Life – an imposition?
Talking and drinking, drinking and talking. Two brothers on an odyssey through Munich’s pubs. The night is cold, the topics are heavy. Soon afterwards, the older brother dies. The younger brother’s obituary is a grief-stricken stream of thoughts – underpinned by tender brotherly love.
“Soon I’ll be as old as my brother was when he died.” The older brother has been dead for seven years now, and the younger one – the nameless narrator of Heinz Helle’s novel Die Überwindung der Schwerkraft (Overcoming Gravity) – can’t forget him. He senses him everywhere, in his heart of hearts refusing to accept his death. So he brings the memories to life again as soon as they threaten to fade. His meandering storm of thoughts turns into a touching memorial to a shrewd, unsparing melancholic – and at the same time into a kind of essay about the struggles of the individual in dealing with the impositions of the world.
“But I lost it somehow”
Everything begins, rather prosaically, in some of Munich’s seedier pubs. Holy Home, Bottle Opener, Sunshine Pub: The brothers make sure that their alcohol levels keep rising, that everything starts to blur, present and memories permeating each other in both thought and speech. In between, there’s time to ecstatically roar along to pub favourites: “It must have been love.” Technically, they are stepbrothers: Their father left the older one’s mother to marry the younger one’s, her sorrow killing the older brother’s mother – laying the foundation for the older brother’s grief, while the younger has never escaped his sense of guilt.
The I and the worldNaturally, topics like family, fatherhood and adults’ responsibility towards children keep popping up in this brotherly exchange – a by no means comforting juxtaposition of reflections about their father’s coldness towards his older son. He, the lonely one, has an almost obsessive interest in the Belgian child murderer Marc Dutroux that in no way prevents him from looking forward to the joys of fatherhood with his prostitute girlfriend’s child. It’s not hard to imagine how it will end.
The looping events of world history, pondered and expressed by the protagonists, and their attempts to understand them and fit them into their own value systems run through the entire book. The younger brother contemplates his view of the chimney of the thermal power station on the banks of the Isar river: “Even back then, it was no longer possible to form a sentence containing the words tower and plane without thinking of that city that had become common property, of the country for which it stands, of the wound that was inflicted on both of them, and how it was ripped open ever further in an attempt to eradicate the injury ...”
MarkingsThe intensity of Helle’s novel is also a result of the form the author chose. No division into chapters, no paragraphs, seemingly endlessly winding sentences: It all heralds the concomitance of the search for a good life and its being threatened by the world’s violence. At the same time, it symbolises the hypnotic power of a communication underpinned by empathy. Not least, this slim novel inspires attentive reading behaviour: Just like those puzzles where you have to find words in a field of letters, this field of text entices readers into marking individual sentences and passages – and suddenly, they begin to soar.
Helle’s book is a gift. An unusually constructed edifice of words and thoughts with interlocking light and heavy narrative elements, it doesn’t demand too little from its readers and is worth reading more than once. And it points to rays of hope – like the traffic regulations. After all, those rules, expressed in symbols and icons, serve to preserve lives in an otherwise hostile environment: “... nobody is to die here, on this piece of asphalt ... and nowhere else either, please be careful, take care of yourselves, do you hear me, those are the rules, they are good, please listen to them, I beg you, and if everyone does their part, fewer of us will be crushed or squashed ...”
Helle, Heinz: Die Überwindung der Schwerkraft
Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2018. 208 S.
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