Crime Scene: DIRK KURBJUWEIT Fear. Reviewed by Lou Murphy
Violence, and fear, fester beneath the surface when a middle-class family is stalked by a creepy downstairs neighbour.
The Tiefenthalers are your typical bourgeois Berlin family. Their story is related by Randolph Tiefenthaler, a 45-year-old husband, father of two, and moderately successful architect. His narrative is a matter-of-fact account of the series of events that led to the imprisonment of his 78-year-old father – a retired car salesman and gun enthusiast – who is serving time for the manslaughter of the Tiefenthaler’s basement neighbour, Dieter Tiberius.
Settled in an aspirational Berlin apartment, the Tiefenthaler family initially welcomes their new neighbour, who ingratiates himself by leaving home-baked goodies on the doorstep. When he confides his difficult childhood and background, he is met with empathy. After all, the family has compassionate, egalitarian values, values they act upon via various charitable donations:
We willingly share our good fortune with others: we sponsor a child in Africa, with whom we exchange letters; we adopted a tiger in India at Fay’s request; and when there is an earthquake or some other natural disaster, we invariably make not insignificant donations …
Theirs is as much an exemplary existence as a relatable one. This is what makes Fear so interesting. In trying to understand how their relations with their neighbour spiralled out of control, Randolph undertakes an unselfconscious analysis of his own motivations in leading the life he does. While embracing the artificial constructs of his family’s existence – the vacuous dinner party soirees, the adherence to values of security and humanism – Randolph also permits himself an incongruent indulgence. Occasionally he secretly dines at extravagantly expensive restaurants. Alone. At Hedin, a Michelin-starred restaurant:
The tables were filled with couples and groups in festive mood, because even if you don’t arrive in festive mood, a dinner such as you get at Hedin makes you feel festive at once. Only one table was occupied by a solitary man, and he too was in a festive mood, celebrating a private feast … I was that man.
Dieter Tiberius’s attentions escalate and take a darker turn. Randolph’s wife, Rebecca, hangs washing in the communal laundry room and Tiberius comments that the underpants she is pegging on the line must look good on her. His attention becomes more threatening when he starts writing passionate love letters addressed to her. Randolph and Rebecca turn to the authorities for help but are told that technically Tiberius has not done anything wrong. Then Tiberius accuses them of molesting their own children – that he has overheard them doing so. Again, they approach the authorities but are told that nothing can be done — although Tiberius can be regarded as a ‘disruptor’, he has not committed a crime. They are helpless to protect themselves.
Randolph tries to throw money at the problem, offering to buy Tiberius’s apartment from the landlord. It is a solution Randolph finds as contemptible as it is fruitless.
Randolph and Rebecca find themselves trapped in a state of paranoid hysteria. There is nothing in their lexicon to help them to deal with this situation. As he searches for a solution, Randolph reflects on his past. Childhood memories stir up fierce descriptions of his relationship with his father. With typical detachment, he touches on the overpowering influence of his father while defining the difference between anger and wrath:
… the look on his face, the way it contorted as his impatience inevitably morphed into anger – or rather, wrath, for anger is human, whereas wrath is something that seizes the gods …
The impact of history on future generations is also starkly illuminated. Growing up in the freak show that was Berlin before the wall came down anchored young Randolph’s development in fear:
I remember, too, rides on the underground, especially the empty stations in East Berlin that our trains passed through without stopping. In the dark of those stations I saw sandbags and soldiers with rifles, and that must have been my first waking nightmare – that my train would be stranded there and all the passengers made to get out and left at the mercy of this world of darkness …
This history of fear cripples Randolph as he tries to deal with Dieter Tiberius. He harbours primal revenge fantasies in which Tiberius receives draconian punishments, and fights against the middle-class values that impede his reversion to brutalism.
Can evil beget goodness? And what is the goodness worth, if it owes its very existence to evil? Does such goodness evaporate when the evil disappears?
This aptly titled novel is an indelible examination of middle-class values, relationships, masculinity, identity, violence, history and fear that comes full circle to a conclusion as shocking as it is logical. A finely crafted and disturbing psychological thriller.
Dirk Kurbjuweit Fear Text 2017 PB 288pp $29.99
Lou Murphy is the author of the crime novel Squealer, available from http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/LouMurphy
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