Opening with an unsettling, misidentified smell, Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki immerses you deep in the moment, making use of every sense to evoke a tale that is at times sublime, at others disturbing.
It begins as a story of love and loss, and unfolds into something far more complex, where the life lived by Hinrich Schepp, a scholar of ancient Chinese languages, seems revealed to be almost utterly at odds with the one he remembers. A study in perception and the fallibility of memory, the novel examines of the way we rewrite our experiences as we go along, so that our past may be completely different to the past known even by our closest companions.
Right until the end of the lives they have shared together, Schepp is certain that he and his wife Doro have been blissful together. It is only when he discovers sheets of his old, aborted attempt at fiction, liberally annotated by Doro, that he realises this was far from true.
The novel moves seamlessly between past and present, and all the different versions of it, using Doro’s notes, Schepp’s manuscript and his uncertain memories to present a life and marriage that has many layers of discontent, jealousy, and downright misery concealed beneath the veneer of happiness.
It’s an extraordinarily intimate tale, and yet one that could be shared by countless couples to at least some degree. The early love story Schepp recalls, in which he meets Doro and convinces her he is the one for her, despite being less well-born and arguably less intelligent than she, is particularly elegantly drawn, as he remembers the day she shares her greatest fear – of the deep cold lake that divides the lands of the dead and the living.
His promise to swim it with her is enough to launch their fledgling relationship, but 30 years later she has renounced the vow, declaring, in her notes on his manuscript, that she does not want him with her at this very finite end, as she believes he is no longer the man she married.
Politycki hangs the reasons for the changes she identifies on the fact he had laser eye surgery in recent years and gained a clarity of vision that literally altered his view of the world. Neat as this is, it feels unimportant in the face of all the influences that seep into a long marriage, inevitably changing it at least fractionally.
Woven in with all this is Schepp’s own novel, masterfully written by Politycki in a different enough style to stand out from him own, and yet still compelling enough to draw you right in.
As might be expected from Politycki’s duel writing life as a poet and fiction author, the writing throughout the novel, and the novel within a novel, is as beautiful as it is provocative – translator Anthea Bell has strung together sentences from the original German that conjure up scenes as rich as any painting: “…autumn sunlight came flooding in, bathing everything in a golden or russet glow – the chaise-longue in the corner was a patch of melting colour. They’d have to open a window to let all that light out later.”
With a final flourish, the book ends with a sort of mirror image to its beginning, reminding us how a single act can entirely alter a person’s perception, which in turn can alter the reality of a marriage. Powerful, poetic and dizzyingly thought-provoking, Next World Novella is very much a novel about this world, and all the versions of it.
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