The weirdo and his idiot
A thirteen-year-old is battling his excess weight in an attempt to make himself more appealing to his first love. As if that wasn’t enough, he also has to accompany her boyfriend, a long-haul truck driver, to Greece. A wonderfully light-hearted coming-of-age novel by Wolf Haas.
By Holger Moos
The young first-person narrator of Haas’ new novel Junger Mann [Young Man] doesn’t exactly have it easy. He constantly breaks his bones, starting with a leg at the age of four while ski jumping from a self-built ramp. In order to take the sting out of his recurring mishaps, relatives and neighbours are showering him with sweets, with the result that his unbridled calorie intake makes him go “from flyweight straight to heavyweight.”
His alcoholic father is spending some time in the “loony bin” but manages to impress his son nonetheless, with things like his favourite saying: “Shrouds have no pockets.” At the age of twelve, the boy starts working at the local petrol station. Because he is “a head too tall and 20 kilos too heavy and a number of slaps too smart”, he fills out the red Shell uniform well despite his age.
Trips to Teheran during the oil crisisThe story is set in 1973, the year of the first oil crisis, in a backwater near the Austrian city of Salzburg. At the petrol station, the boarding school student not only meets “Teheran drivers” like Tscho, who is eleven years his senior, but also soon catches sight of the woman who will change both his life and his eating habits: “I had never seen a smile like that. Never even a face like that. Without any doubt, you could see in this face that my devotion to window-cleaning and ice-scraping was valued and appreciated.” Too bad, then, that Elsa is cool guy Tscho’s girlfriend.
As it happens, our young hero manages to become friends with Elsa, regularly giving her English lessons. But Tscho has a use for his services as well and takes the boy along on his next trip to Thessaloniki as an interpreter. In the end, Tscho doesn’t need those skills, instead requiring a completely different set of the boy’s abilities in order to deal with his past as well as his future.
Calories as main charactersCalories are among the novel’s main characters as well. On his way into Elsa’s heart, they line our young protagonist’s path like Sirens along the routes of ancient helmsmen. Resisting the many temptations, however, is not working out all that well.
As he and Tscho drive across the Balkan to Greece, calorie bombs like pizza or Ražnjići with fries make sure he won’t return completely emaciated. Side dishes are assessed according their calories as well: “100 grams of cucumber 12 calories, 200 grams 24 calories. Won’t fill you up, though! A kilo of potatoes has 800 calories. Or you could eat seven kilos of cucumbers.” Despite this, at the end of the journey, the scales display a surprising number.
Just move your mouthThe novel is peppered with laconic life advice. Some of it is quite hands-on: “The smartest thing to do in life is don’t sing, just move your mouth.” Or – a tad more universal: “In times of crisis, humans surge towards the middle. [...] Like I walked in the middle on the school trip, because at the back, you could be left behind, and at the front, the teacher might strike up a conversation with you.” At the petrol station, contemplating how much friendliness is appropriate in order to appear authentic and receive tips leads to a pretty fundamental insight as well: “It was crazy hard in life not to give grounds for false suspicion.” And another thing becomes clear in the novel as well: There is an enormous difference between a weirdo and an idiot.
That at one point someone calls our nameless hero the son of Mr Haas naturally opens the floodgates for the popular question of just how autobiographical the novel is. But as so often, unless you’re a writers’ groupie and interested in their private lives, it doesn’t actually offer any major insights. And regardless of how autobiographical this look back at adolescence may be, one thing is for sure: “Observed backwards through the knees, the world was always at its most beautiful.”
Haas, Wolf: Junger Mann
Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 2018. 240 S.
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