It is one of my favorite walks,” the narrator of Melitta Breznik’s haunting novel Night Duty reports, “from here on up to the cemetery on the hill.”
When an unnamed narrator in postwar Austrian fiction goes for a walk, thoughts of death are never far behind—think of the scientist’s conversations about suicide in Thomas Bernhard’s Yes, or the novelist’s inner dialogue in Peter Handke’s The Afternoon of a Writer.
Breznik’s narrator is a doctor, recently returned to the city of her childhood to fill a temporary position at the local hospital. The novel opens with a lovingly described autopsy (“all attention is dedicated solely to the art of carving, by the book, following its own aesthetic”), and alternates scenes from the hospital with memories of her equally grim childhood. The doctor’s alcoholic father has been reduced to helplessness by his disease, and languishes in a state-owned nursing home nearby, “drifting toward [his end]” with the other patients in his ward, no longer the same man who had terrorized his family. Breznik’s treatment of this domestic material, a staple in the literature of “childhood trauma,” is distinguished by her narrator’s unspoken battle to retain a clinical distance from the events of her past. In this context, her unwillingness to judge her father harshly is a tender act.
The doctor’s regular visits to the nursing home are punctuated by small gestures of reconciliation: sneaking her father a bottle of beer; cleaning the smudges from his eyeglasses. “He is becoming more translucent,” she notices, “his cheekbones protrude as if his death skull were no longer willing to be hidden.” With every illness or injury she treats in the emergency room, the doctor’s own wounds are brought to light and ritualistically sterilized. But healing is only hinted at in the narrative, and Breznik applies warmth in her novel like a gauze bandage: winding carefully, one layer at a time.