Riveting Germans: 30 Years Later…

Or, to be precise, two riveting Germans and an equally riveting Georgian now living in Germany!

With impeccable timing, the day I posted my review of Julia Franck’s Die Mittagsfrau, I got to see the author at the British Library, in an event organised by the European Literature Network (headed by Rosie Goldsmith). She was joined on stage by poet and essayist Durs Grünbein and playwright and novelist Nino Haratischwili (or should that be ‘shvili’ for English readers rather than ‘schwili’ for German ones?), whose monumental work The Eighth Life (for Brilka) has just been published in English by Scribe. The translators Charlotte Collins, Ruth Martin and Karen Leeder were also there and read the English version of extracts from the authors’ work.

Ooops, I may have bought a few books once again! Zoe has given up on me as incorrigible…

There was a lot of ground covered in the nearly 90 minutes of discussions and readings, but what particularly stuck in my mind:

Julia Franck and her identical twin sister wrote and enacted fantasy stories together as they were growing up, a bit like the Brontës. She mentioned her Communist grandmother, who was so reluctant to give up her dream of an alternative, better Germany even after the fall of the Wall. She also spoke about the humiliation and cruelty of life as a refugee, the contrast between the utopia you are chasing and the reality of what you find (especially when you are not allowed to integrate into the host society), and why in her book West, the refugee camp itself is a main protagonist. When Rosie Goldsmith asked her why there were so many cruel or cold women in her books (or women who could be interpreted as such), she replied:

Women are not necessarily the better people. I have experienced cruel women in my life… But also what we expect from mothers nowadays is so different from what it was 50-100 years ago. In those days women tried to be strong, to survive, to solve problems, they had no time to be helicopter parents, so they might come across as cold and neglectful.

Durs Grünbein admitting that their generation of German writers were privileged to have the material (of the division and then reunification) to write about. Also, why he prefers poetry: it is easier to swerve from past to present, to be in both time frames and in many different places simultaneously. I loved one particular phrase from one of his poems:

Ist der Sand enttäuscht wenn die Dämmerung fällt?

Is the sand disappointed when evening falls?

Meanwhile, Nino Haratischwili claims she had no intention of writing such an epic novel, and that if she had realised from the outset that it would take four years and 1200 pages to write, she might have abandoned the project before she even started. She was focusing initially only on Georgia in the 1990s, a messy, confused period with the fall of the Soviet Empire and lots of infighting. She was trying to answer her own questions about Georgia’s history and why her country keeps on repeating the same old mistakes, but found that it took her earlier and earlier in time. She also said she wrote in German out of laziness (because she would have had to translate it from Georgian later on), but also because writing in her second language gave her a freedom and a sense of adventure and playfulness.

In your mother tongue you use words and expressions more automatically, but in another language you question things more and have more freedom to experiment. I still have this feeling of discovery in German.

The evening was also an opportunity to launch the newly published German Riveter magazine, with illustrations by the wonderful Axel Scheffler. Containing exclusive extracts and reviews of many new German authors, it also contains an article about German crime fiction written by Kat Hall (mainly) and yours truly (very tangentially).

All in all, a brilliant evening which I’d been looking forward to for months, well worth the logistical acrobatics of arranging for alternative pick-up of the French exchange student.

#WITMonth: The Pine Islands

Marion Poschmann: The Pine Islands, transl. Jen Calleja

On paper, this book seemed to have all the right ingredients to be much loved by me. A man – washed-up part-time researcher on beards Gilbert Silvester – has a midlife crisis, suspects his wife is cheating on him and decides to go to Japan to find himself. He embarks upon a road trip (a train trip) with a suicidal Japanese sidekick, following in the footsteps of haiku master Basho Matsuo and his travelogue Narrow Road to the Deep North. In actual fact, I thought this was a mongrel that was neither one clear thing nor another, and had no vivacity or charm of its own to make up for that.

It started off reasonably promisingly with the well-trodden but still potentially gripping ‘confused in Tokyo’ stance:

How had he ended up in this city without the slightest effort? What did he want to do here? … He was, he suddenly put it to himself, very far from everything that had ever been familiar to him. He had taken himself off into the unknown, into this most unfamiliar of environments, and the eerie feeling he was experiencing stemmed from the fact that this environment didn’t seem eerie in the slightest, simply functional, somewhat pretentious and somewhat sterile.

This confusion does not last long and does not stop Gilbert from becoming what the Germans call a Besserwisser (who knows everything better than you), an expert in Japanese culture, who presumes to lecture his travel companion, the improbably named Yosa Tamagotchi. Never mind the fact that Yosa is a native of Japan but barely speaks any English and therefore does not have much of a chance to explain himself.

Although Gilbert claims to be watching over Yosa to prevent him committing suicide, he actually takes him on a whistlestop tour of popular suicide spots and is equally obsessed with reaching Matsushima Bay, that scenic spot full of pine-tree clad islands, which seems to be catnip to suicidal Japanese. He even loses Yosa along the way, because he is too absorbed and smug about the haikus he produces at each stop in the journey, in imitation of Basho. Of course, he now counts himself among those who have imbibed all the subtlety of Japanese culture.

The traveller to Matsushima were lunatics, moon-stuck, eccentric. They composed their own sacred legends, everything was worthless to them apart from poetry, and for them poetry stood for the spirit’s path to nothingness. They were extremists, ascetics, mad for a certain kind of beauty, the fleeting beauty of blossom, the ambiguous beauty of moonlight, the hazy beauty of the secluded landscape.

The Pine Islands at Matsushima.

I tried to be generous and think of this book as a philosophical and metaphorical journey. Could the young, diffident Japanese man with the barely there beard be his Doppelgänger? A loser in Japanese society, Yosa is the perfect foil to Gilbert, who is pretty much a loser in his own society (and certainly when compared to his professionally far more successful, no-nonsense wife). By finding someone weaker than himself, someone he can hector and lecture to his heart’s content, Gilbert manages to recover from his midlife crisis. I’m not sure his wife was too impressed with the letters he sent her, though.

There are some lyrical passages and poetic descriptions, but do we really need a longish paragraph listing all of the different types of pine trees? What irked me above all was that the insight into Japanese society feels superficial, like the main protagonist has swallowed the guidebook and then regurgitated it. But that might be the author, who appears to pick on the most obvious Orientalist othering type of observations, while claiming a deeper understanding. If this was intended to be a parody of Eat Pray Love with a middle-aged male protagonist (which would have been a promising premise), then it’s just not funny enough.

I don’t think reading it in German would have made much of a difference – the translator seems to have done her best. So a bit of a disappointment and somewhat surprising that it made it onto the shortlist of the International Booker Prize.

The Tidings of the Trees: #AsymptoteBookClub No. 7

The Asymptote Book Club selection for June is a slim volume by (East) German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole. In the original German, this novella appeared in a collection together with other stories such as Old Rendering Plant, but Two Lines Press decided to publish the translations individually. It is also the first Book Club selection which is translated from a language that I read myself, so I was in two minds about it.

But what this book lacks in number of pages or in unknown language quality, it certainly makes up for in terms of depth, with a style that pushes you along to the finale. There is something to be said about allowing the wave of prose and ideas to crash over you in one sitting. I read it in one day, in three distinct gulps, but I also want to return to it and reread at leisure, to observe the nuances.

Although written in 1991-92, after the fall of the Wall, the book reminded me very much of literature written under the threat of censorship: you write about one thing, but in fact what you are really writing about is something completely different. The subject of the book is ostensibly a worker-writer Waller talking about his writer’s block, bemoaning the chopping down of the cherry trees in his home town and describing his childish stand-off with the garbage collectors. In fact, we could interpret this story in several different ways.

One would be the destruction of nature in the brown-coal industrial area of Germany where the author originally came from. Ash and dust seem to permeate every page of the book, threatening to engulf the town, the narrator, the reader. But the ash quickly turns into something else: historical ash, layer after layer, covering the world in the silence of complicity or self-censorship. For there is undoubtedly an overt political message to this book. A whole country and political system is being relegated to the rubbish heap, a whole population has had its thoughts infiltrated ‘by the ghastly substance of the ash, which is nothing but gray stuff, dry and thundery, hard and unfeeling and burned-out’.

Then there are the garbagemen, unknowable, sinister beings, although Waller tries a game of one-man-upship with them. But are they really sinister, or are they the equivalent of the Trümmerfrauen, those almost mythical women who sorted through the rubble after the Second World War and helped to rebuild it? In the meantime, of course, we know that the Trümmerfrauen image is a bit of a myth, that the rubble was in fact cleared by prisoners both during and after the war. To what extent are those mysterious garbagemen themselves prisoners, or are they the guards of the prison camp? Or are they the ones who get to sift through the past, perhaps even seek to preserve it, while governments erase history and people are only too eager to forget. But what is worth preserving – and who gets to decide it?

Hilbig in the beer garden in Leipzig., 1985. From the Wolfgang Hilbig Society website.

Hilbig describes perfectly the claustrophobic sense of stagnation of living in a country closed off from the outside world, a soundproof room,  and passages such as the one below resonated profoundly with me and explains the sense of ‘protection from the unknown’ that Communism also brought to many:

We lived in a country, cut off, walled in, where we had to end up thinking that time had no real relevance for us. Time was outside, the future was outside… outside everything rushed to its doom.

A book which resurfaced many old memories through its half-hinting, half-deliberate metaphors, and perhaps explains the drive for joining the EU, so I shall add it to the #EU27Project. Hilbig was a vocal critic of the GDR regime, and only got to publish one book there before he was forced to move abroad in 1985. He has, however, won every German literature prize worth having since then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reference Book to Treasure: Crime Fiction in German (Der Krimi)

crimeficgermanIf you have any interest at all in German literature or in crime fiction, you will enjoy leafing through this erudite and yet still very readable collection of articles. Or, if you are slightly obsessed like myself, you will read it from cover to cover and then start all over again. And I’m not just saying that because I was flattered to receive an electronic proof copy by the University of Wales Press. It is that rarest of creatures: an academic study which is also very enjoyable and could become a bestseller!

What is remarkable about the book is the breadth and depth of topics it covers. In terms of breadth, no stone is left unturned. The editor Katharina Hall (known to many crime fiction fans as Mrs. Peabody from her much-loved blog) and the other contributors cover not just the obvious subject areas (West German, East German, Austrian and Swiss crime fiction), but also lesser-known categories such as women’s crime writing, historical crime fiction, the place of Africa in German crime fiction and even television dramas. Furthermore, the definition of crime fiction itself is deliberately broad, and includes literary authors writing crime-infused experimental or social novels (Hans Fallada, Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek) as well as more traditional crime.

In terms of depth, you will find here not only comprehensive overviews of the development of crime fiction in each of the German-speaking countries, as you might expect from an academic tome, but also a focus on specific writers or books. Martin Rosenstock’s analysis of Dürrenmatt, for instance, is beautifully nuanced, pointing out how the Swiss author breaks all the classic formulas of the crime genre, whilst also poking fun at the self-aggrandising Swiss myths of neutrality, wealth and historical heritage.

Each chapter (or article) is followed not only by endnotes and a select bibliography of books (mostly those available in translation), but also recommendations for further secondary reading. Where no English translations are available for a work cited, there is a small extract in English at the end of the chapter as well, just enough to give you a flavour of the original and whet your appetite for more. This is also one of the stated aims of the book: ‘to provide readers with a springboard for further reading, viewing and research’. There is also an excellent table at the front with the chronology of crime fiction in German, including political, criminal and publishing milestones from 800 until the present day.

I will not attempt a blow-by-blow account of each topic, but allow me to highlight just a few.

Viennese tram. No relation to the book, but couldn't resist smuggling in that photo.
Viennese tram. No relation to the book, but couldn’t resist smuggling in that photo.

I may be slightly prejudiced in favour of Austrian writers, but I certainly appreciate the article on the odd humour and often extreme experimentation by Austrian authors, written by Marieke Krajenbrink, and have already ordered several books from her list of recommendations.

Thanks to an article Katharina Hall agreed to write for Crime Fiction Lover, I had previously experienced her encyclopedic knowledge of crime fiction dealing with different aspects or periods in German history (mostly the Nazi period and the reunification of the country after the Cold War). It was a pleasure, however, to read a more thorough analysis of the topic, as well as a detailed discussion of two fantastic (and very different) novels: Fallada’s Alone in Berlin and Simon Urban’s Plan D.

Finally, I cannot forget the fascinating articles which open up an entirely new world to me: Julia Augart’s analysis of the so-called Afrika-Krimi and Faye Stewart’s research on the Frauenkrimi (women crime writers). I had never heard of the first as a subgenre, and never stopped to compare the themes and styles of male and female German crime novelists.

In conclusion, either this book is a great exception to the rule, or else academic books have evolved considerably since my time, because I find it very approachable indeed. It achieves that wonderful balance between ‘speaking to ordinary readers’ without ‘dumbing down’. I’ve learnt something new in every single chapter and yet, try as I might, I can’t find any pretentious or obscure references which so often plague literary criticism. I was hoping for some Lacan or Foucault or at least Wittgenstein to throw my arms up at, but no! It stays admirably grounded throughout.

Congratulations to all the contributors and editors involved in this project. There is nothing quite like it in the English language. I will certainly treasure it and return to it as a work of reference for many years to come.

The Refugee Problem in Germany

Jenny Erpenbeck has written THE most timely novel about refugees, although of course it’s just a coincidence that her book (which must have been written a few years back) was published just as Europe reached boiling point in discussions about the refugee crisis.

gehengingGehen, Ging, Gegangen [Go, Going, Gone] is the story of refugees, but (wisely, perhaps) Erpenbeck does not write it from the point of view of the asylum-seekers themselves. Instead, we become acquainted with them through an intermediary: a retired and widowed German classics scholar, Richard. This is very clever, because Richard represents any one of us who is ignorant but a bit curious about the plight of refugees, and then finds his mind and heart expanded through his regular contact with them. Yet he is by no means an altruistic saint: he hesitates and makes silly mistakes at first, and when he finds his house broken into at some point, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that one of ‘his’ refugee visitors has burgled him but cannot quite confront him with this. And, although there are hints of selfishness in his personal life (and talk about a mistress), at the very end of the book, we discover some additional things about his marriage which put him in a rather unflattering light.

So Richard is very human, rather lonely and bored, and he happens to pass in front of the Red Town Hall in Alexanderplatz in Berlin and sees a group of men on hunger strike, protesting and refusing to reveal their identities or nationalities. At first Richard keeps his distance.

As a child, he’d learnt all about hardship. But that’s no reason, just because someone is desperate enough to go on hunger strike, for him to starve. So he tells himself. It wouldn’t help the person on hunger strike.

Richard was born during the Second World War and grew up in East Germany, so throughout the book he contrasts the poverty and deprivation of the young men he encounters with the life of his friends and neighbours under Communism. He starts out with a scientific curiosity and a rather comically naive questionnaire for the refugees, who have been moved to a hastily repurposed old people’s home. Gradually, however, he opens up his own heart and allows the men themselves to open up and talk freely, all the while treading a fine line between pity and patronage, companionship and superiority. He begins to distinguish between the men coming from Nigeria, Niger, Libya, Syria, Chad, even Touaregs. He learns how to pronounce their names: tall Ithemba, quiet Abdusalam, shy Osarobo, massive Raschid (and initially thinks: all refugees can’t be doing too badly, if Raschid is so big). Sometimes he creates his own nicknames: young Apoll, sad Tristan, thin Caron, who believes in ghosts…

He helps out with their German classes, he invites some of them back into his home to play piano or to read Dante (his only book in Italian). He is often embarrassed when he is invited to eat with them, knowing how they struggle to live on the tiny sums of money allocated to them. Most of them are boat people, who landed on the shores of Italy, and so have no right to claim asylum in Germany. They want to work, they don’t want to live off charity. They miss and worry about their family back home. Slowly, Richard befriends them and starts believing that he and a small group of friends can make a difference, that it is all about personal relationships, about small-scale understanding. He wonders about the artificiality of borders, the divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that people are at such pains to maintain:

Was the dividing line, the trench, between them really so endlessly deep and that’s why it caused such turbulence? Was it between black and white? Between rich and poor? Between stranger and friend?… Between one language and another? And how many borders were there anyway in this one universe? Or, to put it another way, which was the real, ultimate border? Perhaps the one between the living and the dead? Or between starlit sky and the clod of earth that he stepped upon each day? Or between one day and the next?… If you think about all these possible borders, then it seemed to Richard that the difference between one human and the next is ridiculously tiny and no deep trench at all.

jennyerpenbeck
Author photo from Deutsche Welle.

Of course there is no conventional happy ending: all the refugees have to return to Italy or be deported. There are only 12 exceptions out of 476 cases – mostly because of attempted suicide or ill-health, in which case they have been given a few weeks or months’ additional permission to stay before being deported. So Richard and his friends jump in to help and offer accommodation and there is a final note of humanity and warmth, despite the sadness of the last few pages.

For a really excellent review of this book (which we hope will be translated soon into English, all the translations above are my own weak attempts), see Tony Malone’s blog. There is also a fascinating interview with Jenny Erpenbeck on Deutsche Welle about the problem of being ‘visible’ only as a refugee.

Women in Translation Month: Judith Schalansky

WITMonth15Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good fair few. Today we’re heading over to Germany. I read this book in the original, but it has been translated very skillfully into English by Shaun Whiteside, published by Bloomsbury.

schalanskyJudith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe (The Neck of the Giraffe)

Inge Lohmark is a biology and sports teacher in a ‘Gymnasium’ (selective state school, grammar school equivalent) in a provincial town in what was once East Germany. The town is dying, as is the school, forced to close soon because of lack of pupils. Everyone dreams of escaping from that claustrophobic place to search for jobs or a better life, including Inge’s own daughter, who has been living in the States for the past 10-12 years.

Inge, however, is inflexible and judgemental. She believes in the survival of the fittest and refuses to intervene in bullying incidents. Although she teaches biological adaptation, she is unwilling to alter any of her principles and firmly-held beliefs herself. Short shrift, military in style, believing any display of emotion or affection to be a weakness, her style is perfectly captured with the short, staccato sentences, often without verbs, like barked orders. She is the teacher we all feared and loved to hate or mock at school.

Her story is in many ways the story of my parents’ generation, for whom the fall of Communism came too late and who will never be able to adapt to a new world they do not understand nor like very much. Because of my own experience with recalcitrant relatives who live in a nostalgia of a life that never really was the way they remember it, I have more patience for Inge than most readers would. Many of her acerbic observations of modern life and young students will strike a chord, perhaps provoke a wry smile of recognition. She is also a profoundly lonely person, barely sharing a word with her husband – who is immersed in his ostrich farm – and rarely engaging in conversations with her colleagues or neighbours, unless they become arguments or point-scoring exercises.

Example of illustrations from the book.
Example of illustrations from the book.

The book is presented entirely from Inge’s point of view and I have to admit that I would have liked to see her through the eyes of others at some point. There are also plenty of digressions about the animal kingdom and evolution theory, with some beautiful illustrations. These digressions are quite interesting and (of course) symbolical, albeit not always in the way Inge thinks of them, but they do become repetitive after a while. Nor is there much in the way of a plot, other than being a witness to Inge’s increasingly disturbing thought processes, which do not really translate into any major action. Finally, my main bone of contention is that Inge has not really learnt or changed as a character, there has been no development as such (and we learn next to nothing of the other characters). For a Bildungsroman, there was remarkably little ‘Bildung’ (learning).

I thought it was well-written and an interesting love-hate elegy for a lost world. Inge is remarkably clear-eyed about the GDR society and ideology as well. I thought it did a great job of giving voice to a thoroughly difficult, unlikeable and yet pitiable character. But, blame my shrinking attention span or my love for crime fiction, I did feel this book was too long at 200 pages. I think all the points would have come across, the character would have been fully described in a novella half that length.

 

Reading in June

Longest days, shortest nights of the year, so plenty of time for reading in June –  not much time for anything else in fact! It’s the kind of month where I can’t hear myself think, let alone write, we were all so busy with end-of-year stuff. So reading it is, to feed that relentlessly hungry gawp in myself.

#TBR20 Challenge is going well:

#TBR3 Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji (also re-reading challenge)

#TBR4 Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch

#TBR5 Wendy Cope (ed.): The Funny Side

#TBR6 Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night

#TBR7 Liad Shoham: Tel Aviv Suspects

#TBR8 Ever Yours: Essential Van Gogh Letters

#TBR9: Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs

#TBR10: Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills

#TBR11: Jeremie Guez: Paris La Nuit

#TBR12: Muriel Spark: Loitering with Intent (also a rereading challenge)

#TBR13: Friederike Schmoe: Fliehganzleis

#TBR14: Fouad Laroui: L’étrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine

These last two will be reviewed shortly, or as soon as holidays and children allow.

Review copies:

Cath Staincliffe: Half the World Away

Hakan Nesser: The Summer of Kim Novak

Ruth Ware: In a Dark, Dark Wood

Maggie Mitchell: Pretty Is

Pascal Garnier: Boxes

The One That Got Away:

Etienne Davodeau: Les Ignorants

Some other facts and figures:

18 books read in total, of which 7 can be legitimately classified as crime fiction/psychological thriller. My Crime Fiction Pick of the month (a meme initiated by Mysteries in Paradise) is Witness the Night, although I was also very impressed with Tel Aviv Suspects and Paris la Nuit.

3 books in German, 4 in French, 7 translations (from French, Swedish, Russian, Dutch, Hebrew and Japanese). I haven’t done so well in my Global Reading Challenge, with only Kishwar Desai bringing me to a new country, India. I still have to read books set in Africa, Oceania and South America, and find something for the 7th continent. 9 by women authors, 9 by men. And I am only 3 reviews behind!

1 poetry, 1 graphic non-fiction book, 2 rereading challenges, 1 auto-biography/letters.

Doing the #TBR20 challenge is having a very calming effect on me. Although I’ve still been doing a fair share of reviewing, it has felt much more within my control. I’ve felt much more freedom in the selection of my next book, plus there is such satisfaction to be had when you make a dent in your messy book pile!

Having said that, though, I must admit that I’ve cheated slightly and borrowed some books from the library. I haven’t actually started reading them yet, as they are for the duration of the summer holidays. So I will start them once I’ve completed my #TBR20 – that’s still within the rules, right?

Coming up for the #TBR20? A female French writer, for a change – Sylvie Granotier’s latest. One of my favourite German crime writers, Jakob Arjouni, and The Neck of the Giraffe by Judith Schalansky. Blood Jungle Ballet, set in American Samoa. I may have a change of heart for the remaining two books of the challenge, so I’ll allow myself (and you) to be surprised.

And those library books? The latest Vargas Temps Glaciares, a fictionalised biography of Isadora Duncan (one of my childhood heroines) by Caroline Deyns and Carrère’s L’Adversaire (couldn’t resist, after hearing the neighbours’ story of the real-life event which it’s based upon).