On the Road with Urns by Rainer Moritz

Among the feuilleton’s most thankless tasks are the fastest discovery of a new literary trend, or being the first to announce that this spring or in the autumn-time there…

Among the feuilleton’s most thankless tasks are the fastest discovery of a new literary trend, or being the first to announce that this spring or in the autumn-time there will a new ‘Heimat’ novel or a return to the language experiment. Such assumptions rarely prove long-lived; and this is not necessarily a bad thing because the next brand-new trend must be talked about quickly.

For example, until recently I thought that a changing-of-the-guard was imminent in German-speaking literature, and that the ubiquitous cat was on the decline in non-fiction and fiction only for the dog to replace it as an upcoming, popular trend. Perhaps this is true, yet meanwhile – and this applies across Europe – a new, even more puzzling genre is on the horizon that could become important for comparative literature students who are desperately searching for new topics for forthcoming Master’s projects or dissertations.

In short, the focus is on writers’ recent tendency to avoid the classic cemetery scenes with traditional coffins and instead to send the ashes of the departed on a round-trip before scattering the same mortal remains to all the four winds. This presents an extraordinary number of literary possibilities and characters who fill relatives’ ashes in an urn and place this on a back car sit to rock about as they drive around with it and emit a quizzical look of charm.

When did that begin? Perhaps with Frank McCourt’s books Angela’s Ashes and Tis’: A Memoir where we learn that the sons emptied the cremated ashes of McCourt’s mother over a cemetery in Limerick. Or do we have to thank Robert Waller for all this and the film hit of his novel The Bridges of Madison County with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep? To recap: the farmer’s wife, Francesca, starts an affair with the photographer, Robert, but foregoes this new happiness and only meets again with the lover after her death when her children scatter Francesca’s ashes into the river beneath a bridge.

McCourt and Waller have to some degree showed the way. Incidentally, almost simultaneously the English writer Graham Swift intervened with Last Orders, a novel in which four men want to honour their friend Jack’s final wish to drive his ashes around Kent in a Mercedes – this goes on for pages. Then there was Terézia Mora, to name a famous example, who won the German Book Prize in 2013? with Das Ungeheuer (The Monster). This also deals with final wishes: Darius, the main character, drives all over Eastern Europe to scatter the ashes of his girlfriend, Flora, in a suitable place. The urn is a permanent feature of Darius’s hand luggage and occasionally attracts the attention of corrupt customs officials – understandably so.

And that’s not all. In spring 2016, this motif even gained extended coverage. In Catalin Dorian Florescu’s Der Mann, der das Glück bringt (The Man who Brings Happiness) the mother’s ashes are transferred to Manhattan where they are supposed to be scattered from the twin towers. The journey is exhausting and comes to an abrupt end with the September 2001 attacks. Suddenly, the ashes are mixed with quite different ashes. And those who are strong enough not to put down John Irving’s new novel Avenue of Mysteries in disappointment will stumble upon – not that we’re entirely surprised – another distinct version of our ‘in-motif’: the ashes of three protagonists including a hippie and a dog are mixed in a coffee tin.

Incidentally, this trend doesn’t even stop at the borders of Nordic countries. Try reading Roope Lipasti’s The Probate (Ausflug mit Urne) and suddenly you’re on the road with a lot of ashes and bound for Imatra in eastern Finland. What does all of this mean? Perhaps these are the moribund signs of our western culture or evidence of the increasing mobility even of our cherished departed ones? I don’t know. There is much to investigate.

By Rainer Moritz

  This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 4 July 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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