This must be my year for reading sprawling, sentimental, time-bending, and exceptionally satisfying postmodern novels about life, death, and memory: first came Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, now Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog, which I read in Ross Benjamin’s translation from the original German. Funeral for a Dog is beautifully composed and constructed, an exuberant, emotional, and smart book that takes full advantage of the freedom that a postmodern framework (or lack thereof) can offer
So: Our primary narrator is Daniel Mandelkern, a German journalist-who’s-really-an-ethnologist whose editor-wife sends him to Italy to interview Dirk Svensson, author of a children’s book, The Story of Leo and the Notmuch that explains death. Mandelkern, whose last name is German for amygdala, offers up detailed chunks of text describing his present visit and his past experiences in life. Mandelkern is trying to decide whether to love or leave his wife, Elisabeth. Svensson has emotional issues of his own: Mandelkern arrives simultaneously with other visitors, a woman named Tuuli and her young son. Everybody ends up in a house by Lake Lugano, including Mandelkern, who had a hotel reservation and whose baggage (physical and some metaphorical) was lost en route. Svensson has a dog, Lua, who likes beer and has only three legs.
Poor Mandelkern needs to get his interview so he can write an article and go home but Svensson is evasive and Mandelkern finds a manuscript in a locked suitcase that he opens with one of Tuuli’s hairpins. The text appears to tell the story of the intertwined lives of Svensson, Tuuli, and Felix, and the birth of Tuuli’s son a few years before, though it’s unclear what’s true. Svensson loves twisting tales. Meanwhile, Mandelkern, ever the ethnologist, observes many things at the house but also realizes he’s getting involved with his subject(s).
Felix, incidentally, is dead, and Svensson’s efforts to preserve his memory are what make the book so appealing and touching. Tuuli tells Mandelkern that Svensson “collects fragments and assembles them into a world he can bear,” and, later, that Svensson’s property is filled with old things, photos of dead animals, rotten chairs, and weeds. Underlying all this decay are carnival motifs. In Svensson’s manuscript, Astroland, people go to amusement parks, and all the novel’s tracks include plenty of sex and drinking. Mandelkern also describes lots of eating; the idea of gnocchi with sage won’t leave me. Neither will thoughts of aioli or roast chicken cooked with garlic.
More on that chicken: Pletzinger masterfully threads motifs between the novel’s various timelines and text chunks. Astroland, for example, contains a scene of cockfighting in Brazil and later Svensson slaughters chickens for dinner during Mandelkern’s visit. Pletzinger’s attention to these details helps Funeral for a Dog become one of the most successful novel-within-a-novel books that I’ve read. In another section, apple juice flows in two time frames and text chunks, first with Tuuli and her son, then with Elisabeth.
Pletzinger also fills his novel with fluid groups of three: Lua’s legs, a love combination of Svensson-Tuuli-Felix, Mandelkern-husband-of-Elisabeth kissing Tuuli, and so on. Svensson-Tuuli-Felix are even described as Borromean rings, a label that doesn’t carry the luridness of ménage a trois. It’s also more fitting to the novel, which struck me as anything but lurid: Funeral for a Dog presents a nice balance of the Apollonian and the Bacchanalian, a well-planned but chaotic-looking account of how to learn to eat, drink, and be merry while finding your own way to remain alive after friends, be they human or animal, die. Funeral for a Dog is a very affecting and sincere book about memory and life that I’m sure I’ll reread, both to re-experience its emotional depth and to catch more of its parallels and references. The book is especially enjoyable because Benjamin’s translation reads beautifully.
Up Next: The Singer’s Gun, by Emily St. John Mandel.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of Funeral for a Dog from Regal Literary. Thank you very much!