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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer

MacLehose Press, 320 pages, $14.99 (c2006) (US ed. 2014)
Translated from German by Jamie Bulloch

It all comes down to the punchline. If you can wait, the denouement of “The Sweetness of Life” hits you between your eyes like a hammer.

“The Sweetness of Life” is a difficult book to read. There are four characters whose viewpoints are followed and alternated. If you don’t want to have even the teeniest, tiniest of spoilers, then stop here.

Two characters are fairly obvious right off. One is a psychiatrist, Raffael Horn, and the other is a police detective, Kovacs — if he has a first name, I never noticed it. It takes a while to absorb who the other two are. One is a young boy whose abusive older brother has just gotten home from prison/detention. The other is a young friar whose fragile personality is in danger of fragmenting. At first I was certain that this would ultimately be Horn’s book, since so much had to do with the inner workings of the mind, motivations for misdeeds, or how victims’ traumas can bind their humanity, but much of Horn’s musings are on his own life and hospital politics. Every main character’s psychological underpinnings is splayed for our view, but not in its totality, so the mystery of whodunnit remains. Each main character expresses angry, violent thoughts and wishes. 

And this is what was done. Eighty-six-year-old Sebastian Wilfert was found by his young granddaughter dead in the snow, with his head mashed in, with his throat slit. He is carefully posed on his barn’s ramp like an upside-down, crucified Jesus. Shortly after, small animals are found killed and mutilated. Another young girl has had her legs broken and there is something suspicious about that.  As one of the police detectives rhetorically asks as atrocity after atrocity reveals itself, “Who would do such a thing?”

Initially, Detective Kovacs brings psychiatrist Horn to view Wilfert’s murder site, but they rarely communicate after that. Horn is treating the granddaughter who has been mute since the incident. It is not even clear that she saw who killed her grandfather anyway. Peering over Horn’s shoulder, we also meet other troubled souls in a small town close to Vienna, Austria, one of whom may be the murderer of the old man. Through Kovacs, we meet other residents, one of whom may be the murderer. There are a lot of characters, some of whom exist merely to enhance an understanding of Kovacs or Horn.

The narrative strains alternate and by the time a thread appears again four or five chapters hence, it is hard to remember what came before. Take notes. Or reread the book by reading a thread straight through.

In general, this book was fascinating because of the various psychological ailments, frailties, and faults on display. It was less successful as a mystery because of the obfuscating nature of the storylines. After thinking about the book for a while, maybe it was meant to be less a mystery than a way to delve into the varied ways people suffer and cause suffering.

P.S. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find out that author Hochgatterer is also an Austrian psychiatrist.

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