Book review - Funeral for a Dog

By Thomas Pletzinger

Transl: Ross Benjamin

Norton, £9.99

Thomas Pletzinger has chosen a great title, one that has a literal meaning as well as a symbolic significance, for his inventive, surreal, and mesmeric debut novel, first published in Germany to great acclaim in 2008.

Daniel Mandelkern is married to the cultural editor of a magazine. When she sends him off on an assignment to interview the reclusive children’s author Dirk Svensson, he finds himself re-evaluating his marriage and his deferred career as an ethnologist.

Running alongside Mandelkern’s narrative is a series of stories illuminating Svensson’s own recent past. These focus on a bizarre ménage a trois relationship that evolved out of a period Svensson spent volunteering in Brazil with his best friend Felix. When they meet fellow volunteer Tuuli, an enigmatic Finnish doctor, they find themselves in competition for her love. Their friendship takes them from Brazil to New York and from Finland to a rundown villa in Italy, where Svensson now lives, having penned the children’s bestseller The Story of Leo and the Notmuch.

Pletzinger clearly delights in the metafictional and begins his novel with its ending – a series of postcards Mandelkern writes to his wife. Mandelkern’s account is punctuated with asides, giving it a sense of immediacy, as if he is recording his thoughts as soon as they arise. The carefully constructed narrative is one of the book’s many pleasures. As Mandelkern tells Tuuli, “Writers glue fiction and truth together, they preserve the world otherwise than it is.”

A central image Pletzinger employs to describe the love triangle is three linked hoops, “Borromean rings”; if one of them is removed the other two are no longer linked. The consecutive narratives are connected in similar fashion (the third being Svensson’s children’s book) and all inform one another. The latter helps Svensson come to terms with his grief, while his past conflicts prompt Mandelkern to resolve his own dilemmas.

Like Pletzinger, his characters are all in their thirties and the book is a shrewd and relentless, almost ethnological analysis, of the hopes and aspirations, anxieties and insecurities, of this generation. Pletzinger is spot on when peeling back the layers of his two male characters to reveal their raw inner states. He is less good with the two women, Tuuli and Svensson’s artist partner Kiki Kaufmann, whose desires and choices are never fully explained.

Then there is Lua, the three-legged dog of the title, and a main player in the book. Yes, a funeral for a dog does take place, and Lua’s own history is a driving force in this extraordinary novel that explores love and loss in new and unexpected ways.