#RivetingReviews: Lizzy Siddal reviews INDIGO by Clemens J. Setz

Indigo, according to Setz’s fictional mystic, is the colour of the aura surrounding children born with the syndrome that will affect their lives in the cruellest of ways. Basically they make everyone who comes close sick – literally. Dizziness, nausea, vomiting, debilitating migraines and all within a matter of minutes. Indigo children may emit some kind of radioactive forcefield that produces this effect. (At least that’s how I think of it.) It weakens as they reach adolescence but until then how are they and society to cope?

Society’s answer is to send them to special schools such as the Helianau Institute in Southern Austria, where they are educated in small numbers in spacious halls and are housed in their own huts. Even here they have to stay outwith the proximity of others to stay well. 

Now imagine what it would be like to teach in such an environment?

Enter the fictional Clemens Setz, narrator of Indigo. Fresh out of teacher training college. Completely bewildered by the experience awaiting him, an assignment made harder by his own handicap. He suffers from excess empathy. He cannot see suffering without it impacting him negatively, and he is particularly sensitive to the suffering of animals. He is the only teacher who recognises the living conditions of the Indigo children as a plight. After all it is not natural for them to negotiate around each other like wire models of molecules … always maintaining the distances between them, as if they were attached to steel connecting pipes. Nor is the game – bullying by any other name – he sees them playing one day. One boy, whose force field is weakening, is encircled by others, who are taking it in turns to come ever closer to him. They retreat before becoming ill, but their force fields affect him and he is reduced to a writhing wreck on the floor. Setz breaks up the game – quickly (by necessity) – and reports the incident to the headmaster. This results in one boy being “relocated” from the school.

Setz wants to know what this means. No answer is forthcoming and it is the beginning of an obsession that not only sees him losing his job, but leads to him turning detective as he investigates the Indigo condition, the truth, the uncomfortable truth, and nothing but the saddening truth. He compiles a dossier: articles from newspapers and magazines, print-outs from websites, photographs, anything he deems relevant, and these are included – Sebaldian style – into his sections of the novel. He visits an Indigo child who remains at home with his mother (living in a separate outhouse of course); he continues to investigate relocations. To what end? I’m not sure, nor do I think is he. What becomes evident is that this obsession takes its toll on him.

Sometime after his dismissal from the Helianau institute, he is tried for the particularly nasty murder of an abusive dog owner. He is acquitted. This provides the lead into the second narrative.

Robert Tatzel, the boy bullied in the aforementioned incident and now burnt-out (i.e Indigo syndrome asymptomatic) reads of Setz’s acquittal in an old newspaper, but wants to know more as he is convinced that Setz did it. His enquiries, however, are not the main focus of this narrative. That is to show how these formerly institutionalised children cope in the real world. So how do you think forming friendships and intimate relationships would go after years of enforced solitariness? I have to say that I was frequently alienated from Robert, his mind is certainly wired differently from mine. But then so are his formative experiences, and that’s precisely the point. (Sidenote: Though written long before the pandemic with its quarantines, restricted contacts and social distancing, aren’t these behaviours increasingly evident in today’s younger generations?)

The narratives of fictional Setz and Robert are interwoven with all the bits and pieces of Setz’s investigation into Indigo syndrome to formulate a very postmodern puzzle. The question is whether it provides a solution. On second thoughts the question is what is the puzzle? Is the whole yarn a metaphor to make us reassess how we treat those who are different to us? Darned if I know. Indigo, shortlisted for the 2012 German Book Prize, is an enjoyable read all the same. But strange. Very, very strange.

Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal


by Clemens J. Setz

Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin

Published by Serpent’s Tail (2014)

This review first appeared on lizzysiddall.wordpress.com German Literature Month 2023 

December 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

Lizzy Siddal is a British bibliophile and book blogger of sixteen years. She publishes her reviews at Lizzy’s Literary Life (Volume Two) where she co-hosts Reading Independent Publishers Month each February and German Literature Month each November.

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Category: December 2023Reviews


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