When the family doctor calls on a Sunday with urgent news, it means usually no good news. The news are indeed so bad that Luka Levadski, the hero of Who Is Martha? has to go to the bathroom and throw up – for the first time since ages.
“The last time it had happened to him, he had still been wearing knickers. What had the girl’s name been? Maria? Sophia? The young girl had allowed her hand to be kissed by a man with a moustache. In front of her a slice of cake. Jealousy had grabbed the schoolboy Levadski by the throat. He had stopped in front of the window of the cafe, taken a bow and spilled the contents of his stomach onto the pavement. Touching his chest, he’d slowly assumed an upright position again.”
The cancer diagnosis for the 96-year old Professor emeritus Luka Levadski, a capacity in the field of ornithology, is certainly devastating for him, but since he lives alone and is without relatives or close friends, it is not an event that makes the world turn upside down at his age. Consulting the shelf with the medical books in his private library, he is considering his situation:
“Cyclophosphamide, sounds like a criminal offense…checks the multiplication of rapidly dividing cells. Side effects: nausea, vomiting, hair loss. May damage the nerves and kidneys and lead to loss of hearing, as well as an irreparable loss of motor function; suppresses bone marrow, can cause anemia and blindness. Well, Bon appetit. Levadski would have liked to call the doctor and chirp down the line.
If the doctor had asked him what this was supposed to be, Levadski would have stuck with the truth: A female pygmy owl attracting its mate, you idiot! And hung up. He felt like a real rascal. At the age of ninety-six Levadski was game for playing a prank.”
For Levadski, the decision is obvious: he will have none of these life-prolonging treatments and will die in style. He will buy a walking stick, an elegant new suit and hat, pull a few strings to get a passport and a visa for Vienna quickly and – thanks to the money in his bank account he got for his decades of publishing articles such as On the Red-Backed Shrike’s Humane Art of Impaling Insects and Large Prey on Thorns, or How Global Warming Alters Fish Stocks and Turns North Sea Birds into Cannibals in Western journals – is going on a visit to this place that is filled with childhood memories. Especially the regular visits of the Musikverein with his grand-aunts and the concerts there that, together with the piano lessons of his mother created a second lifelong passion in him: music.
While preparing for his last journey – he has no intention to come back to his flat in Lemberg (Lviv) – we get to know this remarkable person better. Levadski, son of two bird lovers had not an easy but an interesting life: born on the eve of the outbreak of WWI and on the same day when Martha, the last of a rare and now extinct species of passenger pigeons passed on in 1914, he survived two utopias (Austro-Hungary and the Soviet Union), a childhood overshadowed by the early suicide of his father, the war, exile in the mountains of Chechnya and later Siberia, and finally a late career as a professor with international recognition. It was a rather lonely life since Levadski never developed a deep relationship with the female sex:
“That he had a long time ago thought of winning over the opposite sex with his pathetic behavior, when his head had been filled with nothing but the mating dances and brooding habits of birds, was something he did not want to be reminded about. But he did think about it, he thought about it with a hint of bitterness. After a fulfilling academic life he knew: Women would have interested him more if they hadn’t constantly insisted on emphasizing that they were different from men. If they had been like female birds, a touch grayer and quieter than the males, perhaps they would have awakened his interest at the right time. Levadski would gladly have procreated with such a creature. Only he didn’t know to what purpose.”
The second half of the book sees Levadski in his new, last home: an old luxury hotel in Vienna, just around the corner of the Musikverein. We see him enjoying the big bath, bigger than his flat in Lemberg, we see him making acquaintances – with a taxi driver from the Ivory Coast who shares Levadski’s love of the German language; with a cheerful chamber maid from Novi Pazar, a small Balkan town; with Habib, the kind and music-loving Palestinian butler; with another old hotel guest, Mr. Witzturn with whom he is developing a kind of friendship culminating in a joint concert visit at the Musikverein followed by an evening in the hotel bar where they talk their mind about the meaning of life, friendship, and the advantages of gin as a basis to various cocktails.
In the end, Levadski looks back without bitterness. He re-discovered parts of his ego that seemed to be lost a long time ago; memories of happy moments with his parents come back; and he realizes that the gift to make friends even at an old age in the face of the end of his life makes it possible to cross barriers – physical one’s like borders, but also invisible one’s that are imposed to us by society, upbringing or our own prejudices. Or, as Levadski explains on the phone to a young intern of the Konrad Lorenz Institute:
“Barriers, barriers, barriers, you see, Madam, human beings are forever being confronted with limitations, internal or external. Sometimes the shoes are too tight, sometimes the coffin too close, do you understand what I mean?”
Luka Levadski finally breaks the barriers. And he even remembers the name of the girl he thought he had forgotten.
Who Is Martha? is a wonderful book. It is well-written, very entertaining and I read it two times in a row. It breathes sadness, wisdom, humor, and a deep human sympathy for its protagonist and people in general – they are not so different from birds, so they deserve that for sure would Professor Levadski probably say.
Marjana Gaponenko is a young author from Odessa who writes in German – what a great gift to the German language! Who Is Martha? was a big surprise for me and arguably the best book I read in 2014.
A word about the English edition: the translation by Arabella Spencer reads very smoothly and close to the original. New Vessel Press, a small American publisher with an extremely interesting program of translated fiction, is to be congratulated – this book will hopefully gain many readers and the attention it deserves. Also the cover is beautiful. A pleasure to have this book in hands.
I won the review copy of this book in the framework of the Wednesdays-are-wunderbar events of my blogger colleague Lizzy as part of the activities related to the German Literature Month. I am very grateful to have been provided with a copy of this amazing novel.
Marjana Gaponenko: Who Is Martha?, translated by Arabella Spencer, New Vessel Press, New York 2014
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