A seven-year-old boy who worships his father licks a freshly swept concrete floor to show how thoroughly he cleaned it. The boy becomes lost in a forest of questions when the father never comes home.
In August 1966, Franz Schwende goes to work and doesn't come back. His car is found on a street near Lake Ontario with his clothes neatly folded in the back seat. His widow claims he drowned, but soon large business debts come to light, and Franz's motive is questioned. Indeed, because of his German accent, Franz Schwende, an Austrian immigrant who came to Canada after the Second World War in hope of a better life, had difficulty finding clients. Realizing that he'll never fit in and find a better life in Canada - or at least in Scarborough - Franz runs, leaving behind him questions and chaos, despite his own love of order.
Years later, Walter, Franz's only son, hitchhikes from Scarborough to Vancouver. He wants to escape his mother who, on the few occasions she does answer Walter's questions, only seems to lie. He also wants to find the place where he fits in. By living in a rooming house with Czech refugees, working in a northern mining town, and then picking coffee in Nicaragua during the Revolution, Walter tries to make order in his life and clear his mind of the ghost that haunts him. Only when he visits Austria to celebrate his grandfather's 100th birthday does Walter realize that some of the answers he needs can only come from family members.
Harold Hoefle's debut novel The Mountain Clinic is a strong piece. Like many post-war German authors who followed the Kahlschlag (i.e. clear-cutting) movement, Hoefle uses simple, sober language in an effort to strip away any misunderstanding Walter may have about his father's disappearance. Indeed, the aptly named Walter Schwende ("a clearing") tries to clear the forest of questions that surrounds him. Unable to stick to the very few facts he has managed to gather from his mother and from the police occurrence report on his father's disappearance, Walter often pictures his father's vanishing act, waxing poetic as he loses objectivity.
With The Mountain Clinic, Hoefle demonstrates his ability to draw readers in and make them feel for a lost man who appears to have very few feelings himself. Though the father disappears a mere seven pages into the novel, Hoefle is so successful in communicating Walter's admiration for his father that readers are just as devastated as the boy when the event occurs. Furthermore, Hoefle is excellent at conveying accents and voices, particularly in the Nicaraguan chapter where the narrative shifts from Walter's voice to the voice of an experienced Nicaraguan coffee-picker.
Devoid of unnecessary words and descriptions, The Mountain Clinic leaves no room for misunderstanding or artifice. Yet what is implied, what is hidden, is heavy on the reader's mind. Though this solid novel is just over 100 pages long, the book feels enormous; what is not said would take up twice as many pages. Hoefle's first novel begs to be re-read immediately.
Mélanie Grondin is a Montreal writer and translator