The first-person narrator in Esther Kinsky’s countryside novel travels to Italy. But the destination is not Tuscany or Rome, it’s the areas away from the tourist map. Regions that evoke memories and harbour secrets.
By Marit Borcherding
What’s characteristic of a countryside novel? Esther Kinsky, who has given the subtitle “Geländeroman” (countryside novel) to her new novel Hain, describes why the countryside holds such value for her poetic creativity in an interview with Deutschlandfunk: “I love this word because it’s so neutral. It neither commits you to nature, nor to an … urban situation: it starts off by defining the environment as the space to be explored.”
There are three remote locations in Italy, and the female narrator of this novel is heading off to explore them. The journey starts in winter, and in the little town of Olevano, not far from Rome, it’s cold, grey and bleak. Images and literary zooms that refer to the mental state of the solo traveller are formed here: she’s grieving for M., her partner who has recently died. But he’s also still there in this wintry purgatory. He lives on in her memories and is present during the countess forays through nature and the boltholes of the animals living there, through the bare hills, across graveyards and into the outskirts of human settlements, which in all their ambiguity still leave space for associations and impressive pictures: “Depending on the perspective the paths drew a different pattern, the mountains cast other shadows, the plains shifted, the foreground, middle and background. This is countryside that has left its traces in me without a legible trace of me being left behind.” The author’s language is precise and expressive, she composes her unsentimental words and sentences according to all the rules of literary art – after all she is not just a prose author, she’s also a poet and a translator who has won multiple awards.
“Memory eludes all intention”
The second part of the book focuses on a different countryside, an earlier one belonging to memory. The Lombard landscape surrounding Chiavenna conjures up travels with her family, with a father who back then exuded infectious but sometimes also exhausting enthusiasm for history and culture, yet around whom there was a puzzling inapproachability that continued to trouble the narrator beyond his death right up to the present day.
Finally in the third part the traveller ends up in Comacchio, a town on the delta of the River Po. She finds shelter in the most melancholic boarding house you have ever seen: “I wound up here quite by chance, in accommodation with a view of a half-dead potted palm tree, reeds, willows and a lot of sky. Beyond the coast road, inland from the deserted seaside towns. The hoteliers had given up all hope of making a livelihood.” After aimlessly wandering through the salt flats and along the seashore a few times, after encounters in resorts abandoned for the winter, at some point it’s time to head for home, and the narrator gathers her finds together. These include memories, and she is aware of their fragility: “Ultimately, anything that becomes anchored in memory eludes all intention. If I were to come back here in the future, everything would be different to the way it’s stored in my memory.”
According to the FAZ review, Hain is a rich, sad and precious novel – and, one might add, a book that stands out because of its low-key yet all the more powerful tone, its sensitive exploration of the overlap between death and life, and its remarkable contemporary prose. So it is gratifying that the novel was awarded the Leipzig Book Fair prize 2018 in the fiction category.
Kinsky, Esther: Hain – Geländeroman
Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2018. 283 S.
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