For Translation Thursday and for German Lit Month, here is a German book which has the relationship between parents and children at its very heart. Clearly, although I bought this a while ago, it’s a subject which continues to rumble through all of my recent reading.
After 2 volumes of short stories, Anna Katharina Hahn published her first novel Kurzere Tage (Shorter Days) in 2009. It was highly praised and apparently quite a successful debut. In many respects, it maintains the fragmentary, vignette-like character of a collection of short stories, albeit about the same street in Stuttgart, neighbours who all know each other (more or less). The author examines the cracks in the façade of bourgeois families in a leafy neighbourhood.
Judith is one of those Yummy Mummies who smotes everyone else with judgemental observations: she bakes cakes and doesn’t allow her children to watch TV or play with plastic toys. She is a convert to the therapeutic benefits of cleaning (without the help of a vacuum cleaner) and loves her little routines. Of course, she masks her breath after an occasional cigarette with a mint, and she doesn’t let her husband know that she is popping pills in order to function. Leonie is a working mother whose husband seems to be putting in far too many overtime hours, and often loses her patience with her offspring. Marco is a youngster in danger of turning into a criminal, neglected by his mother and her latest boyfriend. The last POV we encounter is Luise, devoted wife to her beloved Wenzel, the oldest inhabitant in that block of flats, who remembers the deprivation but also the youthful romanticism of the post-war years.
In the hands of a gifted writer, these rather stereotypical characters could find heart and come to life. And perhaps Anna Katharina Hahn is a gifted writer, she has won plenty of prizes and there are plenty of satirical observations and social critique bubbling away underneath the calm surface. The interaction between mothers and children (or the lack thereof) is perhaps the most successful aspect of the novel to me. But I nearly gave up halfway through the book because the minutiae of the description of daily life and household objects was really overwhelming. Nothing was happening, there was no interaction between any of the characters in whose POV we were slipping, and we kept moving from Judith to Leonie then back to Judith again, and it didn’t seem to be leading anywhere. What kept me going was sheer bloody-mindedness and refusal to acknowledge I could have wasted 9 euros plus P&P to have the book shipped over from Germany. It did improve in the end – and the young boy and old woman’s scenes were particularly affecting. However, it was a lesson in how NOT to start a novel.