There’s a scene in “Before Sunrise” where the young couple encounters two Austrian guys who tell the visitors about a play they are putting on, an eye-rolling bit of Continental pretension.
Man with tie: This is a play we’re both in, and we would like to invite you.
Céline: You’re actors?
Man with tie: No, not professional actors uh, part-time actors, for fun.
Man with jacket: It’s a play about a cow, and an Indian searching for it. There are also in it politicians, Mexicans…
Man with tie: Russians, Communists…
Man with jacket: Russians.
Jesse: So, you have a real cow on stage.
Man with tie: No, not a real cow. It‘s an actor in a cow costume.
Man with jacket: (Gesturing.) And he’s the cow.
Man with tie: Yes, I am the cow. And the cow is a bit weird.
Man with jacket: The cow has a disease.
Man with tie: She’s acting a bit strange, like a dog. If someone throws a stick, she fetches it, and brings it back. And she can smoke, with her hooves (motions with his hand, as if smoking with cow’s hooves), and everything.
Imagine a whole book of that level of imagination and dialogue, and that’s Die Olympiasiegerin. Think I’m kidding? Here’s a bit from the chapter “Plattling-North” (a place name).
The victims [there has been an auto accident]: We didn’t find Plattling!
Policeman: But this is Plattling-North! And in Plattling-North, we always say: off with your head!
Street worker: Off with your head!
The street worker picks up the chainsaw.
Policeman: Do you want to remain an un-person and go to the office?
Victim: No! I don’t want to be an officeperson anymore!
Policeman: Off with your head!
The street worker saws off the victim’s head with the chainsaw.
Clothed in white and with wings the victim appears, holding his head in his hands, on a cloud with Herbert.
Policeman: Do you want to remain an un-person and get into a car?
Victim: No! I don’t want to be a carperson!
Policeman: Off with your head!
They go through three more rounds before the author gets tired of the whole scene and has the policeman shoot the street worker. Those five beheadings are the third set of similarly repetitive dialog in the same chapter. The Herbert mentioned in the stage direction is none other than a character named Herbert Achtenbusch. Direct authorial insertion, especially in an early 1980s book, is almost invariably a sign of a bad book, and Die Olypiasiegerin (The Olympic Victress) fulfills that expectation in every regard.
The title refers to Herbert’s mother, who generally but not always has the same name as author Herbert’s mother did. She was a sports teacher, and maintains that she could have won in competition at the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, had not Herbert come along in 1938. And of course had the games not been cancelled because of German and Japanese aggression starting the Second World War. In some ways, the book is a collection of might-have-beens and tales of dream logic about the lives of Herbert’s parents with and without him. Roughly half are told in the movie-script style quoted above — the actual Herbert Achternbusch is a filmmaker — but the ones told in mostly standard prose are no better than the ones in script format. About half of the latter do not feature paragraph breaks when the speaker changes, so the page is a wall of text interrupted by ADI or ILONA when someone new speaks. Really, I’d rather see the play with the cow.
The second best thing about the book is that it is only 129 pages long, and the third best is that about three dozen of those pages are taken up by chapter titles or blank pages before and after the chapter titles.
The final chapter, against all odds, is somewhat affecting. It’s as narcissistic as you’d expect from a narrator named after the author, but he talks about how he wishes he could be the sparkles on the Danube he saw while out walking one day. No responsibilities, no worries, nothing to bring him down, just sparkles bringing light to everyone around. If someone had loved the author enough in childhood, maybe he would have done more with those thoughts and images. Instead, he spends the book trying and failing to work out his psychological issues.
I gather that Achternbusch was something of an enfant terrible in Munich’s artistic scene, and I suppose that’s how this book found a publisher. His 1982 film “Das Gespenst” (“The Spirit” or “The Ghost”) caused something of a fury in Bavaria because it depicted Christ getting down off of a crucifix in an abbey and then running off and having a jolly time with the abbess. That might have been a hoot! Given how dreadful Die Olypiasiegerin is in execution, though, I think I’ll just keep the idea of the movie in mind and not actually see it.
I have no idea why the editors of the “München erlesen” series chose to re-publish Die Olympiasiegerin. It has not, to my knowledge, been translated into English, and I hope it stays that way.