In which the blogger lists in no particular order of priority just a few of the many virtues of Uli Oesterle's "Hector Umbra". Reader beware, there are indeed spoilers in what follows;
So, why is Hector Umbra such an impressive achievement?
1. Because it's a remarkably tender and compassionate comedy drama
concerned with friendship, loss, acceptance and healing. Hector Umbra's search
for the missing DJ Osaka Best brings him into contact with the likes of inhuman
invasions, bar-rooms in Hell, thought-powered ray-guns, demonic Elvis
impersonators and inter-dimensional portals. Yet his journey's ultimately about
coming to terms with the ways in which folks often inadvertently harm both
themselves and those they're closest to. Osterle's eye for the detail of relationships
built on the comradery of shared self-destructiveness is particularly strong. He presents us
with the conspiratorial affection that’s expressed in insults and bravado and exultations
towards further dissipation, while contrasting that bonhomie with the inevitable
secrets, regrets and lies which mark lives based on shared excess and often little else.
It's no coincidence that the book begins with an affable gaggle of blokes in a
bar who've been up for "three nights in a row getting shitfaced", and
closes in a graveyard with three wistful couples toasting absent friends who've
been lost to over-indulgence and obsession. Though Hector Umbra never
once threatens to disappear up its own angst, Oesterle's bittersweet focus is
always with how tough it can be to reject a life that's cocooned and
comforted by mindless self-abuse, and of how catastrophic it can be not to do so.
2. Because the gloriously bizarre absurdities which Osterle uses to
discuss his themes of loss and responsibility are grounded in the specifics of
life in Munich
at the turn of the Millennium. If Hector Umbra is partly an eulogy to
friends lost and ill-times endured, it's also an intensely vivid celebration of
everyday life in the Bavarian capital. A love-letter to the city's
thoroughfares and clubs, parks and churches, lakes and subways and rave
culture, Oesterle's Munich
is both impressively monumental and touchingly intimate. As such, it suggests
an ideal metropolis to live in if only despair and delusion weren't forever
threatening to obscure its promise. And yet, there’s nothing of a straight line
to be seen in any of Oesterle's expressionistic representations of the city,
which creates the uneasy sense that Munich
- every bit as much as Hector Umbra himself - is being dangerously undermined
by events. Only the fauna of the city's parks and the snow-covered graveyard at the
book's end are entirely free of the suggestion that the world's far less
substantial than we usually conspire to believe. It's an evocation of
uncertainty – now intense, now subtle - which helps reinforce the book’s
atmosphere of constant anxiety, and yet, that implied threat to Munich's existence makes the city seem all the more
alive and beautiful .
3. Because Osterle doesn't rely on cliché or cruelty to land his
laughs. For all its single-minded seriousness of purpose, Hector Umbra's a
consistently affable and, at times, exuberantly farcical tale. Frantisek's
secret, bed-bowing dalliance with his more-than-substantial and
far-from-youthful landlady: the Marxian tale-closing punch-up between cultists
and ravers in Munich Frauenkirche: the ludicrously blokish, knock-down brawl
between Hector and Lester Birmingham; the super-devilry-by-the-numbers of the
Extracerebrals and their other-worldly secret HQ; Osterle’s slapstick is skilfully
worked to ensure that mawkishness and portentousness never threaten.
It's true that Osterle's portrayal of a fanatical cadre of elderly Jehovah's
Witnesses does at times seem untypically uncharitable. Yet he also suggests
ravers - its "electro fags and cheap sex slaves" - are just as
susceptible to mass hysteria and the corrosive thoughtlessness which it brings. "Teenager's brains", explains the leader of the Extracerebrals, are as "soft as ghost-shit" because of "years of drug experimentation, violent video games and endless energy drinks".
The point's being broadly and playfully made, of course, about both religious and consumption cults. But whether it's the youthful or the predominately decrepit, Osterle always portrays the wilfully mindless, with their "strange inner deadness", as a terrible threat to both themselves and everyone else around them. And it's the distinction between a crowd and a community,
blind faith and genuine tolerance, which Umbra has to come to terms with.
But in the end, Hector Umbra is a book that’s entirely sympathetic to even the
most loathsome of its - human - cast. There can’t be the slightest doubt that Osterle means
for us to despise the likes of the odious shock journalist, “Doctor Mary-Lynn Modem”.
But when her final appearance is as a mind-wiped, mouth-frothing, monster-haunted
victim, the panel's clearly being used to evoke horror and pity rather than cruel
satisfaction and righteous revenge.
4. Because Osterle shows how fantasy can be made to work without resorting
to the po-faced, the bromidic or the soulessly post-modern. A casual glance at Hector
Umbra might suggest it's a careless mish-mash of styles and conventions,
all hurled together for eye-catching effect. Just to suggest that Oesterle
draws from noir detective tales, conspiracy thrillers, slice'o'life indy
confessionals, Gothic fantasy and pulp sci-fi summons up the wearisome image of
a knowing creator far more interested in genre game-playing than telling a
truly compelling story. Yet everything in Hector Umbra's pages exists for
a specific narrative purpose, and Osterle soon turns out to be almost entirely
unconcerned with genre as anything other than a storytelling tool. He simply appropriates whatever he needs from
wherever he has to in order to best serve his tale. And so, his playfully fiendish
Extracerebrals - see above - are clearly as ridiculous as they're
sinister, and that's exactly how they're supposed to be. They're creatures
generated by everyday human obsessions, and they express both how initially
trivial and ultimately destructive such phenomena can be. As such, the
Extracerebrals aren't there to knowingly conform to or deconstruct what the
audience's genre expectations are. Neither are they there as a spectacular
if ridiculous distraction designed to pep up the tale for its own sake. Instead, they're on the page because
the story of Umbra's unwitting fall from grace and slow, painful redemption
simply can't be told in their absence.
Uli Osterle's "Hector Oesterle" is printed by Blank Slate Books in a delicious, affordable hardbacked edition. It should, if circumstances permit and such hasn't happened yet, be purchased immediately.