Barbara Isn’t Dying (Europa Editions, 2023, translated from German to English by Tim Mohr) is not your average Bildungsroman. The protagonist, Walter Schmidt, is a 70-something year old Polish immigrant grandfather living in Germany. Walter is retired. Barbara, his Russian immigrant wife, is not. Her job, as it has been for the entirety of their marriage, is taking care of his every need. When Barbara comes down with a mysterious illness, Walter must take care of himself and her and he’s not happy about it.
Walter starts his journey to self-sufficiency by eating his dog’s breakfast because Barbara was too ill to put out his usual bread rolls. In a few days’ time, however, he progresses to figuring out where the coffee is, how to make it, and not to put salt in it.
Initially, Walter resisted change so vehemently that I worried about what would happen to him if Barbara died. How will this man survive? And then I thought- when did I start worrying about this grump? Not only had Bronsky somehow made me care for this self-centered grouch, she also had me laughing out loud while I was doing it. This is Bronsky’s superpower—winning you over on the most unlikeable of characters.
Walter’s story, heartbreakingly, is that of a man who loves his wife so much he is becoming the best version of himself for her, even if it might be too late.
A fast read, Barbara Isn’t Dead is wildly entertaining and well-written. For fans of A Man Called Ove, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Tim Mohr’s translation of Bronsky’s writing was both succinct and colorful, painting the picture of Walter’s life with care and a dry humor to beguile readers. As is the norm with Bronsky’s work, this read is darkly cozy, with a twist at the end that will break your heart and a finale so satisfying you won’t even mind.
Katya Suvorova: How did writing from a grandfather’s perspective in your latest novel, Barbara Isn’t Dying, differ from writing from the viewpoint of the type of protagonist you typically write-which are grandmothers.
Alina Bronsky: It was so different. With every word I felt I was writing about a person which I could never be myself, I felt I was close but that I also needed to keep my distance at the same time. Herr Schmidt is enigmatic to me. I know him well but I don’t understand him completely. I think I also treated him with more respect compared to female protagonists, like I kept addressing him as Herr (or Mister) Schmidt the whole time in my head.
Barbara is about Herr Schmidt, Barbara’s husband, learning to fend for himself and reconnecting to his tender side in the process. It brings a whole new meaning to ‘you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.’
KS: What interested you about Herr Schmidt learning to fend for himself?
AB: I am fascinated by how well human beings can adjust to new circumstances—even when they are considered “too old.” So I tried to explore how a very grown man like Herr Schmidt learns very basic things which he had been ignoring his whole life and how these new actions change his personality.
KS: As Herr Schmidt changes throughout the novel—we see his tender side come out in caring for Barbara. When we start the book, we question whether or not this man is even capable of having a sweet side. What keeps us reading, other than your absolutely fantastic wit through your writing, is that Herr Schmidt does show us a tender side when he knows, on a basic level, that he needs to feed Barbara.
What inspired you to write this book?
AB: I think there is a love story in every good book and whenever I want to start something new I think about a love story, preferably not a typical one and definitely not a perfect one. It might sound cheesy, but I like the idea of starting with someone who seems to hate everyone and then to come to a point where love cannot be hidden or denied anymore.
KS: We never learn what illness Barbara has, but as I was reading I found it didn’t matter whether I knew or not. My interpretation of her illness is that it is a metaphor for her relationship with Herr Schmidt. He was slowly draining her and absorbing her vitality to be used as his own.
Was there a reason you never named Barbara’s illness?
AB: I love your interpretation even though it’s pretty dark, maybe darker then my idea of this relationship (which is definitely not a happy one). I have an idea about Barbara’s diagnosis but as Barbara and Walter never speak about it with each other I decided not to mention it as well. Readers keep sharing their guesses about what illness Barbara has. That’s fascinating. Some even think she is faking it until the end of the book.
KS: How do you think Barbara would have reacted if she could have been in good health to see Walters change of heart in the latter part of the story?
AB: Good question. She would not believe it. She would wonder whether she is dying.
KS: At times, I found myself questioning what love was as I read Barbara. I had a bit of an existential crisis: What is the difference between love and obligation? Because if you love someone you are sort of obligated to them.
Would you say Herr Schmidt is in love with Barbara?
AB: At the beginning he definitely wasn’t. At some point he kind of fell in love with Barbara but he didn’t notice it because romantic love was not important for him. Ironically or tragically it’s not until the end when Herr Schmidt becomes aware of what Barbara really means to him.
KS: There is this scene in the novel- around Christmas when Herr Schmidt brings the homeless man and his dog some dinner- that absolutely broke my heart. Walter exhibited little compassion when he didn’t have to care for himself or anyone else. As he learned to care for himself and Barbara, his compassion grew.
In your mind, what were you wanting to add to Herr Schmidt’s growth narrative by adding this scene? It almost feels like this scene was a climax of his Bildungsroman.
AB: That’s interesting. I wanted to destroy the idea that Herr Schmidt suddenly has become a lovely and caring person. He does bring some food to the homeless man, so there is definitely some compassion, but he also hates the whole episode and there is no relief for him. Instead he gets angry and disappointed.
KS: Herr Schmidt had come from Poland with his mother to Germany in order to escape the Soviet Union. In a conversation between him and Lydia where she was teaching him to make borscht you had her say, “You’re one of us too!” Herr Schmidt, of course, argued with her. But then she added, “I can hear it in your accent!” which then made Herr Schmidt very upset and he wanted to hang up. I love how you tell his immigration story and how his experience of immigration changed him. He didn’t like the Soviet people, but he married a Soviet-born woman out of a sense of obligation. I find this situation to be extremely relevant—especially with Russian and Ukrainian people immigrating out of their countries now more than ever.
How do you think your readers will react to Walter’s treatment of Barbara’s culture?
AB: I am not sure about the American readers. For German readers it seemed to be just a logical part of this dysfunctional marriage, of Walter’s usual cruelty and disrespect towards Barbara. I am not sure this aspect was important for many readers, maybe depending on their own background.
KS: Immigration is a common theme of your work. Do you find yourself writing with an immigrant audience in mind?
AB: I don’t think I could picture an immigrant audience because it includes so many completely different people. I just hope to find something which brings us together, to describe experiences and thoughts we can share with each other. Immigration can be a great metaphor as well.
KS: Walter learning to fend for himself as well as becoming a care giver at virtually the twilight of his life is an interesting way to develop character- as though you’re saying it doesn’t matter how old you are, you can still change for the better.
Why did you feel it was important for Walter to have a second chance to be a better person later in life?
AB: It was not that much about being a better person but rather to try and find new access to life in a time which seems so hopeless. Walter has repressed his emotions his whole life. Barbara’s illness forces him to feel so many things for the first time.