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Funeral for a Dog: A Novel Paperback – March 28, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. When we first meet Daniel Mandelkern, an ethnologist moonlighting as a journalist for his newspaper editor wife, it's through a series of postcards that the reader will spend the rest of this vibrant, intricate novel untangling. Dispatched to profile children's book author Dirk Svensson, who reportedly lives with his three-legged dog near Milan, Mandelkern is nonplussed with his assignment but anxious to escape his wife. What unfolds, through flashbacks, Mandelkern's observations, and excerpts from Svensson's unpublished memoir, is a complex story about how people deal with love and loss--though it doesn't hurt to remember what Svensson's old friend and lover, says: "stories are one third truth, one third fiction and one third the attempt to glue the other two with words." Pletzinger does an admirable job of revealing intriguing characters without being heavy-handed or coy, and the story he tells is smart and well paced, no small feat considering the large scope and the messiness of the lives chronicled. It's a smart and rewarding debut marked by accomplished writing, a slick translation, and intelligent takes on the absurdities of contemporary life. (Mar.)
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Pletzinger’s tale of postmodern suspense delivers anything but the expected. When journalist Daniel Mendelkern is sent by his editor and wife to interview children’s-book author Dirk Svensson in Italy, he discovers a secret manuscript about Svensson’s past life and becomes intrigued by the man’s escapades in Brazil and post–9/11 New York City. Meanwhile, he is caught in between Svensson and the writer’s friend-lover, Tuuli, and watches as their strange relationship evolves. Like Haruki Murakami, Pletzinger is a technically skilled writer concerned with the form of the novel, as his use of oscillating perspectives and other challenges to linear narrative make clear. He and Murakami also share a fascination with popular culture, specifically, with the mundane made strange, and they use their explorations of form and content to shed light on the extremes of the human condition. Funeral for a Dog is challenging reading, but it is sure to make waves with U.S. audiences, just as it did when originally published in Germany in 2008. --Heather Paulson
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It begins, fascinatingly, in fragments. Seven postcards, to be precise, mostly of the Lake Locarno area on the Swiss-Italian border, all with their images and date noted (you could look them up also). A message runs continuously between all seven. They appear to enclose a bundle of papers sent by a journalist, Daniel Mandelkern, on location by the lake, to a woman in Hamburg named Elisabeth. We soon learn that she is both Daniel's wife and his boss, and that she has sent him to Switzerland to interview a reclusive German author, Dirk Svensson, who has become rich from writing a highly successful children's book. Mandelkern's fragmentary notes might almost be scribbled on postcards themselves; they consist of a number of jottings, memories, records of trivial detail, the occasional profound thought -- all in short paragraphs with individual titles: "against the fox," "Heiligengeistfeld," "little porno face," "who is Daniel Mandelkern?" -- this last question frequently asked and only partially answered. For Mandelkern's quest, to visit the writer in his tumbledown lakeshore house where he lives with his three-legged dog Lua, turns into a search for himself as well. It is clear that he has left home at a point of crisis in his marriage, and that he has some decisions to make before and if he returns.
Alternating with these fragments are sections written by Svensson himself, from a manuscript that Mandelkern discovers, as relentlessly subjective and continuous as the others were fragmentary and objective. These first-person narratives seem spewed out in a drunken haze, when time of day, waking, sleeping all have little meaning. These gradually come into a kind of focus, as the locale moves from New York City to the slums of Brazil, but we meet early on the three characters (in addition to the dog) who seem intertwined in each: Svensson himself, a man named Felix Blaumeister, and an attractive Finnish woman called Tuuli. Indeed, Tuuli has already turned up with her son as a surprise guest of Svensson's, potentially offering Mandelkern another angle on the enigmatic author's mysterious past.
Tuuli tells Mandelkern something very important about Svensson: "He keeps his eyes fixed on the past with sentimental tricks. And he collects the dead, because the living are too much in motion for him. Things pass away, but Svensson imagines that his stories remain." "Isn't that why we tell stories?" Mandelkern replies, touching the heart of the novel as he does so. Svensson's book, "Leo and the Notmuch," is about a boy who learns how to handle the death of his best friend by pouring his memories into an imaginary character, the companion of his stories. Svensson has his losses too -- not just confined to the death of the dog implied by the title -- but he slowly moves beyond them. Meanwhile, Daniel Mandelkern's nurses his own concerns about career and marriage, but he also comes to conclusions that feel right. I wish I could say that Svensson himself had come fully to life in the telling (he is too much a literary construct, a downscale Jay Gatsby), or that the brilliance of structure in the book really packed an equivalent punch emotionally (although there are some very powerful passages), but I was always absorbed by it, and felt quite satisfied at the end. [4.5 stars]
Unfortunately, the story is terribly disjointed, the characters are abstract with no depth. The writer of the story,(a fictional german journalist questioning his relationship with his wife, who is also his editor, and her desire to have a child as she had lost a child from a previous marriage)escapes to Lugano, because he is unsure whether he wants to have a child and remain married to her. After one wine binge with the wife, he takes off from Germany to go to Lugano, Switzerland to interview a writer of children books.
The story comes across as confused and disjointed, almost as it was written by someone who is constantly going in and out of alcohol binges,(and other drugs) and then resumes the story in here and there, from what he remembers.
I even tried to justify the book by blaming it on the translation, but it is not so. I read many books translated from German to English (example: "The Hangman Daughter", and I found it absolutely delightful), and I never experienced such a disappointment.
I did not find any character particularly likable, with the exception of the old and ailing faithful German Shepherd dog, but then again I am very partial to dogs and particularly GSDs..
"I'm lying between books and people, between words and bodies. My language is of no use for decisions, each word is only true for a few seconds, then it dries and turns to paper .... Svensson has decided on things: he lives in a ruin, now he chops the old wood, he jumps in the clear, reliable water. Is that how one should live (is that how I should live)?"
Funeral for a Dog is many things. It's a novel about parallel searches for identity and meaning, a recording of the events of a five-day house party, a mystery about the death of a friend, and a chronicle of the slow decline of an elderly, three-legged dog. Scenes peppered with the funhouse imagery of carousels, roller coasters, and cotton candy alternate with those filled with dark foreboding.
In Funeral for a Dog, Pletzinger delivers a challenging and innovative novel that asks more questions than it answers as it wallows in the kind of directionless seeking that has become a hallmark of postmodern fiction. This puzzle of a novel is filled with echoes, repetitions, and reflections, which are carefully preserved by Benjamin's adept translation. In a Mobius-worthy trick, the last page of the novel loops right back to the first page. Rather than leading towards clarity, Funeral for a Dog proves clarity is an illusion. This high-energy read will frustrate some readers, but those willing to commit to the journey will be rewarded with an intelligent and creative portrayal of the intermingling of love and loss, life and death.
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Daniel Mandelkern, a German journalist, puts this in a postcard to his wife/editor, who has sent him to Lake Lugano, Italy to write a...Read more