Hinrich and Dora meet while both are studying for their PhDs in the Sinology faculty. Nine years her senior, Hinrich admires Dora from afar until one day she confides in him her most secret fears about "the next world" and "the cold, dark lake whose shores you'd reach immediately after you died, only to die there a second time". He makes her a promise and the same year they marry.
Almost 30 years later, Hinrich, now a lecturer in ancient Chinese script, awakes one morning to find his wife has died of a stroke and left him a bitter message of farewell among the papers of a discarded manuscript.
Using just a few, simple points of reference, Matthias Politycki constructs an absorbing portrait of a marriage breakdown: an eye operation, a chance encounter, an obsession, a thoughtless comment, a misunderstanding. He deliberately blurs the boundaries between truth and fiction, as we criss-cross between Hinrich's fictional story of a young woman who works in a bar and his own, hopeless infatuation with a waitress.
Hinrich is dimly aware that his relationship with Dora was founded on a false promise, but realises too late the extent of the rift between them: "Being dead, he thought, means first and foremost that you can't apologise, can't forgive and be reconciled, there's nothing left to be forgiven, only to be forgotten. Or rather there's nothing to be forgotten, only forgiven."
Politycki examines the seemingly inconsequential moments that can change a life. He also deftly handles Hinrich's vain attempts to thwart the onset of old-age and his misguided belief, after the eye operation that restores his sight, that he has been given a chance to recapture his lost youth.
There is something shabby about Hinrich's behaviour, but his inability to read the emotions of those closest to him or engage with his own feelings despite (or perhaps because of) his intellect is quietly affecting. Politycki teases out the tragic impact of Hinrich's relentless and obsessive pursuit of the impossible and his colossal failure to understand others' motivations. As his wife points out in her final letter: "You underestimate a placid surface; it masks hidden depths. The quieter I became the more violent I felt inside."
In this elegantly realised novella, Politycki dissects a failed marriage with acute psychological insight and reminds us of how swiftly a breakdown in communication can make our own and others' existence unfathomable.