At some point in our lives we’ll ask ourselves soul-searching questions to find out who we really are. We wonder if there is a God, should we or do we believe in him, will we be loved, what will death be like, what is the meaning of life or more succinctly, what is the meaning of ‘my’ life. We want answers. We want contentment. We want to know that we are okay despite it all. We want someone to tell us we are on the right path. We want to not think about these questions and know that is okay too. We want to fit in and be separate at the same time – an individual that is accepted and loved, but ultimately alone in life seeking our own truths.
And in Axel Thörmahlen’s collection of short stories, truths are what we find.
A Happy Man and Other Stories delivers nine philosophical tales that are taut, poetic and ruminative. This book, in fact, serves as a literary redemption for the reflective. For those of us resigned to finding the meaning of life, these stories should become a touchstone.
The collection begins with a man searching for a fir tree on December 23rd. It is two days before Christmas, and every year he chooses a healthy fir and cuts it down for his family. We follow him through the forest where he encounters a man in rags and several agitated characters who also wandering in the forest, but looking for a way out or a lost child or asking if he has brought a bottle of liquor along. While the narrator finds these people odd, he tries to help, tries to engage and understand. But ultimately feels overwhelmed by these ‘creatures’ and moves on quickly to find his tree. We realize that these thoughts are they are his and everyone’s and that there is no need to escape from them because as human beings they exist in all of us but do not constitute all that we are. “As we all know, exquisite objects have a way of screening themselves from view” and that is what Thörmahlen does so well. We know the thoughts that eat away at us but we still manage to be who we are and that, in itself, is exquisite. And when he brings the perfect fir tree home, his wife also recognizes “That one’s got substance to it, real substance.”
As does this whole collection. A mass of substance painted with the fine lines of allegory and symbolism that illuminates the world around us and our timeless existential preoccupations. God, progress and even our own ego being represented in the ranting “The Construction Worker.” The idea of Religious perfectionism and how we will always fall short when we compare ourselves to One Greatness, to Jesus Christ or in Thörmahlen’s Christ, a man called Winfried Posch. Mr. Posch was the perfect man teeming with great accomplishments and no failures. How are we to compete with him? We can’t and the mere attempt will always be the impetus for a life of misery. As our narrator states, “after all, nobody should be led to believe that he or she came into this world to enjoy themselves.” Towards the end of the collection, “A Talk with Thomas” gives us St. Thomas’ aerial view, from inside a tourist cathedral, on the suffering and exaltation of human existence.
The last story is a fitting to end to a collection of stories I did not want to leave. In “The Water Tower”, the spirit of a deceased woman, Martha, spurns the “beloved vultures” that come to raid her house after she has died but never appreciated her while she was living.
Is it possible to do both-be a vulture and appreciate something’s beauty? Yes, with “A Happy Man and Other Stories”, it is more than possible। It is a must. They should be picked apart and ravaged for their substance, appreciated for understanding the trajectory of human existence and for showing us that we are not in this alone even though we may try to be.
A Happy Man and Other Stories Or/oder
Der Glückliche und andere Erzählungen
By Axel Thörmahlen
Trans. from the German by Marianne Thörmahlen
Les Figues Press
ISBN 13: 9781934254042