Translated from German and published by New Directions in 1989, Uwe Timm’s The Snake Tree is a book in which pretty much every sentence is tense with anxiety and foreboding. The story does not either let up or let go. It belongs to that category of novels, like the books of Paul and Jane Bowles and Alejo Carpentier, or Peter Mathiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, in which Europeans or Americans find themselves in remote third world contexts. Both the people and the physical conditions of that context are simply not subject to Western thought-control and machine-control, however much that control harms them.
The main character Wagner, “an all-efficient German engineer,” finds himself in a place, whether on his worksite or off, whose logic escapes him and whose people he can’t fathom. Even more so than books by the other authors I’ve mentioned, The Snake Tree presents an increasing spiral of terror and goes both differently and farther than readers might expect (even readers of this kind of fiction). It’s also an especially good example of showing how wrong bureaucracy can go and how much it can make bad problems worse.
Reading up on Timm, I find that he’s still alive as of summer 2022 and has been a tremendously popular writer in Germany. The book reads like an excellent blend of streamlined narrative and complex and sophisticated literature that would never be popular in the United States. It’s simply too good at what it’s trying to do.