All I can think of is ‘you wrote a Bad Roman’ to the Lady Gaga tune.
What’s this Bad Roman?
What’s this Bad Roman?
I don’t usually give up on a book I spent €15 on. But I had to give this one up. I had to. I got to page 123 and thought, Jesus Christ on a silver pushbike, I can’t do this anymore.
Which is strange, because everything looked great. The review on New Books in German looked great, the premise looked great, the cover looked great. I do usually enjoy satire – I devoured both the German and English version of Timur Verme’s Hitler-noveau Er Ist Wieder Da (Look Who’s Back).
I’m not going to include a highlights section, because there weren’t any. But I will give a brief synopsis.
A small town in the Bavarian Alps is slowly being bought out by a Chinese billionaire called Chen. The main character, Othmar, is a slovenly alcoholic who lives off the small payments he receives as the carer of a black Mancunian DJ who had an unfortunate drunk skiing accident twenty years before. The novel meanders along depicting the eccentric characters – exactly 46 -remaining in this slowly dying town.
This is satire trying to be clever. Sometimes it is clever, sometimes it is funny, but it’s mostly just boring. Othmar is completely uncompelling, and so are the other characters in the village. They’re mostly racist or rudderless, or a combination of both. There’s no real intrigue developing over the first few chapters, and its attempt at Thoman Mann Magic Mountain-style surrealism falls flat because I remained completely uninvested by the 30% mark. There is a huge amount of references to Austrian things which I didn’t really get (which I’m not blaming the author for, it was just another reason I struggled), and a lot of nostalgia for a kind of amorphous 80s/90s punk rock/DJ-culture I’m too young to relate to.
The satire was largely blunt and underwhelming. Poking fun at provincial racists is fun, but it can’t sustain a book. This could have been a brilliant book, a comment on the gradual decay of the EU, with especially dire warnings for the post-Covid age. But it didn’t manage it. It just didn’t. The characters feel flat, 2D. The story is going nowhere. The story starts when most of the town and its residents are already gone. I didn’t really understand why Schalko did this. The idea of slow decline could have been imaginatively developed. Chen is a mysterious, amorphous character. Nobody seems to have seen him, just his white Toyota rolling by. I understand that this is a conscious device by the author to comment on the ‘threat’ to the West posed by the Eastern economies in the 21st century. Keeping Chen anonymous means he can represent almost anyone, anything. But this is set twenty years after he first started buying the place. And nobody knows what he’s planning, nobody has even seen him? It’s just unbelievable.
I had almost no idea of place of setting, even a third of the way in. The Alps are a beautiful landscape. Beautiful and isolated for the people still living in the mountains, largely untouched by the 21st century. Believe me, I’ve lived in a similar place in Germany. Why did Schalko pay almost no attention to setting when setting is almost the most important facet of this novel? Many rural places are currently suffering with population decline as young professionals seek their fortune in the cities. But I had no idea of the place. The mountains, the lakes, the resort-ness of the place goes unmentioned. They could have been anywhere.
It could have worked as a short story, maybe. I was looking forward to an Austrian adventure, wittily written, a social commentary on the global shift to the right. But don’t get this book. You will be disappointed. It spreads itself too thin, it tries to develop too many characters simultaneously, meaning that nothing is compelling. Nobody is developed well.