Novels involving an unprecedented invention or innovation present a particularly fascinating challenge: the author of that book not only has to construct the narrative involving the feat (and everything around it), but the feat itself. One recalls the rather grey area in Mary Shelley’s gothic classic, in which Dr Frankenstein claims he could reveal the final blueprint for mortal design, but chooses not to for the benefit of generations to come. The premise for Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog is less evasive in its explanation of said feat, but the creation itself is also less extreme: a new children’s book that has sold over 100,000 copies in its first year, proving surprisingly popular given its subject matter: it is a book that invites the young reader to directly contemplate death. From the novel’s opening all we can hear is praise (the New York Times allegedly speaks of a ‘fundamental accuracy of statement, rarely found in children’s books’), and we want to know why Leo and the Notmuch is such an unheard-of success. Unsurprisingly, we do not find out until the end of the novel, and the secrets involved in the design are deeply embroiled in the disaffected life of its author, Dirk Svensson (whose life is shared with a three-legged dog), and seriously affect Daniel Mankern, the journalist sent to investigate him/them.
The book is rife with literary allusion which, impressively, has survived the translation from German. Leafing through the epistolary first five pages –a sequence of postcards from a fraught Mankern to his girlfriend– one could be forgiven for feeling firmly within the vice of a modern-day Dracula. Mankern is a social anthropologist whose thesis is on hold as he pursues a career in cultural journalism under the severe editorial grip of his wife, Elisabeth. A frantic Jonathan Harker, he writes ‘Svensson is a strange man, and: yes, there is a story here. Svensson’s children’s book is only the last chapter… the hotel is beautiful but it’s decaying, as all beautiful things decay… So I’ve fallen out of time…Our stories don’t fit on a newspaper page Elisabeth…’ Amid the scrawls is a truism that embodies the symbiosis of every narrative strand in the book – ‘Sometimes I feel like I’m Svensson, I’ve… mixed up our stories…’
Funeral for a Dog is about how lives are lost, how they bleed into each other, and recoup, assuredly illustrated with a wildly complex mix of plot. At its centre is our anti-hero Mankern, who undergoes savage transformation in the light of Dirk and his past. He learns how to salvage his private life with Elisabeth from the ultra-reclusive children’s author, he galvanises his career by halting it in search of Leo and the Notmuch, he learns why Svensson’s dog only has three legs and its relationship with the complex menage-a-trois that rules Dirk’s romantic life. He reads Astroland, the adult alternative to Leo hidden in the author’s study (voyeuristically to start, and then with purpose), which more explicitly documents the loss of one-third of Svennson’s love triangle. In spite of this, both of Svensson’s books seem to lack closure, and Mankern comes to realize that the onus is on him to witness the final indication of loss, to stay in this stranger’s house and see through the death and funeral of the dog. The passing of the dismembered dog (built up in a gradual and moving, but commendably unspectacular way) symbolizes a firm learning within the characters, a letting-go of the number three; for, while dogs ‘get used to any loss’ without consideration, humans – both adults and children – must come to terms and transmute theirs. This is a narrative structure that’s rich and confidently strung: a series of anecdotes, passed between characters or kept a secret, built-on and lost, that take us (the third corner of another triangle) through the mayhem of Brooklyn in the aftermath of September 11th, to the politics of philanthropy in a corrupt and destitute Serra Verde, Brazil, and conclusively, and twice-over, to a ritual of loss at rural Lake Lugano, Switzerland. This is a thrilling debut made more remarkable by the translation (by Ross Benjamin), a novel both mixed up and messed up that should be read and re-read in years to come.