Under the skin of others

 

Dear Doris,

In Japanese, the words for skin and clothing are identical. In yoursecond novel Das blaue Kleid (The blue dress), published in 2002 and winner of the 2003 Deutscher Bücherpreis für Belletristik, the two protagonists, Florian and Babette, are crushed by the death of loved ones. They throw themselves in search of their own skin – a thin film that will protect them from pain. Chance – a blue dress – suddenly joins them together, and covers them with its delicate fabric of beauty and sadness.

Doris DörieChance, as well as the pursuit of one’s own skin, are hand-woven: that’s the fabric with which we learn pain and affection. Throughout life, we experience, as if it was a burn that lingers in the body, the dignity of this learning. A scar, a wrinkle, a brand, a blight: in them we touch our stories, excavated in the body, as if written in braille. Many stories might also be stored under a dress.

“This dress will change your life,” said Alfred, a renowned fashion designer, to Babette, when she bought from him the blue dress. The designer dies shortly thereafter, victim of the cancer against which he had secretly fought for three years. In order to organize, posthumously, a fashion show in honor of Alfred, Florian, his companion, tries to rescue the dresses that have marked the designer’s career.

The blue dress is the last of them. It had been sold out to Babette, a young widow. After seven years of marriage, Babette lost her husband Fritz, who was hit by a car in Bali, during the couple’s holiday trip. After Fritz’s death, Babette undertakes daily walks to the cemetery, trying to read her pain in the words carved in tombstones. There, she meets Thomas, an anesthesiologist. Gradually, the two become attached to one another. Fascinated by the blue dress, Babette clings to the words from the seller: “This dress will change your life.” She dresses like one who is covered with a new skin, and waits for Thomas in the cemetery. On the bench on which she sits, one word is carved: love.

The narratives of Florian and Babette blend and are told in first, second and third person. The characters tell and are told. Their pain mingle: two strands difficult to separate. The direct and indirect speeches are mixed in a mosaic. The blue dress is an open wound, a scar that does not fade, a point of intersection in which all the characters collide, in order to transform themselves and to survive their pain. The dress is also a piece of sea, a glass of salty water that erases the traces of pain on the shore, on the body.

I heard your husband also died of cancer, Doris. So that’s the experience that you, with the delicacy of a sea animal, explore in this book: the complexity of mourning. Florian and Babette are like abyssal fish: they outline eccentric strategies for survival. Bottom and surface, lightness and weight: these are the marks of this novel. With the sharp cut of a thin cloth over the skin, it celebrates grief – and its release.

Yours truly,

J.

Fragile, Angela Reilly
Fragile, Angela Reilly

About the book:

 

  • DÖRRIE, Doris. Das blaue Kleid. Diogenes, 2004. 192p.
  • Goodreads

 

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