Hinrich takes his existence at face value. His wife, on the other hand, has always been more interested in the after-life. Or so it seemed. When she dies of a stroke, Hinrich goes through her papers, only to discover a totally different perspective on their marriage. Thus commences, a dazzling intellectual game of shifting realities.
How do you picture the afterlife? Like a cold dark lake you have to cross? Do you picture how you will be surrounded by loneliness and obscurity and that you will know before you even start to dip into those icy waters that you will never make it across and that you will die a second time while attempting to reach the other shore?
Probably this is not your idea of the next world but it is Doro’s. The thought of it terrifies her and when she confides in Hinrich, telling him of her terrors, they form a bond and eventually become a couple. Before she reveals herself, Hinrich, a professor of sinology, secretly pines after Doro the young specialist of the I Ging who occupies a room on the same floor of the department of sinology. While he is very much in love and provides her with a pot of green tea every afternoon, she doesn’t seem to care for him at all. But suddenly one afternoon, to show Hinrich what her idea of the after world looks like, she takes him to an art museum and shows him a painting. The painting isn’t named but from the detailed description it seems they stand in front of Böcklin’s Toteninsel. Of course Hinrich doesn’t take her fears seriously. This is as much mystical rubbish to him as the I Ging. Still he promises her that he will wait for her on the other shore.
However these days are long gone and the memory of the beginning of their story provides only one part of the things Hinrich will remember on a beautiful autumn morning on which, like every day, he gets up late only to find Doro already sitting at a table and correcting what he has written the day before. The moment he enters the room he realizes something is wrong. The room is filled by an overpowering smell and the fact that Doro sits here correcting something is a little strange as well as he hasn’t written anything in a long time.
What we finally discover through Hinrich’s eyes is the fact that Doro has died inexplicably and that the text she not only corrected and annotated but tried to finish as well is an old fragment of a novel that Hinrich has written some thirty years ago. It is the story of Marek the drunkard who gets involved and hurt by a beautiful waitress. Marek is as opposed to Hinrich as can be imagined.
From the moment of the discovery of her body until the very end of the novel the book takes a few very surprising twists and turns.
Hinrich and Doro’s story alternates with the parts of the fragments of the novel that Hinrich rereads. The tone of the interwoven texts is very different. The novel uses outdated slang, the other parts are written in a very polished and literary German.
Hinrich, a man who had extremely bad eyesight and could hardly see a thing, decided late in life to have a laser operation. To be able to see clearly has transformed him into a completely different person. Before his opperation he was dedicated to Doro, content with a life filled with books that took place either at the university or at home. Since he can see he goes out in the evenings with his students, chats up waitresses and discovers a completely new side to himself.
What he didn’t know and discovers now through reading the annotations and the letter that Doro has left for him is not only that she knew about his affairs but also that she hated and despised him and that she has taken revenge.
I did absolutely not like this novel at first as I found Hinrich Schepp to be such a boring and narrow-minded character. But I should have known better when embarking on reading a book whose main character has such a name. Surely no one would choose a name like that for his protagonist if he wasn’t poking fun at him. All the infuriating and annoying bits about Hinrich’s charcter and his actions fall into place at the end and their meaning changes one’s view of Hinrich. One could even say that Hinrich becomes endearing.
As said before, the book has a few extremely surprising twists and turns to offer and from page to page we see things and people in a new light until, at the end, everything changes again.
There are a few painful moments in which Hinrich’s mask is ripped off and he finds himself exposed and ridiculed. Shame is one of the strong feelings that pervades the whole novella.
Next World Novella is a quirky book that touches on a lot of different things. It explores the fear of dying and death as well as marriage, love and self-deception. The most interesting aspect for me was the exploring of the ideas of an after life and the dimension added by the references to the I Ging, a text that I find highly fascinating. But also the discovery of how much “unlived” life there is hidden in an ordinary life is interesting. Every human being has a potential that would allow him or her to live many lives that would maybe look very different from the one chosen.
I have read the German book and insofar I cannot say much about the translation. I thought for a long time about the title and if Next World Novella is really how I would have translated Jenseitsnovelle. For different reasons I don’t think so. The sense is the same but I had a feeling “Jenseits” sounds more poetical than “Next Life”. The word “next” contains a very hard consonant whereas “Jenseits” has a soft and flowing sound. That is why I would have tended towards a title containing hereafter or after life. I’m sure Anthea Bell who is a renowned translator had her reasons. As for the rest of the text, I got the impression the German is more old-fashioned and mannered than the English translation.
All in all I can only recommend this book. It’s very different, surprising and intelligent.