Death and the possibility of an after-life has been the strange but comforting bedrock of Hinrich and Doro Schepp’s 30-year marriage.
It was death as a concept that ignited their relationship - and now death in all its grim reality has separated them.
High-minded Doro had always feared the passage into the ‘next world’ and ‘the cold, dark lake’ where one was destined to die a second death; pragmatic Hinrich’s pledge to die first and wait for her on its shores can now never be fulfilled.
Hinrich has found the lifeless body of Doro slumped in a chair in front of his paper-strewn desk; she has suffered a fatal stroke. Shock turns to sad reflection and he glances at the notes she had been making in her final hours.
And the story that those pages tell is a harsh awakening for Professor Hinrich Schepp.
German author Matthias Politycki’s complex, clever and entertaining novella has been translated for the first time into English by Anthea Bell, allowing a new and wider audience to enjoy his ironic contemplation on death, marriage, misunderstanding, obsession and the transience of life.
Hinrich is an expert on Chinese customs and language...his life with Doro, he believes, has been one of mutual understanding and quiet affection. So why has she left him such a devastating farewell message on the manuscript of an unfinished novel that he long ago discarded?
As the hours tick by and the smell of death slowly starts to fill the room, Hinrich trawls through Doro’s last thoughts and we read between the lines to make sense of the unravelling of their marriage.
Fact and fiction intertwine, truth and lies become indecipherable, the hidden layers of their lives start to unfold and a very different Doro slowly emerges.
From simple misunderstandings and thoughtless comments to a life-changing eye operation that turned Hinrich’s milky, myopic melancholia into a new world of colour and temptation, we begin to understand that there were, in fact, more than two people in this marriage.
The solemn mood in which Hinrich had planned to say his last goodbye to Doro evaporates. ‘Being dead means no-one can answer you back,’ he snorts at her.
More importantly, being dead also means that ‘you can’t answer questions, you can’t clear things up, you can’t get things straight’.
The old, forgotten manuscript has become a metaphor for a marriage in meltdown, a window not onto the ‘next world’ that so engrossed Doro but onto the couple’s more earth-bound existence. Equally, Doro’s death is not now the parting of such sweet sorrow that Hinrich had always imagined but a bitter revelation of all their yesterdays.
Witty, perceptive and thought-provoking, Next World Novella deals with age-old themes and yet manages to be refreshingly different.
Politycki handles serious subjects with a light, almost playful, touch and his delicate balancing of Hinrich and Doro’s complex relationship makes differentiating between fact and fiction an intriguing intellectual game.
A teasing, testing story that makes you want to revisit and seek out those fascinating fragments you might just have missed...
(Peirene, paperback, £8.99)