In a novel opening with a phone call informing the protagonist that he has cancer and only a few months to live, it’s safe to assume that mortality and death will be ongoing themes. What will be made of death, the tone surrounding it, may be unknown, but that much becomes necessary. In Marjana Gaponenko’s Who is Martha?, (Wer ist Martha?, 2012; tr. from the German by Arabella Spencer, 2014), the tone never fully settles as the dying Levadski surrenders himself to his fate, recalls his life, and waits for, a touch impatiently, his end. It is a quiet novel, interactions and language are straightforward, except for dream sequences, a call to action for translator Arabella Spencer (who unfortunately does not receive the translation copyright) to bring out just enough oddness to clue the reader in, but not put bold emphasis on the dream.
Immediately after the phone call, Gaponenko introduces us to the presence of Levadski’s old, sick body, and two repeated aspects of it: vomiting and artificial teeth. The teeth are a point of pride and shame, cared for, yet ashamed of — a fitting feature to define him by. Dwelling on the body, Levadski immediately decides not to suffer through treatment simply to prolong his life some short time. He begins to both avoid and desire his death. Avoid in that he does not spend a moment thinking of what comes next, neither practically, with his body and possessions, nor spiritually. This could be explained by his lack of family, but the utter indifference is still striking. Any aspect of a funeral, of his body existing at all after death, being discovered, being buried or cremated, does not matter to him. Levadski is also unconcerned with the afterlife, or its lack. His thoughts on death are simply that it is an inevitable end, and that he is ready and waiting.
In waiting, Levadski recalls his childhood, a childhood that forms his life as an old man. Life as a young adult, interrupted by a call to care for his dying mother, or a middle-aged man hardly exist in Who is Martha? It is an absence, seemingly unimportant to the dying man, his thoughts full of the two things that most occupied his childhood: birds and music. Both of these bring him to abandon his apartment, his life, and spend his last days in a luxury hotel in Vienna. It’s the site of his greatest professional triumph: a conference on the northern bald ibis, where his suggestion to save their migration patterns is a success. With the place birds have in his life, this goes far beyond a professional triumph and becomes as close to touching the spiritual as Levadski gets. The hotel is also, though he forgets it for a time, next to the concert hall of his childhood memories.
Levadski’s relationship with birds is the most interesting and aesthetically touching aspect of the book. It would be easy for a being, an image, so metaphorically accessible and flexible to be a crutch, leaned on heavily, and used simplistically, but Gaponenko avoids that here. Birds define Levadski’s relationship with his father, who, after his suicide, left behind a massive amount of folders stuffed with sketches of birds. His mother carries that relationship, keeping birds as the family link. They are his education and professional life. They are how he sees others, repeatedly comparing people to birds, often specific ones, picking out physical attributes or aspects of personality, to understand someone through identifying a species of bird to partner them with: “She must be a laundry woman, thought Levadski, with hands like that. Or a gray heron.”
In a way, they save him and his mother from World War II. She sees the pair as birds escaping the flood, building their nest high in the mountains to avoid rising waters, or invading armies. For her birds are a way to explain life, teaching him that birds are free of hatred for other kinds of bird—the hatred that fueled the war, the Holocaust. In all of this, the war, manages to pass them by, to scarcely make an impact in his memories.
Birds become his alternate, happier self. Fed up with is body, the cancer that is killing him, the dentures he fiddles over, Levadski admires even the bodies of birds, “not least because they are able to open their beaks properly, unlike human beings, whose mouths only open by dropping their bottom jaw.” In his idealization, he encounters heartbreak to match his own mortality. Levadski was born on the same day that Martha, the last passenger pigeon died. This extinction — caused by man, her death curated by man — is cast over Levadski so that he feels himself as Martha, the last survivor of an extinct species. Even this, desiring to be an extinct bird, is a trap, which he eventually admits: “I myself am not a bird. I would like to be one, but then I wouldn’t be able to appreciate the advantages of my bird existence.” Consciousness becomes dissatisfaction, Levadski trapped in a middle ground.
Once he takes up life at the hotel, Levadski wants to do nothing but take baths, listen to music, and eat cake before dying, hopefully soon. In the midst of that, he finds himself becoming close to his recently hired butler, Habib. Levadski makes another acquaintance at the hotel, Mr. Witzturn, old, stubborn and feisty, and who manages to bring out the latter in Levadski. Through them, through the attempts at philosophy and the absurd arguments over age and health with Witzturn, the comedic tone of Martha rises. When Levadski and Witzturn go to the symphony, their bickering, happiness, and eventual snoring infuriates other attendees, presuming them to be little more than unsatisfied teenagers.
Levadski cannot bring himself to commit to these connections, nor to disconnection. Habib is an ideal butler in the tradition of Jeeves: bright, slyly aware of the faults of the man he works for, a step ahead at all times. It is he who reminds Levadski that he would love to attend the symphony, even without knowing it is the same hall from his childhood. Habib is youthful, and Levadski is almost opened up by it, as he is almost opened by Witzturn’s turn towards life even with age.
Instead, he fades, and they fade. Early in the book, he believes “the most beautiful thing was: A single surge of pride banished any breeding ground for loneliness.” When the surge falls back, loneliness breeds again. Loneliness creates openness, and friendships begin to develop. Nervous of them, of connection after years lacking it, with death so near, so welcome, Levadski turns to pride again, to drive off the friends, then the loneliness. It leaves him stranded in an hollow middle.
Unfortunately, at times, too long on a stretch, Who is Martha? itself is in a middle ground. Levadski is somehow too active, without being active enough — long, talkative baths while Habib waits to help him from the tub, meals and a concert trip with Witzturn — and too passive, without being passive enough — bird-dwelling, napping, dreaming, watching people at the hotel and imagining their lives. Gaponenko does both well: a respectable concert trip turns into a farce, cocktails at the hotel bar become a recounting of the history of European culture; Levadksi’s observations are skilled and creative, but mostly absurd, the more so when people “warble” instead of speak and he deigns to “grant everyone their happiness.” Early on, when he theorizes about bird language, with five different meanings for “Kra” depending on how it is cawed, his obsession could be total, this dying old man, deluded and free in a Vienna hotel. When he made friends, his adventures could to reach heights of absurdity. Instead, the book moves mildly between the two, granting pleasant moments, before reaching an affecting ending. It’s a well-told tale, with a relatable and familiar, but still original protagonist, but stays well within safe, comfortable boundaries.