Ein hinreissender Schrotthändler (The Scrap Dealer)
DuMont Buchverlag, 1999. 237pp.
ISBN 3 7701 4959 9
The Georg Büchner Prize, presented each year by the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung, is given to an author in recognition of all his literary work and is regarded as Germany's most prestigious literary award. This year, 1999, it has gone to Arnold Stadler.
All this author's novels are told in the first person. Stadler maintains that they are not autobiographical, yet his narrators all come from a similar background to his own, the southern Black Forest. His characters are small-time farmers, villagers, school-teachers, inn-keepers, priests. Critics are unanimous in their praise for Stadler's prose, his virtuosity, his irony, his parodies of modern life.
This new novel records the breakdown of the marriage of the forty-two-year-old unnamed narrator, a hypochondriac schoolteacher who has long since given up work, and his wife Gabriele, a surgeon. The catalyst is the arrival out of the blue of Adrian, a scrap dealer and (as we learn) fraudulent asylum-seeker, who charms his way into the lives of the couple and is finally adopted by them. The narrator believes his wife is having an affair with this elusive, charismatic personage, but we suspect that he too loves him. Both clearly look to him to make them forget the emptiness of their own lives.
The novel not only exposes the loneliness of two people in a twenty-five-year-old marriage but also that of life in a big city, with its post which never arrives, its finally futile mod cons, its fancy dinner parties, and its yearnings which will never be realised. And beyond the portrait of a very real mid-life crisis there is the satirical picture of Germany in the first term of the new Schröder government, with its health reforms and asylum laws. Gaby finally goes off with Adrian, despite his murderous traits, the narrator has a breakdown and undergoes hospitalisation. This story is a lament, laced with sudden irruptions of farce, for the intrusions of the new into the old.