Little of the acclaimed German author Matthias Politycki's work has appeared in English, although he has more than 20 novels and collections of poetry to his name. Next World Novella, Anthea Bell's deft and superbly readable translation of Jenseitsnovelle, is a welcome corrective, and demonstrates just what English-speaking readers have been missing.
In 140 taut, compelling pages, it tells the story of Hinrich Schepp, a middle-aged Sinologist who enters his study one day to find his wife, Doro, slumped over the desk where she has been editing his work. Slowly it dawns on him that the sickly smell that pervades the room along with the autumn sunlight is not the flowers rotting in a vase.
Brushing aside thoughts of calling an ambulance – it is clearly too late – he wonders what she was editing, since he has written nothing recently. With horrified fascination, he recognises the manuscript of a long-abandoned attempt at fiction. He sits by his wife's body reading her comments – and his rosy conception of their 30-year marriage is systematically dismantled.
As Hinrich's picaresque tale of an alcoholic loser's obsession with a barmaid is counterpointed by Doro's increasingly contemptuous notes, her personality emerges. An intelligent, beautiful and aristocratic woman, she has set aside her career, and defied the wishes of her family, to support a man nine years her senior whom she believes to be a diffident genius, but who turns out to be a complacent mediocrity.
While Hinrich's approach to life is one of pedestrian empiricism, Doro has a mystical interest in the world to come. Haunted by Böcklin's painting The Isle of the Dead, she has visions of a cold, dark lake through which we must swim to a second death. Hinrich, who doesn't believe a word of it, blithely promises to wait for her on its shores. But when he undergoes laser eye surgery, life – no longer seen through a myopic haze – is filled with temptation.
Few men will follow the unravelling of Hinrich's self-image without a twinge of self-recognition, while the sense of loss evoked in the opening pages unfolds into a profound sadness. A metatextual playfulness breathes light and humour into this sober meditation on identity, bereavement and the possibility of an afterlife. Inventive and deeply affecting, this remarkable fiction lingers in the mind long after the last page has been turned.