Books and hats are things of the past

by Kelvin Smith

Bodo Kirchhoff’s Widerfahrnis won the Deutscher Buchpreis in 2016. It is story of loss and yearning, about love and journeys across continents, and it says a little about a life lived through books and publishing.

After thirty years Reither has given up on his small publishing house and retired to Bavaria, from where one night he takes off to the south with Leonie Palm, a member of a local reading group and previous owner of a failed hat shop. It seems that only the rich now want or need books and hats. As they drive south through Austria and Italy, they smoke and listen to music, learn a little about their respective life histories, their different losses; they meet a refugee child and a family from Nigeria, and then part company.

Publishing, books and bookselling pop up throughout the book. It is books that bring Reither and Palm together in the first place, and one short self-published title, Ines Wolken, creates a bond between them. The breast pocket of the shirt where Reither keeps his cigarettes reminds him of his book fair days, as does the leather jacket that Leonie Palm wears on their road trip and which is the one thing of his she keeps at the very end of the book.

Reither started in the business selling pirated books on a street stall, and he yearns for those days and a woman he knew then who sold feminist books at a nearby stand, but who never became part of his life. He liked editing, choosing appropriate covers for his books, but during his trip he realises that life cannot be managed like the publishing process: “Nun war das Leben keine Neuerscheinung im Reither-Verlag”.

Towards the end of the book he is pressed about his previous work by the Nigerian who helps him. He replies simply in English (with a little German conjunction): “Making und selling books”.

What else is there to say about a life in publishing?

Bodo Kirchhoff, Widerfahrnis, 2016