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Funeral for a Dog

Thomas Pletzinger

(W. W. Norton; US: Mar 2011)

Thomas Pletzinger’s debut 2008 novel Funeral for a Dog, which has been translated from German by Ross Benjamin and made available to English audiences in March, has quite the thorny premise. It seems the book has the notion that not only does absence and distance make the heart grow fonder, but having affairs with a couple of women you meet at a party straightens out the fact that the mother of your unborn child is sleeping with another man, thus solving all of your marital problems, at least in this case when the pair ultimately reconvenes. That’s the takeaway from the book, that cheating can only strengthen a relationship, unless I’m really missing something here.


Whether or not you’ll agree with this The Ethical Slut-style hypothesis is another matter entirely, making Funeral for a Dog a bit of a strange tale that probably isn’t suited to many readers. So consider yourself warned, I suppose, before taking a plunge into this bizarre yet hypnotic tale from an intellectual, young author who, like many first novelists, has a compelling but murky voice. 


Funeral for a Dog involves two stories, each told by their respective characters, both in their 30s just like the author himself. The first story, and framing device, involves a German ethnographer turned freelance journalist named Daniel Mandelkern who is sent to northern Italy to interview a reclusive children’s book author named Dirk Svensson at his lakeside house where he lives with a three-legged dog. Mandelkern happens to have been sent there on assignment by his wife, who also is his boss at the newspaper that he works for, and he tells his story as a form of participant observation throughout his nearly weeklong stay at his subject’s house in early August 2005.


The second story, which is told in flashback form by Svensson, involves the author’s escapades, sexual and otherwise, throughout Brazil and post-9/11 New York. It turns out, halfway through Funeral for a Dog, however, that Svensson’s story is actually an abandoned memoir within the novel named Astroland, named after a theme park in Coney Island, that Mandelkern uncovers in the bedroom of his host’s house.


As the novel progresses, we come to learn that Mandelkern is a bit on the outs with his wife (she wants kids, he doesn’t) and that Svensson has had a rather tangled string of affairs with various women, including an American photographer turned illustrator who happened to have drawn pictures for his best-selling children’s book, The Story of Leo and the Notmuch, which, to be honest, is very morbid for a kid’s book seeing that it deals with the loss of a friend. Svensson is on very friendly terms with this illustrator, even inviting her to visit his lakeside home by the novel’s close, despite the fact that the novel suggests that he’s now married to a Finnish woman.


At first blush, Funeral for a Dog seems to mimic the plot of Jonathan Carroll’s mind-bending 1980 classic, The Land of Laughs seeing as though the latter book has to do with a biographer travelling to a remote village to profile a deceased children’s book writer. (Like Funeral for a Dog, canines also figure prominently in Carroll’s novel.) However, Funeral for a Dog lacks the magic realist element’s of Carroll’s work and is actually more of a meditative look at male-female relationships that tries to plumb deep, but ultimately winds up with the reader asking more questions about the characters’ state of affairs than receiving any answers.


Even at the end of the book, I wasn’t entirely sure if one female character was really Svensson’s wife, if this female character’s child really belonged to Svensson, if another child was also Svensson’s, and if another female character that appears at the author’s villa late in the third act was still something of a lover to Svensson.


Pletzinger has a very distinctive voice and gives his characters various shades of narrative coloring. Mandelkern, for instance, has a habit of ending his sentences on a parenthetical thought (‘like so’). This sometimes works to great effect, and sometimes it doesn’t. Plus, it does get a little grating after awhile when your character is offering up anti-theses to his statements in his own little thought bubbles.


Svensson’s tale is much more linear and novelistic, though his sections involve lengthy pieces of prose with very few paragraph breaks. It’s a strength of the novel that Pletzinger is able to carry off two separate styles of writing and structure them in such a way that, if you tire of one style, chances are you’re only a few pages away from a switch to the other.


Kudos, too, go to Benjamin as this must have been a very difficult book to translate, not only as a result of these stylistic switches but because the novel weaves in multi-lingual elements such as snatches of German, Italian, Finnish and Spanish (likely others, as well). There are also a few sections that involve rhyming couplets of poetry, which makes the reader stop dead in his tracks wondering just how Benjamin managed to pull that off, assuming that these bits rhymed in the original German.


The pleasures of Funeral for a Dog, however, are mostly found early in the narrative, as we get to know the characters and their past starts to gradually unpeel like the skin of an onion. Pop culture figures prominently early on as well, as in the New York section of Svensson’s story, the reader is swept past Moby’s apartment en route to an intimate encounter and Mandelkern winds up rummaging through Svensson’s bookshelf in order to decode the type of person the children’s book author really is.


However, something happens about halfway through the book and things get a little complex – a bit too complex, which leads the reader to feel as though Pletzinger has swum a little too deeply over his own head. As one character puts it, “The stories [in Astroland] are one-third truth, one-third fiction and one-third the attempt to glue the other two together with words.” That means that we never really get to figure out what makes Svensson tick, what his true motivations are, and what would lead him to abandon his memoir in favour of a book written for children.


By the end of Funeral for a Dog, it’s not only never really clear what kind of a person Svensson is and what Mandelkern has learned of him, but what Mandelkern has learned about himself and why he makes the decision about his own marital/work arrangement that he ultimately winds up making. Funeral for a Dog glosses over the requisite requirement of any sort of character motivation. Thus by the book’s end, the reader probably won’t care too much about the individuals who populate this dog’s breakfast of a narrative.


There are also things in the plot that dangle in Funeral for a Dog that will puzzle and baffle the reader. An early section of Astroland ends with the tantalizing prospect that something earth-shattering is going to happen on Montauk, Long Island, but then that narrative ignores this element entirely and Mandelkern never does get to the bottom of why this reference is so important.


There is also a third party in Svensson’s memoir named Felix Blaumeiser, who happens to be using Svensson’s wife or lover as a mistress, but we never get a sense of who he is or why his possible death (you’ll have to read the book to find out if he does die, considering that this is a pretty major plot point) has any effect on the characters.


Plus, one gets the sense that Svensson is a bit of a chump for not handily beating the snot out of this character once he realizes what’s going on or, at the very least, breaking things off with the mother of his potential child, which makes Svensson a lackadaisical character who appears to just take life’s hard knocks as they’re handed to him by getting drunk, going to parties, and laying as many women as he can find. The reader will be left in the dark as to whether or not this is his way of getting revenge, or if he’s just as amorous as his partner appears to be. Pletzinger’s protagonists don’t really act as protagonists as a result, and that makes Funeral for a Dog a little hard to take.


Still, Funeral for a Dog is a book that offers intrigue, even though it runs out of steam by it’s end. Pletzinger has some multifaceted things to say about the nature of human relationships and even death itself as, yes, the three-legged dog owned by Svensson does indeed die (and I’m not giving anything away here as this is noted in the first few pages of the book, let alone the title). However, the strands weaved by Pletzinger seem to be more of an academic exercise than anything else given the flaws of the novel outlined above.


That said, the novel is a dense read and one that forced me to re-read its introduction, a series of postcards that Mandelkern sends his wife, just to hunt for more clues as to Mandelkern’s end-of-novel predicament. I would thus suppose that Funeral for a Dog is a novel that might be meant to be read twice, just to try to attempt to put together the fragmentary pieces of the overall narrative. Whether or not it’s a tome worth reading again is probably going to be a matter of how you feel about the subject matter, and whether or not you feel that marital infidelity is an agreeable course of action in certain circumstances.


Funeral for a Dog has a lot to answer for, and its deliberate plot holes don’t really answer the questions that are posed to the reader, making it an interesting read but one that might trouble and unsettle you once you close the cover for the final time. Maybe that’s the point, but if so, it makes Funeral for a Dog a decidedly unmoral book that celebrates the depravity of human nature and, as such, feels about as castrated from reality and the consequences of certain actions as the metaphor of Svensson’s dog missing his fourth leg.

Rating:

Zachary Houle is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee for his short fiction, and the recipient of a writing arts grant from the City of Ottawa. He has had journalism published in SPIN magazine, The National Post (Canada), Canadian Business, and more. He also reviews books for bookwookie.ca.


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