Piper Verlag, September 2011, 351 pp.
ISBN: 978 3 492 05407 2
Swimming with Sharks begins with a romance between two young Austrian students in Rome; but it soon emerges that things are not quite what they seem in the surreal world of Steinfest. Ivo suffers from selective disability: a blindness which occurs in the afternoon. He uses these periods of sensual darkness in his pursuit of Lilli, and when the condition suddenly evaporates it almost ends the relationship. Despite Lilli’s no-nonsense Austrian sensibilities, it’s clear that she’s not an average student either. Her lap-of-the-gods approach to birth control soon sees the couple pregnant and heading for a rural backwater in Germany’s Deep South, where Lilli has conveniently inherited a house from a longlost aunt. A convoluted series of events leaves Ivo confronting a teenage suicide attempt, while Lilli loses the baby in an accident. Lilli returns to her studies in Vienna and leaves Ivo to stay where fate has landed him, eventually pursuing a vocation to become a tree surgeon.
Years later, Ivo’s affinity with all things arboreal leads him into a bizarre adventure in deepest Siberia, searching for a mythical Larch with mysterious medicinal properties. A mad professor, a young guide who dresses like an obscure Belgian cartoon character, a run-in with the local mob, and a chase through the Siberian forests leave the reader in no doubt that any semblance of realism was left in Rome. Further confirmation arrives in the corpulent form of Kallimachos, a mountain of flesh that hosts an indestructible Greek detective – regarded as a living god by a local tribe.
Two thirds of the way through the novel the murder mystery that tenuously puts it in the crime fiction category finally emerges. Ivo is led to Toad’s Bread, a secret underground city built by the Soviets in preparation for nuclear holocaust. The city has been taken over by a motley collection of criminals; a kind of cult held together by the narcotic properties of their staple food – the toadstool. Lilli reappears, now a fully-grown detective. She is there to investigate a spate of killings linked to the mysterious Larch trees. Our heroes soon locate not only these trees – which turn out to be the source of a health-giving substance that has triggered the whole misadventure – but also the killer. The ease with which Lilli and Ivo unravel the book’s somewhat shaky central mystery makes it clear that the author is shamelessly hijacking the conventions of the formulaic crime novel for his own ulterior motives.
Steinfest revels in the overblown camp of his comic book influences; the real star of the show is Lilli, a souped-up Hepburn whose superhero power is her pure Austrian unflappability, somehow reinforced by the gravity of her massively damaged nose. The outlandish locations and scenarios are pure James Bond, and cold war spy thriller is repeatedly disrobed in its absurdity. Clever self-deprecation and wry, tongue-in-cheek commentary from the characters are employed to keep the reader onside.
His books are often described as crime with a philosophical twist, and while they do pose existential questions they are more Terry Pratchett than Jostein Gaarder. At times these extended detours into the author’s skewed reality can seem self-indulgent, but as you get used to his rhythm, you realise that these amiable asides anchor his otherwise incredible tales in something more tangible.
The balance is delicate, and at times awkward, but Steinfest’s refusal to take his storytelling too seriously, his moments of startling insight and the rich subtlety of his prose have earned him a dedicated, almost cult, following and a slew of literary prizes.
‘Heinrich Steinfest is a master of whimsical images and excursions into day-to-day philosophy.’– Der Spiegel
‘A little miracle’– Le Monde
Heinrich Steinfest was born in 1961. Albury, Australia; Vienna, Austria and Stuttgart, Germany – these are the stations in the life of this illustrious and celebrated cult author, whose books have sold more than 400,000 copies. He has received the German Crime Fiction Award several times and was awarded the Heimito von Doderer Prize. His book Ein dickes Fell (‘Thick-skinned’) was longlisted for the German Book Award.
Translation rights available from:
Piper Verlag GmbH
80799 München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 381 801 26
(Lilli Steinbeck’s Remarkable Nose, 2009)
In the first of the two-book series, a kidnapping draws Steinfest’s larger-than-life Austrian detective into a bizarre game played by shadowy powerbrokers. Outlandish scenarios, from attacks by Batman lookalikes in Athens, through mortar fire in Yemen, to a showdown with crack troops on a remote island, force the reader to surrender themselves to the whims of this master storyteller.
The delicate symbiosis between a barman and his regulars is a beautiful thing, and its disruption must surely spell trouble. When the only guest at a hotel in an Austrian backwater is rescued from drowning by his barman, it destroys this careful equilibrium. A madcap tale of kidnapping, sea monsters, and an obscene set of novelty figures with unspecified magical powers ensues. Dark forces with mysterious aims are never quite unmasked, leaving the reader with the feeling that they’ve been led on another of Steinfest’s darkly comic and convoluted, yet strangely enlightening, wild goose chases.