It is a rare when you can honestly describe a book as heart-warming, being more often than not a term to gloss over a tepid plot with a humdrum ending. It is even rarer then that you can describe a book about suicide as warming that glorified (but very useful) pump that has nothing to do with emotion. However, the S-word has no mention in this quirky novel centred around a little known German museum where one can, euphemistically, seek one’s own salvation. It is perhaps even more stunning when one considers one of the main characters, a GP who collects bodies from the museum, is a cannibal.
Freud, if he hadn’t hung up his phallocentric hat long ago, would have had a field day with Rhodes’s frequent excursions into surreal humour involving amputated male genitalia, and that often underappreciated part of the anatomy, the anus. Moving on from psychosexual development, do not be fooled by the front cover with its Quentin Blake style illustration; this book is most definitely not for children. However, Rhodes’s work is not without a fairytale quality (more Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes than The Ugly Duckling) and the title is in reference to the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
However, despite the laughs, japes and nooses, it becomes apparent that all of the characters are plagued by some form of dislocation from other people. When the doctor asks the cadaverous curator if he could further insist him in his anthropophagic activities, the curator is perturbed that he has made explicit ‘that each of them knew the other’s behaviour to be irregular.’ He is further infuriated by the doctor’s assertion of camaraderie, since he had ‘gone out of his way to avoid any situation that might be mistaken for friendship’ all his life.
You might think this sounds depressing but you would be wrong. Rhodes treats sensitive subject matter with irreverent humour, especially in the case of Hulda, the museum’s cleaner. Hulda thinks she is damned for eternity because she used the Lord’s name in vain in reference to her stepfather’s abusive activities. That is, until she joins a support group called the Union of the Damned, which is similar to the AA but where the members support one other in the face of their inevitable fate through the medium of biscuits. If you think this sounds eccentric, baffling and unlike anything you’ve ever read before, then you may be right.