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The Most Austrian Author I Know [Wolf Haas]

October 9, 2012

Admittedly, I don’t actually know a lot of Austrian authors.  As a kid, I read Käthe Recheis, Thomas Brezina  and Christine Nöstlinger, and there was that time when I had to read Ingeborg Bachmann for a book presentation at school.

One of my classmates was much smarter – she picked Wolf Haas. He certainly fitted the bill as being an Austrian author – I’d say it doesn’t get more Austrian than Haas – but he is also funny. Although I’m not sure how well his very Austrian sense of humour and writing style will work for others. As my classmates said during her presentation about Haas’s series of detective novels,

It’s like you’re sitting in a pub with the narrator and he’s telling you the story over a few beers.

Or something along those lines – I can’t remember it word for word, it’s been about eight years, after all.

And it’s true – Wolf Haas has a very colloquial tone, especially in this series about private detective Simon Brenner, which is a huge part of what makes them so funny and so Austrian. I imagine it’s difficult to translate, to stay close to the German sentence and yet make it sound natural in English… but someone has done it, because the last book in the series has been published in English as Brenner and God (which doesn’t quite the same as the German Der Brenner und der liebe Gott, but oh well… close enough), and also one of his non-Brenner books, The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, which is a pretty weird book that I should read again some time…

But, as is so often the case here, I won’t review the books most of you could actually read, but some of those that haven’t been translated (yet – hopefully that’ll change!), because those are the ones that I read recently.

Somehow the subject of Wolf Haas came up when I was visiting my friend in London, and I promised to send her some of his books so she could practise her German. My first day back at work, I happened to mention this to my boss, and he said, “Do you know his new book comes out tomorrow?”

So off it was to the bookshop to pick up the first book of the Brenner series (actually, I came home with the first and third), and the new one, another non-Brenner book.

It’s really convenient to suffer from crime fiction amnesia – I know I have read the whole series before, but I couldn’t remember a thing about Auferstehung der Toten [Resurrection of the Dead] and Komm, süßer Tod [Come, Sweet Death]. I can read crime novels over and over (with some time in between, of course!) and never remember who the murderer was.

Already, I can’t remember the end of Resurrection of the Dead, even though it’s only been a month/six books ago. I remember it starts with two frozen-to-death Americans on an Austrian ski lift, and Brenner, who has just quit his job as a police officer, investigating the case as a private detective for an American insurance agency. But it’s not your typical mystery, because after months with no results, Brenner isn’t trying very hard any more, and there is little action and a lot of going off on tangents. In any other author, that would be a flaw – for Wolf Haas, it’s simply his style. And eventually, Brenner’s meandering path always leads him across the real trail.

I bought “Come, Sweet Death” mostly because I wanted to send my English friend a book that had the typical first sentence of most Brenner books:

Jetzt ist schon wieder was passiert.

[Now something has happened again.]

Already that first sentence has the colloquial tone that no German teacher would ever allow you to use in writing.

The first sentence was one reason. The other was that I read that first first page there in the bookshop and I was already laughing. Long quote ahead, but I really couldn’t decide on a single line.

Now something has happened again.

But a day that starts like this can only get worse. That’s not supposed to sound kind of superstitious. I’m certainly not one of those people who are afraid if a black cat crosses their path. Or an ambulance passes you, and you have to cross yourself immediately so you won’t be the next one that the CT scanner cuts into a thousand slices.

And I’m also not saying Friday the 13th. Because it was Monday the 23rd when Ettore Sulzenbacher was lying in the middle of Pötzleinsdorfer Street and crying heartbreakingly.

When Mrs Sulzenbacher found him, she first thought it was the old misery about the first name that she’d given her son seven years ago. But then she saw the reason for his despair. Because next to the bawling Ettore was his dead cat Ningnong.

An ambulance with blue lights and siren had squashed Ningnong. But when Ettore discovered his dead cat, the ambulance was already over the hills and far away. It rushed down Pötzleinsdorfer Street with a speed that you could count yourself lucky that black Ningnong remained the only victim.

But all that crying is no good. The cat was kaput. I just don’t know if that brings more bad luck, or less, if you run over and kill the black cat that crosses your path.

I was immediately in love with that book. Especially that last sentence – I love crazy thoughts like that! (And I lived on Pötzleinsdorfer Street during my brief time in Vienna, I like personal connections like that.)

This time, I can even remember most of the plot. Brenner, having given up the detective job, is now working as an ambulance driver, and gets pulled into the rivalries between two emergency medical services… which soon turn out to be a lot more serious and murderous than just listening in to each other’s radio comms and “stealing” patients. And as funny as the first page promises – there were so many times when I just had to laugh out loud. Might have made people on the train stare, but I was too busy reading to notice.

The only downside to the Brenner books that I can think of is that they’re short, just 150 or 200 pages or so, and only take a few hours to finish. Being a quick “snack”, and as Austrian as it gets, I’ve decided that the food they remind me of is a Leberkässemmel, which is a bread roll with… well… LeberkäseAlthough that’s not quite fair, because a Leberkässemmel is a quick, Austrian snack, but there is nothing about it that corresponds to the funniness of the Brenner series. (Yes, I take comparing books to food quite seriously.)

Yes, the cover is wet, and I don’t know how that happened.

But if the Brenner books are Leberkässemmeln, Haas’s new book, Verteidigung der Missionarsstellung [Defence of the Missionary Position] is something weird like vanilla ice cream with pumpkin seed oil.

I still haven’t decided whether I like it. I just know that it’s weird.

I want to describe it as half-edited NaNoWriMo novel meets Walter Moers meets… I don’t even know. But how many people are even going to know what half-edited NaNos and Walter Moers’ books look like?

On the surface, it’s about a man who always falls in love with a woman in Great Britain at the time of the mad cow disease, then in China as the bird flu breaks out, then becomes the first victim of swine flu… But it’s also a book about the process of writing, in which current events in the life of the narrator (who is supposedly also the author) influence the half-written novel, and the half-written novel influences the events in the narrator’s life… I know – it sounds confusing, and it is confusing.

It’s also one of the few of my books that I left the dust cover on. Usually, I can’t stand the things, and just throw them out. But after reading Defence of the Missionary Position, I went and fished it back out of the wastepaper. Because the narrator repeatedly talks about the fact that a sentence is not allowed to talk about itself, as in, “This sentence is false.” But the book is constantly talking about itself… so it makes sense that it has a picture of itself on the cover.

I suppose it’s a book that German teachers are going to love. Lots about it that can be analysed and talked about in a book presentation. Me, though… I mostly want to read a good story, not a literary experiment.

But what was awesome, was that Wolf Haas did a reading in Big Town, so naturally we went. We being my mother, the Clown Brother, my best friend, my boss and me – and what must have been several hundred other people. That theatre has 630 seats, according to the website, and I think it was sold out. (Can’t say for sure, because we sat close to the front, so I don’t know if there were any empty seats behind us.)

Those two hours just flew by – somehow, Defence of the Missionary Position seemed much funnier when I heard it than when I read it.

For the first few pages, Haas didn’t even read, but recited from memory, walking around the stage. Memorizing all that must have been some hard work!

But my favourite part of the reading was when he got to these pages:

One of the stranger things in this book – several pages written in Chinese. But it makes sense – the main character is in China, sick with the bird flu, and I think this does a good job of showing how he understands less and less of what is going on around him.

Haas didn’t actually read these pages himself, but he had a recording of someone reading them. And the people who went to his readings are the only ones who know what they actually say (OK, and those who can read Chinese), because he had brought the German version, and read that as well.

The first part was one of those things that screamed “half-edited NaNo novel!” to me. Because the goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, and when you’re trying to make your word count, you sometimes add a lot of “word padding”, pointless babbling that just fills up the pages – much as Haas writes about how he needs to fill these pages in a hurry so he can take them to the Chinese translator. After writing about his dislike of travel literature, he goes on to tell an anecdote about the time he travelled to China for a reading, and met a Chinese guy who’d been at university with him… a Chinese guy who studied German in Austria and wrote about the humour in the writing of Thomas Bernhard.

Thomas Bernhard is one of those many Austrian authors I’ve never read, and I don’t intend to, either. I think my grammar school Biology teacher gave us some good advice when she said,

Thomas Bernhard was a nutcase. Don’t read too much by him, or you’ll become a nutcase too. Better read some Wolf Haas, he’s funny at least.

Too true. He’s funny – even when he’s weird!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2012 12:52

    I’m not a fan of crime fiction, but I might have to look into that new book… because of the Chinese characters too (oh, I picked the wrong language…). It looks hilarious!

    And I totally see why you would compare Wolf Haas to Leberkässemmeln. I’ve never read any of his books, but he did a reading in my school once and your metaphor fits my memory of his writing. So yay for food metaphors~

    • October 10, 2012 19:44

      How come nothing that awesome ever happened at my school?

      If you want, you can borrow the book from me.

      • October 16, 2012 21:51

        Um, I don’t know? My school has a reputation, whatever that means. xD

      • October 16, 2012 22:00

        Mine only had a reputation for invading other schools with our Shrove Tuesday polonaise…


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