Thomas Hettche – Pfaueninsel

We already mentioned Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island), the latest novel by the German author Thomas Hettche, in an earlier post here. Set on the eponymous island near Berlin which served as the location for a royal pleasure palace, the novel charts the life of Marie, a lady-in-waiting of small stature. As the nineteenth century progresses, the Pfaueninsel, its palaces and gardens are subject to changes in fashion and taste, and Marie sees the people she loves leave the island and the world she knew change beyond all recognition.

At the age of six, Marie is taken to the island along with her older brother, Christian. She was to serve as a lady-in-waiting for the royal family, but their visits prove rare. She lives with Fintelmann, the island’s gardener, and his family, and comes to know the Pfaueninsel better than anyone. Marie and Christian have an incestuous affair, but she later falls in love with Gustav, the gardener’s nephew. One evening, during a party, Christian makes sexual advances towards Marie, and Gustav, overtaken by anger, murders him. Marie becomes pregnant, but Gustav arranges for the child to be taken away, and he leaves the island to continue his horticultural training. IMG_20150623_172141589 Marie’s life plays out against the changes which happen on the island and farther afield. Friedrich Wilhelm III engages Peter Joseph Lenné as a landscaper, and he transforms the island into a menagerie of exotic animals—lions, kangaroos, monkeys and other animals from far-away lands find a home on the island and amuse its inhabitants and visitors. Tropical plants find their way into the island’s greenhouses. The engineer uses the latest technology to create a complex heating and watering mechanism to sustain the unusual greenery. An African man and a Pacific Islander are also brought to the island and exhibited to visitors alongside kangaroos and lions. Away from the island, cholera decimates Europe in the 1830s, Berlin morphs into a modern metropolis—‘on the island they spoke of the city, of the immensely long streets made of nothing but stone, of the tenements as tall as castles, of courtyards and the innumerable people who laboured in workshops and factories, of canals and boats full of bricks and coal […] of beer gardens and political meetings, of suffering and hunger’ (p. 266)—and in 1848, Friedrich Wilhelm IV and his family flee political unrest and find sanctuary on the island. Later, the exotic animals are transported to the newly founded Berlin Zoo, and the island is deprived of ‘its longing and all its fantasies, which were the only reason Marie and her brother had been brought here’ (p. 263).

Late in life, Marie ventures into Berlin to see a man she had met on the island. Marie hopes that a relationship with this man might offer her the chance of a fresh start away from the island, but in the city she realises that the world had become a different place a long time ago; the world of her childhood no longer exists. She senses that the city will soon encroach on to the island and destroy everything that is familiar to her. But there is another reason that Marie cannot find a place for herself in the world outside the island: she is a dwarf. Marie fits into the world of the Pfaueninsel because of its fairy-tale nature. Nothing is real, everything is just for fun, a game. Marie is timeless, and therefore cannot exist in nineteenth-century Berlin because the city is anything but timeless: it is careering towards modernity.

Hettche’s novel is full of fascinating characters, beautiful writing and meticulous detail. Fintelmann, the royal gardener, likes Marie, but her small stature unnerves him, and he ‘wants to push straps under her armpits and bind her to an espalier to make her grow straight.’ (p. 29) Gustav considers the way in which trees and rivers grown ‘in different directions’: ‘trees branch off ever more finely, rivers grow large from the filigree boughs of their sources’ (p. 100). When Marie sees the island’s first lion through the bars of its cage, its eyes are two ‘golden flashing leaves’ and in the middle of their ‘cold gold fire are small slits in the shape of almonds’ (p. 130). A red line runs around the base of a decanter ‘as around the neck of a suicide’ (p. 303). Reuter, who replaces Fintelmann as royal gardener, peels eggs by dropping them on his plate, before ‘removing the fragmented white shell with squirrel-like movements’ (p. 311).

Pfaueninsel has been well received in Germany, and was shortlisted for the German Book Prize 2014. It is a novel which deserves a wide readership and similar success in English.

Published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch, August 2014, 344pp

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