I think I’d categorize Wilhelm Genazino’s The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt (Philip Boehm’s translation of Ein Regenschirm für diesen Tag, literally An Umbrella for this Day) using a phrase that might, at first, sound oxymoronic: a short, rather humorous novel about an existential crisis.
Genazino’s narrator is shoe tester who tells his anonymous, first-person story with anecdotes that bring levity to what might otherwise be a rather dreary and uneventful story. He and his girlfriend have split up and his job consists of walking around Frankfurt wearing shoes and then writing reports about the shoes’ performance. During his meanderings, he sees lots of acquaintances, sometimes by design, sometimes by chance. Just, please, don’t ask him about his childhood memories! That seems to chafe him more than a pair of ill-fitting shoes.
So yes, our wandering narrator is experiencing a bit of a mid-life existential crisis and he conveys his thoughts in detail that some, perhaps many, of us might call TMI. Early on, he says he’s no longer very young, particularly in the feet: “Whenever I look at my naked feet, they’re about fifteen years older than the rest of me. I study the veins that stick out so prominently, the ankles swollen like cushions, and the toenails that are growing harder and harder and taking on that sulfurous yellow color characteristic of the no longer very young. No longer very young!”
There’s an interesting irony to this outpouring of podiatric information and all the other intimate details in the book, some related to the ostensibly taboo topic of childhood: our man on the street tells us a few pages after the foot description that he doesn’t always want to talk. In fact, he’d like to implement a silence schedule in his life: Mondays and Tuesdays, for example, would demand “non-stop silence,” and Fridays and Saturdays would allow for “unrestrained chitchat.” Sundays: “total silence.” The essence of his problem is that his inner world and the world around him don’t quite mesh. Hence the wandering. And the necessity of good shoes.
What amazes me most about The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt is that it works, quite nicely. I’ll admit I had my doubts about all the micro-level introspection at the start but the narrator’s charming, off-beat humor – the afore-mentioned silence schedule, the mention that his shoe company boss likes to talk about model trains, and naming his melancholy Gertrude Gloom – prevented the book from diving into a deep, dark, dull cave. As do the narrator’s Institute for Memory Arts and a bit of a carnival, complete with “a spectacle of light,” at the rather happy end of the book.
Disclosure: I received The Shoe Tester as a gift from a blog reader and new friend who works in a bookstore. Thank you very much! I know the publisher, New Directions, through discussions about translated literature.
Up Next: Laila Lalami’s Secret Son.
Footwear photo from Sarnil, via sxc.hu.