LibraryThing Early Reviewers program sent me a copy of the recent English translation of German author Thomas Pletzinger's debut novel, Funeral for a Dog (2011), and since my experience of contemporary German fiction is pretty slight, I'm quite glad they did.
This is the story of two men: Daniel Mandelkern, a budding ABD ethnologist turned journalist for his wife's magazine; and Dirk Svensson, the reclusive author of a hit children's book. Mandelkern gets the assignment to travel to Svensson's isolated lakeside home in Italy, interview the author, and write a 3000 word profile, and after walking out on his wife in the middle of a giant fight and heading to the airport, he is happy to go. When he meets Svensson at the marina he finds himself walking into the middle of a reunion between Svensson, a three legged dog, a young boy, and the beautiful chain-smoking stranger named Tuuli that Mandelkern has been admiring all the way from Germany.
Both Mandelkern and Svensson have their share of regrets, failed romances, and missed opportunities, and Pletzinger reveals their stories to us through alternating sections of Mandelkern's ethnographic notes on his investigations into Svensson's life and his reflections on his own relationships; and the text of Svensson's unpublished (and unfinished) autobiographical novel that tells the story of a three-person (and one dog) romance that travels from Brazil to New York to Italy. Mandelkern is isolated from his own problems and is quickly drawn into the story of his host (who wants Mandelkern to stay, but who doesn't want to answer any questions) and the Finnish woman with the sad eyes. Their tragic romance, and the death and melancholy that haunt the lonely house push Mandelkern to figure out his own desires at the same time that he unravels the mysteries of his companions.
Pletzinger's writing is fresh and engaging, even when the subject matter goes in circles or threatens to drag the reader down. The translation (by Ross Benjamin) is crisp and seems to retain the sometimes experimental tone of the original. Like many novels about men trying to figure out their relationships with women, the female characters in this book are all cool, collected, beautiful, and always say the perfect thing, while the men are flawed, uncertain, and floundering. While this often bothers me, in this case I think the structure and perspective of the book make those characterizations work, and what would ordinarily be a negative turns into a positive. This is an excellent debut novel, and definitely worth a read.