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Juli Zeh
A Perfect Nightmare

In her latest novel, acclaimed author Juli Zeh explores the feelings of a seemingly emancipated man. The uncovering of a family tragedy provides suspense.

By Eva Fritsch

Zeh: Neujahr © Luchterhand If a variety of neuroses and fears plague us in adulthood, these are – according to Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis - for the most part due to our childhood. The current novel Neujahr (“New Year”) by Juli Zeh is also based on this assumption. Zeh, who holds a doctorate in law, describes the path of suffering and, above all, the day of suffering, New Year's Day, on which her protagonist Henning confronts his childhood trauma.

Henning, around whom the almost two hundred pages revolve, lives the supposedly perfect dream of the emancipated man: in a beautiful apartment in Göttingen with his wife Theresa and their children, Bibbi and Jonas. Theresa works in a tax office, Henning as an editor in a non-fiction publishing house. They have divided up the care of their small children, both are working part-time.

Psychoanalytical construct

The family spends two weeks on Lanzarote over Christmas and New Year's Eve. On New Year's Day, Henning sets out to explore the island alone by bicycle. As a symbol for the resolution of the story and thus also for the origin and reason of his trauma, he climbs the Atalaya volcano by bicycle; his destination is the mountain village of Femés. His emotional striptease takes place at the same time: “Henning clings to the handlebar, with his ankles protruding white. Every time he kicks, he pulls with all his might as if his muscles were tearing apart. Fucking Theresa, Fucking Theresa, Fucking Theresa. It doesn't fit the rhythm well, but still feels good. Fucking Jonas, fucking kids, fucking family.”

Although Henning is the model of the emancipated man on the outside, the truth is that the father of the family is terrified by his duties as husband and educator of his two small children. That something is wrong is expressed in uncontrollable panic attacks, which Zeh describes with the word ES (i.e. Freud’s “id”, written in capital letters in the novel) – one could hardly have made a clearer reference to Freud's psychoanalysis: “Sometimes ES wakes him up in the middle of the night. He then startles out of his sleep and cannot breathe, has to go to the toilet immediately, wants to scream or hit his head against the wall.”

Possibilities and impossibilities of memory

Neujahr plays with different time levels and the possibilities and impossibilities of memory. For the memory of the experience, which the father of the family “uncovers” on New Year's Day in retrospect, so to speak, was missing until now. Problematic events in the past – his own father abandoned his family when Henning was about five years old – are gradually hinted at, and so it is not surprising when one passage relates that Henning “prefers not to remember at all”. From the beginning of the novel, Zeh clearly indicates that this will not go well for long.

Eventually, in the middle part of Neujahr, the time level changes. The central plot focus is now an experience in Henning's childhood that is closely linked to the Canarian island and its problems in the present. Even though this retrospective is particularly exciting and the reader shares in the excitement, the delineation of the novel's characters often turns out to be quite stereotypical: Theresa's parents, who are only interested in themselves and their perfect retirement, and Henning's difficult sister Luna, who is also supposed to be the key to his psychological problems, satisfy clichés that the novel would not have needed. In the end, the crisis seems to be resolved – Freud would be delighted. The reader, on the other hand, may be disappointed – but only almost. After all, Juli Zeh undoubtedly succeeds in creating suspense and atmospheres that carry one away and allow one to glimpse into the depths of humanity in an unadorned way, even if these sometimes first have to be “climbed” by bicycle.

Zeh, Juli: Neujahr Cherry Picker
München: Luchterhand, 2018. 192 S.
ISBN: 978-3-630-87572-9