Hochgatterer, Paulus - 'The Sweetness of Life' (translated by Jamie Bulloch)
It is cold outside. The moon is so bright that the snow between the front door and the wild cherry tree shines like the glass lampshade in the bathroom. The path to the house is well trodden, as usual. Other tracks lead off to the left; these are new. The child steps into the footprints. They are not very far apart, like Grandfather's when he walks in front of her.
It's a snowy Christmas night in Furth am See, a small Austrian lakeside town. A young girl, Katharina, is playing Ludo with her grandfather when the doorbell rings. The game is nearly won but the old man still puts on his jacket and joins the caller outside. After a while, Katharina puts on her own jacket and goes out into the night in search of Grandfather.
The next day psychiatrist Raffael Horn is working his way through the daily staff meeting and his case appointments - postnatal depression; withdrawal symptoms from alcohol; psychotic episode from ingestion of hallucinogens; and the psychopath who brutalises his family. He is conducting his ward rounds when he is told that a seven year old girl is being brought in to see him, speechless after finding her dead grandfather in the snow. At the scene of the old man's death, detective Kovacs is supervising his team and interviewing the victim's family. They tell Kovacs that they think that the youngest daughter, Katharina, must have found the old man. Last night she suddenly appeared in the hallway. She seemed frozen in place and was holding out her hand in a tight fist. When she opened her hand, there were two Ludo pieces lying in it and her fingers had blood on them. Of course they'd gone to look for grandfather but hadn't found him. Not until this morning - up by the barn. Who would do that? Kill the old man like that? Crush his head beyond recognition.
THE SWEETNESS OF LIFE is the first of Paulus Hochgatterer's "Kovacs & Horn Investigations" and gained him the 2009 European Union Prize for Literature. Comparatively short, the book nevertheless demands some attentive reading as its narrative unfolds from the viewpoints of various characters, not always immediately identified. Some of these viewpoints also spring from the interior lives of a few of Furth am See's more damaged residents, complete with their fantasies and compulsions. But Hochgatterer manages to incorporate these individual viewpoints into a clear, objective prose (ably translated by Jamie Bulloch who also translates Hochgatterer's second title in the series, THE MATTRESS HOUSE) which I greatly enjoyed.
As well as being a writer, Hochgatterer is a practising child psychiatrist in Vienna and draws upon his professional knowledge to gives us in effect two separate investigators. Kovacs is a divorced, star-gazing, police detective working the facts of the criminal case of the old man's murder, whilst Raffael Horn is a family man and psychiatrist at the local hospital who patiently unravels the young granddaughter's trauma.
Once I realised the pattern of violence being revealed, I admit to a nervousness at my expectation of reading some of the events from the viewpoint of a cruel psychopath. But THE SWEETNESS OF LIFE is not a book that glories in observations of brutality. It depicts the collisions between the damaged and the innocent and between the damaged and their own compulsions. Whilst this makes for a dark and chilling crime thriller, Hochgatterer's writing also gives us a rich experience in its variety of viewpoint and manages also to observe individual detail and touches of warmth in the interactions between his characters. THE SWEETNESS OF LIFE is an original and absorbing book. I was gripped by it and look forward to reading another "Kovacs & Horn Investigation".
Read another review of THE SWEETNESS OF LIFE.
Lynn Harvey, England