Crime Scene: HERMAN KOCH Dear Mr M. Reviewed by Lou Murphy
Metafiction is pushed to the limit in Dear Mr M, a sardonic and self-conscious thriller.
This is a multilayered story told with conviction through multiple viewpoints: the jaded downstairs neighbour of ageing bestselling author Mr M, the writer himself and the writer’s much younger second wife, Ana. The identity of the downstairs neighbour – the primary narrator – remains obscured until his intimate obsession with Mr M leads him to infiltrate and then ingratiate himself into the writer’s life. The first real sense of the neighbour’s vengeful mission occurs when he intercepts Mr M’s mail:
… I looked this morning at the postcard from your wife. I moved it up closer to my eyes, as though I were having trouble reading the address. Fortunately, girlish handwriting is very easy to read. For the space of a single second, I thought about the van across the street. That’s why I shook my head briefly, as though realizing my mistake a bit too late – as though it had taken me a second to see that the postcard was not intended for me, but for my upstairs neighbor. Then I smiled. I flipped the card over, glanced at the picture on the front, and put it in your mailbox.
Often ambiguous in tone, the plot unfolds with looping shifts that leave the reader constantly guessing as to what the novel is actually about. The stalker-like tactics of the neighbour in his pursuit of Mr M and the mysterious menace he represents? The political and social repercussions of Mr M’s books? The true story behind Mr M’s first bestselling novel of several decades ago? Certainly this last element takes centre stage for much of the novel.
Mr M’s book was called Payback and was inspired by real events involving two students – Herman and Laura – who were suspected of murdering Mr Landzaat, a teacher Laura had had an affair with. These characters are depicted with startling acuity devoid of sentimentality. Their journey gradually unfolds through a series of poignant, often embarrassingly painful adolescent vignettes in a story laced with a dangerous undercurrent of violence. When Laura’s friend Stella starts dating Herman, only her best friend David realises how much this upsets her:
‘… Does Stella know what you think about this? How you feel, I mean? Have you two ever talked about it?’
‘Oh, that fucking bitch!’ Laura said. It was out before she had even thought about it – but it was precisely what she thought.
‘Yeah,’ was all David said; he raised his arm as though to put it around her shoulders, then let it drop.
‘I wish she was dead,’ Laura said. It was a thought that had never come up in her before, not that explicitly, but she sensed that some other force – some other voice – was expressing her feelings perfectly, without a single thought beforehand. In any case, it came as a relief, as though she had finally stuck a finger down her throat and vomited; the queasiness was over now. She stopped crying, wiped the tears from her eyes, and smiled at David. ‘I wished she was dead, for a while there,’ she said. ‘It’s better now, actually.’
As much a polemic on writing as a thrilling uncovering of the truth behind the disappearance of the teacher, the parallel narratives swoop between the staid daily existence of the writer – his struggles with ageing, mortality and mediocrity – and focusses on the technique of writing as well as the experience of reading:
What is it we look for in a book? That someone goes through a process of maturation – that he achieves insight? But imagine if that process and that insight simply aren’t there? Wouldn’t that, in fact, be much more like life itself?
The downstairs neighbour provides valuable clues as to where all these storylines could be headed:
There are books in which the writer appears as well. As a character. Or there’s a character in the book who enters into a discussion with the writer. I’m sure you know the books I’m talking about. You wrote some of them yourself.
That’s what makes this different. I’m not a character. I’m real.
Along the way Koch exposes the narcissistic drive of Mr M, his far right-wing views, his disdain for his readers, and his inadequacy in coping with the publishing world – depicted as a shambolic cesspit that sets writers against one another with farcical results.
Ultimately this is a story about culpability, one with a shocking and unpredictable resolution. A rich, deliberate and engaging thriller worth more than one read.
Herman Koch Dear Mr M Text Publishing 2016 PB 416pp $29.99
Lou Murphy is the author of the crime novel Squealer, available from http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/LouMurphy
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.