Feeling Alien: in Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand

‘Now, Marina, this time you’ve gone too far with your tenuous links between books which you are reviewing!’ [I can hear you say.] ‘The thread here is so thin it wouldn’t hold a spider! What could a zombie apocalypse, an angry teenager and a staid family man have in common?’ But hear me out, for there is some zany logic at work here: each of these books is about someone coming from ‘outside’ and trying to inveigle themselves into a new world, a new society, yet failing to understand its rules or deliberately subverting them. There is also a common theme of loss and of feeding on anger and sorrow. Not convinced? Let’s go into a little more detail.

scherbenparkAlina Bronsky: Scherbenpark 

The first ‘alien’ (which is what Japan was calling those with foreign passports until the early 1990s) is a Russian growing up in Germany.¬†17 year old Sascha has a clear aim in life: she wants to kill her mother’s violent ex-partner, Vadim, who murdered her a couple of years before the story starts and is now banged up in prison. A Siberian aunt who doesn’t speak a word of German has come to look after Sascha and her younger brother and sister. Meanwhile, Sascha tries to write a book about her mother, to show what she was really like, but ends up spending the summer sulking instead, teasing and annoying people, thinking she knows everything best, raging at anyone who tries to help and getting herself into some really strange situations. She is good at school and speaks German far better than anyone else in her ghetto, so she feels superior to her fellow Russians. Yet at the same time she is disdainful about the Germans in their naive comfortable existence, which she simultaneously yearns for but also ridicules.

I understood Sascha’s anger and bewilderment, but at times she seemed too wise for her years and at other times too childish. There was also no real menace other than Vadim – everyone around her turns out to be far better than they seem at first sight (and, quite frankly, they often behave far better than she deserves). Sascha herself, for all her posturing, is not as cruel and uncaring as she pretends to be, she ends up helping everyone and (with one exception) never puts herself in any real danger. All this sounds a bit like wishful thinking to me. ¬†However, as an insight into an adolescent mind and a way of life ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’, I thought it was pretty good.

The breathless, snappy style could get on my nerves after a while, but fits this particular protagonist. Bronsky is no great stylist (at least, judging from this novel), but it was better than Tigermilk¬†– in fact, it felt like the original upon which Tigermilk was based. Surprisingly, Bronsky was not 17 but 30 when she wrote this. I read the book in German but it has been translated by Tim Mohr and published by Europa Editions as ‘Broken Glass Park’.

symphonieMarius Daniel Popescu: La Symphonie du loup

The author is a Romanian poet and literary editor, who emigrated to Switzerland in his late twenties and worked as a bus driver in Lausanne. However, he has continued to be very active on the literary scene in both French and Romanian, founding a literary journal in Switzerland and publishing two volumes of poetry. This book is his first novel and was quite a success in France but remains only available in French.

The book has an autobiographical flavour, describing childhood and student days in Romania during Ceausescu’s time, interspersed with scenes from present-day Swiss life and learning to be a father. The author is a few years older than me, but so many of his bittersweet memories sound familiar: living with his grandmother in the countryside; getting onto the crowded trains without a ticket and bribing the ticket-inspector instead; participating in public processions to praise ‘our beloved leader; family gatherings, funerals, hospital visits, overcrowded student halls. Then we have the glimpses of Swiss bureaucracy, little everyday habits and routines, absurd rules which make us smile (or grind our teeth). The protagonist does not exactly feel like a misfit, but somehow remains spreadeagled between countries, not quite belonging to either, trying to explain one to the other.

The structure of the book can be difficult to follow: made up of strips of memories, like paper that has been through the shredder and is now mixed up in all styles and colours. There is no chronology, of course, and we get glimpses of a child, a student, and then a man tending to a toddler and watching the joy on her face as she learns something new. ¬†Then back again, in no particular order. The descriptions of life in Romania were evocative, sometimes lyrical, sometimes funny, at times shocking, but certainly rich in colour and atmosphere. The explorations of present-day life as a father and family man were not bad either, but the constant jumps from one to the other became irritating and I failed to see the relevance and connection at times. I suppose it was done for the sake of contrast between the¬†luminous instances of love and protection in the ‘now’, and the rather lonely childhood under so-called ‘state protection’.

Author picture from literaturpreise.ch
Author picture from literaturpreise.ch

The author has been praised as a stylist and won prizes for this novel, but I am not fully convinced. At least in French, which is a second language for both of us. It feels a little like we are trying to converse with oven gloves on. The author is a poet, I can see that¬†curiosity and playfulness with language¬†in certain passages. But at times he relies on very detailed description which can be bland and overly long, or even lists and word-for-word rendering of instructions (in 3 languages) or posters at the opticians’, things like that. Perhaps it makes native French speakers become more aware of the inconsistencies of their language, but to me it seemed¬†lazy and not terribly relevant. ¬†Finally, I found the author’s over-reliance on the second person to tell the story of childhood (as if a grandfather were reminding his grandson of his past) tiresome in the long run.

wakeElizabeth Knox: Wake 

Knox is a well-known writer in her native New Zealand, but I haven’t come across her before. (My knowledge of authors from that part of the world is atrocious.) So I had no idea what to expect, other than that the author is dismissive of genre distinctions. She most certainly is!

This is horror story, science-fiction, psychological thriller, mystery and disturbing dystopian tale all rolled into one. Despite its gruesome opening scenes, it’s really more about the characters and how they learn to live with each other, take care of each other and deal with loss. ¬†No spoilers if I tell you that there are only fourteen survivors living under a force field which has descended upon their town on the Tasman Bay and is isolating them from the outside world. Inside this ‘dome’, there is an invisible monster who feeds on death, grief, anger, fear and other weaknesses and is picking them off one by one. Think ‘And Then There Were None’ with even more inexplicable phenomena.

In this book, we not only find an actual alien, but also people feeling jolted out of their happy, unquestioning existence, a sense of strangeness permeating everything they do, say and think thereafter. No one can be quite sure of themselves or others – is the evil within or without? Readers will be just as confused as the characters.There is a real sense of danger, as any outcome seems possible. One thing is certain: there will be no return to the age of innocence.

A story very much outside my reading comfort zone, but which left me unsettled and very thoughtful. The kind of reading which throws up more questions than it answers, I would compare it with Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s¬†What Lot’s Wife Saw¬†in terms of impact.

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27 thoughts on “Feeling Alien: in Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand”

  1. I’ve got Broken Glass Park on the TBR after reading & loving The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine… I adored Bronsky’s unlikeable, utterly delusional heroine Rosa so looking for ward to meeting, and comparing, Sacha… will feedback once I read it.

  2. As someone who bases their whole blog around tenuous thematic links, I think your reasoning is rock-solid Marina Sofia ūüėÄ

    I’ve only read 2 of Elizabeth Knox’s novels but greatly enjoyed them, so I’ll definitely look out for Wake, even though it sounds very different to my usual reading choices.

      1. The two I’ve read are The Vintner’s Luck and Billie’s Kiss – I read them quite a while ago now but I remember really enjoying them so either of those would be worth a look ūüôā

  3. Great reviews – they all sound fascinating. Oh, for more hours in the day for reading…

    1. I know exactly what you mean. Am now trying to squeeze in as many books from participants in Lyon as possible – for the remaining two weeks until the festival.

  4. These do sound compelling, Marina Sofia, each in its own way. And that’s what makes this post all the more interesting. That concept of ‘other’ really is fascinating, so I can see why you were drawn to it in these books.

  5. I’ve had Knox’s Billie‚Äôs Kiss on my TBR shelves for far too long — I’ve almost started it half a dozen times only for something else to get in the way. To judge from madamebibliophile’s (madamebibilophile’s?) comments, I should be a bit firmer with myself next time . . .

    Alas, I don’t have the language for the other two novels you mention.

      1. don’t know if you get those in the US

        Yes, we do — in fact, I’d thought it was a US company! They certainly have a New York office.

        Sorry, it was only when I ran my eye back over your text that I remembered you’d mentioned a Europa edition. I’m on a deadline, so my mind’s elsewhere . . .

  6. Europa published the Bronsky over here. That’s the problem with very young narrators–hitting just the right tone–not too adult. Few authors seem to be able to do it right.

  7. I’ve had Alina Bronsky’s book for ages and should read it. I’ve read many great reviews, while the Tigermilk reviews I saw were far less enthusiastic.

  8. What a fascinating post Marina – I love your logic and all three books sound good in their own way – I’m most taken by the angry teenager though as I’m not a huge fan of zombies (or staid family men)

      1. Haha those mornings – my daughter’s fianc√© can’t understand why she still won’t get up in the morning – it was all those years of me running up and down the stairs getting gradually less patient (and that’s putting it politely) I think the injustice for parents comes from the years of being woken up really early to the surliness that happens overnight as they hit their teens!!

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