Stefanie de Velasco gives voice to two 14 year old girls in this coming-of-age story entitled ‘Tigermilk’. It’s a summer of hanging around outside their council estate, going swimming and shoplifting, smoking and drinking their ‘doctored’ (alcoholic) milk, eager to lose their virginity but also to find love. Nini is German and Jameelah is Iraqui, they also have Bosnian friends, Serbian acquaintances… but society will not allow them to forget the differences between them, and it’s not just ‘leave to remain’ that marks them out. The playground between their block of flats is divided: the German and Russian kids never go on the slides, the Arabic and Bosnian children never go on the swings. Living in a new country does not necessarily mean that their past doesn’t catch up with them, and, even though Nini’s life is not a walk in the park, she discovers that she has more privileges simply by virtue of being German.
This is a YA book – the protagonists have that self-absorbed voice of teenagers everywhere – which makes it very heavily dependent on just the right nuance of voice, but it failed to fully convince me. I read the book in the original German and was a bit disappointed by the lack of obvious slang. The girls have their own secret puns and speech inversions (quite rude and funny at times), but there is no Berliner Schnauze (dialect) or real youth slang in here, which makes it sound a little false. I can also attest to the lack of speech marks, a deliberate choice by the author which has infuriated many readers, but which gives this book a feverish quality, as if everything happens in a nightmarish half-aware state. Which is the state these girls seem to be in most of the time (while Nini’s mother seems to be almost comatose, seriously depressed). Until they witness a frightening event which truly tests their loyalties and their friendship.
Yet, for all of the serious consequences of this event, there is perhaps not quite enough self-awareness or introspection or growing up going on. It’s a sad story, there are many poignant moments of realisation of the emptiness and possible hopelessness of the lives of these young people. Things that these young people only realise in momentary flashes of insight, but that we as readers are aware of all along. There are some memorable scenes, for instance when Nini’s younger sister and another little friend from the neighbourhood jump around on the sofa watching porn films, with carrots and courgettes stuck down their pants. Overall, though, it doesn’t quite gel for me. I would have liked this better as a series of short stories, perhaps, vignettes of life in the tower blocks of the poorer parts of Berlin.
I suppose my main disappointment stems from the fact that I was expecting it to be the voice of a whole generation. I thought it would bear testimony to the millenial generation as Christiane F. did for my generation (well, strictly speaking for the generation just before mine). However, it most certainly does not do that and I don’t think it’s just because I read Christiane F. at the right (impressionable) age. It can’t be a coincidence that the initial premise for Tigermilk is so similar to Christiane F.: a girl living with just her mother and younger sister in a soulless block of flats in a deprived area, a mother apparently oblivious to her daughter’s dodgy deeds, the mother’s boyfriend trying to make-believe all is fine, her admiration for a friend who seems to be so much cooler and knowledgeable than her, her desire to experiment and be different. Yet there is some kind of affection and solidarity amongst the druggies in Christiane’s Berlin which seems to have gone missing in the present-day.
Of course, Berlin has changed enormously since the 1970s, and Tigermilk shows us a more multicultural society. Christiane’s friends were all white and German, while Nini’s are almost all non-German. Clubbing and drug-taking has given way to going to the pool and drinking. The area around Bahnhof Zoo has been cleaned up, so the pick-up spot for part-time prostitutes has now moved to the very posh shopping street Ku’damm. Yet Tigermilk seems to be trying too hard, keen to manipulate the reader’s emotions, to drive me to tears or pity or shock. In contrast, Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (We Children of Zoo Station) is matter-of-fact, without a trace of self-pity, narrated in a ‘take it or leave it’ tone which sends genuine chills down your spine. What both have in common, however, is the lack of happy outcome.
It did make me curious to see the Christiane F. film again, which I have in my collection. I intend to show it to my children when they are a little older. We watched that film when I was about 11-12 (recommended age is 16+), as a class at school, and I can say hand on heart that it put me off drugs completely. [So the educational aspect of it worked, even though the book is not preachy at all about the evilness of drugs.] Even the fact that it had David Bowie appearing briefly in it (he was already my hero back then) was not enough to make drugs seem ‘cool’.
Rewatching it, I realised that the most frightening aspect of it all was that 13 year old Christiane is not from a particularly horrible home or traumatic background [the book is much more explicit about her abusive drunk father and neglectful mother]. Her parents are divorced and she lives in a rather depressing block of flats, but we all could recognise bits of ourselves in her: her hero-worship of Bowie, her desire to fit in with the cool crowd and escape from the ‘dreary ordinariness’ of her life, even her ‘well brought up girl’ attitude initially to drug-taking. At first, as they all meet up at a club and then careen wildly down an empty shopping-centre and up on the roof of the Mercedes-Benz building in Berlin to the soundtrack of ‘Heroes’, you get swept up in the thrill and apparent freedom of it all. What the film does very cleverly show is the gradual decay not just of the children but also of their environment, to the truly awful, graffiti-filled public toilets.
*Play on words: Berliner Freiheit is a rather ugly-looking shopping in Bremen, while Münchener Freiheit were a German pop/rock band popular in the 1980s. Freiheit means freedom, the location is Berlin and those young people believe they are looking for freedom… but find nothing but disillusionment and their own inner prisons instead.