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Sunday, March 3, 2013

"On the Edge" by Markus Werner (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"A psychological drama with a masterful, pulse-quickening plot revolving around two seemingly very different men, who have more in common than they know.

Thomas Clarin is a divorce lawyer whose profession has fostered a deep and abiding distrust of marriage, preferring instead to "play the field." Thomas Loos is a somber widower intensely mourning his wife's death. With Clarin's flirtatious, roving eye and Loos's complete disenchantment with the world around him, it would seem these men had nothing in common. But after a fateful meeting in a crowded Swiss restaurant, the two strike up a conversation that unearths unnerving coincidences.

With brilliant ease, Werner's meticulously rendered story begins quietly at first, then grabs its reader, refusing to let go. On the Edge, widely acclaimed by reviewers as a treasure of contemporary German literature, has been published in 15 different countries, and has sold over 400,000 copies in Germany alone since its publication in 2004."

"On the Edge" is one of those books that makes one a fan of the author for life; sadly there are no more English translations of Markus Werner so far and as I cannot read German, I will try and track French or Italian translations of other books of the author. The first paragraph of the novel is of the kind that made me buy the book on the spot:

"Everything’s turning. And everything’s turning round him. It’s insane, but I’m even tempted to think that he’s sneaking around the house right now—with or without a dagger. Although he’s supposed to have left, and I’m just hearing crickets and the distant barking of dogs in the night."

After this dramatic introduction by the narrator - womanizer mid-thirties Swiss divorce lawyer Thomas Clarin - he starts recounting how he drove to his mountain villa for a long weekend to write a paper on Swiss divorce law history, only to to go to a nearby famed restaurant terrace and due to its being busy, sit at a table with an older, powerfully built 50's man, who at first ignores him after giving Clarin tacit permission to sit at his table. However after Clarin, outgoing, sociable, charming as his many conquests and "theory of dating" show, introduces himself, the older man starts paying attention and tells him his name is Loos as they start discussing stuff:

"Well, first, as I hinted, the discussion was all ‘God and the world,’ but then we gradually got more personal, more intimate, you could say. For example, he asked me about my life as a bachelor and then along the way about my love life.”

Loos is mourning his wife, dead one year ago after a bout with brain cancer and Clarin slowly falls under his spell:

“I met a man by chance at the Bellevue in Montagnola, a remarkable man, a little over fifty, a classical philologist. We got to be friends of a sort, talked with each other for two evenings long. His name was Loos, Thomas Loos, physically a bear of a man. He had come down here, as he gradually revealed, to commemorate his wife, his dead Bettina, whom he revered like a saint—it came across as crazy to me. He was unquestionably disturbed, from time to time almost unbalanced—then completely normal again and impressively sharp-minded, especially when it came to proving how awful the present age is, how unbearable the world—the only thing he valued was his wife, his happy marriage"
While the first part with its sort of "angels on the pinhead" discussion read like the ruminations of privileged white males from prosperous countries who never felt real deprivation and I started thinking "meh, these guys should have been born in a poor country and see if they would have their smug talk then...", slowly the novel started going into the past of both Clarin and Loos and then it accelerated to an even higher level, by the last third becoming just a masterpiece of misdirection and twists and turns.

At the end, one realizes On the Edge is really astounding with a last third that completely turns things on their head, makes rereading the novel a must as well as makes one marvel at the little touches you do not see the first time but which get a lot of significance once you know what's really what, not to speak of the control of the author as the reveals and storyline go.

Overall, On the Edge is a top 25 book of mine for 2013 (as the US edition has just been published in February by the NY Review of Books) and a novel I expect to reread quite a few times as times go by.


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