Am I the only husband who has thought once or twice about walking away from his wife and children? Just taking off and leaving one life behind for an entirely unplanned, unstructured, utterly free new life? That's what Thomas (no last name), a middle-aged, middle-class Swiss accountant does one evening.
So begins Peter Stamm's short novel To the Back of Beyond, his fifth. It is of a piece of his earlier work. The Financial Times wrote of an earlier novel, "Stamm eschews middlebrow concerns of plot and resolution . . . his narrative is centered on the ruptures in his main characters' lives and their consequences . . ." Stamm never gives the reader a neat, pat explanation why Thomas leaves. We can infer possible reasons from what he does, but different readers will make different inferences.
Astrid's first reaction is to lie to the children, lie to Thomas's secretary. When it seems he won't turn up after a day or two, she goes to the police.
The book has no chapters as such, but the narrative switches point of view as first we follow Thomas's peregrination, then Astrid's with almost no access to their thoughts. "Thomas imagined Astrid making two separate piles of clean and dirty clothes . . ." Is about as close as we get to his inner life.
Rather, we watch them do things and move through the landscape, often with precise and lovely descriptions smoothly translated by Michael Hoffmann: "Ahead of him grew his shadow as cast by the streetlamp behind, then it merged into the life of the one following, which cast a fresh shadow behind him, which in turn grew shorter, overtook him, and hurried ahead of him, growing all the while, a sort of ghostly relay of specters accompanying him out of the neighborhood, across the circular road, and into the business district that sprawled away from the village out into the flat land."
If "plot" is what happens to characters in a story, To the Back of Beyond clearly has a plot (pace Financial Times). Astrid does try to find Thomas. The police are as helpful as they can be, although as one sympathetic officer tells her, "An adult has the right to disappear." (Some readers, I know, will be put off by the novel's lack of quotation marks; others like myself will have no trouble following the dialogue.)
Among the novel's strengths are the questions it provokes in the reader: Is the life we're living the one we want? What motivates us to obey our routines? Can one person ever truly know another? In a sense the questions are unanswerable, but Stamm's To the Back of Beyond makes a fascinating stab at addressing them, at least for this very ordinary, but extraordinary, Swiss couple.