Haas, Wolf (2008), Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, dtv
There is a German TV show called “Wetten dass“, which is one of the most successful shows in Europe, I think. The principle is quite simple. Ordinary people come on and propose outrageous bets, do strange things like drag a car through the room while balancing an egg. Oddities like this. A celebrity then bets on the outcome (will the contestant manage to do what he proposes to do?), and agrees to do something silly in case of losing that bet. In Wolf Haas’ latest novel, published in 2006, Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren (The Weather 15 Years Ago) a man appears on the show who bets he can remember the weather in a remote mountain village in Austria during the last fifteen years; that is: he bets he can remember how on every single day during those fifteen years the weather was. The host, Thomas Gottschalk, then picks five random days and the contestant really comes through, guessing all five correctly.
That miraculous contestant is called Vittorio Kowalski. The delicious incongruity of that name may not be immediately apparent to someone who doesn’t speak the language, but in German, the name Kowalski, though it is of Polish origin, connotes a grimily working-class background, someone who comes from a very particular area in Germany, the so-called Ruhrpott, one of Germany’s most active and traditional coal mining regions. The contrast to the Italian scent that is exuded from “Vittorio” couldn’t be stronger. It is from this character and his odd bet, that this book’s involving plot is spun. An engaging story about love and death, thwarted desire and crime unfolds in its pages. Ah, but wait. You don’t yet know the strangest thing about the novel. It’s an interview.
No, really, it is. The whole book is written as an interview: an anonymous critic, known only by the term Literaturbeilage (which basically means “Book Supplement”) and Wolf Haas discuss his latest book, “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren,” not to be confused with Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, the book that I actually read. It looks exactly like an interview (or a play, for that matter), and the fictionality of it all is the only difference to an actual, journalistic interview. It’s a mammoth, in-depth interview that takes place over several days. The book they discuss doesn’t really exist, but in their discussions of minutiae from the non-existing novel, they recreate it for the reader (as much as you can “recreate” something that doesn’t exist), or a simulation of it. The critic takes it slowly, discussing the fictitious book bit by bit, not summing up events, not fast-forwarding. Thus, as far as pace and structure of the plot is concerned, the interview behaves like a novel, but through a dark and strange looking-glass.
We happen upon ‘quotes’, complete with a discussion of word choice and implication, we are told why Wolf Haas (or should that come with quotation marks, “Wolf Haas”? I think it should) chose to tell the story as he did, what his intention was in using certain symbols and allusions, and so on. The light banter between the critic and “Wolf Haas” is great fun to read, as is the whole book. If you have ever read another book by Haas, that should not come as a surprise. Wolf Haas is an Austrian writer, who became famous as a writer of crime novels centered around an inspector called Brenner. These books are smart, funny and very readable; what’s more, he got started as a writer of humorous radio dialogues, in a way, he returns to his literary origins. What did surprise me, however, was that the whole construct actually works. As we read on, we are really getting caught up in the story, in the tumultuous final events and may even be moved by its conclusion.
Although we are told right at the beginning that the story will end with the kiss that Kowalski waited 15 years for, the end does affect (and may even delight) you. I called this surprising, and it is, because the book seems so clever, so self-involved with its gadgets and tricks, but the story, that’s scattered all over that lively interview, is a good yarn, a truly entertaining tale of passion. And to Wolf Haas’ credit, although his fictitious alter ego and the critic do reflect upon the story a lot, and joke about many parts of it, he does not caricature the genre, I think. He does not take cheap potshots, or not very often. That story is affecting and it’s framed as being affecting as well, and the author may poke fun at many things, but the story isn’t one of them. Both the general method of the book and the very genre that the fictitious novel is written in (a genre which borders on caricature anyway) invite a certain danger of satirizing the book.
Haas has evaded this by imbuing the fictitious novel with an air of authenticity. Within the confines of Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” is based on an actual contestant, it’s the fictional nonfiction account of Kowalski’s exploits, and “Haas” himself has been part of these events, as an observer. Haas has himself a great time with the whole idea of authenticity, throughout the book. Additionally to what has already been mentioned, Haas presents “Haas” as a writer who’s open to others’ interpretations, who would not want to claim sole ownership of a book’s meaning. “Haas” may have a personal reading of the novel, but he does not necessarily accord it a special status. But in the actual book, Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, we only get “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” as read by the critic and “Haas”, we only, so to say, get his side of the story.
It’s a neat reversal: early in the novel we learn that “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” had been written from Kowalski’s perspective, so that many aspects that concern only him are not raised. As Wittgenstein said, you can’t see your own eyeballs. Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, in contrast, is written from Haas’ perspective so we only get his reading of the story. The aspects he selects to make the fictitious novel palpable, are those that his individual critical mind would consider relevant. The discussion of the limitations of Kowalski’s point of view are allusions to this. Thus, the book becomes a Chinese box of poetological reflections. All kinds of sections refer to all other kinds of sections, and any aspect must be read with reference to the particular filter you’re using. Are we talking about the real events that “Haas” witnessed, the childhood events that “Haas” can only guess at, the fictitious novel or the actual novel that you can read in the actual world. The ease with which Haas handles these levels puts many other, more serious writers to shame. And this despite the fact that the whole business of levels is but a background issue.
The two most important themes of the book are the story on the one hand, and the ongoing discussion about the limits of authorial control over their material which may be the most dominant part of the interview. “Haas” is frequently confronted with lewd readings of passages that he considered proper and not sexual at all, he is struggling both with those parts of “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” that are fiction, and with those that are nonfiction. “Haas” bases much that he has not observed himself on interviews with Kowalski (see, different levels, iterations again) that he himself had conducted. All this is, as I said, great fun, moving, smart and much more. The only downside to this is the actual writing. Having written an interview, Haas has had to use a language that sounds colloquial, that recreates the authenticity of an actual interview. But a whole book of artificially blanded language can be taxing, and does reduce the enjoyment of this book to an extent. It’s a good thing then that it’s so clever, even on the level of language. Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren may be somewhat bland, but it also contains the occasional pun and intriguing observations about characteristics of the Austrian variety of German. If anyone who reads this has any pull with translators: do translate it. I cannot imagine Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren to be less than terrific in French or English. It’s simply a good book, one of the few books I know that is a complex, genuinely experimental novel, and at the same time a quick, fun, light read. That’s why it both became a bestseller and won a prestigious literary prize. Highly recommended.