Herr Faustini Takes a Trip
by Wolfgang Hermann
translated by Rachel Hildebrandt
reviewed by Rachael Daum
“Starting today, my life will be an adventure, an array of tiny adventures, and
even if they are itty bitty ones, they will still be my adventures.”
So declares our Herr Faustini, our titular character who decides to take a trip. For he is our character, or at least the reader comes to view him this way throughout the course of the book. After all, how can one not feel sentimentally attached to an older man who decides his life will be “an array of tiny adventures”?
But who is this, our Herr Faustini? He isn’t exactly a man with a mission, though he does profess to having a little plan: “…Wasn’t having a plan acually the opposite of having an adventure? Therefore, onward without a plan! However, Herr Faustini was too cautious for this course of action. ‘A little plan,’ he murmured to himself. A tiny plan, Herr Faustini decided, if everything was to be different, then not just somehow different, but masterfully different.” Though he is not quite a great guide for his own life, the reader is content to follow him through this slim tome’s happy pages. Herr Faustini is a man who accepts the lot given to him in life; he’s not a complainer; in fact, his greatest sin seems to be his contentment, a sin the reader is given to read with a warm indulgence.
Herr Faustini’s life is one laid gently with tranquil adventures. After he declares his need to have an adventurous life, we follow him through the chapters, to which each is alloted one surprisingly bizarre interaction. There is, for example, a rather strange train station volunteer, who can like a machine rattle off any connection with corresponding times you might need to get anywhere in and around Austria; there is a woman who approaches him and asks whether he’s afraid of water, because he looks like a writer and she knows all writers are hydrophobic; there’s a Polish man at a street corner who tries to give him a puppy; and so on. Herr Faustini responds to these interactions with indulgence and gratitude, after all, “Whenever Herr Faustini was allowed to learn or experience something new, he was always filled with a feeling of gratitude.”
But what about Herr Faustini himself? Does he love trains? Yes, he does. Does he love water? Yes, as indeed the greater majority of the book revolves around Lake Constance (an apt name, perhaps), where he lives. He loves the silence of the lake, the boundaries of it: it’s beautiful but contained, which for him is a relief. Does he love puppies? He loves the trust that puppies give him, certainly. It is in these interactions that we get to witness one of the greatest selling points of this novel: Wolfgang Hermann’s lovely prose, seeping through Herr Faustini’s thoughts. He thinks a great deal because he doesn’t speak much. On being handed the puppy (delightfully named Robin Hood), Herr Faustini is reminded of his niece, and how she trustfully put her hand in his. The dog is unlike his cat, so would he rather have a dog than his cat? You can run away with a dog! Oh, yes, let’s run away!
But alas, first we return to reality. He returns the puppy, and moves on to the next adventure—buying cosmetics for his sister.
The main driving force of the novel is an upcoming trip. Herr Faustini is due to go visit this sister, whom he has not seen in years, in Switzerland for her birthday. This trip inspires at once excitement for Herr Faustini—he loves his sister—and great anxiety at the idea of a large bout of travel, because he is a self-described “traveler in miniature, and a passionate one.” He says, “this trip presented the possibility that nothing would stay the way it had been. Once he left behind the radius of his world, anything could happen, as far as he knew. And it was this that he feared, the fact that everything might change” from his “secure routine.” This is horrifying for him: but what truly pulls this to us is that Herr Faustini’s anxiety has become, throughout the course of the novel, the reader’s. Who is not frightened by a long trip, only to be delighted on arrival? Any change is horrifying, but throughout the course of the novel, Herr Faustini learns to embrace it. What’s lovely about this book is that an old dog—quite the opposite of Robin Hood, the puppy—can learn new tricks.
To put in a word on the translation: Rachel Hildebrandt has cleverly and fluently rendered a poignant, graceful German prose into a poignant, graceful English. There are moments of truly splendid (a word which must be used for this novel!) humor: “For him, the lecture by the man in the turtleneck was nothing more than an impenetrable sausage of words,” through which one can certainly hear the echo of the German phrasing but calling out in English—truly a feat. The book seems to undulate with Hermann’s prose, swelling through really funny, really bizarre, and really lovely moments on the turn of one of Herr Faustini’s coins. There are such moments as when Herr Faustini is walking along the shore of his beloved lake, and “. . . the walking turned into a striding downstream, and then the striding became a floating, a gliding, a flying.” We can truly hear the rhythm here, which echoes in the reader the same movements, for which there should be given ample praise.
Without giving too much away—even Herr Faustini has his own tranquil spoilers!—our dear character finds his way, faces his failures. And this, as travel does, changes him. The reader bids Herr Faustini adieu and all best as he finds new paths, new people, new bodies of water to love. It is, perhaps, a happy coincidence that I read this book while taking a trip myself, but I highly recommend this book no matter your location. Herr Faustini is a fine travel companion (one who’ll be sure to pause for a cone of ice cream with you) whether you’re in a cramped airplane seat, or in your cozy armchair with your own cat (or puppy).
Rachael Daum is the Publicity Manager for ALTA. She earned her Bachelor’s in English: Creative Writing at the University of Rochester, where she also earned an undergraduate certificate in Literary Translation Studies. Her hope is to continue work in translating literature from Russian, German, and Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian. Currently she lives in Bloomington, IN, completing her Master’s in Russian language and literature. You can find her @Oopsadaisical.