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November 13, 2009 / schulerbooks

… is Another Man’s Treasure: The Distant Lover

Following a major technical gaffe and whirlwind fortnight of school related drudgery, I’m back with my belated review of Christoph Hein’s The Distant Lover. While it’s a blast to rush into these reviews like a P-40 whose nose art is frothing at the mouth and is flown by a rabid hound bound guns blazing for a formation of Vals, I took the opportunity to let this little story’s impact simmer, collecting my thoughts and cracking my knuckles. So here, with a modicum of free time (I get to write something I want to. Too cool!) I present to you my follow-up review to Christoph Hein’s The Distant Lover.

The Distant Lover

The Distant Lover is a quick glance into the life of an unnamed East Berliner who’s learned that her married lover has died. As she struggles with the pain she worked so hard to avoid but realizes she can’t escape, her reflections drift backwards to momentous decisions in her life and the state they’ve left her in. Hein ends the story abruptly, closing the window to her enduring soul, if that’s what it is we’ve bore witness to.

Hein’s protagonist is out of touch. She’s a doctor who takes no pride in her work, discussing office politics and plans for retirement instead of sharing that one remembered patient, and she often uses the reader as she would an unappreciated friend, venting superficial frustrations and sharing unfinished philosophies. It makes sense for us to believe that Hein is trying to say something about East Germany. As a rule of thumb, the simpler the language, the wider the commentary.

Undoubtedly, Hein reflects his upbringing in his austere tale of survivalist comfort, about affording enough not to complain. As his first work translated into English, he must have intended it for an English-speaking audience. His doctor’s memories and regrets don’t come with violins in the background, trying to elicit your sympathy. At times I even found myself chuckling out loud at her occasional anecdotes and jabs. She may seem like a despondent character, but it’s the result of her individual experience. She accepts the culture she knows, and only we can formulate the context responsible for her suffering. Hein does not grovel for our pity; he’s a German and he’s a writer. As it is impossible to deny your heritage, also is it impossible to deny yourself a voice.

Should I read it?

Lover is a quick read and can be emotionally straining. I know we’re supposed to be prudes and all here in America, but Hein falls back upon a European preoccupation and boredom with sex, regularly injecting comments that in other stories could be alluring or shocking, but only serve as descriptors for his characters, like the color of their socks. I struggled for days trying to find a deeper meaning behind his lazy sexual references, (yeah, you better believe it!) but only found them humorously distracting – in a bad way.

His style is reminiscent of Hemingway, of whom I’m not a big fan. He narrates with an impolite stream-of-consciousness occasionally enhanced by his doctor’s insights, but those at times were so dismal and melodramatic that I literally and physically urged the story on. In a way, Hein’s elegance does well illustrating a sterile and colorless country devoid of tradition and maintaining a mediocre status quo, and if you pay attention to his treatment of minors, you can picture a future much like the present, aimless and bored.

If there’s a message, it’s conflicting, and your heart will feel like a peach pit when you’re done. If you’re up to the challenge, go for it.

 

-Patrick, Schuler Books

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