Suskind's sober message enclosed in lighthearted coming-of-age tale

July 04, 1993|By Zofia Smardz

MR. SUMMER'S STORY

Patrick Suskind

Knopf

128 pages. $17 German writer Patrick Suskind proved himself a master of the macabre and the portentous in his two earlier novels, "Perfume" and "The Pigeon." They were bizarre tales turning on the twisted obsessions of their heroes, characters who skimmed the fine line between sanity and madness.

By contrast, the hero of Mr. Suskind's latest work is perfectly ordinary, an adolescent boy growing up in post-war Germany and worrying about all the matters that worry little boys: learning to ride a bicycle, practicing for piano lessons, trying to win the heart of the prettiest girl in class.

Yet for all that, "Mr. Summer's Story" is far more than the little coming-of-age novel it behaves like on the surface. Its innocent tale of youthful concerns is intricately laced with the familiar eeriness and portent that are his trademark.

The portent in this case is personified by Mr. Summer, the mysterious title figure who spends his life walking restlessly and endlessly about the environs of the picturesque Bavarian town where the story is set. Mr. Summer arrives at the village, no one knows whence, shortly after World War II. Soon he becomes a familiar sight, striding purposefully but without objective along the roads and pathways around town.

Mr. Summer never stops, never speaks, never does anything but wait and walk. Though his peregrinations inspire curious speculation at first, over the years the villagers grow so accustomed to him that they cease to pay him any heed, and when at last he disappears, it's a good long while before anybody even notices.

The adolescent narrator has several significant run-ins with Mr. Summer, however, and gradually comes to comprehend that some dread agony propels the tortured figure on his constant rounds.

Still, Mr. Suskind is tantalizingly obscure about his meaning. Who is Mr. Summer? Is he a man fleeing his demons of a wartime past? Is he the conscience of his nation, never able to rest even while his neighbors grow slowly comfortable and complacent as the memory of war recedes? Is he simply Everyman, rushing purposelessly through life without stopping to consider why? And is he running away from death, or toward it?

It's the author's achievement that Mr. Summer can be seen as all these things, and more, depending upon the view of life each reader brings to this bedeviling little book. Mr. Suskind writes in a simple, catchy, breezy style, with lots of comic ruffles and flourishes alternating deftly with the minor chords of Mr. Summer's appearances upon the page.

Unfortunately, one pivotal scene turns on a rather sophomoric device that weakens the middle section of the book, although youthful readers, at whom the story is avowedly aimed, might be more receptive to the intended hilarity than adults.

John E. Woods' translation from the German is generally excellent, but the Anglicizing of all the names seems to serve no purpose except to preserve a minor pun late in the book, and otherwise gives the proceedings an odd, displaced quality.

While not as powerful as "Perfume," the book that made Mr. Suskind famous, "Mr. Summer's Story" upholds his reputation as a writer with a disturbingly unorthodox world view and matching literary skills. Drolly illustrated by New Yorker artist Sempe, it sneaks up on you with a sober message all the more ominous for the lighthearted package in which it's wrapped.

Ms. Smardz is a writer living in Washington.

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