When 96-year-old Luka Levadski finds out he has terminal cancer, he is first and foremost upset with the way his doctor told him of his diagnosis. Then he goes out to buy himself a new suit, a walking stick, and a one-way ticket to Vienna, where he checks himself into the luxurious Hotel Imperial to die in style. While deciding whether to eat “Duet of red king crab with mango and peas in the pod, 25 euros” or “Goat’s cheese tartlets with smoked catfish and crayfish, 26 euros,” he reflects on his life, his passion for birds and music, and life and death in general. The story of Levadski’s life is told in retrospect, his death in present tense. While the persona of the cranky old man is nothing new in literature, in this book I encountered the graceful death of the cranky old man, and I couldn’t help but cheer for this peculiar man who decides to die on his own terms.
Levadski has had quite an interesting life. When he was a young boy, his father committed suicide, but his mother did everything possible to keep him alive in her son’s memory. Consequently, Levadski grows up with the same love for nature, and birds in particular. His mother uses her almost magical knowledge of nature to get them safely through both World Wars. The first one they wait out in Vienna, in company of Levadski’s two great-aunts who awake in him a great love of music. The second war they wait out deep in the Chechen mountains, where Levadski works as a shepherd to survive. After the war, he becomes a world-renowned ornithologist and is much more comfortable with birds than with people. His habit to compare people to birds is quite comical at times:
The wiry chambermaid, who was already on her way to the door, turned around, beaming. Her hands, much to ungainly for her arms, appeared to flutter. She must be a laundry woman, thought Levadski, with hands like that. Or a gray heron. She was from the south of Serbia. Near Novi Pazar. Alarming, thought Levadski, how embarrassingly touching someone else’s pleasure can be, how easy it is to awaken it!
Until he makes friends with his butler Habib and another guest at the hotel, the highlights of Levadski’s days are his excursions to the restaurant for breakfast and lunch. Even though he frequently falls asleep at the table, he has ample time to inspect the people around him. His observations are sharp and sometimes harsh, but at the same time poignant and often hilarious. It is easy to picture the people around Levadski. Based on his remarks, one could call him prejudiced, but it soon becomes clear that he is one of the most open-minded people at the hotel. He categorizes people just as he used to do with the birds he studied, but he doesn’t prefer one over the other. He is as interested in the chambermaid as he is in the American tourists who frequent the breakfast buffet. His love of birds easily translates into the way he sees life, which makes for an entertaining read.
Levadski’s story is told in beautiful prose. I have only read an excerpt of the book in its original language, but I think I can say that the book reads as well in English as it does in German. I received a copy of the book from New Vessel Press, a publisher specializing in the translation of foreign literature into English with a number of interesting books in its catalog. In the spirit of the season, I would like to give away one of the books New Vessel Press has published. Take a look at the catalog and then leave me a comment by December 5 saying which book you would like most to read and why. I will draw a winner on December 6 and send him or her the ebook of choice (via Amazon).
Congratulations to dolcebelleza for winning a copy of I Called Him Necktie.