Sunday, December 14, 2008

Harold Hoefle

Harold Hoefle's debut novel is The Mountain Clinic (Oberon, 2008). It's the story of Walter Schwende, whose Austrian-born father disappears in 1966, when Walter is seven and living in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough.

The novel compresses the next 30 years into seven brief chapters. Walter's father is believed dead, though no body is ever found. His abandoned car is found with his clothes stacked on the front seat by Lake Ontario. He is presumed to have drowned, but there are reasons for him to have picked up and vanished also: his business is failing, he owes money, he's a proud Austrian for whom the shame of a collapsed life is worse than disappearing into the ether.

The father-son relationship is the heart of this novel, even though half of that partnership is largely represented as an absense.

The absent father is, of course, a powerful archetype. Google "absent fathers" and you get sites like this one. Robert Bly made waves a decade ago with Iron John (Vintage, 1992). Subtitled "A Book About Men," Bly's "mythopoetic" argument focused on reorienting men to their primal masculinity: their relationship with the archetypal father.

The Mountain Clinic isn't that sort of book.

Walter lost his father, but he doesn't seek psychoanalysis. He seeks adventure. He goes to Vancouver, where he goes an welfare and lives with two divorced Czech emigres. He goes to the North West Territories, where he takes a security guard job at a mill. He goes to Nicaragua, where he doesn't exactly fight the contras, but he wants to.

In the end, he becomes an English teacher in Montreal, where he asks his students to "get into father-thinking mode" by writing their reflections on that topic. One student writes:

my dad
will the radiation work
will he die
will he live
whats going to happen
when will I see him again
I miss him
why does this happen to him

Meanwhile, Walter is reading the "Occurance Report" he obtained from the Toronto Police about his missing father. He reads some information that suggests his father might not have died in 1966. Then he goes to Austria for his grandfather's 100th birthday.

I first read this book about 10 years ago when it was a collection of short stories in manuscript. (I declare that I am ineligible to nominate it for a literary prize.) I have just finished reading it between bound covers, and my mind rattles with echos of moments and complete stories that the author has removed from the final product.

The back cover indicates the novel includes an episode of Walter in post-revolution Romania. It doesn't. A late change removed that chapter.

Readers will be curious that all of the chapters are written in the first person: six in the voice of Walter, one in the voice of a Nicaraguan revolutionary. Why this shift in perspective? What did the author intend? It made me think of Milan Kundera's perspective shifting games. I'm curious to read what others think of this gambit.

The absent "post-revolution Romania" story is also suggestive. Walter is an idealist: an early-1980s Communist, actually. The Czechs in Vancouver abuse him for his beliefs. The lumberjacks in the NWTs have no time for political abstractions. Walter in Nicaragua is called "Flaco" (flaky?), and the revolutionary who tells that story (after the revolution has collapsed) reminds Walter that Lenin called people like him "useful idiots."

But Walter is no idiot. He is a searcher. For his father? Yes. But ultimately what he is searching for is something more important. Himself.

"Why don't you have a girlfriend?" his mother asks.

He answers: "It's not that easy."

I will end by identifying The Mountain Clinic as an example of diaspora literature: the Austrian diaspora. A Google search failed to reveal much of interest on this topic, which was surprising (isn't everything available online?).

The racist attitude of Torontians towards German-speaking immigrants in the 1950s might seem like a faint memory today. But unwelcoming attitudes create pain wherever they pervade. However much hate Hitler reasonably deserved.

This pain is personified in Hoefle's novel in the seven-year-old Walter. His creation is worthy of pity ... and much praise.


See also an interview with the author (from The Danforth Review)

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