[W. W. Norton & Company; 2011]
Tr. from German by Ross Benjamin
by Emilie Tarrant
Funeral For A Dog is a modern tale that takes little for granted. Proving Max Frisch’s quote, which serves as the novel’s epigraph, that the changing nature of relationships yields new love stories to be told, the book is of its times and timeless. The pervading impulse for companionship is age-old, but Thomas Pletzinger’s characters forge intimacy—loves, marriages, and kinships—with greater freedom than afforded to previous generations.
Daniel Mandelkern, a journalist with an ethnology dissertation on ever-increasing hold, is in the grip of personal and professional crossroads. He is sent to Lake Lugano on the Italian-Swiss border to profile Dirk Svensson, the unlikely (that is, seemingly reclusive) author of a top-selling children’s book. En route he loses the tangible elements of normalcy (his luggage) and the tether of his cell phone. Stranded at Svensson’s remote home by circumstance and choice, Mandelkern ruminates on life’s dwindling possibilities. Captivated by the mysterious Svensson, who is reluctant to disclose himself, Mandelkern fantasizes the miles in his shoes—a life of Svensson’s lovers and travels.
Pletzinger foregoes polite innuendo and cheap sensationalism and writes self-determined characters. Matter-of-fact, imbued with emotion, disconnected, or a messy smorgasbord, the variety of desire is inked onto the pages. Despite regarding his counterpart as enviably liberated, the candid conversations on sexual predilection between Daniel Mandelkern and his wife are a model of liberation. Tertiary to the plot, the unapologetic pre-coital dialog is a notable alternative to the rote sexuality in art and media that typically favor a limited notion of glamour.
The 1993-2005 retrospective hops three continents. European youth build waterworks in Brazil. In New York, there are block-by-block immigrant communities. In Europe the borders are proximate and migration is more frequent. It is the multi-ethnicity, constant through the book but varied by locale, that raises my curiosity about Thomas Pletzinger’s experiences abroad.
As an ethnologist, Mandelkern infiltrates the novel. He “observe[s] people” and “summarize[s] worldviews” by profession so it is a natural pastime when he probes the meaning of art, society, and his observations of the people around him: his wife Elisabeth, his subject Svensson, and himself. Through him the fictional novel flirts with theory without being didactic. And through him, the body and mind are kept at play, juxtaposing and synthesizing bold candor with esoteric headiness. As if assuaging the fear that I might be reading too much into the corpus (physical and literary), Mandelkern dovetails his birth-weight-to-hair-loss medical history (an exercise in avoiding doctors) with the pontification, “books are a takeoff into another life over the course of pages, a suspension of one’s own body for a few minutes.”
The pontification is also a reminder that the story is fundamentally about an author and his writing, about literature. Appropriately, aesthetics are prominent. Whereas Mandelkern categorizes and explains, others in the book use symbolic imagery to interpret the world. Chicagoan Kiki takes in the world through her camera and shows us New York’s heavy silence of September 2001: abandoned and starved pets, drunk and crying people, and patriotic ephemera. Unlike Mandelkern, who agonizes the loss of objective distance while lulled into Svensson’s spell, Kiki wholeheartedly immerses herself in the scenes she studies.
Pletzinger’s book is introspective and analytical, and all the while aesthetically predisposed. As the characters make the world to their liking, they love, lose, drink, and occasionally procreate. They resonate with the body, human and artistic, part and parcel of the intangible qualities to which it gives form. With characters that are accessible and insightful, Funeral For A Dog engages and excites.