Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Funeral For a Dog

We are running out to get this book.

A Love Triangle From Brazil to Brooklyn

Thomas Pletzinger’s first novel, “Funeral for a Dog,” is about sex, love, Brazil, a form of ménage- à-trois, children’s books, Finland, dogs, Ping-Pong, New York — in short, the good things. But more than anything else, it is about what happens when a thing is lost: a Brazilian police dog loses a leg, a German- Finnish love triangle loses a member, a boy loses his friend, a woman loses her baby, an ethnologist loses his calling, a journalist loses his way.

It is relatively rare for contemporary German fiction to be translated into English, and unreservedly rare for a first novel by a young and largely unknown German writer to be published with such fanfare. “Funeral for a Dog” is full of strangeness, but it is not satirical strangeness or magical strangeness. It is, instead, realistic, and its main theme is the strangeness of loss. Given that the book centers on loss experienced as figurative and literal exile, it is bound to call to mind for readers of German fiction the haunting works of W. G. Sebald. What’s more, as in Sebald’s books, “Funeral for a Dog” is interspersed with illustrations that depict not central scenes but enigmatic details like a children’s drawing on a receipt. In contrast to Sebald’s writing, however, there is a great deal of beer-drinking and a great deal of blood. This extreme element (there is also a fair bit of vomiting) led some European readers to group it with a work at the opposite end of the German literary spectrum, one published the same year as “Funeral for a Dog” (2008): Charlotte Roche’s “Wetlands,” a phenomenally explicit (and phenomenally popular) book about sex, sexual fluids, sexual hygiene and the lack thereof. Though a ménage-à-trois is at the heart of Pletzinger’s novel, and though one narrator repeatedly mentions the dried menstrual blood he is unable to wash off, this is not done for shock value and does not feel gratuitous. In other words, the book has known such success not because it is in any clear literary lineage, nor because it discusses extreme states and epochal events, but simply because it is brilliantly constructed and finely written.

The novel’s greatest success is its intricacy of plot — an intricacy that is revealed only gradually. After a thoroughly confusing first few pages, the narrative settles into a story that is easy to follow and that slowly and artfully arrives at the point where those first confusing words make rich and moving sense. A journalist in a troubled marriage is sent to interview a reclusive children’s author, and learns secrets about the man’s romantic life that help him understand his own. The plot is complicated, but the things at its center are clear: a wildly successful children’s book called “The Story of Leo and the Notmuch” and a three-legged dog who will, as we can guess from Pletzinger’s title, die. In the interim the dog is several things. It is both a mascot and a symbol of the love triangle that occupies half the novel. It accompanies the three lovers from their first night onward; it is an ideal observer, present at all points of the story — at a magnificently described cockfight in Brazil, in New York on Sept. 11, in Finland for a momentous New Year and many other places besides. The dog also presents a paradigm for loss. It has lost something crucial, and yet continues (“Dogs get used to any loss”). Dogs do what the writer of the children’s book cannot — they “live in the moment.” The children’s author, on the other hand, lives in the past: he “collects fragments and assembles them into a world he can bear.” (Here and throughout, Ross Benjamin’s translation is stunningly fine, capturing as it does the wry wit, gentle despair and merry confusion of the original.)

The dog is indeed very much mascot, symbol and paradigm, but it is not much of a dog. It is kept supplied with beer and food, but the looks and leanings of a dog lovingly observed are nowhere to be found. It may seem petty to claim that the characterization of a dog is two- dimensional, but, well, it is.

The children’s book that sets the plot in motion, and brings it full circle, is unique within the novel in that it addresses loss directly. It is also the solution to a riddle: What happened to these people? One member of the love triangle, a Finn — touchingly described as “not beautiful in the strict sense, but nonetheless the most beautiful” — has arrived with a child of uncertain parentage. Another member of the triangle has died tragically. The path toward resolution is found in another book. Two narrators tell the tale. One is the journalist (who, in his heart, is an ethnologist). The other is the children’s author (who, in his heart, is in great pain). There is a mild doppelgänger effect between them — both are uncertain and inward, both bury their phones, both are confused by the women they love, both play Ping-Pong well. And there is another doppelgänger effect between the published children’s book and an unpublished novel — or memoir? — that the journalist discovers locked away in the guest bedroom he occupies. The journalist violates his host’s privacy, which may have been his host’s wish all along, and reads the mirror book to “The Story of Leo and the Notmuch.” Called “Astroland,” it charts the love triangle from Recife to Brooklyn, Helsinki to Lugano. It is incomplete. And it takes the journalist some time to realize that although he thinks there is no ending, he has in fact had the ending all along. It has been hiding in plain sight, between the lines of the children’s book.

As befits a book about loss, “Funeral for a Dog” does not end with the losing. There is a searing stage that is confusion, fury, despair, renunciation, flight — but it is not the final one. The novel’s lesson for child and man, man and beast, is that loving often entails losing, and that is horrible, sickening and frightening. But it is not the end. For just when you think there is nothing left to lose, you find something, someone, somehow — and it makes all the difference.