Aus dem Leben einer Matratze bester Machart (Scenes from the Life of a Top-Quality Mattress), the newest novel by the Swiss author Tim Krohn, is a slim volume of only 120 generously set pages which uses a German mattress as a device to explore the history of twentieth-century Europe.
The novel begins with Immanuel Wassermann’s journey from Berlin to Switzerland to attend a conference. There, he falls in love with Gioia, a Sicilian waitress, whom he marries and takes back to Berlin. On their journey, they overnight at a guesthouse which has just received a delivery of brand-new, top-class mattresses. The events of their wedding night leave a bloody stain on the mattress, and so Immanuel buys it and takes it back to Berlin. Immanuel, a German Jew, refuses to take the ‘Anstreicher’ Hitler seriously, and so returns to Berlin even after he finds out that the Gestapo have been looking for him. The following seven chapters of the novel follow the mattress’s journey across Europe in the subsequent decades. During the war, a family living in Gioia’s old flat use the mattress for protection during Allied air strikes. In post-war Zurich, the mattress is bought at a flea market and helps an exhausted couple revive their relationship. In the 1960s, it provides comfort for an elderly lady suffering from dementia. In the 1970s, a Swiss student hopes the mattress will help him seduce yet another young woman. In the 1980s, a young woman is stranded in Rome, where the mattress offers shelter. Later, it saves the life of an enamoured Italian man who has lost his way at sea and falls overboard.
The eighth and final chapter returns the focus to Immanuel Wassermann, who survived the vicissitudes of the Nazi era, although Gioia left him for a Jewish cardiologist an emigrated to the US. Immanuel lives in France, where he collects the flotsam and jetsam washed on shore. For Immanuel, these objects are more attractive, more alive ‘in ihrer Zersetzung und Verformung […] als in ihrer ursprünglichen monotonen, zweckgerichteten Makellosigkeit’ (‘in their decomposed, distorted state […] than in their original monotonous, designated perfection’). One day, he finds the remains of his mattress, and recognises the blood stain left by his and Gioia’s wedding night. He recalls the events of his life, his arrest on returning from Switzerland – which destroyed his belief that the Nazis were harmless as long as he refused to take them seriously – the annulment of his marriage in accordance with the Nuremberg Laws, and his life in a labour camp. He feels a sense of shame at having survived, for no one survived ‘ohne sich an anderen zu vergehen, und auch er war kein guter Mensch geblieben’ (‘without harming others, and even he had not remained a good person’).
Krohn’s writing is sparse and economical, yet immersive and engaging. The chapters function as brief vignettes, but the characters are nevertheless vivid. My only criticism regards the focus on, and meaning of, the mattress. A mattress is an intriguing choice for such a plot device, but its metaphorical significance is not clear: while it provides safety and security for its owners in times of danger, it washes up on the French coast in a dilapidated condition and is burned by Immanuel. Why is it important that the mattress is a top-quality German product, and is it significant that its remains wash up on the French coast in 1992, the year the EU was founded? Despite these reservations, this is a beautifully written and interesting novel which shines particularly strongly in the final chapter.
Published by Galiani Verlag, February 2014, 120pp