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Milena Michiko Flašar
Pipe-and-slippers hero

A pensioner experiments with new roles. For the “Happy Families” agency he sometimes plays a granddad who loves his grandchildren, at other times he’s an uncommunicative husband. It all depends what the customer wants.

By Holger Moos

Herr Kato spielt Familie © Verlag Klaus Wagenbach “Retirement doesn’t suit you. I bet your wife will have had enough of you soon. Let me know when that happens. I’ll take your place”, says a homeless guy to a recently-pensioned elderly man. But this senior citizen soon finds himself in various stand-in roles in Milena Michiko Flašar’s new novel Herr Katō spielt Familie (Mr Katō is Playing Family). Flašar, who grew up in St. Pölten as the daughter of a Japanese mother and Austrian father and now lives in Vienna, has set her new novel in Japan, like her previous book Ich nannte ihn Krawatte (I called Him Necktie, 2012). The exact location remains anonymous, the characters nameless. We don’t even find out the name of the protagonist. The eponymous Mr Katō is just one of the roles played by the newly retired gentleman.

“Mr Katō” is sent outside daily by his wife. His brief is to walk round the block to keep his bones healthy. She rediscovers dancing, attends a course and becomes infatuated with the dance teacher. Other than his wife, all that awaits him at home are his beloved slippers and a daily routine in which the challenges involve fixing a radio or coaxing his wife to unpick trouser pockets that have been sewn up. He starts to enjoy the aimless strolls, even if they get him mulling things over.

Where are people at home – play-acting or with their pipe and slippers?

One day, one of his strolls takes him to a cemetery. Here he feels as though nobody’s watching and lets his guard down to impersonate first a monkey and then a ballet dancer. A young woman watches him and convinces him to work as a “stand-in” in her agency “Happy Family” and play certain roles in the lives of other people. She calls herself Mie – also a roleplaying name. She doesn’t tell him what she is really called. Mie is adamant that her business of reality simulation should not be misunderstood as a lie. It’s not about falsifying the truth, it’s about correcting it. Incidentally this business model is not unusual in Japan, where they now have agencies that offer “beautiful, cool people with whom you can be photographed for social networks” (diepresse.com).

The boundaries between so-called real life and roleplaying become more fluid as the novel progresses. The fascinating and mysterious Mie does all she can to knock the elderly gentleman out of kilter. Mr Katō no longer knows which persona is more his true self: in his real life or his roleplaying life. Sometimes the play-acting feels more real than the supposed reality. And at the end he holds an imaginary conversation with Mie, during the course of which he comes to the conclusion that “everything is fake”.

Gentle and humorous, with a touch of tragicomedy

Flašar likes to look at social outsiders in her novels, she is gentle and humorous in her approach with a touch of tragicomedy. Mr Katō for instance is aware of his pipe-and-slippers stereotype: “His slippers. As soon as he slips into them he’s at home”, it says at one point. And towards the end: “Everyone has his slippers, he thinks fleetingly.” On the last few pages the book adopts more of a conciliatory tone, and his search for the right role in life seems to have been successful. All he needs is a drop of whiskey, roses and a ticket to Paris.
 
Cherry Picker

Flašars; Milena Michiko
Herr Katō spielt Familie.
Berlin: Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, 2018. 169 S.
ISBN 978-3-8031-3292-5

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