‘Small World’ by Martin Suter

photograph by Dorothea Shefer-Vanson of cover of 'Small World' by Martin Suter (Diogenes Verlag, 1999)

It seems strange for a book written in German to have a title in English, but this book was recommended to me by the teacher of the German class I have been taking for the past few years, so I felt honour bound to accept the challenge.

My hard-earned command of the German language has taken me on a journey from almost complete ignorance to sufficient proficiency to be able to read and understand texts, albeit with the help of a dictionary (or rather Google Translate, whose voice-activated feature I have only recently discovered). I feel a sense of achievement at having been able to read a book in a foreign language, and also regard it as my insurance against the deterioration of my mental faculties. And mental deterioration is precisely the subject of this book.

On the first page we encounter the following startling statement: “When Konrad Lang returned, everything was ablaze, except the wood in the fireplace.” We soon learn that Konrad Lang is a man in his sixties who is the rather careless caretaker and sole inhabitant of his employer’s luxurious, recently-redecorated vacation home on the Greek island of Corfu, and that he is somewhat partial to alcohol.

So far, so bad. We continue reading to find that throughout his life Konrad has grown up together with Thomas Koch, the playboy son of his wealthy employers, industrialists based in Switzerland. Throughout their joint childhood and youth, he has been Thomas’s companion and friend. Together they attended an expensive boarding school, learned to ski, play the piano, sailed, swam and travelled to the usual watering-holes of wealthy Europeans. Apart from a brief statement that the blonde girl he met on one of their holidays became Thomas’s second wife, we do not learn much about the relations between the two.

After the conflagration Elvira Senn, Thomas’s mother and the owner of the Koch conglomerate, instructs her lawyer to provide Konrad with accommodation in town, allocates him a monthly stipend, and hopes never to hear from him again. Konrad is told to take his meals at a designated restaurant and embarks quite happily on his new life. While he is eating lunch there one day an elegant lady joins him at his table, they establish a relationship, and he eventually moves in with her. Rosemarie is a wealthy widow, she and Konrad are happy together and plan to get married. She encourages Konrad to cut his ties with the Koch family, and promises to support him financially.

After a year or two Konrad starts to become forgetful. He mislays things or forgets how to get home from the supermarket. He writes himself little notes to help  his memory, but eventually the doctor diagnoses incipient dementia, possibly even Alzheimer’s. Rosemarie does her best to look after him, even employing someone to help her in this task, but eventually she is persuaded by her doctor to place Konrad in a care home. The conditions in the home are comfortable, but most of the other inhabitants are further down the line with regard to dementia, and Konrad begins to decline more rapidly, despite Rosemarie’s daily efforts to spend time with him.

Konrad has a tendency to wander, and at some stage manages to get into the grounds of the Koch family estate, which was once his home. While hiding in the gardener’s shed he is discovered by Simone, Thomas’s young daughter-in-law, and she undertakes to look after him. Elvira allows her to establish Konrad in the guest chalet near the house and arrange for round-the-clock care for him.

At this point the narrative sometimes describes the world as seen by someone with incipient Alzheimer’s as Konrad (Koni) recedes into childhood memories. Simone tries to help him by showing him photos from his younger days with Thomas (Tomi), and also obtains medical help from physicians doing research into the disease.

At this point the story takes some unexpected twists and turns. Was it the experimental medicine or some other event that helped Konrad’s memory to improve, and is the change real or imagined? Events from the joint childhood of Koni and Tomi come to light, and the book ends with an optimistic if somewhat unconvincing twist.

Nonetheless, in my opinion this book was well worth reading for the insights into different characters as well as times and places with which I was unfamiliar.

About the Author
I was born and brought up in England. I am a graduate of the LSE and the Hebrew University. I have lived in Israel since 1964. I am an experienced translator, editor and writer.
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