Euphoria begins with a group of men huddled together for warmth:

“When it’s too cold to lie down at night we remain standing. We stand close together, back to back, side to front. We turn slowly over the course of the night so that each one of us gets a turn in the middle, and from time to time each one of us has to be on the outside.”

Little do we know that this will be one of more optimistic scenes in Heinz Helle’s ironically titled, end-of-the-world novel (translated by Kari Driscoll). The next few pages reveal the scale of the disaster when they encounter a child sitting in the road next to the charred remains of a tent. That they simply leave the child (“The kid looks quite well fed. He will last another week at least”) even when they find his murdered parents lying further along the road suggests how ruthless their survival instincts have already become. As we shall see, the appearance of another human being will be a rare event.

Eventually Heinz allows us to glimpse the everyday world which lies before the burnt-out landscape of the novel’s present. The five men are friends who have rented a cabin in the mountains for a weekend break. The first sign that anything might be wrong is “thick, black smoke over the village in the valley” on the morning of their departure. At no point do they, or we, find out what has happened: the narrowness of their viewpoint, deprived of communication, is one of the most terrifying aspects of the novel. They walk in the hope of outpacing the devastation, but with no way of knowing how widespread it is:

“We see pylons with no wires between them, abandoned petrol stations, supermarkets, holiday homes, vacancy signs, here and there the burnt-out wreck of a car.”

Despite the destruction all around them, the most damaged aspect on the new world is human relationships. Where Cormac McCarthy’s The Road preserves a certain amount of balance in its presentation of the love between father and son, here the men act like a tribe, regarding outsiders as enemies. The few people they meet, like the boy, are either dismissed or attacked. When they encounter a woman, they casually rape her (“When it’s my turn, she doesn’t even raise her arms…”) leaving her unmoving, a piece of bread laid on her stomach. The world around them is portrayed in a similar fashion: they find an overturned tanker which has been forced off the road by ramps built out of logs:

“I imagine that the driver in the cab was desperate to get away, but he probably also had a broken leg, and so he had to lie and wait, and he knew what was coming.”

When one of their number, Furst, breaks his ankle, they leave him behind without debate:

“We leave him sitting in the wet grass, and we hope the night won’t be so cold that he will die in the dark. But cold enough that not long after sunset it will be over.”

Euphoria is a deeply pessimistic book. Though the friends stick together their unity is animal, to the point that there is very little dialogue in the novel. The short chapters also suggest the incoherence of their experience; although a first person narrative, there is little in the way of reflection as the basic needs of each day supplant all other thought. In comparison the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead looks positive cosy with its undamaged ecology and access to shops and vehicles. Reduced to walking and scavenging, Helle portrays human life as, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The novel’s conclusion drives the final knife into any hope we might have left, though a final chapter in which the narrator imagines “another perfectly ordinary Monday” might be read as a desperate plea to preserve what we have, characterising the novel’s incessant bleakness as a warning rather than a prediction.

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7 Responses to “Euphoria”

  1. Caroline Says:

    This sound too pessimistic for me right now but I think we need books that go even one step further than The Road – or what I’ve read about it. Then it might serve as a warning.

    • 1streading Says:

      It is very pessimistic, though it’s also difficult to argue with Helle’s logic. Having only the characters’ perspective, they know nothing of what has happened, and therefore neither do we.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Interesting that you should mention The Road as it’s the first thing that came into my mind as I was reading your review. I think I’m with Caroline on this – it’s important for fiction to tackle a subject like this even if it does make for very grim reading.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes – Helle said the inspiration came from returning from the mountains himself and wondering what it would feel like if the world had ended in the meantime.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m slightly wondering as to the point of it all. It sounds relentlessly grim, which may be realistic for an apocalyptic scenario but what was there that drove you to turn the next page?

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m tempted to say very short chapters… As they walk they are, of course, hoping to encounter some kind of help or at least an end to the devastation. There’s also curiosity regarding how well their relationships will stand up to the stress. The novel does have a rather good ending but I didn’t want to give any of that away!

  4. German Literature Month VII: Author Index | Lizzy's Literary Life Says:

    […] or Garden Butcher’s Dog 1 The Treasure Chest 1 Heinrich: Cross of Iron 1 Helle: Euphoria 1  Hensel: Dance by The Canal 1 Hesse: Demian 1 Hilbig: A Temporary State 1 Hofmann: Parable of […]

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