Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger (trans. Ross Benjamin). W.W. Norton. 322pp. $14.95.
Mirroring the image of Borromean rings that serves as the primary image for this debut novel, Funeral for a Dog intertwines three storylines:
First, there’s Daniel Mandelkern, an ethnologist turned journalist who works for his wife, Elisabeth, a woman whose first child died at birth and wants to try again. Now. He’s not necessarily comfortable with this, or himself, but regardless of Daniel’s insecurities, his wife sends him off on assignment to Italy to write a profile of . . .
Dirk Svensson, a recluse who authored The Story of Leo and the Notmuch, an illustrated children’s book that’s become a surprising success. Svensson has a bit of a sordid backstory—one that gets pieced together over the course of the novel, mainly through interstitial pieces that are from Svensson’s Astroland, a collection of stories about his unique ménage a trois relationship with Tuuli and Felix. This relationship ends, someone is the father of Tuuli’s son, and Svensson escapes first into post-9/11 New York where he meets the artist Kiki Kaufman, and then to Italy, where he lives on a secluded late with . . .
Lua, the three-legged dog of the title who, yes, does die, and who serves as the third “ring” that holds this narrative together. And, in a way, Lua is the book’s MacGuffin, since his entrance into Svensson’s life marks the beginning of his relationship with Tuuli, and his death punctuats the end of Mandelkern’s visit.
The book is narrated in two distinct sections: a series of notes from Mandelkern that are dated between August 6, 2005, and August 10, 2005, and depict his trip to Italy, and a series of short portraits written by Svensson about his past. But to retell the plot of this novel just gets confusing—it isn’t a linear novel, and the real beauty of this book is in its tone and telling (sounds clichéd).
That sort of parenthetical used above is an effective tic Mandelkern employs in his notes to add color and insight and clarification:
How I got here: Elisabeth and I didn’t raise our voice, I left our apartment in the middle of the night and without closure (we fight in our indoor voices). Took the Svensson file from the kitchen table and carried my half-packed suitcase through the hallway, but then slammed the apartment door behind me much too hard and almost ran down the street in the light drizzle. Away from Elisabeth, the sound of the ridiculous rolling suitcase on the slabs of the sidewalk behind me is louder than expected (for your reporting trips, Elisabeth had said, putting the suitcase in my office.) I turned off my phone so I could ignore her calls (she’ll want to have the last word, as always.)
In the hands of most authors, this might come off as an annoying gimmick. But Pletzinger has a very well-developed style, one that’s informed by a number of influences referenced self-consciously throughout the text, the most prominent being Max Frisch. Tellingly, one of the epigraphs is a parenthetical statement from Frisch rebutting beliefs that literature has already documented all possible variations of love stories: “such pronouncements are being made; they fail to recognize that the relation between the sexes changes, that other love stories will take place.”
And Funeral for a Dog really is a series of love stories—Svensson and Felix and Tuuli being the most obvious, but also Mandelkern and Elisabeth, Elisabeth and her ex-husband, Svensson and Kiki, Mandelkern and Tuuli—the representation of which is what makes up the bulk of this book. Sure, technically the “plot” of this novel is Mandelkern’s trip to Italy to interview Svensson, but the real engine is the compelling nature of these love affairs that we, the readers, understand piecemeal, in intriguing fashion, watching these characters come to life through their interactions with each other.
In addition to these love permutations, the specter of death also hovers on the edges of the narrative. Sure, it’s foregrounded in the title, but more importantly Svensson’s children’s book is all about how a young boy comes to terms with the death of his best friend. And as Tuuli states near the end, “Felix’s stories are one-third truth, one-third fiction and one-third the attempt to glue the other two together with words.”
All which makes this book sound rather dramatic and maybe a bit boring. But it’s neither of those things. There is drama: a dog dies, Mandelkern makes a decision about fatherhood, children are born, a man tragically passes away. Pletzinger continually undercuts these with humor and the sense that these things just happened; he is less interested in the shock and sensation of the events, much more interested in the ways in which the telling of a story can define a person. As Mandelkern asks at one point, “How can someone really tell his own story?”
And this where Frisch’s influence comes back in: Funeral rings with a Frisch-like control over style, an interest in what makes us unique. Among Pletzinger’s many memorable techniques for describing his characters are a number of lists in sections with titles like “Who is Svenssson?” and “Daniel Mandelkern?” that try and depict a human being as a collection of things, such as medical events:
Daniel Mandelkern, born 07/12/1973, height: 1.85 meters, weight: 79 kilograms. Circumcision in 1975 due to foreskin nonretractability (phimosis), 1981 greenstick fracture of the left forearm after fall from a swing (radius, ulna, humerus), no predisposition to wisdom teeth (dentes serotini), 1983-1987 regression of same. Childhood illnesses: chickenpox (varicella), mumps (epidemic parotitis, epidemic salivitis), as well as a prepubescent series of scarlet fevers overcome probably without permanent damage (infertility would be possible).
And it’s sly references like that one to infertility that point to the genius in the construction of this novel. Everything ties together in slight, meaningful ways. The opening—which brings to mind Cortazar’s 62: A Model Kit in its way of laying out everything all at once—consists of six partial notes from Mandelkern to Elisabeth complete with accompanying postcards. This is a maybe bit disorienting at first (well, disorienting to people who avoid more literary works), but it comes together by the end, making complete sense and in many ways serving as the climax for the novel.
Forcing readers (and Mandelkern!) to piece things together keeps this from devolving into a trite book about a failed threesome relationship. Instead, it develops in complicating ways, with moments linking and being reflected (Mandelkern runs away from Elisabeth because of her baby desires; Svensson runs from Tuuli and Felix because of Tuuli’s pregnancy), tapping the universality of these emotions, while also trying to describe something special in a new and different way.
In addition to being compelling on structural and philosophical levels, Funeral for a Dog is damn good on a line-by-line basis. Pletzinger’s writing (and Ross Benjamin’s translation) is graceful and evocative. Mandelkern’s voice is great, Svensson’s sections are sharp. It’s clear why this won the Uwe Johnson Prize and why Pletzinger is considered to be one of the most promising German writers of his generation.
Chad Post is the publisher of Open Letter Books.
 Borromean rings are three rings that are linked together, and, as is pointed out several times in the novel, are dependent upon one another—removed one of the three and the whole structure falls apart. You can find a picture here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borromean_rings
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