Friday, 30 June 2017

Book Review: Indigo by Clemens J. Setz we often – usually when we feel misunderstood or hurt – complain about the lack of empathy in people today, it isn’t a quality that our technology-based and highly competitive modern society particularly favours. Much rather egotism and a thick skin seem to be characteristics that someone wishing for success in this world vitally needs to cultivate. Most of us learn early that it’s better to reduce sensitiveness and to avoid getting emotionally involved in the fates of others, especially when what they go through is none of our business. Thus we allow abuse and exclusion. The Helianau Institute from Indigo by Clemens J. Setz is a boarding school for children who were born with a strange disorder: they make every human being near them sick. The overly sensitive new Maths teacher Clemens Setz feels for the children who are condemned to grow up always staying at a big physical distance to others.

Clemens J. Setz was born in Graz, Austria, in November 1982. He studied German Philology and Mathematics at the University of Graz, but dedicated himself increasingly to writing and eventually dropped out. During his studies he published poetry and short stories in literary journals and anthologies and in 2007 he made his successful debut as a novelist with Söhne und Planeten (Sons and Planets). Also his following works, namely the novels Die Frequenzen (2009; The Frequencies) and Indigo (2012) as well as the short story collection Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes (2011; Love in the Time of the Mahlstädter Child), received much acclaim from literary critics and were short-listed for different renowned awards. The author’s latest published works are the retellings Glücklich wie Blei im Getreide (Happy Like Lead in the Corn) and the award-winning novel Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre (The Hour Between Woman and Guitar) from 2015. Clemens J. Setz lives in Graz and works as a freelance writer and translator from English.

The story of Indigo begins in 2005, when Clemens J. Setz, the author’s alter ego, is about to finish his Mathematics studies. His thesis supervisor suggests that he does his teaching internship in the Helianau Institute, a boarding school somewhere in the surroundings of Graz in South-Eastern Austria. He doesn’t know yet that it’s a school for children with a very special congenital disorder commonly referred to as Indigo syndrome ever since a psychic in a German talk show declared that a child had an indigo-coloured aura. The mere presence of these children makes others suffer from all kinds of ailments, notably headaches, vertigo, nausea and intestinal problems, and so they are kept at a distance from people including each other. Upset by the photo of a bee with a destroyed backside that the biology teacher forgot on the desk hypersensitive Setz has a poor start at the school appearing drunk or not quite sane. Before long he provokes his dismissal questioning the way the children are brought up in isolation and trying to find out what happens to them when they leave in grotesque disguises to be “relocated” by a mysterious man called Ferenz. The matter preoccupies him and even after the inglorious end of his teaching career, he continues to investigate the Indigo phenomenon collecting material in a red-chequered and a green folder and writing articles and books about it. In 2021 the media coverage of Setz’s acquittal in a murder trial attracts the attention of Robert Tätzel, one of his students from the Helianau Institute, who has meanwhile “burnt out” his Indigo nature and struggles to get along amidst people. At the age of twenty-nine Tätzel is a promising painter obsessed with depicting suffering and he tracks down Setz to know the true story behind the murder.

Contrary to what my summary might make believe, Indigo is a very complex and somewhat confusing novel because the actual narrative is only the big centrepiece of a collage. Reprints of letters and notes, a medical report, extracts from books, copies of articles in newspapers and magazines, printouts from the internet and photos are meant to give background information and to illustrate events, but most of all they puzzle because their connection to the story often doesn’t become clear at once. There are two alternating plot lines set in the recent past – from 2005 on – and in the near future – 2021 – respectively. While the first is told from the first-person point of view of the author as his overly empathetic literary alter ego, the other is the classical third-person narrative of an unconcerned observer. These different perspectives aptly accentuate the opposing characters of the two protagonists although in my opinion both lack psychological depth to make them feel sufficiently real and authentic. Moreover, for me the story isn’t really coherent because it leaves open too much. The language is simple, and at the same time rich in powerful, often highly unusual images and spiced with references to TV pop culture.

Unlike the first book of this much praised young author from my South-Eastern corner of Austria, I quite enjoyed Indigo by Clemens J. Setz although it’s not a novel that immediately gives away what it’s actually about. In fact, I’m still uncertain as for what it means to say. Certainly, it toys with opposites in personal relationships, namely distance that produces detachment and vicinity that creates understanding. But it may just as well have been inspired by children today who pass a lot of time in self-imposed isolation with their smart phones and computers, maybe still TV too. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that many of them lack important social skills and empathy with others. And then there’s the issue of suffering or endurance going through the novel as a red thread. A multilayered and puzzling read that to me doesn’t feel technically and stylistically fully matured. Nonetheless, I recommend it.

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  1. This sounds like my kind of book: fascinating, challenging, and modern. I hope I can get it in English. Wonderful review!

    1. Glad to have brought a book to your attention that you missed so far. It's really quite unusually with elements of science-fiction, magical realism and others. I hope that you can find a copy and will like it too.


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