following this fairly simple initial idea, Braendle unfolds “the entire panorama of thoughtlessness in our way of doing business,” wrote Jens Jessen, a literary critic for Die Zeit. A school friend André turns up, a successful businessman of today (or perhaps already of yesterday?). “Anything is possible, he said; most importantly, Gustav’s sea brings prosperity to a community that as yet is still very sleepy.” André and his assistant, Frau Schneider, take charge, and what now happens “destroys in one fell swoop” all the good intentions of the naive Gustav. André always wanted to have more.

Braendle’s story takes a number of twists and turns, unfolding in virtuoso style the “panorama of thoughtlessness”. The vision of the sea on one’s doorstep is mercilessly made reality, including the everyday brutality of an economic system that imposes virtually no limits on greed for profit.

“My dream, he thought, has become a nightmare.” While it continues to rain incessantly, the community is ruined step by step, and with it the pub and its awkward landlord, who has to pay for his resistance with his life. Yet the end is no longer far off. “The four horsemen of the Apocalypse are on their way” says a guest at the “Postwirt”.

Running away will no longer help, and nor will the ark, which comes into full literary play by the end – this catastrophe is irrevocably the last one. Gustav does indeed see the sea for the first time, which appears so calm and still “that it looked as if it were frozen.”

Perhaps Franz Kafka had in mind a novel like Der Meermacher, when he talked about a book being an axe for the frozen sea inside us. We will never know for sure. But it is certainly possible.

 

Translation by Chris Cove
Klaus Hübner works as a journalist, literary critic and editor for the journal Fachdienst Germanistik in Munich. Excerpted with permission: Goethe-Institut Online-Redaktion (www.goethe.de).

Der Meermacher: A novel.
Bibliothek der Provinz, Weitra 2008,
Available at major bookstores 

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