Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 155 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Imogen Taylor.
Literature has long been fascinated by twins, but this German novella, first published in 2001 and translated into English in 2017, gives the topic an unusual twist.
In this fable-like tale, “twins” Johann and Ludwig are not related, they are simply childhood friends who forge a strong bond in the belief that this will make them more synchronised as rowers and therefore more successful in competition. Their aim is to beat their rivals, the Potsdam twins, in the coxless pairs.
But the rowing contest is not really the focus of this coming of age story. It’s really about friendship and how bonds can be broken just as easily as they can be made. And it’s about what happens when you keep secrets from one another and don’t show your true self.
Johann and Ludwig first meet at school when they are 11 years old. The story is told from Johann’s perspective as a 16-year-old looking back on past events. He’s a shy, introverted boy. He’s astonished when Ludwig strikes up a friendship by inviting him to stay over on the first day they meet.
Ludwig lives in a house near a notoriously dangerous overhead traffic bridge from which people jump when they wish to commit suicide. These people often land in Ludwig’s garden and he’s intrigued by their lifeless bodies, often sitting with them until the authorities arrive.
The bridge looms large in this fast-paced story. Ludwig, the more bullish and extroverted of the pair, often challenges Johann to run across the bridge, dodging the traffic, or to climb the fence from which the suicides jump. This teaches Johann to confront his fears, to try new things, to win the approval of his new friend.
Over time the pair become closer and closer, adopting each other’s looks and mannerisms.
From then on I went home only to sleep, and sometimes not even that. We spent almost every waking moment together, watching TV, playing the same computer games, reading the same books, eating the same size servings of the same meals, and sharing all our thoughts.
In their teens, they even share the same “girlfriend” (Josefine, who they sleep with) and work on the same project: to repair an old motorbike which they can then ride together, albeit unlicensed.
But for all their closeness, their shared time together in class, at home and in the rowing contests, there are some things that cannot be shared and which will eventually tear them apart.
The chief secret is Johann’s growing friendship with Ludwig’s older sister, Vera. The pair conduct a clandestine sexual relationship, meeting up at night in the motorbike workshop under the bridge for romantic rendezvous. It is this liaison that eventually tests the real bond between the two teenage “twins”.
END OF SPOILER ALERT
I quite liked this story, which is written in stripped-back prose and drips with melancholia. It reminded me a lot of Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s work (all reviewed here) in both style — that subtle prose and the aching atmosphere it evokes — and substance. But there is a thriller-like edge to it which gives Twins a compelling, page-turning quality. In its exploration of moral codes, male friendship, violence, sex and suicide, it’s a lot heftier than its slim page count might suggest.
There is an unexpected twist at the end, which makes the reader reassess the entire story and leaves a memorable impression — not bad for a book that can easily be read in a couple of hours.