A review of Ciao by Johanna Adorján
Hans Benedek is in trouble. A well-respected art critic and journalist, he has reached middle age only to find that his teenage daughter – Emma, a committed vegan – disdains him, that his wife – Henriette, once a promising young poet, now a part-time yoga instructor – is disillusioned, and that his colleagues maybe don’t look up to him as much as he thought they did. Particularly Niki, a younger reporter with whom he has been having a lukewarm affair. Worse than this, however, Hans feels a sense of the old order slipping: the arts section no longer holds the authority it once did, and social media influencers are hooking giant book deals left, right and centre. A woman, of all people, has taken over a management position at his newspaper (it is Hans’s firm belief that ‘this century would be the century of women – in conjunction with men’). And a millennial named Xandi Lochner is making waves with her political commentaries.
When Henriette suggests to her husband that he might like to write a portrait of Xandi – following her own disastrous meeting with the younger woman – Hans readily agrees, sure that ‘hyping’ Xandi is bound to save his career. But when he is forced by his new boss to accept Niki as a co-author, a trip to Baden-Baden to watch Xandi in action on a talk show turns into a farcical exposition of Hans as the rapidly ageing white man who has well and truly lost his footing in society. Caught out in his base misogyny, snobby attitudes and total inability to read social situations, Hans nonetheless appears to be embarking on a tentative friendship, not to say flirtation, with Xandi, a blunder that will ultimately result in an online shitstorm of epic proportions. By the time it is all over, Hans is left shaking his head and asking himself: ‘Why hadn’t he seen the signs?’ (‘Warum hatte er die Zeichen nicht gesehen?’) We, the readers, in our privileged position, have of course seen them all along.
Ciao is a riotously funny social satire penned by Johanna Adorján, one of the most versatile authors working in Germany today. Her background as a journalist shines through in this, her second novel – she has also written two collections of short stories and a bestselling memoir about her grandparents, An Exclusive Love, which was translated into English by Anthea Bell – a tightly plotted narrative that shows an exemplary command of detail, not to mention characterisation so authentic one can’t help feeling many of her figures have real-life counterparts. The same goes for conversation: whether polite small talk at an auction-house party, a business lunch rapidly descending into barely concealed backstabbing, or the excruciating bedroom scene involving Hans and Xandi, key moments of dialogue are laced with just the right amount of awkwardness to make readers cringe with embarrassment. Though without doubt a work of fiction, Ciao often comes too close to real life for comfort – which, naturally, is entirely the point.
Ostensibly a comment on the Untergang of the straight white male, Ciao is quick-witted enough not to let anyone escape unscathed. Adorján’s sardonic tone touches everyone, including Xandi and Emma, who as representatives of the new generation are in many ways the heroines of this novel, yet still come across at times as too earnest for their own good. Conversely, the hapless Hans is not merely a loathsome character – careful manipulation of the narrative perspective allows us to feel brief flashes of pity for him at the same time as we are shaking our heads over his unpalatable beliefs. Adorján is playing with fire here: making potentially damaging attitudes come across as simply pitiful or childish is not something that every reader will admire, yet it seems to stem more from a capacity to see the whole picture, to show us that her opinions (which are clear enough, in the end) are well founded rather than merely reactionary.
Perhaps the only drawback of turning the spotlight so glaringly on Hans and men of his ilk is that other, potentially more interesting, characters are forced to take a bit of a back seat. Henriette, for example, with whom the novel opens, is a frustrated creative, a figure who veritably aches with the disappointment of life not having turned out quite the way she’d hoped. There is plenty of fertile ground here for an exploration of thwarted ambition or motherhood or both, yet we are given only tantalising glimpses into her psyche and left instead to deal with her husband’s admittedly more entertaining yet superficial-seeming catastrophes. That Henriette should come across this way is, however, a mark of Adorján’s craft: she fills out every inch of her narrative framework, creating a world of characters we can readily step into. And as we see that even rather peripheral figures, like Frau Kramer, an assistant at Hans’s newspaper, have serious personality and the sense of a good backstory, we can read it perhaps as yet another device – with just a few words, Adorján makes the women in this novel far more interesting and multi-dimensional than Hans ever assumes them to be.
Ciao is not a Me Too novel, though it references the movement often enough. Nor is it an overt takedown of the patriarchy, an angry attempt to right so very many wrongs. Instead, it is a whip-smart, slightly snarky, strangely moving take on relationships, on growing older, on what it is to hold and lose and maybe re-find your place in the world. Filled with moments of recognition – some wry, some more poignant – and an abiding sense of empathy beneath the laugh-out-loud scenes, this is a clever and compelling novel that offers the chance both to reflect on and escape from the fast-paced, ever-changing society in which we live.
Ciao by Johanna Adorján is published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch and currently available in German. I was very pleased to work on a sample translation of the novel, which can be requested from the publisher.