Star Rating: ***
English translation first published by Secker and Warburg in 2003
Originally written in German and titled Herr Lehmann this story represents life in Berlin, for the twenty-something’s, before the wall came down.
With no responsibility or sense of short-coming Herr Lehmann has embarked on a career; a career as a bartender. Even when questioned by others he does not see bartending as an interim job, this is something that he has spent time perfecting. With no aim to be an artist or a musician, like many in the bar business, Herr Lehmann is a content twenty-nine year old living in 1980’s Berlin.
After an evening of working and drinking with the boss at the Einfall bar, Herr Lehmann stumbles home through the deserted streets of Kreuzberg. Getting a glimpse of his argumentative character almost straight away it is difficult to tell whether Lehmann is hallucinating in the opening chapter or whether he really is seeing one of the ugliest dogs ever to exist. Unsure on how to proceed with his journey home and with a bottle of whiskey in his pocket Lehmann takes up residency in a small square literally around the corner from his flat: the dog has blocked him in and is refusing to let him pass. So, what happens when you feed a dog alcohol? It falls over drunk!
After this episode you start to question the sanity of this young man; maybe he has had one to many heavy nights out and it is beginning to take its toll.
Trying to restore his bitter hung-over mind, after being woken by his mother phoning, the next morning he heads off to the Markthalle for some brunch. Bumping into his best friend, Karl, who seems to be pulling an extra shift at the establishment he soon finds himself irritated with the scene around him. Sunday Brunching families are not to his taste and he wishes that they would all realise that a bar is not a place to indulge in such niceties. To try and lighten his mood, Karl puts him on a table out of the way and brings him a beer to try and staunch the flow of tripe coming from his mouth. To make matters even worse he decides he is hungry but doesn’t fancy the breakfast menu, instead opting for roast pork. To try and resolve the issue the new chef appears. Katrin is a no-nonsense type of girl that automatically appeals to Lehmann causing him to fluster slightly in his argument. Realising he has fallen in love with her on sight he now needs to try and stop himself revealing his thoughts.
Much of the novel looks at the relationship between these two individuals. The candid nature of Katrin versus the overpowering desire to be in a monogamous relationship by Herr Lehmann leads ultimately to an argument and a break-up. Life, that at one time appeared to be quite rosy, is beginning to develop cracks.
Karl, a budding sculptor, is under pressure to finalise his creations for an exhibition he is to star in. Working nights at the bar and days on his artwork leaves little time for anything else. Sleep deprivation also seems to be a problem for this young man and he takes to spending his after-work hours in the bars drinking to try and overcome the nerves that are beginning to set in. Taking things too far, Karl has stopped sleeping, eating and showering causing friends to worry about him until he finally snaps. Taking control, Herr Lehmann sees his friend break-down in front of him and knows that only one thing will help him – the men in white coats at the hospital are called in.
With his life falling down around him Herr Lehmann begins to question whether everyone that thought bar-tending was a stop-gap job was right. But what will he do now?
When reading the synopsis for this novel and some of the reviews I believed that I would get a detailed insight into life in Berlin just before the Wall was ripped down however, this was not the case. This novel is about a young man, about to turn thirty who begins to question whether he has taken the right path. Whilst based in Berlin, in honesty, the story could have been set anywhere. Little about the area is mentioned or discussed in the novel and the only insight you get into the split between East and West is when Lehmann attempts to visit family across the wall and is turned away. Whilst an easy, short story to read I was slightly disappointed because of the expectations I had personally for the book. It is a well-written story however, from a first time novelist and should not be overlooked if you like contemporary German fiction.