New father’s book by Andreas Schäfer: sometimes cottony, sometimes barbed wire

New father's book by Andreas Schäfer: sometimes cottony, sometimes barbed wire

Writer Andreas Schäfer remembers his deceased father. “My Father’s Shoes” doesn’t want to be a family novel. does it work?

Man being fed a chocolate bunny by a toddler in a high chair

Family relationships are time machines: father and toddler in the 70s Photo: Jocelyn Michel/getty images

The last encounter between the then 81-year-old Robert Schäfer and his son Andreas Schäfer took place in the summer of 2018, a few days before the operation, from which Robert Schäfer will never wake up. A cancer has returned. A brain biopsy was needed. Before the operation, Robert Schäfer travels from Frankfurt, where he lives, to Berlin, where he was born, for a few days. He drives to go to the opera and to spend time with his son and his daughter, his granddaughter. Despite the medical worries, the days will be very relaxed.

Back in Frankfurt, a fatal hemorrhage occurs in the brain stem during the anesthesia, which the doctors initially overlook and against which they can then do nothing. From then on, Andreas Schäfer and his mother, who is now separated from her husband, have to think about when to turn off the machines that keep their father, who is in an artificial coma, alive. (There is a second son, but he stays out of this question, burdened with psychological problems.)

In his new book “My Father’s Shoes”, Andreas Schäfer describes his relationship with his father from the end. That determines the perspective. Mourning work, emotional analysis, subsequent recognition, questions of meaning follow. The father’s life, one’s own life as a son up to that point and the relationship between the two is turned back and forth from within and at the same time with a reflective distance.

During the last encounter, Andreas Schäfer, also already 50 years old and a well-known novelist (“We four”, “The Garden Room”) run a recording device more on a whim. “What I’ve wanted to know for a long time,” is how the son wants to start the conversation. But the father immediately interrupts: “The secret!”

The son is amazed: “Is there one?”

But there is none.

It’s just his father’s joke, and a pretty good one at that, as he refers to the dramaturgy with which family matters are often spoken and written: with family secrets, laboriously circumnavigated touchy points, that will break out at some point, and individual seething events in the past that are still weighing on the present.

Shock waves from the war

With the Schäfers, however, everything is on the table, including the difficult ones. “My father liked to talk a lot about himself, always,” it says once, but then comes a caveat, “but sometimes his speech seemed like whistling in the woods.”

During the Second World War, his father’s house in Berlin was bombed out, seven-year-old Robert Schäfer saw it, shell shocked staggering out of the bunker, burn; a traumatic experience from which the son says he “felt the shock waves right into my biography”. And there is a second “wound”: When the father introduces his bride, a Greek woman who has moved to Hamburg, to his parents, he is summarily disinherited, we are here in the mid-1960s. A foreigner as a daughter-in-law is not welcome.

This also leaves traces in the son’s biography. Family relationships are sometimes time machines. In them one experiences social constellations and interpersonal practices that one actually considers to have been overcome, but still have some of their effects as present. The father’s life goes back to that emotional hardship for which Helmut Lethen coined the term “cold teaching”.

families and taboos

Andreas Schäfer also makes no secret of the many quarrels in the marriage, which will eventually lead to the separation of the couple (before they become more comradely friends with each other again in old age). The times when family things were taboo – you don’t talk about that in public! – are also over.

Books about fathers have been a pretty solid trend lately. The interesting thing about such books as “The Forgetful Giant” by David Wagner, “Father and I” by Dilek Güngör“Military Knights” by Michael Kleeberg, “Everything we don’t remember” by Christiane Hoffmann or, somewhat more complicated because it is more indirect, “Dowry” by Henning Ahrens is that here fathers are outlined in their respective individual stature.

The father as a patriarch, as a perpetrator and as a representative of the social order, all of that still exists. In addition, however, it has apparently become possible and interesting to describe fathers not as authorities but as persons. Whereby there are sometimes strange and sad stories to be told, from suppressed traumatizations to the insecurities within the post-war German society and social advancement.

Direct and undisguised

In “My Father’s Shoes”, Andreas Schäfer turns directly and undisguised to his relationship with his father. While reading his book, one gets the impression that there is no need for any external drama to charge a father-son relationship with ambivalence, on the contrary, such a relationship is inherently dramatic. Questions of recognition are just as important as feelings of shame. At one point, Andreas Schäfer writes of a “sometimes fluffy, sometimes barbed-wire relationship with him”.

The first part of the book is about tracing the shocks after the news of the failed biopsy up to the actual death of the father. There would be some reason for Andreas Schäfer to be outraged, about the unfairness of fate or, quite specifically, about possible treatment errors by the doctors. But that is not the driving motive in this section. It’s more about processing the loss and the question of how meaningful it is – that’s just the way of life! – can be charged.

Andreas Schäfer also reflects on this motif based on the last encounter. He feels her out to see if something hasn’t rounded up in her, if a “coherence towards the end of life” hasn’t shown itself. And at the same time there is the question of whether he isn’t actually riding on literary conventions. The idea that a life or a relationship could finally come to an end is just a literary idea (while life itself just goes on and on until it ends).

Is life rounded?

At one point, Andreas Schäfer reflects on his notes: “This is not a novel, even if what is being created inevitably has novelistic traits. I can already feel the patterns and arcs emerging, motifs, key moments, anchor sentences.” The shimmering of this section lies between the need for comfort through thoughts of rounding off life on the one hand and the attempt to save the individual and escape the hasty family romance on the other.

In the second part, Andreas Schäfer gives sketches of a family novel, repeatedly interrupting himself. He describes his father’s difficult youth, the German-Greek marriage during which the father never really learned Greek, and then his son’s own youth, finally in the end-terrace house in Frankfurt. All this remains so specific that one does not identify with the narrator while reading. You read it more like contributions to a good conversation, compare it with your own experiences, identify differences and similarities.

There is a short third part, in which family relationships prove to be possible time machines in another sense: Empathizing with them, one can step out of the circumstances of the time and face the big questions of “What remains?” and “Who am I?” place. Andreas Schäfer does this by following in his father’s footsteps. Its last major project was to travel to all 113 inhabited Greek islands. The son is now repeating a hike he took there, climbing Mount Zas on Naxos, just like his father did. And it’s really very nice how Andreas Schäfer captures the whole profanity, but also the spirituality of such a company at the end of his book.

What remains? Among other things, it is a massive hole punch by Robert Schäfer, which the granddaughter picks out from all the legacies and puts on her schoolgirls desk. And it is the joy of hiking that the son rediscovers in himself. “A long-forgotten joy welled up in me, a vibrant childhood happiness that came simply from being by his side.”

Source link