Funeral for a Dog

Thomas Pletzinger doesn’t waste any time. In the first paragraph of his stunning debut novel Funeral for a Dog, his central character Daniel Mandelkern tells exactly what to expect: “I’m sending you seven postcards and a stack of paper, XXX pages. This stack is about me. And about memory and the future.” Sure enough, the “stack of paper”—which includes interview transcripts, drawings, and facsimiles a la Johnathan Safran Foer minus some of the schmaltz—is a fresh, vigorous read that nimbly weaves together the anxieties of the (real and reconstructed) past and the unknown, dubious future.

Mandelkern is an ethnologist/journalist whose professional and personal life are under increasing strain (his wife Elisabeth is also his editor, and they have been arguing). The novel finds him leaving Hamburg on assignment to interview Dirk Svensson, a peculiar author of children’s books who lives on a lake with his three legged dog. During his stay, Mandelkern stumbles upon a manuscript of Svensson’s revealing a complicated mix of people, events, and circumstances.

Pletzinger is careful never to reveal too much to us at once. Structurally, the novel alternates between a chapter of Svensson’s narrative manuscript and a handful of Mandelkern’s observations and reflections, told in easily digestible, paragraph-long chunks with clever titles. Theses parallel stories unfold and converge, overlapping and slowly piecing together the histories of Pletzinger’s characters.

It is this process of uncovering and revealing that makes the novel so interesting to read. It is up to us to start seeing relationships between the smallest details (for example, golden bobby pins). Mandelkern admits he is obsessed with “making connections where there are no connections”. As Mandelkern introduces us to the details of his life with Elisabeth and his investigation into Svensson’s world, we are given so little information that we are left on our own to decide exactly how these details fit together:

We had no mission outside of ourselves (I found her red hair in the corners of my apartment). From our words and thoughts we designed streets and moved more purposefully, maybe more meaningfully, in them (she showed me the remote map quadrants), we used our bodies (I went beyond my boundaries).

This caffeinated, contemplative style propels the novel forward through the longer portions of Svensson’s manuscript (which stays truer to traditional form, but still preserves Pletzinger’s brisk, smooth style).

And within the larger context of the novel, what is missing seems to be just as important as what is present. Furthermore, as Mandelkern reads Svensson’s manuscript, he learns that only a fraction of it is true—another fraction is completely fictional, and the remainder is just a series of attempts at building some kind of cohesive, understandable connection between the real and the reconstructed. Both authors struggle desperately with the burden of stitching together and making sense of their histories, because as Svensson notes, “What you don’t hold on to disappears”. This fear of impending loss seems to drive the novel as it drives Svensson and Mandelkern to complete their work, to make sense of their histories and to move forward past them.

That said, readers have to pay attention. Pletzinger’s characters are linked in specific ways. By the end of the novel, when everything is being pulled together in one large chunk, it takes a moment to recall everything that was in Svensson’s plot-heavy manuscript. This book is packed with details that come back again and again. That one brief sentence snuck somewhere in one of Mandelkern’s jotted down paragraphs that you will never be able to find again, offhandedly mentioning a painting on the wall? Probably important. And such is the sad exuberance of Funeral for a Dog—a beautiful self-referential story about love, longing, and loss that should probably be read at least twice to fully appreciate.

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