Mr Adamson by Urs Widmer


What will happen next, only the gods know

Ghost stories are a tricky beast to get right. Ghost stories in translation, told across cultural and language divides, even more so. With the exception of perhaps The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin (translated by Marlaine Delargy) there are almost none that I can think of that I’d go out of my way to personally reread or to recommend to others. In fact I almost didn’t even bother to crack open Urs Widmer’s Mr Adamson for this very reason. What a huge mistake that would have been.

To label Mr Adamson as simply another ghost story is to do it a humongous disservice. Yes, it’s about a boy who comes face to face with an honest-to-goodness apparition while playing Indian in his neighbor’s tranquil garden one day, but this plot is merely a means to end, and serves as a jumping off point for Widmer to explore the delicate nature and balance of extreme opposites. Youth and old age. Life and death. Beauty and decay. War and peace. Cycles that seem to repeat endlessly. Things that we all feel powerless to control. As the narrator recounts his dealings with the friendly Adamsonhow they came to meet, the adventures they shared, how he discovered that the old man was no longer actually alive—the reader becomes lost in their own garden of mental delights, warmly embraced by the allure of Widmer’s whimsical language and the strange, yet oddly compelling story that slowly begins to bloom before them. And what a story it is.

Do yourself a favor. Stop reading this for a moment. Walk over to your bookshelf, gather up everything you own by Neil Gaiman post 2002, everything you bought because American Gods was so damn epic, and chuck it all in the waste bin. The Graveyard Book was so darn precious though, wasn’t it? Toss it. Mr Adamson delivers what you’ve been craving for the past thirteen years: something a little bit frightening, a little bit weird, and a whole lot magical. It takes you on an intimate journey across multiple countries as it asks thoughtful, engaging questions about the yin and yang nature of existence at every stop along the way. Sure, it can be read and enjoyed by young adults for its surface story, but they’re clearly not the target audience.

You can see me because I died at the very moment you came into the world. Precisely at that moment. I’m not saying that year or day or hour or minute or second. I’m saying moment. A moment, that’s when you take a knife that you can cut time with, very finely, and you cut a second in two halves, and the first half into half again, and then you cut each half you get into half again with your fine-cutting time-knife and you keep doing that, without stopping, all day long. By then you’ll have a hint of time that’s still bigger than a moment, much bigger, but it will have to do for now to help us reach an initial understanding.

Along the way Widmer rewrites the rules for the ghost story genre in exciting and refreshing ways, producing a work that seems a bit like The Sixth Sense at first blush, but that ultimately delights by exploring a much more symbiotic relationship that is forged between the forces of life and death. Very early on he clearly defines the rules around the how, when, and why his protagonist and the deceased Adamson can interact, and then he builds outward, leaving the safe confines of the garden behind, to explore the much more dangerous, far more threatening world that lies just beyond the safety of its borders. It’s obviously the journey that Widmer is interested in chronicling here, not its final destination. Or is it? By the time the novel reaches its conclusion and the final pieces begin to lock into place you might not be so sure anymore.

Are we living only for the moment we’re destined to die? If inwardly we regress backward towards the beginning as we approach our inevitable end, does anything that happened in the points in between hold real meaning? Don’t be surprised to find a tear or two rolling down your cheek as you draw ever nearer to the novel’s final, fractured gasp. Like so many other things in life, it could only ever end one way.

Mr Adamson by Urs Widmer / Translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin ★★★★½
Mr Adamson
by Urs Widmer
Translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin
Seagull Books

(2009) 2015
180 Pages
ISBN 9780857422323

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.