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I bought the book because I'd read on the cover that the story was set in a German museum. I always like reading what foreigners write about my home country and enjoy seeing if they've done their homework and researched properly or if they've put their foot in.
A do-gooder runs a museum in a small German town which is dedicated to suicide. The aim of the exhibits - photos of famous people who've committed suicide (for example, Marilyn Monroe), photos of locations favoured by suicides (the Golden Gate Bridge), small reconstructions of indoor sites (a doll's house with the walls cut away to reveal Sylvia Plath with her head in the oven), tools used to perform the deed (knives, razor blades, a rope ending in a noose), and so on - is to persuade potential suicides to refrain from doing the deed, to give them courage to face life.
Unfortunately not all visitors understand this intention but are encouraged to take the last step then and there. The old caretaker living above the rooms of the museum always knows when another one is due. It's easy to count the visitors as there are always only few, if eight enter and only seven leave, he knows that one is going to hide somewhere waiting for the night. Does he go and search for them? No. He also knows when the suicide takes place because then a spider falls into his open mouth. Does he get up and try to save the desperate person? No. He crunches the spider and sets his alarm clock.
He doesn't call the police the following morning as hassle is the last thing he wants and no one is going to miss the dead person anyway in his opinion. He calls the doctor who comes with his van and takes the corpse away. Does he care what the doctor does with it? No. The only witness is the doctor's dog who's quite happy with the arrangement.
A second thread is set in a small town in Portugal where we follow the lives of three children. A beautiful baby girl and beautiful baby boy are born and enrapture the inhabitants. They just know that the two will marry one day. When they're fourteen years old, they do indeed vow to love each other and stay together forever. Another boy is also deeply in love with the girl but he knows that he'll never have a chance and resigns himself to adoring her from afar and playing mournful tunes on his euphonium. When the young lovers go to the city to study at uni, they discover that the girl is only beautiful at home, in the city she's just pretty whereas the young man is breathtakingly, heartstoppingly handsome wherever he goes. Will this affect their love?
The two threads run parallel for a long time, I was wondering when they would converge and in what way. They do converge in the end in a most dramatic way.
If I assumed at the beginning I'd learn something about the current state of affairs in Germany, I was mistaken. The story doesn't seem to be anchored in place and time. It could be set anywhere, why the author chose Germany doesn't become clear to me. Maybe because one of the peculiarities tourists like to think of is that it is the home of the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. The proprietress of the museum comes from the town of Hamelin, the story of the Pied Piper is mentioned. The names of the protagonists convey a certain Olde Worlde feeling which, of course, is lost to readers who don't know German. After teaching youngsters for forty years I can vouch that first names like Hans, Ernst, Irmgard, Hulda, Lotte, Horst etc. are out of fashion. The doctor's name is Ernst Fröhlicher which means Earnest Merrier in English. A well chosen name, the man is indeed a contradiction, on the one hand he commits outrageous things which may haunt a sensitive reader in their nightmares, on the other hand he thinks constantly and lovingly of his deceased wife, a woman so vile that her own mother declares it would have been better if she'd never been born. And he drinks Fair Trade coffee which is a good thing because thusly he helps poor farmers and their families in coffee producing countries. When he considers his life, he finds it balanced.
The novel Little Hands Clapping falls into the category Black or Sick Humour. Black and sick, yes, humour, I'm not so sure. Of course, you may argue that as a German I'd better not argue about humour as all the world knows that Germans lack a sense of humour. I'm a regular listener of BBC Radio 4 Comedy Programmes and can tell you that hardly a week passes without some comedian mentioning this fact. (Btw, another topic which sends comedians and their audiences into hysterical laughing fits are Hitler and the Nazis. If for some reason they couldn't be used by British comedians any more, their programmes would be much shorter.)
Believe it or not, there is a lively comedy scene in this country ranging from below-the-belt ribaldry over plain silliness and witty bon mots to political satire. What is not so widespread, though, is black or sick humour. Monty Python's Flying Circus is known and cherished by German anglophiles, but as far as I know hasn't produced any followers hereabouts. I'd say that any fan of Monty Python humour will love Little Hands Clapping, if this kind of humour doesn't fully convince you, you'd better stay away from the book. I didn't have nightmares, maybe I'm not sensitive enough, but I didn't enjoy the book much, either. I must admit that it is written well, the beastliness loses its edges because it's wrapped in a chatty tone of voice. And there are some funny moments if absurdity and bizarreness are your thing. For example, Hulda, the cleaner of the museum, has no doubt whatsoever that she'll go to hell because she once blasphemed which according to Marc 3:29 is an eternal sin. Yet, that she's de-penised* her abusing step-father, doesn't bother her. When a policeman asks the woman who's seen the doctor's dog vomit first a black penis and later a likewise scrotum to describe their size in comparison to her husband's private parts although the man sits beside him fully clothed, one can't but admire the author's crooked ingenuity.
You may assume that this should lead to my resolution not to read another book by Dan Rhodes. The funny thing is that I've already read another one, namely the novel Gold, and not in the distant past but only two weeks before. The author's name hadn't stuck, I only realized by chance that I'd read two novels by him when I saw the books lying side by side on a table. The content couldn't be more different, without the covers one would never assume that they were written by the same author - a proof of Dan Rhodes' versatility. Whereas in Little Hands Clapping the most outrageous things happen, hardly anything happens at all in Gold, watching paint dry is more exciting than what the characters encounter.
To come to a conclusion: for me this is a book of the on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand kind. There's as much to like as to dislike. Although it's not really 'my beer' as the Germans say, I'd recommend it to people with a sense of sick humour. I'm sure they'll love it.
*The term does exist, Google shows more than 650 hits.
The great thing about writing for a book review site like Curious Book Fans is that sometimes you get sent a book that you'd never have chosen if you'd seen in on a shelf. Many times this can mean you get introduced to an amazing writer well outside your normal reading field. Sometimes it means you get a book that's just seriously bonkers. Little Hands Clapping is that seriously bonkers book!
~The Old Man~
In a small town in Germany the Old Man works as the guardian of a bizarre museum. He's been looking after other strange museums for many years including such tourist low-lights as the Bad Neustadt Handball Experience and the Regensburg Reformation World of Teddy Bears but his current employment is rather special. He gets to live upstairs and he spends his days trying to discourage visitors from visiting and doctoring the visitor numbers to make it look like the place is more popular than it is. After all, there's no point making too much work but equally he wouldn't want the owner to shut the place down. Periodically he has some 'special' duties to perform about which the owner of the museum knows nothing, but for which he has the support of the local Doctor.
The museum celebrates - if that can be said to be the right word - suicide in all its forms. The owner - known as Mrs Pavarotti because she's expressed her love of the famous tenor by tracking down and marrying a man who looks like Pavarotti - set up the museum in the hope that the displays of the weird and wonderful ways that the desperate seek to leave this world might inspire the lost, lonely and suicidal to cling to their lives and seek help. Sadly what she doesn't realise - and which the Old Man and the Doctor don't tell her - is that her museum has quite the opposite effect. It acts instead as inspiration to suicidal people who come and hide out behind the cabinets and displays until the museum closes when they creep out and take their lives during the night. The Old Man calls the Doctor, they bundle up the body into the boot of the Doctor's car and the Old Man clears up the mess. If Mrs Pavarotti knew what was happening she'd be very upset and would close the museum and neither the Old Man nor the Doctor would want that to happen - each for different reasons.
Twenty-something years before the Old Man, the Doctor and their suicidal visitors, three babies were born in a small Portuguese town. Two of the babies were truly beautiful and the townspeople knew that they were destined to be together. The third baby was rather less gorgeous. As the children grow older, Mauro and Madalena (the gorgeous ones) got together as all the old people prophesised they would. The third - the son of the village baker - was in love with Madalena but it was clear he wasn't in her league. With no hope of winning her love, he turned his attention to baking the best bread and playing his euphonium, filling the town with the smells of baking by day and the sounds of exquisite but sad music each evening.
For much of the book the reader can only ponder how the young Portuguese can possibly be linked to the Old Man and the German museum. Similarly we can only wonder what the Doctor does with the bodies of the desperate people who have taken their lives. We know that the Doctor is himself a tragic creature, widowed at a young age by the death of his beautiful but horrible wife and lauded by his community for his personal bravery and devotion to medical science. But how will they all fit together and what's really going on at the museum?
~A Round of Applause? Or just a ripple?~
Little Hands Clapping is unquestionably one of the weirdest books that I've read in a very long time. Normally I know within the first few chapters whether I like a book or not. With this book I've polished off all 300+ pages and I still cannot answer the questions "Did you like it?" with a simple yes or no. I honestly can't decide. I also would struggle to tell you whether it's really funny which equally ought to be obvious, but it's not. This is a very strange, disturbing and uncomfortable read. In places it's laugh out loud funny, more often it's wryly amusing and at other times it's just plain bonkers. The reader has to ask themselves what sort of sick mind came up with a plot based around the celebration of suicide, the practice of cannibalism and necrophilia and whether it's really appropriate to laugh when a dog vomits up a severed penis whilst taking a walk in the park? The politically correct part of your brain will tell you to "step away from the Dark Side" but every now and then Rhodes delivers a line so funny that you're almost ready to turn a blind eye to the weirder aspects of the book.
The interweaving of the stories of the different characters is quite cleverly done. In my mind I could clearly picture both the German and Portuguese towns, could imagine the inside of the museum (which was probably more exciting than many I've been to) and the characters are painted with conviction but without sympathy. Dan Rhodes is clearly confident in his art and with five other books already under his belt, there are no shortage of people wanting to read his books. This one won an award - the E.M.Forster Award 2010 - admittedly one of which I've not heard but it's clearly highly rated. I've really struggled on choosing a star rating for this because no matter how much I reflect on the book, I still can't decide whether I liked it, whether I recommend it, or whether I'll ever quite recover from reading about the dog and the penis or the spider-eating Old Man.
Little Hands Clapping by Dan Rhodes
Published by Canongate Books, paperback, March 2011
Thanks to Canongate (always one of my favourite publishers) for providing a free review copy via Curious Book Fans where this review also appears