Watching the Colour Drain from the Butcher Boy’s Face

Gabriele Annan

‘We all have at least one terrible friend. Each one of us is someone’s terrible friend.’ The epigram was coined by a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge called Jack Gallagher, You could adapt it to the present mood in Europe by saying: ‘Asylum seekers are a menace. Each one of us is someone’s menacing asylum seeker.’ It doesn’t even have to be a Gypsy; it could just be the retired couple fleeing from Guildford who have bought the Tuscan farm across the valley from yours. The asylum-seeker scenario is one of the subtexts in Hans-Ulrich Treichel’s economical, cynical, pitiless and very funny novella.

In this case the asylum seekers are a young East Prussian farmer and his wife and baby son. It is 1945, and they are fleeing before the Russian advance. ‘The Russians were suddenly there. Where there had been an empty field a moment ago, thirty or forty armed Russians were standing.’ One of them makes for the farmer’s wife and rapes her. She just has time to thrust her baby into the arms of another fleeing woman, but not to catch the woman’s name or to tell her the baby’s. It is Arnold, and Arnold is the only member of his family to have a name in the story. But he is lost for ever.

The young couple settle in East Westphalia (the elaborate east/west designation is a sour in-joke), where the locals despise them because they are Easterners. Then as now, east from wherever you are is invariably bad. They have another baby, nameless, who becomes the first-person narrator of Lost. His parents tell him that his brother was killed by the Russians: they cannot bear the shame of having given their baby away in a panic when perhaps his life was not really in danger. The second child grows up unloved because his parents love only Arnold, and make his brother feel ashamed of not being Arnold: ashamed of eating, of watching TV, of existing. His mother never hugs him, but sometimes she squeezes him so tight it hurts – to comfort not him, but herself.

The father is determined to make it. He starts a lending library, then a grocer’s shop. ‘But it didn’t satisfy my father. He didn’t want to sell sausage by the gram, he wanted to sell it by the kilo and the hundred-weight.’ He becomes a wholesaler, then a manufacturer, and he prospers. The Ford Taunus is exchanged for an Opel Olympia, the Opel Olympia for a black limousine ‘with shark’s teeth’, and the father wears a suit when he drives it to visit farmers and clients. Treichel goes into the butchery business and the consumption of its products in slimy detail, producing enough nausea to turn any reader into a vegetarian.

The father never shows anyone any affection: he just gives orders; and they are obeyed. The little boy is eight when his parents tell him the truth about Arnold. They have been seeking him through various missing persons organisations ever since he disappeared, and at last there is a glimmer of hope that a 15-year-old who might be their child might have been identified. But his identity cannot be revealed: the Child-care Services won’t allow it, because the boy has once already been through the trauma of almost finding his birth parents and then being disappointed. The narrator doesn’t want his brother found. A dead brother is quite a glamorous accessory: a living brother would have to share his food, his room, his parents.

The next section is a savage satire on bureaucracy. Treichel – a professor of German literature at Leipzig University as well as a writer of grim, laconic poems – seems to specialise in sending up professional and organisational behaviour in a manner reminiscent of Molière even more than of Kafka. His scrap of autobiography, published in 1992 and called Von Leib und Seele (Of Body and Soul), consists of two viciously hilarious episodes: one describes his own experience of undergoing psychiatric treatment; the other is an account of a writers’ conference. The vain futility – ‘vain’ in both senses – of these ludicrous proceedings fuels the rage that drives Treichel’s lethal prose.

In Lost he goes to town on missing persons organisations and childcare agencies, and then homes in with even more malice and amusement on the Department of Forensic Anthropology at an inconveniently situated university where the narrator and his parents have to go for blood tests, skull measurements, DNA probes, and finally to have their feet cast in plaster so that the imprints of their soles can be compared with those of the 15-year-old unknown who may be the narrator’s brother. The macabre element is reinforced by a chance encounter with a hearse-driver in the carpark outside the university canteen, which, the driver tells them, is famous for its ‘cordon bleu’ cooking. This loquacious character is able to give them a full account of all the professional practices of undertakers, morgue attendants and crematorium workers: ‘Hygiene was the alpha and omega of cremation systems, said the man, hygiene, tact and speed were the fundamentals of the business. At the word “business”, my father roused himself from his semi-consciousness, looked at the time, and said that we had to hurry.’

Back in the laboratory, Professor von Liebstedt receives the parents, who are duly impressed by his von and cheered by the fact that he shares their contempt for Poles. He discloses the findings of the Department of Forensic Anthropology, which are summarised in incomprehensible but discouraging percentages. The father asks what they mean exactly, and the professor replies: ‘that a relationship with the foundling can by no means be ruled out ... although a relationship cannot be deduced with certainty from the foot studies ... Inconclusive, you might say.’ The results of the other tests will be posted on in due course. The father curses all the way home until he develops chest pains and his wife has to take the wheel. They arrive to be told by their friend, the local policeman, that in their absence their storage sheds have been broken into, and that all the carcases that weren’t stolen have putrefied because the refrigeration system was damaged. The father’s pains develop into a full-blown heart attack, and during the night he dies in hospital.

Kindly Herr Rudolf, the policeman, takes on the father’s role in negotiating with the Department of Forensic Anthropology, the Missing Persons Bureau and the Childcare Services; he also looks after the narrator’s mother with a solicitude never displayed by her husband. Eventually – this is not very convincing, but Treichel had me so firmly in his grip that I have only just noticed it – they are allowed to go and look at (but not speak to) the putative Arnold, Foundling 2307 and now rechristened Heinrich. It’s a long drive to the little town where he lives with his adoptive parents and works as a trainee in his adoptive father’s butcher’s shop. Butchery in the blood? They draw up outside the shop. Through the plate-glass window, the narrator sees his ‘own mirror image, except a few years older’, and watches the colour drain from the butcher boy’s face as the boy looks back at him. Herr Rudolf says nothing, and neither, at first, does Arnold’s mother. Then she tells Herr Rudolf to drive home.

The sudden ending is shattering: not because it is tragic, but because it is so unexpected, and so brutal. In fact, what Treichel has done with the whole of his tragic scenario is to leach the tragedy out of it and substitute bleakness and brutality – the brutality symbolised and highlighted by the blood-soaked butcher milieu. He is a powerful and frightening writer. The child’s disillusioned voice never wavers over the 145 pages of the story, as it races along with no paragraphs and a minimum of punctuation. The translation – by Carol Brown Janeway, who translated Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader – seems faultless.

In his photograph on the back flap of the wrapper, Treichel looks amused – a merry fellow. The cover photograph on Von Leibund Seele is more sinister: two stone wings come out of his shoulders (he must have posed in front of the statue of an angel whose body is completely hidden by his own), and the expression on his face is thoughtful and a bit ominous, as though he were plotting something – it might be Lost. If this is an angel, then it’s Lucifer.