Memories of Evaporation
Bodo Kirchhoff's autobiographical novel is a recollection of life and an homage to love, albeit a bittersweet one. The book thrives on its complexity – and in many places is almost unbearable.
By Eva Fritsch
Bodo Kirchhoff’s novel Dämmer und Aufruhr: Roman der frühen Jahre (i.e. twilight and turmoil: a novel of the early years) is a tale of separations and farewells. Above all, however, the novel is a bittersweet homage to growing up and discovering love. Love that bursts upon the narrator, love that is withdrawn from him, and finally that most basal of all loves, motherly love, which in Kirchhoff's case also has oedipal traits.
The novel begins straight away with a look back at past times, at the much invoked "earlier": "Whoever speaks then, when one tells of earlier times, looks at his first glow in childhood, whose voice makes the beginning here, says ‘once upon a time’ - an unforgettably true Alpine summer". Thus the one who remembers questions himself at the same time, and takes on the role of observer in the remembering situation. A photograph taken in 1952 serves as a support: "[...] and above the lake an inn with a vaulted walkway, in front two deckchairs on a lush meadow, in one, the face covered, a child with a sun hat, in the other the still young mother, his Almighty for days on end."
The child described is the young Bodo. His mother, the "Almighty", spends holidays with him in Kitzbühel. What is described as "the child" or in other places as "he", i.e. with a certain distance to what happened, in some places turns into "me" once again., flowing transitions that create a multi-layered image: Does it take distance to remember, to call the repressed by name?
Looking at the pastThe novel combines different time levels in a fascinating way: there is the author, who in the present time travels to the holiday resort on the Italian coast, where his parents spent happy days in 1958, before their divorce. In the hotel room in which his parents also lived, the narrator begins to write; photos and recordings of his mother once again serve as leads for his memories. Here he tries to trace the relationship of his parents, tries to understand them and to capture them in writing; all this seems almost like therapy.
While the narrator is in this place that was so special for his parents, he recalls his childhood and teenage years, but not just those: He traces the last months of his almost 90-year-old mother's life; during his visits to her nursing home, he confronts her again with his memories of the " evaporations " of his parents who live in different cities after the separation; the child is placed in a boarding school on Lake Constance.
Evaporation accompanies the narrator into adulthood. As a student, he often buries himself for days in his attic flat: "Everyone evaporates, including the now elderly children, the son in a tortuous letter, the daughter in a labyrinthine house, with both disappearance in a project of fulfillment [...]; it is the intersection of the siblings, having grown up with parents who have evaporated again and again, the children trained to discern every sign, no matter how slight.
Image of a life and an image of timeThe theme of evaporation is taken up again at the end of the novel. The parents, who remain silent both during their lifetime and posthumously, live on in memory: in a picture that the narrator is given at the Italian holiday resort. The picture shows a young couple leaning against a balustrade with a view of the sea. The narrator thinks he recognises his parents in it; he links it to his memory, which can counteract any evaporation: "[...] only the poster that makes me think of them speaks; like any picture it has the last word".
The novel’s structural peculiarity on the one hand and the change of narrative perspectives on the other turn Kirchhoff's autobiographical text into a hazard, an experience and a harrowing read. Harrowing because the described scenes of abuse in the boarding school Kirchhoff attended are sometimes difficult to endure. As a boy, the author was sexually abused by the boarding school choir director; Kirchhoff, as he writes, is still unable to bear the sound of certain classical music pieces.
With his novel, the author not only creates a retrospective of his life, a link between his own story and that of his parents, but also a portrayal of contemporary history. He introduces the reader to the emotional turmoil of the post-war period, to the feelings of loss, of never-ending deprivation, which his parents experience and seem not to break out of all their lives. As a reader, however, one also becomes part of a generation that Kirchhoff helped to shape as a student in Frankfurt in the 1970s. All this makes the novel a read that takes one with it, that delights - and that should remain anything but a literary evaporation.
Kirchhoff, Bodo: Dämmer und Aufruhr. Roman der frühen Jahre.
Frankfurt: Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, 2018. 480 S.
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