DO ORIGINS SEAL ONE’S FATE?
Where do I come from? How formative are my origins? Does my family history curse me? These are questions the narrator asks himself in Bov Bjerg’s new novel. He also wants to be a good father – or at least not a “rotten dad”.
By Holger Moos
“What’s it about?” the seven-year-old son asks his father again and again in Bov Bjerg’s Serpentinen (Hairpin Bends). The two have returned to the father’s Swabian hometown for a few days of holiday. The first-person narrator is a respected sociology professor who believes that he has far removed himself from his origins. But now he realises that his past shapes him more than he would like.
All the men in the last three generations on his paternal side committed suicide. “Great-grandfather, grandfather, father. Drowned, shot, hanged. On water, on land, and in the air. Pioneers. I was still alive. I fell asleep with fear.”
NO SHORTCUT In SIGHTSo it’s not surprising that the first-person narrator also has dark thoughts and is prone to depression. He doesn’t want to be another “rotten dad” who abandons his son in the most radical way possible. But he’s not certain, because a reason isn’t needed for either life or suicide. “As if suicide were the result of a logical operation,” he thinks.
The return home is not only a return to his childhood place, but also to the land of memories. And the eponymous serpentine bends, so numerous in the Swabian Alb, symbolise the meandering of his own history. There is no shortcut, like the new line for bullet trains, available to us humans.
THERAPEUTIC FATHER-SON JOURNEYIn addition to a family history full of suicides and alcoholism, Germany’s past also weighs on the narrator. When he thinks of the Autobahn, he immediately thinks of Nazis. And he holds a dire image of his father. “Father was a Nazi to the end. Not one of those who denied the genocide. He was a proper Nazi. One who thought the genocide was good.”
The therapeutic father-son journey has to end in an overwhelming and near-catastrophe, because neither the father let alone the young boy can cope with the demons of the past. Bjerg manages to transfer the uncertainty of the main character and the plot to the readers. There are leaps in time, tight dialogues, a constant shift between an analytical gaze and irrational fear. You never know exactly when the next hairpin bend will come and whether you’ll be able to take the curve or go hurtling down the cliffs.
Bov Bjerg: Serpentinen
Berlin: Claassen, 2020. 272 S.