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

Photo: Getty

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

Photo: Getty