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04/14/2022 | Literary criticism

"To the Elephants" by Peter Karoshi: "So then, just a few days ago in reality, did I want to stop time?" Of a father-son adventure, memories and the journey to oneself

by Sabrina Siebert

Image: Britta summer

"I am Theo, and everything that has come, I have just always accepted it."
These words begin the 2021 novella "To the Elephants" by Vienna-based historian Peter Karoshi. It is the first work he has published in twelve years, following his debut novel "Grünes, grünes Gras" (Green, Green Grass), published in 2009, and he immediately succeeded in getting it onto the shortlist for the German Book Prize. With a novella that takes the reader on a double journey: the journey of a father with his son through the Alps - and a journey into the inner life of the protagonist.

Theo, a middle-aged humanist, questions the gears of life, and is in search of himself: "I had grown up and everything had become a raging whirlpool". His family and professional life seem to be off track when he embarks on an adventure with his son Moritz, which takes the journey of Emperor Maximilian II with his elephant Soliman as its historical model. The father-son team starts their journey in Salzburg and after a bumpy start, a lot of lack of planning and some partly miraculous encounters, nine-year-old Moritz disappears and Theo follows his trail across the Alps. During his wanderings he wanders again and again into his innermost self, questions his marriage, his decisions, while around him events continue to overturn and even slide into the surreal.

In his novella, Peter Karoshi creates a plot framework around the journey of the two characters that is difficult to grasp and that triggers melancholy. The adventurous and unrealistic twists and turns of the story make it very difficult for the reader to empathize with the experiences and feelings of the characters. The elephant, which was both the eponym for the work and the inspiration for the adventure of father and son, lends the events something magical, but unfortunately it quickly fades into the background after the beginning of the novella and is forgotten. Instead, the focus shifts to a protagonist who mentally wears himself out in search of himself and in a very short time gets into various situations that can almost be described as fantastic or dreamlike. Be it a wild evening in a hotel bar followed by a suspicion of murder or an irrational escape that ends in a bus crash - one quickly loses touch with the events. It is as if a veil lies over the plot of the novella - the exaggerated, insane and unreal leaves the reader with a vague feeling, in the middle of a whirlpool of memory splinters and recollection. Peter Karoshi's "Zu den Elefanten" has an experimental character, one finds only a few answers to the riddles of the text and is left with the question: Was it all just a dream?