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Zeit-Review by David Hugendick
Exploding neurons

The author Thomas Melle
Photo: Dagmar Morath

Thomas Melle tells about his struggle with bipolar disorder in “Die Welt im Rücken (The World at Your Back)”. The book about his fragmented life is an energy-sapping read. And superb literature.

It’s rare to read a book with complex feelings of shame. You feel ashamed for the conflict that arises in yourself because you feel overwhelmed or trampled down, petrified, and repeatedly entertained. You feel ashamed of your own voyeurism and suddenly recognize in yourself one of those “touchy-feely talk show hosts” or “emotion event managers” who are constantly asking everyone how they’re doing. And you feel ashamed because you are certain that this book is great literature, but maybe it doesn’t even want to be, but instead might just be a work of self-exploration, in any case a tragic, true story that belongs only to the author ― not to the reader and not to the praise of book critics.

The author of the book is Thomas Melle. His book is entitled “Die Welt im Rücken (The World at Your Back)” and tells of a much greater conflict and a much greater shame than you could ever likely experience as a reader. Born in 1975, the author chronicles his struggle with bipolar disorder ― a story in three manic-depressive episodes. It tells of the fragility of human existence, how someone can become a ghost with a body; it tells of fleeting happiness and tangibly looming tragedy, of years as a “brain-fried clown” for whom days seem to be cloudy like frosted glass and weeks seem like labyrinths. And even worse: He is that clown, and at the same time he is not.

In this book the illness appears to be something catastrophic and unforgiving.

At the same time, it is also a major insult, the insult that one day Melle is suddenly no longer the master in his own house. Melle, the highly talented recipient of a German Academic Scholarship and brilliant writer, author of books like “Sickster” and “Raumforderung”, a child from difficult circumstances that smelled like coal in the “Haribo slum,” sees himself as a “victim of the world spirit” with neurons exploding inside his head. Someone who suddenly wants to buy a baseball bat in a department store to shatter Berlin-Mitte (in the end he only buys a basketball), who smashes in train windows because he can’t bear the permanent collisions between himself and the world, and in narcissistic exuberance believes that the dead masters of literature are standing before him.

Picasso in the Berghain night club

He sees Foucault in the pub, Thomas Bernhard in McDonald’s at the train station in Wuppertal, and one night in the Berghain night club he runs into Picasso, whom he despises, and pours red wine on his pants. He believes he had sex with Madonna, and that Björk was singing just for him at the bar next door. “I’m a tragedy of Hulk and Hybris,” Melle writes. In his manic episodes and psychoses he is inflated towards the world itself; everything is in relation to him, such that he believed “the sparrows on the roof really chirped our names.” A conspiracy of signs and symbols: the endless stream of faces on the streets, articles on the Internet, the news, speeches by Gerhard Schröder, 9/11, even dead dictators ― everything speaks to him, is laughing at him, everything is a message for him, everything exists only because of him. The world as semiotic, synesthetic terror, and at the same time a Disneyland that apparently had been constructed just for him.

This made the days and nights fade away, Melle writes: Racing, stealing, screaming, ranting. The TV is constantly on. Until he ends up in the psychiatric ward for the first time between self-proclaimed “Kings of Germany” and “Angels of the Damned”, in a prison of glances void of signs. There no shield of irony, no cultural theory, which Melle had devoured as a student, can help him. There is no help from Foucault, Derrida, or even the music of Trent Reznor, which erupts over and over again throughout the book. It appears to Melle that the only promise of recovery is the “passage of time,” during which he gradually learns that a “destructive war” is raging inside of him. A war between two monsters: mania and depression.

It would be hard to imagine a life more shameful than that of someone with manic depression, Melle writes.

This is followed by hospital admissions, discharges, “pills that make you fat,” the names of people that will stay and many who leave again. At some point Melle just sits in his dark isolation and visits suicide forums searching for a suitable way to kill himself. “To be gone,” is what he really wants, “but not be mush.” In the bathroom he puts his head through a loop of cable as he thinks about Stammheim and the RAF, while playing Fernando by Abba in his head. He practices for the worst case scenario and hopes that his therapist won’t notice the marks on his neck later.

The “twisted and wrong”

The fact that such grueling self-excavations and accounts make for an at times grueling read also has to do with the concentration and compact self-perception with which Thomas Melle writes about his illness, his “failed Bildungsroman or education novel” as he calls the book. His madness, the “twisted and wrong,” is never made the object of an allegorical, soul-soothing exaltation. The book is so honest and merciless not to present the author’s futile struggle with the illness as a heroic act, not as a pathetic, subsequent mystification of a hard life, but as an ugly, lonely matter. The radicalness of this book, his harshness on himself, is not a literary pose.

The sentences, which Melle wrenches from his fragmented life spent in streets, sleepless nights, at theater rehearsals, “culture breakfasts,” and in group rooms in the psychiatric ward and at some point forced him to the poverty line and made him a “laughing stock,” have bruises and wounds, often even claws and teeth. His descriptions of the 1990s, of MTV hosts with “radioactive beaming faces,” the unreasonable demands at the supermarket, and the emptied eyes of drunkards in Berlin have the kind of analytical sharpness that is rarely found in German literature. To a certain extent, “Die Welt im Rücken” also gives a flash account of Berlin at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s.

The world’s language of bureaucracy

When Melle describes his manic phases, he stretches his language to the edge of self-perception, and he attempts to reconstruct his “mad rush of sensory experiences” as well as the memory gaps that mania left behind. And in this sense the book can also be understood as writing to remember. Nevertheless, this is not done in the gesture of a confrontational biography, but rather as a piece of writing that reverberates the moments that the author ― with the ironic mercy of the illness ― had forgotten, but no longer wants to forget. His language is furious, hurt; it is vicious, thin-skinned, revved up, and yet impressively controlled. And you can sense that it seems to be carried by a fear of finding stability in words and formulations, which not only might banish the illness for a moment, but also seek to create something permanent, something valid in the chaos that could erupt in his head the very next minute.

And then there are many sentences in this book that are no longer strong enough to stand up to the loneliness and sadness, the exhaustion and the destructive rage: “I sit there and am an object. I no longer belong to the class of humans, but to the class of unanimated objects.” At the end of his third episode he has no home, no bank account, is surrounded by mountains of debts and files, an object of the world’s intrusiveness and bureaucratic language, which sounds like a shrill monologue of reason against insanity: Payment deferment offers, service provision contracts, case management reports, assistance applications, cost assumption forms. Immobilization measures. Et cetera.

It would be hard to imagine a life more shameful than that of someone with manic depression, Melle writes. And this book is about shame, regret, and overwhelming homelessness where you are never really inside or outside. “The illness took away my home. Now the illness is my home.” This illness is the tragedy of Thomas Melle’s life. The fact that we can read about it in this way in this book is an energy-sapping, literary experience.