Translated from German by Patricia Tiney
Following the madness of Hoffmann’s The Golden Pot and prior to diving into Tomcat Murr for the GLM group read, I decided a quick dose of realism was called for. Number one destination for C19 poetic realism has to be Theodor Fontane, and as it’s Firm Favourites Week, I thought why not. The added bonus was discovering that Under The Pear Tree is a crime novella! (I had no idea Fontane wrote such things.)
Set in the Brandenburgish village of Oberbruch, Under The Pear is based on real events. In the novella, innkeeper and general stores manager Abel Hradscheck and his wife are in financial difficulties, most of it of their own making. Hradscheck spends too much time socialising, drinking and gambling with his clientele. Of course, the big win never comes. So desperate measures are needed when a creditor calls in a debt …
When the debt-collector arrives, Hradscheck makes a great show of paying off his dues in public. The story goes that his wife has come into a fortuitous inheritance. But, the following day, the debt-collector’s horse and wagon are found overturned in the Oder, and no corpse can be found. Suspicion naturally falls on Hradscheck, and when the whispers finally become loud enough, he is arrested.
His neighbour, Frau Jeschke, a malevolent old woman, reports on how, on the night the debt-collector was staying at the inn, she saw Hradscheck stumble out bearing a heavy load, whereupon he proceeded to dig a hole under the pear tree. The thing is, we already know there is a corpse buried there, and there’s no way it can be a victim of Hradscheck. The authorities understand this too when they exhume the corpse, and have have no option but to free their suspect. An injustice has been averted. Or has it?
There are strong suspicions from the off that the man is guilty but there’s no hard evidence. All evidence prior to the crime is circumstantial and afterwards, psychological. Hradscheck’s wife is the one with a conscience, and ultimately cannot live with her guilt. Hradscheck continues to live life to the full within his means, now that business is good. He only appears nervous when his carefully constructed existence is threatened. But the morale behind Fontane’s story is that the truth will out, and it’s only a matter of time before Hradscheck makes a crucial mistake.
Even though Fontane’s presentation is unsensational (in comparison to today’s crime fiction), Under The Pear Tree is still a compelling read. Fontane balances what is hidden with what is seen. His villain is an amiable man, who is driven to crime through circumstance. Yet his aptitude is somewhat disconcerting. The cast of subsidiary characters is quite large and there is an element of social critique. Hradscheck is as his name suggests an outsider, and while he may have been accepted into the community, his wife has not. She is from a higher social class and a little stand-offish. Differences in class are distinguished through speech with the differentiation preserved in the translation by using a mild Yorkshire dialect where German dialect (Brandburgerisch?) appears in the original.
As I was reading, I began to think of Under The Pear Tree as a slighter work, something along the lines of an entertainment. Not that that’s a disparagement. After all it takes skill for an author to manipulate his readers into cheering when someone they strongly suspect – nay, indeed know to be a murderer – is released …