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Cyber crush: to meet or not to meet, that is the question.

March 24, 2011 19 comments

Gut Gegen Nordwind by Daniel Glattauer. Translated in French by “Contre le vent du Nord” and in English by the silly “Love Virtually”, instead of the literal “Good Against the North Wind”

I decided to read Gut Gegen Nordwind – I can’t make myself use the ludicrous English title – after reading Caroline’s review. It seemed to be the right book to read for the upcoming 7 hours flight I had to take and I wasn’t disappointed, the hours flew pleasantly.  

So, what is it about? Emmi wants to cancel her subscription to the magazine Like. She misspells the email address and accidentally sends it to Leo Leike. They start chatting and writing to each other until the light and funny conversation turns into a crush. Emmi is happily married and Leo is recovering from a multiple stop-and-go relationship with Marlene. The question “Shall we meet?” is raised right from the start. As they live in the same town, the meeting would be easy to set up. It’s nagging at them and itches more and more intensely as the correspondence develops.

I really enjoyed the beginning of their relationship, their witty ping-pong exchanges. The ending is unexpected and well-chosen. I was a little bored by the procrastination about meeting or not.  As it is written in the form of emails, the style is mostly spoken language, with a very good translation from the German. The sequence of short messages gives a vivid rhythm to the book.

Now that I’m writing the review and try to answer the central question of the book, ie “What are Emmi and Leo looking for in this virtual relationship?”, two opposite tendencies fight in me. My soft side would say it’s a lovely book gracefully avoiding the expected Hollywood ending. My cynical side would be tempted by a twisted interpretation. So, I’ll give you the two voices and you’ll make up your mind.

La vie en rose, the soft voice says.

Emmi and Leo weren’t looking for anything but accidents, like falling in love, happen. They start an innocent correspondence and get carried away. Leo is available and he’s probably vulnerable after his break-up with Marlene. Emmi entering into his life without the constraints of a long-term relationship is probably a good way to forget his former lover. Emmi is a distraction that becomes an addiction. On her side, Emmi is sincerely in love with her husband Bernhard and it is as if her love were opening a new branch for Leo, who reveals the little emptiness of her married life. Someway, romance is lacking in her life and she enjoys the feeling of young love.

Words are powerful weapons that can set imaginations on fire. It was in the core of two beautiful short-stories by Thomas Hardy I recently read. Imagination also plays a crucial part in Gut Gegen Nordwind. This is a disembodied love fostered by teasing words. But is it really love or the idea of love? Can you pretend to love someone you’ve never met? Isn’t this a very convenient “relationship”, one you can stop whenever you want? You’re there, online, only when you feel like it. It’s out of time, out of place, a sort of living diary. It’s like having a diary that responds to your thoughts.

Of course, the other question is: Is Emmi cheating on her husband with this relationship? What is cheating? What she does, as her feelings are committed, seems a greater betrayal than a simple one night stand.

La vie en Noir, the cynical voice says.

Are they two seducers who manipulate each other? Emmi and Leo don’t really share their deepest thoughts or their everyday life. They don’t have engaging conversations. But they need each other, the daily messages and the idea that there is someone out there to talk to. I wondered why what could have been an agreeable friendship had to turn into love.

What if Leo had been a Lea? Would Emmi have kept on writing if her addressee had been a woman? I’m not sure. Although we only see her through her mails, Leo’s answers and the indirect speech of her friend Mia, we guess Emmi takes pleasure in being attractive. We understand that she’s pretty and likes testing her power over men. She’s the one who starts teasing and talking about seduction. Emmi is not built to have a man as a friend. She doesn’t believe in friendship between a man and a woman. From the first emails, Emmi introduces the idea of seduction and sex by asking Leo how he imagines her. Is she doing this to spice her marriage? And Leo? Doesn’t he enter the game easily, nourishing the flames by ambiguous sentences, erotic comments and a strange way of meeting without meeting?

I can’t give too many details without spoiling the last part of the book. But the more I think of it, the more I incline towards the twisted side. What can I say, I have difficulties to buy pure romance.

My two opposite responses to Gut Gegen Nordwind are evidence that this book isn’t as simple and as gooey romantic as the English title gives us to understand. There is a sequel, it will be published in France in April but it’s already released in English and has been reviewed by Caroline here.

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