Modern German Classic: The Mussel Feast
Written just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this book by Birgit Vanderbeke is both domestic and allegorical, examining how all revolutions start with one small act of insubordination.
The story is deceptively simple. A brother and sister and their mother are waiting for the head of the family to show up for supper. They are having mussels, a food none of them like very much, but which is their father’s favourite meal. It is a special occasion, they tell each other, father is having a business meeting which may well end in a promotion. As they sit and wait, we find out more and more about this apparently ordinary German family, about the parents’ escape from East Germany and the back-breaking menial jobs their mother had to endure in order to support their father’s studying. The author does an excellent job of describing the public charm and private horror of an inflexible, tyrannical man, but she doesn’t spare the mother either. From the daughter-narrator’s point of view, her mother has colluded with her oppressor, switching to ‘wifey mode’ to appease and soothe him. Yet only a few pages further, we discover that the daughter herself likes to be thought of as ‘Daddy’s girl’ and takes sides with her father to mock the other two members of the family. The dictator’s policy of divide and conquer seeps in gradually, poisoning everything in sight. The more we find out, the more we discover this is a family reigned by fear and despair.
Presented as an ongoing interior monologue (much of it in just one paragraph), the book is an easy read, partly because of its brevity, but also because of its subtle humour and contradictory statements. Yet for anyone who has lived in a non-democratic society or in an abusive family, it is a painful read. It works perfectly well on both levels, describing the gradual descent from praiseworthy public ideals to subverted, selfish interpretations. Thus, the father’s vision of ‘a proper family’ ends in constant criticism and disappointment that his flesh-and-blood children do not live up to his ideal. His desire to be ‘doing things together’ ends in him spoiling the atmosphere and blaming everyone else when things are not quite perfect. And ‘investing in the children’s future’ becomes a pointless exercise involving an expensive stamp collection that no one is interested in.
Communism failed not because it didn’t have inspirational ideas, but because it refused to take into account human nature when putting them into practice. Marriages and families fail because we cannot allow the others to be themselves. A valuable lesson, presented in an intriguing way, with an ending that is stunning in its shocking simplicity.
I read this as part of my 2013 Translation Challenge and on that note, let me make one small aside. I was sharing this book and my delight that Peirene Press is making such work more available to an English-speaking audience with a group of aspiring or even published writers based here in the Geneva area. I bemoaned the fact that there have been few translations into English of world literature so far, and commented how pleased I was to see some new initiatives.
Their reaction surprised me a little. OK, a lot!
They said that no wonder that German and French publishers translate so much literature from the UK and the US, because that’s where the best work is produced. (Never mind that they also translate from many other languages.) And that they themselves cannot be bothered to read literature from other countries, because the style is too different ‘from our own’. Bear in mind that this is not a random group of expats, but keen readers and aspiring writers, who have been living in the local area for many years and usually speak the language very well. The lack of curiosity and insularity perhaps explains why so little contemporary fiction is being translated into English. It saddens me, because it feels like people are deliberately limiting their horizons, but what do you think?