Peter Stamm’s new novel, “The Sweet Indifference of the World,” begins with a note that comes out of the blue and gets straight to the point: “Please come to Skogskyrkogården tomorrow at two. I have a story I want to tell you.” So writes the book’s protagonist, Christoph, to an actress called Lena. It sounds like a reasonable request and as such makes for a conventional opener.
But the Swiss author’s fiction is seldom this straightforward. In actual fact the pair have never even met, which renders the note cryptic. What’s more, the story Christoph tells turns out to be a mind-bending, reality-warping yarn, one which causes Lena to re-examine the course her life has taken and ponder the way it might pan out.
In a Stockholm cemetery, Christoph explains to Lena how years ago he became a writer but lost the woman he loved. Her name was Magdalena and she was also an actress. Later, while adjusting to single life and revisiting old haunts in the village where he grew up, Christoph encountered a man who, he realized, was a younger version of himself.
As Christoph and Lena swap the cemetery for city streets, he describes further run-ins with his doppelgänger and his eventual decision to move abroad to evade him. But although Christoph ran, he couldn’t hide, for one day he bumped into this young man — Chris — in Barcelona. Rather than flee, Christoph conversed with him, recounting their shared pasts and outlining what kind of novel Chris would write one day.
Lena listens to Christoph’s strange tale about his double and his time spent with Magdalena, and notes how key elements chime with those of her own life story and her relationship with her husband, Chris. Christoph complicates matters by telling Lena he still loves her. “You love your Magdalena, not me,” she replies. “We don’t even know each other.” At the end of what she terms “an instructive afternoon,” Lena is left wondering if history is repeating itself and she and Chris are following the same path as Magdalena and Christoph — or if she has been in the company of a deluded man whose imagination has run riot.
Ultimately it is up to us to decide. Stamm doesn’t provide neat, topped-and-tailed answers to thorny questions, nor does he rationalize his characters’ decisions. His last novel, “To the Back of Beyond,” tracked a man who walks out on his family; when he returns from his cross-country travels 20 years later he gives no explanation to his wife for his departure.
In Stamm’s short story “The Result,” a man endures an agonizing overnight wait for the findings of a critical medical test. The tale ends before the doctor breaks the news.
“The Sweet Indifference of the World” operates on a similar level. But while Stamm resists offering clear-cut solutions, his stripped-down, pared-back prose still works wonders, exploring complex issues and probing singular minds in a thoroughly compelling way.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Sweet Indifference of the World
By: Peter Stamm, translated from German by Michael Hofmann.
Publisher: Other Press, 123 pages, $14.99.