Karen Duve: Rain
Rain is a fairy story, a figment of the imagination filled out to create a strange, consistently negative world. Few readers will remain indifferent to the work – they will either praise it or dislike it. Their judgment, like mine, might be intimidated by the fact that the book is a best seller and has been translated into sixteen languages. It is the first novel by an acclaimed short story writer and further prize-winning novels have followed it.. When accolades are heard all around, it takes courage to cry ‘the emperor is naked’. Bravely, I declare that for me the emperor is very scantily clad – the book displays novelty and ingenuity but few literary merits and insufficient joy.
Among the strong points of the novel must be Karen Duve’s sharp eye for detail, which builds out every scene vividly. Coupled with her extreme negativity, it creates the oppressively dank world of Rain. Leon Ulbricht is attempting to mend a blocked pipe:
Cool, freshly washed air blew into his face, and at the same time the gurgling sound of raindrops falling into the water butt outside the house grew louder. Leon breathed deeply. Then he pulled himself together and approached the two gaping ends of the pipe again, armed with a roll of lavatory paper. After wrapping lavish quantities of the white tissue round his right hand, he took a firm grip of the matted, wet bunch of hair and dropped it in the plastic basin. There were probably millions of bacteria, protozoa and every imaginable virus swarming around in there, whirling around one another with their various protuberances, like debutantes at the Viennese opera ball.
Debutantes, flowers – Duve specializes in making beautiful things ugly:
Not far from the church was the Meyerdorfs’ flower shop. Their daughter Susanne had been in Martina’s class at school, until she shot herself in her bedroom with her father’s sporting gun.
Duve is also adept at maintaining a rattling pace. Even if the simple plot (‘story line’ might be a less inflated, more honest description) moves slowly, the vignettes and incidents flow smoothly and quickly one after the other.
It is quite possible that supportive readers will find much more to admire in this work. They may identify a dark humour, for example. This is a matter of taste. They might think that losing an expensive shoe in a bog, or transporting bucketfuls of slugs to a new habitat rather than killing the invading pests, or various sexual perversions, or a ghastly wedding breakfast shared by two dysfunctional families, or being crippled with back pain is comic. They may enjoy the accumulation of failure that bedevils Leon and Martina, the newly weds; and they may list the neighbours – Kebel the kinky store-keeper; masculine Kay and her pudgy sister Isadora, for instance – among their catalogue of memorable characters, along with Leon’s best ‘friend’ Harry and his clichéd gangster connection, Pfitzner. It is quite possible that some academics, impressed by the sales figures of this gothic tome, will deem it worthy of serious analysis. Encouraged, perhaps, by the weightiness of the prefatory quotes, Genesis among them, they will suggest that the novel is an allegory of the human condition: wrong choices, malignant fate, man’s place in nature, men’s role full stop, the failure of modern marriages. There is even a bit of stereotyped Freudian psychology in this novel. They could have a go at that.
Other readers will not be so enchanted. The characters are not particularly attractive. Leon, the 38 year old wanna-be writer, is ‘stocky, with soft features … allergies … made his eyes red and swollen. The only distinct lines in his face were the contours of his glasses’. His 24 year old wife, Martina, despite a large mouth slightly flaking at the corners and ‘a disconcertingly predatory look’ is somehow said to make ‘an attractive impression’. Which is more that can be said of her personality. Flawed, she finds more comfort in stray dog Noah than she does in Leon. She is convinced of her own ineptitude: ‘…don’t try explaining things to me. I just can’t do it. I do everything wrong.’ Leon, too, is inept, although he throws his weight around. He tells his new father-in-law to ‘Piss off … Piss off to your scrapyard and sit in one of your old wrecks and jerk yourself off.’ When it comes to the crunch, however, he is a straw man, and the acceptance of the truth destroys him.
None of the characters is deep, although some are unforgettable. The text is not witty. One can assume that, in the hands of multi-award winning translator, Anthea Bell, the spirit of the original has been captured. There may be a hidden depth to the novel in its use of leitmotivs: the drowned woman, a salamander, lizard-loving (and lizard-like) personages, but if there is depth is not well plumbed. The balance between realism and fantasy, between ‘comedy’ and violence is shaky, leaving the reader to conjecture that Duve’s chief purpose is to be original. She has succeeded to some extent, and Rain will continue to build a cult following.
Duve, Karen: Rain / transl. by Anthea Bell - London : Bloomsbury, 2003. - 247 p. ISBN 1-58234-179-6 Original title.: Regenroman (German)