[T]here were just the forceps and his mother, the two primordial motifs in his life. – Andreas Maier, The Room
“Idiot” is an odd word. Unlike terms like “spastic” or “retard” it hasn’t really fallen out of use. It’s still common enough to say to someone, “Don’t be an idiot,” or to say of oneself, “Oh, I’m such an idiot,” and there’re no gasps. An idiot used to be a person who had an IQ between 0 and 25. It would’ve been better to be classified as an imbecile (IQs between 26 and 50) or a moron (IQs between 51 and 70). These terms were popular in psychology until around the 1960s. Now it would be deemed politically incorrect for any doctor to refer to his or her patient as an idiot even if, technically, that were correct. In Andreas Maier’s novel/memoir The Room the narrator calls his Uncle J an idiot without any malice attached. Technically he’s not although he is mildly-to-borderline retarded (can we still say ‘retarded’?); he can drive a car and hold down a job albeit a menial one. The novel, written some years after his uncle’s death (and in what used to be his uncle’s room), tracks a single, imaginary day in J’s life sometime in 1969, significantly the same year a man first walked on the moon. The book only uses J as its starting point however; it has broader concerns.
Towards the end of the book—and therefore the end of J’s day—he’s given a list of chores to do and one of these is to drive to the family firm to collect his sister. Into this account the author slips in a simple and yet noteworthy sentence:
This building, which had not dated in four hundred years, would age quickly in the years following the moon landing, and then soon fall apart.
If the future began any time it was around about then. That was when things started to change and it’s debatable whether all subsequent changes have been for the better. A few pages on, after picking up his sister from outside the above building which then housed the office of the Karl Boll stonemasonry (his sister has now taken over the day to day running of following the death of their father in 1967), J brings his car, the Nazi-brown VW Type 3 Variant, to a halt at a set of lights and we get a brief glimpse of what that future might be like:
[T]he cars are queuing thirty metres from the crossing, something which is unheard of, there are eight or ten cars ahead of him! He’s never experienced this before. […] They sit there in the traffic and can’t go any further, but why? This is completely new to them. To my mother, being held up at the church for even thirty seconds while trying to reach Kaiserstrasse by car is unheard of.
It was a very different world in 1969. You could call people idiots and no one batted an eye and yet if you saw more than two cars on a street at the same time it was something to talk about with the family over dinner that evening.
My uncle, the only human being without guilt I have ever known. On his way into the real world, but with one foot still in paradise.
It wasn’t obvious straight away that my uncle had a disability (he had been delivered by forceps). He could speak without any difficulty, for example. Admittedly only in simple sentences, but then that could be said of everyone in the Wetterau.
The Wetterau is a fertile undulating tract, watered by the Wetter, a tributary of the Nidda River, in the western German state of Hesse. I suspect for Germans it means something else, that it’s a name with certain connotations, like Essex in England. It is, as you might expect, one of the most productive agrarian regions in Germany; half of it’s used by agriculture, a third of it consists of forests and for a long time small family concerns like butchers, bakers, locksmiths and other rural businesses prospered but, like everywhere at the end of the sixties, large conglomerates are about to eat up the place:
Only when his sister gets married does the future begin in earnest (in just five years’ time  the [family] business won’t even exist anymore, and today there are rows of white houses with red-tiled roofs there, like in the model railway catalogue, and now almost all of the Wetterau looks like that).
Wetterau residents now lay to rest beneath imported gravestones. It started with stones from the Far East. Our cemetery was globalised before the term globalised even existed, and we became Friedberg’s first victims of globalisation, just twenty-eight years after the last war.
What happened in Germany happened here and in many other countries. Walking down a high street in Newcastle nowadays is no different to walking down a high street in Glasgow or Leeds. It’s all chains.
This is not a new story but what makes Maier’s telling of it compelling is his choice of hero, Uncle J. One can only imagine what J’s life would be like had he been born in Germany now. I doubt he would have his driver’s licence for starters; it wouldn’t be safe for him. He would cope though. Trains haven’t changed that much since the sixties besides it was only after the death of his father that he got the car; before that he walked everywhere. One thing is true: the modern world would have thrilled him. In 1969 J is almost forty and he lives into his late sixties but for all intents and purposes he’s just a little boy fascinated by machines and uniforms and with a special respect for people he sees as holding positions of authority; J knows his place:
[H]e was full of respect for any form of power, in awe of it; power was natural authority, and to subordinate oneself to it was as a matter of order, discipline, a way of fulfilling one’s role, as a lower-ranking member of society, as it were, a position he always assumed.
As a child this gets him in no end of bother because he’s drawn to bullies who know no better than to bully him. The forceps mercifully provided a way of coping, two actually: J has the rare condition congenital analgesia—he can’t feel pain—plus he forgets any slight, injury or disagreement almost instantaneously which is why after a beating he would be found the very next day “trotting along behind them like a dog.” The only solution was to remove him from the local school and cart him off to the Rhineland in an attempt to save him from his peers.
As a grown man J gets taken advantage of in other ways:
My uncle was a great frequenter of inns, and whenever he went someone or other would suss him out. My uncle, mentally impaired at birth, was constantly boasting about his existence, or rather about his Boll existence, his existence as a Boll. He sat there in the inns and told stories about his father, the big company boss with a chauffeur and a dog.
From time to time, he ran into Gerd Bornträger at the station in the mornings. I imagine that they met in the Köpi, a Königspilsner inn in Bad Nauheim. Bornträger was, of course, completely drunk when he made my uncle’s acquaintance and immediately managed to get a few beers out of him, followed by a few schnapps to wash them down. That’s how my uncle always met people.
It’s hard, however, to label J as a tragic figure. So much in life delights and distracts him be it old Luis Trenker mountain rescue films, Wehrmacht tanks (any tanks really) or wandering “along … forest path in sturdy shoes with a forest-appropriate jacket, almost like the hunters.” He’s an innocent but because he’s technically an adult he does sometimes stumble into adult situations and his nephew has fun imagining how, for example, J would’ve coped if he ended up after work in the Kaiserstrasse district, the red light area, spoiled for choice and confused by the choice:
[T]his time he hesitates in the street, until someone smacks him on the shoulder from behind, a work colleague with the remains of an onion sandwich in his hand, a man who’s on his way to somewhere that is home, the sandwich in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the sandwich from his wife at home, the cigarette from Marlboro. A brief exchange of words, a glance back at the clock, and the switch is flipped once more. Uncle J’s nature jumps back to the other side, and J the Wetterau man paces swiftly back to the train station. Everything is good and in order, the world is still in one piece. And so it should be, for nothing has happened.
Nothing much happens in this imaginary day but then it seems nothing much happens to J most days:
He was always waiting. His life consisted of waiting. If no one was around it was like he was switched off, except in the cellar, except in the forest, except in the inn (although there was always someone there) and except in paradise (there was someone there, too, or at least in theory).
It would’ve been unrealistic to concoct any more of an adventure than J has. He spends the day looking forward to going to Forsthaus Winterstein to talk to the hunters and although things look as if they might conspire against him that’s where the book ends. A perfect day.
This, I can tell you here and now, will not be a book for everyone. People over a certain age will be able to relate to it even if the culture is one or two steps removed from what we remember our sixties being like. Nostalgia only works if you were there and this is definitely a walk down memory lane for Maier and a way for him to come to terms with conflicting memories of his uncle. If Clive James is right when he writes in the preface to Unreliable Memoirs, his autobiography disguised as a novel and the only book similar to The Room that I can think of, “that books like this are written to satisfy a confessional urge; that the mainspring of a confessional urge is guilt [and] that somewhere underneath the guilt there must be a crime” then the scene where the author remembers him and his older brother tormenting J as he watched TV probably meets that criterion but there’s also guilt by association, he clearly feels guilty for—or at least embarrassed about—the way his grandfather, J’s father, mistreated him not even allowing him to travel in the car with him to work. To his credit he humanises J without idolising or caricaturing him. We never forget that he’s… cognitively disabled—rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?—but it ceases to be all he is quite early in the book. It doesn’t matter either that we don’t know his family. Families are families. History is history. Life is life.
When we look at our own past we see ourselves and although we don’t learn as much about J as we might like—there’s a lot less of “the room” in the book than you’d imagine for a book called The Room and we probably learn more about the Wetterau than we’ll ever need to know. We also learn quite a bit about the author. It’s spread throughout the book admittedly but he’s there along with the pop philosophy and the mostly useless trivia: Did you know Elvis Presley lived in Bad Nauheim for a year and a half? Why’s it called Bad Nauheim? Because it has a spa. The ‘bad’ can be either a prefix or a suffix (Marienbad, Wiesbaden). It will be interesting to see where Maier goes from here. The Room marks the beginning of a proposed series of eleven memoir/novels exploring small town life in post war Germany. The next three instalments, The House, The Street and The Town have been completed. Goodness knows how long we’ll have to wait for translations though. For me where this book works—and I’m really not sure how he can do this in the volumes to come—is with the semi-fictionalised malodourous uncle (did I not mention he smells?) at its centre. Everyone else is rendered in two dimensions. Without him the book would only be of interest to locals.
Onkel J. was also the focus of a column which Maier wrote for Volltext and these were later reprinted in book form.
You can read an excerpt from the book here.
Andreas Maier was born in Bad Nauheim in 1967. He studied classical philology, German and philosophy in Frankfurt and is a doctor of philosophy in the field of German Studies. In addition to winning the Ernst Willner Prize at the Ingeborg Bachmann Literary Competition in 2000, he received the Jürgen Ponto Foundation’s Literary Support Prize and the Aspekte Literary Prize for his first novel Wäldchestag. The Room was Long-listed for the German Book Prize 2010. Maier currently lives in Hamburg.