Somerset Maugham once asked whether it was possible for an author to write about goodness, sheer goodness. Klaus Merz has made a brave shot at doing so in this absorbing and thought-provoking novella, which looks back on the life of one very good man, the narrator’s grandfather Johann, who went in his youth to South America to experience life on the pampas and thereafter returned to his village in Switzerland to marry the girl he loved and spend the rest of his life contentedly teaching generations of village schoolchildren.
The grandfather’s life in Argentina is romantically described and concludes, through a letter found after his death, with an account of his brief but passionate romance with a girl called Mercedes, who teaches him to dance the tango and helps him to grow up, but by whom he has a daughter he is destined never to see. Equally well evoked is the nightmare of the Europe he left in search of a better life. And backing all this are the stories his pupils told about him in the years after illness had caused his return, including his legend as a virtuoso tango dancer.
A beguiling, appealing tale on all counts.
All recommendations from Spring 2009