Of Bad Parents

Tom Kummer

German, 2020

‘01:30. Country road, eastbound. No oncoming traffic. Dead villages, as if there’s a curfew. I stroke the steering wheel and the leather of my glove squeaks gently. My passenger is dictating our destination. In my head I’m driving wherever I like.’

Nominated

After the death of his beloved wife Nina, Tom travels back with his younger son from Los Angeles to Bern, while his older son stays in the USA. Tom works at night as a chauffeur and sleeps by day, mourning for Nina and trying to get his life under control. What is fiction, what reality? It doesn’t matter. Tom Kummer is a magnificent story-teller whom we are happy to follow – even though he spares neither himself nor his readership.

Tom Kummer was a master of fake news long before an American President coined the erm. Born in Bern in 1961, in 2000 Kummer caused a media scandal with fake interviews in which Hollywood professionals such as Bruce Willis, Charles Bronson and Sharon Stone revealed astonishingly private things about themselves.

The public were delighted, and the Swiss and German went wild about the stories. Too good to be true? Yes, because unfortunately everything was invented. It was the end of Kummer’s career as a journalist. From then on he worked in LA as a tennis coach. With Nina & Tom, his auto-fictional novel published in 2017, he also became a successful author.

Nina & Tom describes the great love of the oddly-matched couple and Nina’s slow death. The book is wild, exhibitionistic and extreme, and draws the reader powerfully in. Of Bad Parents, on the other hand, has a very different, calmer narrative tone. Nina is dead, Tom alone with his son. The novel is a book of mourning, a book of memories of Nina and their family life together in Los Angeles, as well as the narrator’s own story – with and without Nina – in Bern, Berlin and Barcelona.

Tom can’t bear the day. Instead his nocturnal drives across the whole of Switzerland as a chauffeur provide the framework for a series of curious encounters, conversations, stories and memories of his own family. Always in his thoughts is Nina.

There are some troubling aspects to this novel, such as Tom’s close and sometimes physical relationship with his sons, who are more of a support to him than he is for them. The youth welfare office also has an eye on him. Is that the reason for the tile of the novel, Of Bad Parents? Is it meant seriously, or is the author flirting with himself? Because the novel is also tender, finely observed and apparently authentic. Kummer likes to play with the contradictions between reality and fiction.

In terms of style and language, Tom Kummer has stayed true to his work as a journalist: he writes clearly, quickly, to the point, sometimes in a chopped, almost staccato rhythm. ‘The night brightens. Zürich is bursting with light.’ In this respect he is following on from American narrative traditions in which internal processes are often represented in dialogues and plot. Tom Kummer deftly links the private history of his alter ego with current and historical events and thus becomes a chronicler of his time.

Nominated for the Swiss Book Prize 2020

Text by Jan-Jesse Müller

Title
Von schlechten Eltern
Publisher
Tropen, Stuttgart
Translation rights
Frauke Kniffler, f.kniffler@klett-cotta.de, for Italian: Barbara Griffini, Berla & Griffini Rights Agency, griffini@bgagency.it
Publication date
March 2020
Pages
256
ISBN
978-3-608-50428-6

Author

Tom Kummer

Tom Kummer was born in 1961 in Bern. As a journalist, he faked numerous interviews, unleashing a media storm in 2000. After several years in Los Angeles with his family, he now lives in Bern. His works include Good Morning – Los Angeles – Die tägliche Jagd nach der Wirklichkeit (Good Morning – Los Angeles – The Daily Hunt for Reality, 1997) and Blow Up (2007). The sequel to his novel Nina & Tom (2017), which was highly praised by critics and readers alike, is Von schlechten Eltern (Of Bad Parents, 2020).

Photo: Susanne Schleyer autorenarchiv.de