“On 13 October 1991 my grandparents killed themselves,” the first sentence of An Exclusive Love, a memoir by Johanna Adorján grabs the reader and does not let go until the end. Reported without emotion – but not without beauty – as a news reporter does best, (Adorján is a cultural journalist), the reader immediately knows the ending but not the infinitesimal details, so worth paying attention to, of the path that leads one there.
Shocking to the reader, still reeling from the harsh beginning, is presented succinctly but no less forceful when Adorján recounts the final entry in the official folder of the suicide. One last punch before book closes is from the Danish police file is the bill from the locksmith who opened the door of her grandparents’ home – $297 kroner. The reader sees the door open and imagines the scene beyond it.
Grandparents are an enigma. The tales they tell are often about our parents when they were young as if the near past was more important than decades that came before. In An Exclusive Love we are privy to not only the author’s memories but also the intimate thoughts of people from each stage of her grandparents’ (Vera and Istvan) life.
The recent passing of Dr. Jack Kevorkian evokes the polarizing discussion of “death with dignity.” Some called him “Dr. Death” and opposed his methods. Some called him the “angel of mercy.” The Federal Government has recused itself from the conversation and handed the reins to each state to determine if and when assisted suicide is legal. A private matter and a private choice, Vera and Istvan did not ask permission from anyone but each other.
An Exclusive Love is a painful and engrossing detail of the day that Adorján’s grandparents acted on their suicide pact. Throughout the memoir, the author stays gently in the background allowing her grandparents their contemporaries and family members to re-construct the days, hours, and minutes leading up to their mutual suicide in 1991. Timing is everything and Adorján graciously inserts herself into the story calling forth her conversations and experiences with her beloved, mysterious forbears.
In the early 90s the Hemlock Society was operating covertly in the United States and its book, Final Exit was impossible to find except via the Internet. Founded in 1980 by Derek Humphry, The Hemlock Society’s mission was to help people like his wife Jean and reform the laws about doctor-assisted suicide.
Aware of the book, Vera locates it, reads it and the suicide pact is in place. Planned and painless at the end, quietly so that nobody would attempt to intervene, Vera and Istvan slip into the next realm together as they have been for decades.
A graceful shift into dialogue between her grandparents on the Sunday morning that is the focal point of the story shows a couple who have lived with and loved each for 50 years. They survived the Holocaust and reconstructed their life – not obliterating the past – once settled in Copenhagen.
“She goes into the kitchen to wash the ashtrays she has collected from the guestroom and the front hall. Everything must be neat and tidy. She doesn’t want to cause any hassle. No one must find her decision a nuisance.” The grandmother’s internal dialogue continues to rend the readers’ heart.
Page after page the reader finds another snapshot of the day that causes tears to flood the page. “You must say goodbye to each other now,” says Adorján’s grandmother. The grandfather holding Mitzi, their dog, kisses her nose, strokes her head and squeaks out goodbye.
The beauty of An Exclusive Love is the twofold – the memory of the event and the words carefully selected to convey it. In the tradition of Joan Didion’s 2007 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, this intensely personal telling of exceptional love and loss is one to read over an over again reminding us why we read. To find ourselves through the stories of others, find out why we are here and what we ultimately want for ourselves.
Adorján resides in Berlin and is an editor of the Allegemeine Zeitung’s culture section. An Exclusive Love is her first book. Based in the U.K., Anthea Bell is an award-winning translator of a range of work including W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz and the Inkworld trilogy by Cornelia Funke.