By Jane Hammons
Asked implicitly or explicitly, that’s the question underlying murder and other crimes that put life at risk. Wolf Haas’s seventh Brenner novel (the first translated into English) invites us to mull this over as Haas presents us with a multi-layered plot, a cast of intriguing characters and a narrator with a very dark sense of humor.
Along with Simon Brenner, we await a ransom request. Two-year-old Helena Kressdorf, whose mother provides abortions and other services at her clinic and whose father is known as the “Lion of Construction,” has disappeared from the backseat of the limousine in which Brenner (formerly a detective but now a chauffeur) ferries her along the autobahn between Vienna — where her mother’s clinic is — and Munich — where her father’s business is headquartered, usually stopping only in Kitzbühel, the home of Helena’s nanny.
But one day Brenner breaks his routine, stops for gas, and pulls the limousine away from the pump before going into the station to pay. He says to little Helena, “I’ll bring you a chocolate bar.” When he returns she is gone. The autobahn route is peopled with numerous suspects. The aggressive narrator tells us that even the chocolate is a culprit as Frau Doctor had been clear in her directions to Brenner, “No chocolate, Herr Simon. Absolutely no sugar!” Haas takes great pleasure in poking fun at various aspects of contemporary family life, telling us that Helena’s first word was “driver.”
In addition to the chocolate, both parents have plenty of human adversaries. At the time of Helena’s kidnapping, Kressdorf is relaxing in the “hunting den” of Bank Director Reinhard, who has imposed a ban on cell phones, so he cannot be reached. American readers will recognize the protestors with “rosaries and embryo photos” who crowd the area outside the clinic, which is housed in a building owned by a man named Knoll, who also happens to be the leader of the anti-abortion movement. He had once confronted Helena’s mother telling her that she “should watch out for her only child so that the good lord doesn’t make her disappear—like all those children she’d taken from the good lord.” In addition to Knoll, Brenner becomes a suspect, which prompts him to activate his training as a detective and find Helena himself. The narrator, who constantly directs us to “watch closely” and “pay attention” gives us some of Brenner’s history with medication and alcohol, though it is never clear why he resigned his job as a detective.
And what of God?
Near the end of the novel, Brenner is kidnapped and finds himself in the dark, “Blind like an embryo.” To go into this scene would give too much away, but suffice it to say that as God spoke to Martin Luther while he was at the toilet, Brenner, too, hears the voice of God in a similar location, though as he attempts to find meaning, Brenner’s rebirth is, well, aborted.
Because the novel is only 220 pages, I recommend reading it all at once if you can. The pace is part of the fun (the narrator counts down the hours for us). However it can be managed, I highly recommend reading Brenner and God. The story is intriguing, the dark humor provocative, Brenner an endearing character, and the narrator an original voice. I don’t know if all the Brenner novels have the same narrator, but as more of Haas’s books are translated, I look forward to finding out.