I wasn’t at all certain I was going to enjoy Small World by Martin Suter as, when I began reading it, I was uncertain what the story was about. Sure, there was the interesting blurb that mentions a sort of lost soul and Alzheimers, but the first few chapters gave no indication the book was going in the direction promised. But, because the writing was wonderful, the characters so well drawn, I persevered… then, bang. I couldn’t put the damn book down.
The novel centres on the affable and quite debonair Konrad, a man in his sixties whose claim to life is that he’s a close friend of the famous and fabulously rich Koch family, and one time indispensable playmate of the eldest scion, Thomas. Only, Konrad has been quite dispensable for some time now, shoved away as a caretaker in one of their many properties, this one in Greece, hardly seeing his so-called “family”, relying on their financial goodwill for support and drinking his way into his twilight years. The matriarch of the clan, Elvira Koch, would rather he was gone for good and his once bosom buddy Thomas, would be happy to forget him. When an accident in the house he is minding occurs, Konrad is forced to return to Switzerland and there his life undergoes a miraculous transformation: he falls in love.
But sadly for Konrad, the good times are not destined to last. Slowly, inexorably, he begins to lose his marvellous mind and the memories of the past, all of which have sustained him and provided great conversations in social situations. Unwilling to admit he’s struggling, it’s not until circumstances mean he can no longer deny it that Konrad’s left with no choice but to surrender to his fate.
Only, there’s one member of the Koch family who won’t allow that to happen. Determined to help Konrad keep the core of his self and the memories stored there alive, she does everything she can to provide the best medical care that her grandmother-in-law, Elivira’s, money can buy. But there are those in the Koch clan that don’t want Konrad’s memories restored, nor the truth that he has buried there to come to surface, and they’ll do anything to prevent that happening.
Part mystery, part exploration of memories and how the recollection of these, the accumulation of many of years of living construct the self and how losing them ultimately unravels identity, as well as insights into medical care and generational differences, it’s also a book that uses the past to redefine the future.
The further I plunged into the novel and the smaller Konrad’s world became, the greater the possibilities for plot, character and climax became. The way the onset and grip of Alzheimer’s is described is painful but also gripping. Konrad’s descent into the past, a part of his life that no longer has relevance in the present and his desperate and confused clinging to it is hard to read, but also provides a window into a rarely, in literature at least, discussed condition.
Konrad is wonderfully crafted and so very real. The finale is not easy to see coming and the twists and turns before the reader arrives aren’t so much the thrill the blurb promises, but are utterly compelling.
A terrific and nuanced read that makes you think in so many ways…