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.

Reading in German: The Ungrateful Stranger

Brezna

This is a book by a Czech writer who fled to Switzerland with her family as a teenager, during the brutal reprisals following the Prague Spring in 1968. But it is also the story of asylum seekers everywhere, of just how welcome they are made to feel, how grateful they are expected to be, how they cope with major cultural differences, how they learn (or don’t) to build new lives and new identities for themselves. Part novel, part memoir, it is written in a very candid way, showing not only the disappointments and discriminations of immigrant life, but also the naivety and sometimes mistaken obstinacy of the new arrival. Interwoven with the personal story of cultural adaptation of the young girl, we also have little vignettes of new immigrants and their misunderstandings with the social workers, the medical profession or the local authorities. The narrator has now integrated into Swiss society and acts as an interpreter for these people. These scenes are often deeply moving, sometimes quite funny, always highlighting the vulnerability of those who flee impossible conditions at home and try so hard to make something of their lives in a new country, yet fear losing their cultural identity. The host country and its people may be well-intentioned, but also often comes across as arrogant or patronising.
Irena Brežná has a style which is at once wryly humorous, indignant and yet also poetic. In the very first scene she describes how Swiss bureaucracy strips her of all the little wings and turrets (diacritical signs) from her name, as well as its feminine ending in -a.
‘You don’t need this fiddle-faddle here.’
He slashed my round, feminine ending and gave me the surname of my father and brother. The two of them just sat there speechless and allowed me to get crippled. What was I supposed to do with this bald, masculine name? I froze.
Then she is asked what she believes in (a scene which is repeated with another child at the end of the book).
‘A better world.’
‘Then you’re in the right place, little girl. Welcome!’
This was a very timely reminder of what it means to ‘become Swiss’, the week after Switzerland voted for curbing the rights of foreign workers. But I hope it will be translated into other languages, for wider circulation in a Europe of so-called free movement, where certain countries or ethnic groups are still maligned and political rhetorical fever runs high against foreign nationals who come to ‘take our jobs’ but also at the same time ‘claim all our benefits’. A painful book for both immigrants and their hosts, but one which deserves to spark deeper, more authentic conversations.

The Cynic

Something wicked this way comes

and no pricking to forebode it:

half-life of worry to presage,

beating of the foreign drums.

 

It’s all counting, it’s all trade,

beauty envied but not looked at.

Stuff back, shot-like, into boxes,

all the pretty dreams we made.

 

Hurting now, distance shattered,

we’re too close to feed our vision.

We lunge, retreat, fall out, regroup,

as if anything mattered…