The awkward word “belonging” is used a few times in the novel. It is difficult to say who or what could spread out your arms and pick up the figures. People, regardless of whether they are friends, neighbors or family, cannot be trusted. Everyone bears too heavily on himself to be able to take on the suffering of others. To bet on a place in the middle of society seems absurd in view of the ailing conditions. And the pastor dares to speak of God at most. Unfortunately, she has already completely disqualified herself with her evasive remark about the Buchenwald concentration camp and should probably just keep her mouth shut.
Angelika Klüssendorf’s new novel “Thirty-Fourth September” is a wild, strong and comforting book about desolation. All the figures in this barren village in the east German province seem devoid of any hope. And yet every word speaks of the longing for something that says yes to you, something that grants you protection, security.
The fact that you do not feel completely lost while reading is primarily thanks to the narrator, who looks at what is happening with a warm eye. Which is surprising in that we are dealing with an old man whose head his wife Hilde smashed in with a hatchet on New Year’s Eve. Why? Walter, the slain, would like to know that too. Since he has all the time in the world as a dead person, he can deal extensively with the question, and even more with the question of the why of his life. Which is easier said than done.
“Just rain that no longer hits anything.” Can there be less hope?
“Everyone dies the way he lived in the ultimate finiteness,” explains Gerda Engel, Hilde’s long dead mother. “The most important thing is the hours before the transition.” Since Walter was completely different in the last days before his death due to a brain tumor than in previous years, friendly and affectionate instead of bitter and tyrannical, he no longer understands himself.
Although the narrative structure seems a bit constructed, it proves to be pleasantly sustainable. It allows an unrestricted view of the actors, as otherwise only an omniscient narrator has. As an invisible ghost, Walter floats through the village and looks at people’s hearts that have gone gray. At the same time, however, his view of things is extremely limited. So he would love to know what’s in the book his wife Hilde wrote in. But because he was not interested in her feelings during his lifetime, the poems written in Chukchi are closed to him. It wasn’t until the end of the novel that he worked out an access letter by letter. “Just rain that no longer hits anything.” Less hope is hard to imagine. On the other hand: what poetic nihilism. Isn’t that like a hand outstretched into nowhere?
The task of Klüssendorf’s readers is to touch this outstretched hand on the fingertips without shrinking from its coldness. Just as the chronicler Walter is not expected to evaluate what has been observed, we are also called upon to simply take in what is being told in silence. Like the angels Damiel and Cassian from Wim Wenders “Der Himmel über Berlin” we stand with Walter at the side in front of the drunkard Heinrich, the one-legged Hans, the fat Hubert, bipolar, Eisenalex, the trans woman Gabriela and her turtle Coco, the figure a writer and her incredibly handsome partner, the drummer, and a number of other figures carved out of crooked wood.
Steven Spielberg comes to the village for a full 50 minutes. A trivial episode
The dead look even more grotesque. Drowned, frozen to death, died of discontent or still petrified in the womb like the lithopedion that always hangs on Helga Engel’s skirt, these dead make anything but an engaging impression. If you don’t want to be part of the village community under any circumstances, it would be even scary to be one of the dead. Especially since they never get out of their village, they are forever tied to their unfortunate history.
But how can a spark of joy be found in this dreariness? Certainly not from Steven Spielberg, who visits the village for 50 minutes to do some research for a possible film. Even if the neglected Hans suddenly feels compelled to paint the door of the run-down house blue and his mother is losing weight, it remains an insignificant episode.
More important for the moments of confidence, which are heavily oppressed by the undergrowth of horror, are the observations of nature that are interspersed as if incidentally. Whether it is the clouds hanging like rags in the sky, the leaf falling in silence from the tree or the forest, which the mushroom-collecting writer experiences as “a reality that she can trust” – it is these moments of pausing and perceiving that make the novel an exhilarating reading experience.
Especially since these moments are conveyed through characters who really have no reason to look down at the navel. So when Eisenalex and Leo Panzer consider escaping the daily grind by thinking up a thirty-fourth September, when everything could be completely different. Did you stumble upon Erich Kästner’s “May 35th or Konrad rides in the South Seas” in your childhood? In this novel, published in 1931, Kästner tells the story of little Konrad and his uncle, who step through the closet in the hallway with a roller-skating circus horse and get into a kind of Alice’s wonderland, where the strangest things happen. There is at least one female roller skater at Klüssendorf. It is Helen, who is always rolling through the village with a song on her lips, who turns the head of one or the other villager. And the only one who not only manages to leave the village, but who also sends an Indian to visit those who stayed behind, even in the East German winter.
“Thirty-fourth September” can be read as a novel about people who have become bitter because with the collapse of the GDR their pride in their own life has broken away. But you can also go a long way and deepen the book philosophically with borrowings from Theodor W. Adorno or Ernst Bloch. Just as one offers us fragments of an inverse theology in which God reveals himself in the negative, the other grants insights into a utopian way of thinking of the human. If that doesn’t suit you, you can simply listen to the songs “Summertime”, “Smoke on the Water” or Mahler’s fourth symphony alluded to in the novel. Or, sorry, like Eisenalex going to the woods to shit. On a September thirty-fourth, all of this is not only allowed, but perhaps the only way to be happy.