Before We Disappear.
Innsbruck, Vienna: Haymon, 2018.
211 S., Hardcover, Euro 20,90.
This well-executed debut novel has two main characters. The narrator, Benjamin, is in the last stage of medical school and starts a residency in oncology. Ambros is a patient with many metastatic tumors. Benjamin went to high school with him nearly ten years ago; Benjamin and Ambros were a couple. Pomp is the head doctor on the ward. He fits the stereotypes, but he’s a good guy. Ed, a nurse, who calls herself "the sister." A few patients, who die off one after another. These are the basic ingredients for a medical novel. Classic genre, classic subject matter. But the story we expect is not the one we get. There are two more characters: Adelheid is Benjamin’s name for the female pig on which he conducts fatal animal experiments for some extra money; he names Adelheid’s male counterpart after Pomp. The two animals mark the difference. This is a novel about life and death: more so about life. Before we disappear. When it comes to life, we humans are also pigs.
The author portrays this environment with a masterful touch, for he is a doctor himself: an oncologist and palliative care specialist, in fact. David Fuchs’s narrative is credible – even the animal experiment scenes don’t skip any graphic details – and he knows how to build suspense. Section by section, the story picks up steam with short chapters of short sentences, pithy dialogue, and laconic narration. We shift between two time periods: Ambros and Benjamin’s youthful love story in the past, and Ambros’s imminent death in the present. The reader never has a dull moment. The book’s highlights are its deft shows of emotion: joy, hope, desperation, grief. Fuchs achieves this with meticulous descriptions of states of mind, and of bodily processes in rhythmic language.
Oddly, our final moments are disconnected. Something is not quite right before we disappear. And before we pass on, none of the people who (supposedly) love us truly see us. We feel this. And that’s why this book is so gripping. Perhaps it’s a shocking, extreme circumstance. Someone still so young, so innocent, whose body rots. As we read, it holds us in its grip, and we are the ones who have to let go. We are so moved by the final scene that, perhaps, something changes within us.