Decompression by Juli Zeh

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Translated by John Cullen

Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite

In diving, decompression is the gradual reduction of ambient pressure as a diver returns to the surface, which allows the inert gases which have become dissolved in the diver’s blood to diffuse safely out of the body; surface too quickly, and those gases can form dangerous bubbles in the diver’s bodily tissues. Decompression therefore has to be a highly controlled process, and this fifth novel by Juli Zeh (originally published in German in 2012, now translated by John Cullen) revolves around control, and the gradual – or sudden – release of pressure.

Out in Lanzarote, expatriate German diving instructor Sven awaits the arrival of his latest clients. They turn out to be much more glamorous than he was expecting: Jola Pahlen is a soap star who wants to learn diving in order to secure a film role that will advance her career; her partner, Theodor Hass, is a middle-aged writer whose own career has stalled. Sven doesn’t know all these details, but he can sense that something is not quite right between the couple; then again, they seem quite demonstrative at times in their affection for each other; and then again, Sven is attracted to Jola, and it seems the feeling may be mutual…

Alongside Sven’s first-person narrative, we read extracts from Jola’s diary, which put a rather different slant on events: she calls Theo “the old man”, and this trip is their “very last serious attempt to straighten things out” – though, as Theo is abusive towards Jola, this may be a forlorn enterprise. This private world stays largely within the pages of the diary; until, finally, it can’t help but emerge.

Although there are three main characters in Decompression, what we read ultimately comes back to Sven: most of the novel consists of his account, and we see Jola and Theo through his eyes first. Sven abandoned Germany for Lanzarote when he became disillusioned with his law studies; this left him with an “aversion to judgments” and the life motto “Stay out of it”. But then he became a diving instructor, which is a job of ultimate control: when underwater, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you need to on the advice of someone who does; the resources you have – of time and oxygen – are finite, and must be used carefully. So Sven has complete control of his own domain, which is the water; but he constantly has to let people into that domain, bringing with them the possibility of disruption. And the arrival of Jola and Theo is most certainly disruptive.

The visiting couple both seek control over their own worlds: they want their respective careers on track; they want the upper hand in their relationship, if not an end to it. Decompression becomes the story of a three-dimensional battle of wills in the sea, on land, and in private. But we have cause to wonder exactly what battle is being fought: Sven’s and Jola’s accounts of events contradict each other at times, and there’s the question of who has real control over the text we are reading.

John Cullen’s translation is subtle: the two narrative voices appear transparent; but look again once you’ve finished the book, and certain phrases and sentences change their complexion. After everything, we are left with a novel that refuses to settle – that appears to have resolved, though we know that, really, (like its protagonists’ lives), it has not. A little of those dissolved gases remains, and bubbles may form once the last page is turned.

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David blogs at David’s Book World.

Juli Zeh, Decompression, trans John Cullen (Harvill Secker, 2014), 252pp..

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