Picture this: you get off a train and just outside the station is a gaggle of toothless hags (I’m paraphrasing), each advertising rooms to let. Needing a bed for the night, you and your partner choose a hag and she leads you to her rooms, which turn out to resemble the premises from Hostel, sans instruments of death. A prostitute, off-duty, lights a cigarette and soaks up your discomfort. Confirming silently the horror of the situation with each other, you pick both your bags up and promptly leave, and the hag follows the pair of you back down the road, before re-taking her pitch at the train station. The hag says almost nothing throughout.
Sure, the situation is intriguing through its strangeness, but what else? What might the author be trying to say? Something about the poverty, in a wide sense, of some peoples’ lives? Or the simplicity, ridiculousness, even, of many lives? Or perhaps something about the foreign place to which the couple have travelled, Odessa, and its idiosyncrasies when compared to home – the West. Or even a commentary on the couple themselves, with the woman insisting on a trip to the Black Sea, and the man acquiescing, even though he didn’t want to…
The author has laid down several scent-trails: none of them strong, all of them inconclusive; all potential threads for the reader to keep running with, after the story per se has ended. And other stories in Letti Park, the new collection from the German Judith Hermann, follow a similar, ‘not-quite-as-the-crow-flies’ path: the woman who died of a broken heart, and the young son she left behind. Girlfriends, meeting after several years apart, with one now juggling motherhood, domesticity and sexual deviancy. The childhood friend who talks but never listens. And two women, well passed their prime, crossing paths at a supermarket checkout and remembering when they made young men gaunt with desire.
Letti Park lacks the ‘instant hit’ that so much modern short fiction delivers; that fizz & burn. Dare-I-say, Anglo-American fiction is so damn good at stoking the reader’s appetite – and then satiating it with lashings of good things – that reading outside of that axis requires adjustment. Readers of Letti Park will need a more refined palette, because it offers no sugar-rush.
Any Cop?: These are subtle but strong stories that deceive, wrongfoot the reader, and ask them to hunt for meaning. And whilst nothing is made clear, it’s all there – and it’s well worth the chase.