The Bureau of Past Management by Iris Hanika, translated by Abigail Wender (V&Q Books)
For Hans Frambach, the middle-aged character who is central to The Bureau of Past Management by Iris Hanika, translated by Abigail Wender (V&Q Books, 159pp, £12.99), the memories he catalogues of those who suffered most during Germany's Nazi era and the resulting guilt which he and many of his fellow country people accept, gives him both purposefulness and a sense of commonality from which he otherwise strenuously excludes himself. For Frambach, to cultivate order is to maintain control. Thus, details in the book are given a very precise presentation including exact references to books and music mentioned or relevant. He also - indicating, perhaps, an element of OCD - is deeply irritated if the number of letters in a person's name is not divisible by three.
He has just one friend, Graziela, a woman who is preoccupied with an on/off affair she is having with a married man called Joachim; "the letters of his name were not only indivisible by three, they also added up to the ugliest sum". This friendship is important to both of them. At one point, to demonstrate that his usefulness as a friend had increased, not decreased after she began her affair with Joachim, she reads him a quote from Marguerite Yourcenar's novel 'Le Coup de Grâce', a novel she is finding a “total slog”:
"Friendship affords certitude above all, and that is what distinguishes it from love."
Using a curt, slightly sarcastic style to great effect, Hanika astutely constructs a multifaceted novel using a variety of stylistic approaches and affording Abigail Wender – the attentive translator of the novel – opportunities to be inventive and witty:
“Moreover, there is concern due to the endless interference of the vehement parailmentarian democrapocratarians, as well as the antivegentellectuals, in particular their aversion to managecapitalistical interblubberllectuals.”
There is also much enjoyment and fun in Frambach's magnificently caustic fury about a leaflet he finds in a church that seeks to suggest that Auschwitz is part of a continuum that began with Cain – "But not only Auschwitz: also Hiroshima and the crusades and the building of the Berlin Wall, and everything else. They always quote Cain to excuse the whole shit storm as though it was an inevitable, preordained misfortune” adding, later, as he becomes increasingly exasperated, “People use the Bible to explain what happened, which gives the crime meaning, as if it had to happen to prove the righteousness of their biblical worldview . . .The slaughter practically serves as an argument for God's existence." An element of his embittered view of life is demonstrated by an unpleasant arrogance towards a co-worker, itself made worse by proving to be so groundless and allowing no opportunity for self-magnifying gloating, a humiliation underlined in a typically inventive chapter on “Ancient Melancholy and Medieval Acedia, which quotes Roland Barthes' observation that, “you experience all of the pain and yet are deprived of the secondary gain that is playing it up for effect.”
The friendship between Hans and Graziela gains increased importance for both of them when the affair with Joachim falters. Each needs the other to hear both the mundane and consequential details of their lives. But need never turns to love. Hans might just preserve his sense of worth by continuing to connect with this one other life, as epitomized by the anxious relief he acknowledges when his phone rings. For Graziela, there is a wish to have her impulsive desires understood and made acceptable. Speaking is a way to understand herself and her willingness to actively engage with life's insecure possibilities. Her ever-present state of uncertainty coexists with a wish to have what seems like a poor choice of relationship transformed into an enveloping moment of significance. A deep yearning that culminates in this beautifully formulated recognition of her plight and that of all of the novel's main characters:
“It was simply her life, that was all, her life and his life and Joachim's life and the life of Joachim's wife, and they each lived at this time and no other. This was their moment on earth and in the history of humankind, their bodies warm and their hearts beating as other hearts had and would beat; and they must do whatever they could with their time, and so forth and so on. And find the middle between action and endurance, force and forbearance, progress and tradition, with small adjustments, first in one direction, then another, the usual, forever.”
It's a superb, universal statement of acceptance. Life is so rarely shaped as we would wish it to be. Disappointment is ever present. Resignation is the way of life.