Hans-Ulrich Treichel: Lost
At first the young narrator believes his older brother starved to death when his parents fled the invading Russians in their flight from Prussia to Westphalia. But when he is old enough, his mother informs him she gave his brother away to another refugee when she thought she and her husband were about to be shot by the Russians. “I didn’t have a dead brother. I had a lost one. That was hardly a plus for me,” the narrator notes.
His mother laments that she didn’t even have time to tell the peasant woman to whom she entrusted her son his name, Arnold. The narrator suggests that maybe their baby boy was lucky and they named him Arnold again.
The loss of the infant Arnold haunts the parents and jeopardises their relationship with their new son, the narrator. There is little emotional connection between parents and son. Despite the family rituals, the success of the irascible father as a meat wholesaler, and the renovation of their house, the family remains fixated on the missing Arnold. After his mother has a breakdown, the narrator learns from his father that his parents have been looking for Arnold for years with the assistance of the Red Cross. Finally, someone who might be Arnold has been located. Tests about the child’s parentage are at first inconclusive, much to the narrator’s delight, as he doesn’t want to share his home with a “new” older brother.
However, his mother falls further into depression and, after she throws a cigar box full of hundred mark notes into the stove, money intended to buy a new Opel Admiral, the father argues for further investigations on the putative Arnold. These take place in Heidelberg, to where mother, father and narrator travel in the new Opel Admiral and where they are examined in the Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology.
Their heads are measured, adipose tissue callipered, and casts taken of their feet. While the results of the Heidelberg tests mean it is highly unlikely that Arnold is Arnold, the mother still believes. Nevertheless, the trip to Heidelberg, the first outing the family has ever taken, is a disaster. On their return home, the family discovers their cold storage facility has been robbed, their meat and sausages have been stolen or have perished, and that they have no insurance. The father suffers two heart attacks and dies a few days later.
The strength of this book comes from the details revealed in each episode. The descriptions of the semi-annual family pig’s head feats, with the collection of blood and the numerous meals prepared from the pig’s head, the hearse driver at Forensic Anthropology and his recount of the menus of the various canteens in the scientific departments he services and the manner in which the father tends to his overwhelmingly pessimistic client shopkeepers are all droll highlights. Each marks out the progression of the family down the path of knowledge as to whether or not they have found Arnold.
The final scene, where the narrator comes face to face through a butcher shop window with his nemesis Arnold beautifully weaves together all the narrative threads and reveals Treichel’s skill as a story-teller. In the end it not Arnold who is lost but the family, including the narrator. In yearning for Arnold, they lose love for each other and the family, literally, falls apart.
The book reads like an extended poem, full of metaphor and ambiguous nuances. Its power lies in its simplicity and the strong narrative voice.
Treichel, Hans-Ulrich: Lost / translated by Carol Brown Janeway . - New York : Vintage International, 2000. - 136 pages
Original title: Die Verlorene (German)