Father, grandfather and great-grandfather killed themselves. But that is not something to talk about at home, and so the first-person narrator of Bov Bjerg's new novel Serpentinen grows up with many lies and legends. "Family blah" is what he calls the talk, the only purpose of which is to hide truths. After all, he was there when the father was taken off the rope and the rope was then stowed in the basement. Nothing is thrown away in the Swabian province, not even a suicide tool. Then it just goes on: "The mother went to work as usual. I went to school as usual. Nobody spoke about the fact that the father had died. Nobody spoke about how he died. Not now and not in the future."
Already in his successful novel Auerhaus , the writer Bov Bjerg, born in 1965 in Heiningen in Swabia, confronted his characters , who were so hungry for life, with a hopeless fight against death, and this topic is now being developed in a particularly shocking manner in serpentines . At the Ingeborg Bachmann competition in Klagenfurt, the author, who was formerly called Rolf Böttcher and who obviously wants to leave his past behind in terms of name, presented an excerpt from his new work, convinced the jury and won the German Radio Award. In fact, when reading a book at Wörthersee a year and a half ago, it was impossible to measure how the novel's entry would develop and how serpentines would refer to Bjerg's now filmed debut. The question that connects the cheerful to melancholic Auerhaus and the sinister serpentine : Is it possible to get rid of the damage done in childhood or is there a danger in rejecting the family relationships as much as possible to underestimate the power of the bad role models?
The path to adversity only turns out to be such in retrospect. Initially, the decisions in serpentines seem plausible. So the boy, who has been denied the truth for years, will understandably be committed to science. Instead of being silent and thus creating a negative family myth, he wants to collect data and name social relationships. As a professor of sociology, however, he then pursues the search for truth in a frighteningly radical and accurate manner, because he believes that he must not allow himself to make mistakes: "To do everything right, everything depended on it. Mother's life, one's own life, God. One single wrong result meant death. "
From the panic of never ending up like the father, the delusion of having to be perfect soon developed. But it is this insolvable claim that inevitably leads to the fact that the actually successful man soon makes many mistakes. This is particularly fatal because he now has fatherly responsibility and his son also asks many questions. As if the repetition of the family pattern were inevitable, there is a tormenting speechlessness between these generations. Depression has long developed from the fear of not only driving your own life, but also that of the child, against the wall. Bad crashes follow, with and without alcohol, followed by therapies and tablets.
A trip with the son, back to the family past, becomes the last attempt at rescue. Again and again the two drive up and down the Swabian Jura, because the little one likes the switchbacks, the eerily beautiful gut feeling when the car leans into the curves. The back and forth becomes the central motif in the haunting novel, and so he lets his restless and at the same time tired protagonist race through the family blue in serpentine lines, perhaps to get answers to the question of why his father took his own life.
How autobiographical is that?
Bov Bjerg runs a genealogy of horror in serpentines , and the great art of his deliberately lurching prose is that it does not offer monocausality for psychological depths. The father, who was born in Brandenburg, apparently felt just as uncomfortable in Swabian as the Austrian mother. But does the feeling of strangeness justify hatred and self-loathing? The first-person narrator finds shockingly clear words for the roaring and beating head of the family: "He was a Nazi until the end. None of those who denied the mass murder. He was a real Nazi. One who liked the murder."
On the other hand, the reminding narrative voice approaches the mother with understanding, even if it too did not offer the son enough security: "She was as foreign to the world as I was. We both had to change languages. She tried to speak Swabian. I tried to speak High German. We heard the errors better than those around us. Speaking was foreign to us. I had taken on the doubt. " With the linguistic doubt, however, the narrator grows the possibility to distance himself from the origin, and so the text can also be interpreted as a literary rescue program. A reference to this reading can be found in the phrase "Art meant: there was something else".
When reading it, the question sometimes arises how autobiographical the book is. Of course Bjerg knows the locations of the novel from his own experience. Like the author, his protagonist distanced himself from his family in terms of name. But this search for traces in the life of the author leads to nothing. Because this is less about self-exploration, but rather about art, about literature as a lifeline. With serpentines , Bov Bjerg primarily wrote a novel that makes the serpentine lines an aesthetic principle. Starting from the question of how suicide or even a series of suicides in a family affects future generations, the author not only leads his characters from a sharp right-hand bend to the next big arc to the left, he also manages it in a few pages, that the narrator's lurching course is transferred to the reading audience. Even exaggerated tirades or offside attempts to escape the demons seem understandable until a few lines later, opposite assumptions appear just as obvious.
The rapid jumps between the time levels, the scarcity of sentences, the bitterly bad points, rugged dialogues and the interplay of raging thoughts and a calm sociologist's view reinforce the serpentine feeling. This novel gives a violent dose of dark emotion. Because the author unfolds his linguistic means in a congruent way to the content, he succeeds in doing something very rare in German-language literature, namely to lend a lightness to a depressingly heavy material with style. What a strong, unsettling book.
Bov Bjerg: serpentines. Roman, Claassen Verlag, Berlin 2020. 267 pages, € 22