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To the Back of Beyond destabilises everything in the most stable of lives

Peter Stamm's haunting new novel is simple, yet irreducible and mysterious.

The forensic study of heterosexual desire in Seven Years, the Swiss-German writer Peter Stamm’s first novel to be translated into English, announced a formidable European writer to the Anglophone world. Reading To The Back of Beyond, his third novel, one begins to discern recurring themes in his work: man-woman relationships, marriage, desire, infidelity, family, a particular bourgeois matrix of life that can become a trap despite it – or even, because of it – being the end-point of the individualist desire that lies at the foundation of capitalist societies.

The story of To The Back of Beyond is simple yet irreducible and mysterious. On the day Astrid and Thomas and their two children, Konrad and Ella, return home to their small town in Switzerland from summer holiday in Spain, Thomas opens the garden gate in the evening, while Astrid has gone inside to settle the children in bed, walks out onto the street and keeps walking. It’s not giving away a crucial plot-twist to mention that he will never return to the life he walks out of, nor is it an unwelcome divulgence to note that we will never be told the motives behind this act. The book will alternate, in short sections, between Thomas and Astrid, and while we will be let inside her head, we will be kept out of his almost entirely.

The Thomas strand of the narrative follows him walking into the valleys and mountains of Switzerland, avoiding populated towns to prevent being noticed by people who may be questioned later about a missing person. He sleeps outdoors while the weather is favourable, then takes to living in mountain huts, engaging in short-term casual employment, before moving on to another place.

Astrid’s story sees her going to the police eventually to report her missing husband and breaking the news to the children. She even drives along a route she thinks Thomas could conceivably have taken; the novel seems to hint that she arrives in some of the places he has passed through or briefly stayed at but just after his departure. The investigation ends on a baffling note and marks a kind of pivot in the text towards a shifting and elusive mixture of fantasy, reality, and interiority in Astrid’s world.

As the novel nears its end, Stamm does two skilful things with time: the first is to indicate effortlessly its passing in large segments, so that we move from the earlier calibration of time as hours and days through weeks and months to years and decades; the second, to loop back in time to give us the story of how Astrid and Thomas came to be together.

Stamm’s interest does not lie in the texture of lives that are usually depicted by novelists in lyrical- or psychological-realism, especially in the logical progression of events that generally provides the dynamo for plots. For example, almost all the problems related to childcare, money, and work that would arise from an earning parent’s inexplicable disappearance seem to have been airbrushed away and when they do make an appearance – to answer the reader’s incredulity at their absence, I feel – they are dealt with in the most perfunctory manner.

There is very little context, social or economic, except what we can infer from light details. Stamm is not even interested in psychological interiority. He is more concerned about something that I can only call existential, something that will be indicated merely through the most oblique of hints, such as during a moment of descent through the hills in Thomas’s wandering, when he “had the feeling that something had fallen away from him, a repression, a pain”. What has Thomas walked away from? What does his freedom entail? What are its costs? The novel invites these questions but will not supply answers, destabilising everything one takes for granted in the most stable and ordinary of lives; the effect can be dizzying.

The translation, by Michael Hofmann, a mighty critic and poet as well as one of the foremost translators from the German language, does an impeccable job in rendering the blanched austerity of Stamm’s style and its deliberate affectlessness. Hofmann himself writes a prose that is so densely packed, so impatient with the desire to fill his sentences with ideas, that it feels restless, fissile, alive (see his introduction to Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, or any essay in his collection Where Have You Been?). I often wonder if he becomes another person to let Stamm’s German speak through his English. 

Neel Mukherjee’s latest novel “A State of Freedom” (Vintage) is out now

To the Back of Beyond
Peter Stamm. Translated by Michael Hofmann
Granta, 160pp, £12.99

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear