Matthias Politycki’s Next World Novella is the only second title I have read from Peirene Press (the first was Maybe This Time), and both have been strange and wonderful in equal measure, suggesting I should explore a little further. Peirene specialise in finding authors already respected in their own countries but unknown here, and then delivering them to us in beautifully produced short volumes – their books are just long enough to while away an evening.
Next World Novella proclaims its brevity in the title, as well as its interest in the after-life. No surprise, then, that it begins with a death. Ageing academic Hinrich Schepp rises late one morning to discover his wife, Doro, lying dead at her desk:
“I don’t understand, thought Schepp, understanding.”
He finds her slumped over one of his manuscripts – she often edited his work for him – and decides:
“…that was the first, the most important thing to do. He had to read those pages, find out what her last message was.”
What she has been editing is not one of his scholarly papers, but a novel he began and abandoned many years before. Politycki teasingly reveals her final words before we (or Schepp) can fully understand them – as the novella progresses what we understand has to be frequently reinterpreted.
The ‘next world’ has united Schepp and Doro since they first met. Both are Sinologists, with Doro specialising in the I-Ching. She believes that after death you come to the shore of a cold, dark lake which you must enter – when she confesses that this terrifies her shortly after they first meet, Schepp finds himself promising that he will die first and wait for her. To some extent, this is the foundation stone of their marriage, and it is their marriage that comes under the microscope in what follows:
“Had he been wrong about her his entire life?”
Hinrich decides to reread his manuscript, Marek the Drunkard, in order to interpret Doro’s comments. Marek, we discover, is an unassuming man of little means, who has fallen in love with a waitress, Hanni, but lacks the courage to speak up. Doro, it seems, has interpreted the novel as a fictionalised version of Hinrich’s life, adding such comments as “Why not call him Hinrich and be done with it!” In particular she identifies Hanni as a waitress, Dana, at the bar La Pliff where her husband often went. Hinrich regards this as ridiculous:
“The only parallel with Hanni being that Dana had been a waitress too – although decades later!”
However, as the story of Dana is revealed we see the remarkable parallels which Doro has alluded to. Hinrich is forced to re-evaluate his relationship with Doro. Just as Doro has discovered the manuscript, she has also discovered Dana. Doro has written her own ending to the story of Marek and Hanni, of Hinrich and Dana. More revelations follow and we are even offered alternative endings: one in which Hinrich dies and another in which they both live.
For such a short novel Next World Novella feels full of ideas. Politycki uses the setting well: the rotting flowers, the fly, the fact that Hinrich’s reflection takes place as his wife’s corpse cools next to him. A further ‘next world’ is touched on when it is suggested that Hinrich’s life would be different if only he had not had laser surgery on his eyes. At one point Doro speculates that:
“…the process of dying only really begins when the soul is judged and purified”
It is this process that the novel sets out to describe. It is exactly the kind of book that you hope the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize will draw your attention to.