On a seemingly ordinary day, Andreas decides to change the course of his life. He’s empty, worn out and sick of life’s routines, but he’s also learned that he may have cancer. Almost immediately, Andreas decides to quit his job, sell his Parisian apartment of 20 years and return to his hometown in Switzerland to visit, and perhaps act upon, an unrequited love.
On a Day Like This by Swiss author Peter Stamm is an insightful – if slow-moving – tale of separation, mortality and humanity. Told in stark, straightforward prose and peppered with keen observations about everyday life, Stamm’s novel succeeds in capturing the doubts, worries and overall apathy of someone dulled by life’s everyday routines. In fact, Andreas no longer feels in control, as the narrator states honestly in the opening pages: “Sometimes, when Andreas crossed the street on his way to work, he imagined what it would be like to be run over by a bus. . . A blow that would put an end to entanglements and create a little order.”
Paris is his home, but he doesn’t feel a part of it, being “a tourist who had walked these streets for twenty years now, without ever having a sense of arriving anywhere.” Andreas feels isolated from his surroundings; he has limited interaction with his only brother, he has no close friends and he’s lost interest in his teaching job. He’s also had many affairs with women, but doesn’t love them, as one girlfriend notes dryly, “You’re always alone, no matter who’s with you.” He pines for Fabienne, a woman from his youth, “a love story that had never quite happened,” but even this “love” is detached:
He thought about Fabienne . . . she seemed very strange to Andreas. It was as though her face had also changed from being naked. He didn’t recognize her until she was dressed again. He didn’t know what he expected from her. He didn’t even know what he wanted.
At times, the sluggish pace of the plot and Andreas’ inherent uncertainty of himself (and his fear of living), translates into a feeling of detachment from the story which in turn leads the reader to a disinterest in Andreas. His lack of self-confidence and lack of interest in his surroundings cause him to observe that: “His life was an endless sequence of lessons, of cigarettes, meals, cinema visits, meetings with women or friends who basically didn’t mean anything to him, incoherent lists of little events.”
However, Andreas is an antihero and while his journey to happiness may be long, arduous and seemingly predictable, it is also realistic. We never discover the diagnosis of his illness, but it doesn’t matter in the end. What is important is that life is lived, to the fullest extent possible. Stamm’s understated observations ultimately create a convincing and sympathetic portrait of the processes of self-discovery and humanity’s continuing quest for meaning in life.