The Camera Killer by Austrian writer Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn, is a psychological thriller that was first published in 2003 as Der Kameramörde. The unnamed narrator travels to the region of West Styria over Easter weekend with his “partner” Sonja to stay with their friends, Eva and Heinrich Stubenrauch. Shortly after they arrive, the two couples hear about an appalling crime committed nearby, which they and the rest of the public are compelled to follow in the news over the weekend, each with differing reactions. The original report is that a man forced “two children of seven and eight to kill themselves by jumping from tall trees and filmed those crimes with a video camera. A third boy, the deceased children’s nine-year-old brother, managed to escape.” More information is gradually released, such as the fact that the surviving boy is in an induced coma and the mother has been institutionalized, and the video of the crime is even broadcast to the public on the news. The novel (really on the border of being a novella) focuses on the reactions of the four individuals as they follow the manhunt and the media sensationalism of the event.
The disturbing premise is certainly absorbing, and the book is by no means a standard thriller or detective story. However, despite the low page count (it’s just over 100 pages), the book seemed to drag on. Glavinic appears to be equally interested in the ability of his characters to continue on with their ordinary activities and concerns in spite of the horror that edges in. A pretty standard passage reads as follows:
Heinrich and I put up the net. We marked out the court with discarded articles of clothing and broken twigs stuck in the ground (those of the previous day that had been dislodged by the wind or the nocturnal rainstorm). We also flattened the grass at the edge of the court by treading it down.
The wicker basket was unpacked by my partner and Eva. My partner extolled the fact that our short walk there had refreshed her and said we should at once devote the time that remained before the storm broke to playing doubles. We duly did so. Team Heinrich/self beat Team Eva/my partner 15:6. Heinrich pronounced this pointless; the difference in level of ability was too glaring. So we changed partners. My partner and I were narrowly defeated (11:15) by the Stubenrauchs.
The book follows events like this, with a focus on minute and mundane details, until an arrest is made. The Camera Killer relies perhaps more on what is not said than on what the narrator describes, but the tone doesn’t entirely work. These detailed descriptions, the flat and stilted tone, and the disappointing dénouement detract from the author’s intriguing and Kafka-esque approach. The narrator comes off as cold and robotic, and I imagine that is a deliberate choice to create contrast between the low-key prose and the intensity of the situation rather than a failure on the part of the writer or translator, but the narrator makes a rather dull robot. Rather than being chilling in its banality, it’s just bland.
The narrator is not the only one without much of a personality; the women—or “womenfolk” as they are often referred to—do little more than prepare food, think about food, act scared, and nag the men. Heinrich is the only one with any defining characteristics and that’s basically that he’s an irritating, inconsiderate jerk. The most intriguing character was probably the “fancy-dress cat” that occasionally appears around the house.
It is possible that part of the problem is the translation, although I do not have the knowledge of German to determine if that is the case. Both Glavinic and Brownjohn have received critical acclaim in the past, and this is the third time Brownjohn has published a translation of Glavinic’s work. In fact, Brownjohn has translated over 200 books and has received multiple awards, including the Schlegel-Tieck Prize and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize. Glavinic has achieved both critical and commercial success; his book Das bin doch ich (“That’s Me”), was short-listed for the German Book Prize, How to Live (Wie man lebel soll) reached the top of the Austrian best-seller list, and the original version of The Camera Killer, Der Kameramörde, was awarded the Friedrich-Glauser Prize for crime fiction. Nonetheless, there were moments that sounded a bit strange in English, for example: “Masticating, she said it was a glorious day and it mustn’t be spoiled by talk of murder and so on; Eva should bring influence to bear on Heinrich in that regard,” “We betook ourselves to the Café Wurm, surveyed the tables in the garden without sighting our womenfolk, and went inside,” or when the cameraman threatens to “pay the family a visit on October 31st and Halloween them all to death.” The frequent use of “my partner” and “womenfolk” was somewhat irritating, although I suspect that is more likely true to the original.
Perhaps some of my disappointment was due to the fact that the jacket copy described it as “gripping,” which it is not. The twist at the end of the book is very important, and unfortunately I anticipated this surprise quite early on in the book. I’m not convinced that everyone will, and I think my dissatisfaction upon reaching the final lines is absolutely influenced by the fact that I expected them. Overall, I didn’t feel that I wasted the small amount of time it took to get through this short thriller, as it was unique and at times very-well written. However, monotonous narration and occasionally awkward phrasing led me to wish that Glavinic had considered writing The Camera Killer as a short story instead.
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
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