When Wolfgang Herrndorf shot and killed himself on the banks of the Hohenzollern canal in Berlin on August 26 last year, his cancer was so advanced that that there was no longer any hope of survival. In the last months of his life, he worked on chapters for a new novel, without the slightest hope of being able to complete the work. The unfinished manuscript would become his legacy.
He had portions of the text read to him on his sickbed, but “he could no longer continue writing or even dictating the text in a comprehensible form,” his friends Marcus Gärtner and Kathrin Passig write in their epilogue to the book, which the author had not intended for publication.
Isa is a 14-year-old girl who runs around Germany barefoot, searches for food in garbage dumps, sleeps outdoors and appears to speak in tongues.
On July 1, Mr. Herrndorf wrote in his will: “Keep no fragments, never keep fragments.” But at the last moment, a week before he committed suicide, he relented, saying that the novel, with the working title “Isa,” was to be produced in unfinished form.
The result will be published on September 26. It is already clear that the book is such a fundamental departure from literary convention that it is tempting to rank the book alongside world-famous novels about outsiders. The main character, Isa Schmidt, is as crazy as Büchner’s Lenz, as lost as Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunter and as sentimental and cold as Camus’s L’Étranger.
And yet she is completely different from these world-famous characters, who failed to view the world with the eyes of a normal adult. Isa is a 14-year-old girl who runs around Germany barefoot, searches for food in garbage dumps, sleeps outdoors and speaks quite unlike most teenagers, with statements like “The abyss is pulling at me, and yet I’m stronger.”
Readers of Mr. Herrndorf’s books will be familiar with the pretty, barefoot child from his youth novel Tschick, which sold two million copies since it was published in 2010.
“Started Tschick sequel from Isa's perspective. But I won't do it. But I won't do it.”
In that novel Isa was the girl standing on the piles of trash, who showed Maik Klingenberg, the story’s narrator, and Andrej Tschichatschow, known as Tschick, where hoses were kept and how they could be used to siphon off gasoline from cars.
The two 14-year-old boys, who were cruising around Germany in a stolen Lada during their summer vacation, wanted nothing to do with the “twat” at first (they were from Berlin’s Marzahn neighborhood, and that was the kind of language they sometimes used). The girl smelled bad and talked too much. Nevertheless, the boys ate blackberries with Isa and took her along in their Lada for a while.
In the end, the three teenagers make a pact to meet again in the same spot on June 17, 2060, at 5 p.m., when they will be 64-year-old “geriatrics.” After that, Maik and Tschick drive away in their Lada, leaving Isa behind.
But Mr. Herrndorf wasn’t finished with the character of Isa yet. He finalized the title of the new novel, Bilder deiner großen Liebe (Pictures of Your Great Love), in the last few days of his life.
Mr. Herrndorf began working on the Isa material while writing his novel Sand. On June 19, 2011, he wrote in his blog: “Started Tschick sequel from Isa’s perspective. But I won’t do it. But I won’t do it.”
Reading the incomplete novel, it is immediately obvious that Isa is a much more radical and forsaken hero than all of Herrndorf’s other characters. Like the male protagonists of his road novels, Isa wanders around Germany, but she does it in a much more old-fashioned way, on foot and across country.
“I imagine that someone sees me from above but no one sees me. And yet I look lovely as I lie here.”
At least Tschick and Maik had a car, a little money and were best friends. Isa has nothing but a little box containing her diary, bloody feet and an innocent dislike toward everything and everyone, most notably herself. She traverses fields, rivers and forests, begs for food, steals cookies, and is a mythical figure – completely alone under the empty sky she is constantly staring at.
“I imagine,” Isa says, lying on her back on the grass at night, “that someone sees me from above but no one sees me. And yet I look lovely as I lie here.”
Isa has apparently fled from an asylum and seems to be on a sort of pilgrimage to herself, criss-crossing the modern German enchanted forest, with its labyrinthine freeway interchanges and endless parking lots, always following the stars and using her diary as a compass. “The stars wander, and so do I.”
It’s the way she describes her route, far removed from the world of Google Maps, through a newly enchanted German postwar landscape, in which the seeds of poplar trees drift gently on the breeze and the sweet scent of white rose campion floods the night air.
She encounters strange people along the way: a deaf-mute child, a German boatman, a writer, a dead hunter, a lecherous truck driver and a few other mysterious figures, all of whom seem to have arisen from her inner demons rather than a German reality.
Of course, the reader is waiting for the point when Isa encounters the two boys from Tschick.
At first, everything is the way it was in Tschick, with the piles of garbage, the hose, the blackberries, the Lada. But then Isa places her hands, with “magical movements,” on the forehead, the closed eyes and the temples of Maik. It isn’t easy to read this without a sense of foreboding, especially considering that the author wrote these lines as he was dying of a brain tumor.
And when Isa says: “There he lies, quietly protected by the shelter of my hands and the shield of the night,” it suddenly becomes completely clear that in his last few months alive, Wolfgang Herrndorf was writing about his guardian angel, in the form of the wild and lost Isa.
This article originally appeared in the newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org