Dan Rhodes (2010) Little Hands Clapping Canongate, Edinburgh; 320 pp.; ISBN 978-1-84767-811-9
In Germany, Herr Schmidt has long parted from his wife and chosen a series of jobs that require little effort and no emotional involvement. His sole aim in life is to save money so that he can retire to a small rented room, close the curtains and have no further involvement with people or feelings. He is a master linguist, so perhaps that is why life holds no interest for him. As the novel opens we find him working as the manager of a museum devoted to suicide.
The museum is owned by a couple only ever known as Pavarotti and Pavarotti’s wife. The husband has an uncanny resemblance to the opera singer, a resemblance cultivated because of his wife’s life-long infatuation with the tenor. The museum is the wife’s idea. She has seen unhappiness and is on a mission to save others from despair. It is her abiding passion in life, though she has chosen the world’s most passionless man in Herr Schmidt to manage it.
Schmidt lives in the attic of the museum and his only interaction with others, apart from a monthly meeting with the owners, is with a cleaning lady and the local doctor. Hulda, the devoted cleaning lady, has a shameful secret but would dearly love to introduce some passion into Herr Schmidt’s life. She never succeeds, but we are optimistic at the end of the tale that she will find love herself. Dr Fröhlicher, the local general practitioner, was in love once with a wife who did not love him, but since she died in childbirth his only passions in life are eating meat and exercising his faithful dog.
From time to time, the museum of suicide attracts people intent on killing themselves. They tend to linger in the exhibition room devoted to methods. Herr Schmidt has to clean away the consequences and the doctor is an eager volunteer to help him. Schmidt does not want the owners to know about the suicides in case Pavarotti’s wife becomes distressed and closes the museum, putting him out of work.
Meanwhile in Portugal, Mauro and Madalena grow up in the same small village and seem destined from childhood to be lovers and marry. The village baker’s son also has a deep passion for Madalena, but it appears that will always remain unrequited. Mauro and Madalena leave for the city to study at university, but after a while the handsome Mauro is tempted into the world of modelling and ends up with another, much more glamorous, woman. The distraught Madalena heads to Germany to find the suicide museum, where she means to kill herself. Her encounter with Schmidt in the museum in the middle of the night coincides with a police chase involving Dr Fröhlicher and suddenly people’s dark secrets begin to see the light of day.
Madalena learns to accept Mauro’s choice of the other woman, and returns to her home village to a life with the baker’s son. Herr Schmidt realises his dream of a life devoid of emotional involvement, though not in the way he expected. And the doctor’s deadly sin of gluttony was never going to bring him happiness, but we suspect that his trusty dog will do all right.
This is a black, though not bleak, comedy. It’s an acquired taste, but one that Dan Rhodes has chosen as his signature. His fine prose conveys the odd characters and their often frustrated emotions in a clear and empathetic way. There are many digressions in the plot, at times coming close to losing the thread, but in the end each of the characters has a choice to make about if and how they engage with life, and the ties that link them form a satisfying whole.
There are two important lessons in this novel. The first is that when you are faced with the choice of loving someone else or retreating from emotional involvement altogether, you should choose the former. It might lead to anguish and send your heart on a not always pleasant rollercoaster ride, but in the end that is preferable to living in the icy wasteland of emotional detachment. The second lesson is more prosaic: if you ever decide to involve your pet dog as a partner in crime, never take it out for exercise on a full stomach. The result could be a complete balls-up.