The man who disappeared

19 August 2017

9:00 AM

19 August 2017

9:00 AM

Walking out of one’s own life — unpredictably, perhaps even without premeditation and certainly without anything approaching a plan — is a common staple of fantasy, and therefore fiction. But why, when we spend so much of the rest of the time fretting about losing what we have and hatching plans to safeguard it? In this short, powerful novel, the Swiss writer Peter Stamm, suggests some oblique but compelling possibilities.

Thomas and Astrid have returned from a holiday with their two children and begun the ordinary business of resettling: unpacking, laundry, a last glass of wine in the garden. As Astrid tends to the house, Thomas walks down the path and, after only a momentary hesitation, through the gate. His journey swiftly takes him beyond suburban houses and light industry and into woodland and, eventually, far more rugged terrain.

Stamm’s detached style barely even flirts with the idea of suspense. Even though we don’t know how Thomas’s departure will play out, and even though we’d like to find out, the narrative quietly and repeatedly insists that its chief purpose is elsewhere.Why is Thomas, an outwardly conforming, family-centred accountant, impelled to surrender himself to a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress through a contemporary urban and rural landscape that Stamm inflects with loss and entropy? Why are Astrid’s logical attempts to locate her missing husband —alerting the police, setting out to track him herself, managing their children’s and her own distress in the meantime — noticeably tempered with an acceptance that he will not return?

Despite its muted tone, expertly handled by the translator Michael Hofmann, To The Back of Beyond excels in deploying compact descriptions to evoke mental states, as here: ‘At the edge of a swampy clearing stood some old oaks, their contorted limbs in the gloaming resembling the outstretched claws of mythical beings.’ A couple of paragraphs later, Thomas happens upon a semi-deserted campsite, with its shuttered office and trailers on cinder blocks, the juxtaposition of forest and dilapidated semi-civilisation gesturing towards a psychogeographical reading of the novel.

Its positioning of human against environment, with its hint that people — perhaps especially those boxed into continental Europe, whose terrain here resembles a set of tableaux, cheek by jowl — nurture a half-secret desire to break out of their corrals, recurs throughout. But also there is the idea of a suppressed personal history, probably ostensibly undramatic, and yet filled with the possibility that it might resurface, and create havoc. In such a situation, Stamm seems to ask, what constitutes agency? Quitting your life before it quits you, or — as Astrid does — calmly re-assembling the pieces around an absence?

In novels such as Seven Years and The Days are Night, Stamm has animated such existential questions in the setting of domestic, married life in which adultery or accident triggers a sudden rupture. This time, the rupture goes further and into full-blown separation, leaving the reader, intrigued and disturbed, to ponder the price of stability and the lure of chaos.

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