Some brief thoughts on Peter Stamm’s To The Back of Beyond (trans. Michael Hofmann)

The sky is darkening.  The children are asleep.  I suppose there are birds making noises, and lights from other houses.  Thomas and Astrid share a glass of wine.  Astrid goes inside for some reason or another.  Thomas stands up and just – walks away.  He leaves.  Astrid returns to find her husband gone.  Vanished.

And so begins a couple of decades of Astrid waiting about while Thomas wanders Europe.

It’s a pretty interesting premise, I suppose, though not enough is done with it, and the ending is both exceptionally rushed and entirely unearned.  It’s a real shame.

The bulk of this slim novel is concerned with the back and forth of Astrid and Thomas in the initial days and then weeks of his disappearance.  She deals with the children, his job, the police, and he just – he just walks around a bit and drinks a beer or two and eats food.  Astrid is bewildered by it all, and isn’t really able to answer any questions.  The smallness of her emotions are understandable, as she’s been completely blindsided by it all.

But then there’s Thomas.  We spend half the book with him, but we don’t know him at all.  He’s empty.  He doesn’t come across as empathetic in his reasoning for leaving (he doesn’t have any) or interesting in the deadness of his emotions (that is too grand a description).  Instead, he’s just an ordinary guy who decided to leave his entire family.  He’d be despicable if it was worth casting a moral judgement.

Which is something the book doesn’t do, neither through Astrid nor the narration itself.  Thomas’ absence simply is, and that’s the whole book.

There is a very fine part of the book near the end where it seems that Thomas is dead and the narration is playing interesting time games to build dread and anticipation.  This was quite effective, which made Stamm’s reluctance to commit to this all the more galling.  He couldn’t stick the landing, and instead, after a fine twenty pages or so of build-up, the novel deflates and skips through years and nation states and the raising of children and burying of dogs.

It’s a waste.  All of it.  Exploring the social structure which allows a man to leave his family is interesting, or at least it could be, except it doesn’t occur here.  Everyone is so very passive, and stoic without being stoic against anything.  They just – mill about their lives.

Not for me.  But the premise – yes.  That was interesting.  The unwritten books dealing with that concept are no doubt fascinating.  But they clearly aren’t Stamm’s to write.

2 thoughts on “Some brief thoughts on Peter Stamm’s To The Back of Beyond (trans. Michael Hofmann)

  1. Thanks for the comment.
    I don’t anticipate this book will leave much of an impact. I’m also not in a hurry to read anything else (and I don’t own anything else). Perhaps if it comes across my desk. Perhaps.

    Like

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