Six degrees of separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Road’ to ‘Twins’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a book-themed meme hosted by Kate from booksaremyfavouriteand best.

Every month Kate chooses a particular book as a starting point. The idea is then to create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.

Here’s this month’s #6Degrees. As ever, click the book titles to read my review of that book in full.

The starting point is:

‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
I read this novel when it first came out. Set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it charts the treacherous journey of a man and his young son who follow the road south in search of a warmer climate. It’s a very bleak and chilling book. Another book set in a post-apocalyptic world is…

Cover image of Anna by Niccolò Ammaniti

‘Anna’ by Niccolò Ammaniti (2017)
It is four years after a flu-like virus has wiped out the world’s adult population. There’s no electricity, no transport, no food. The world is run by children, who fight among themselves for survival, and dangerous feral dogs roam the countryside. In this tale, 13-year-old Anna, accompanied by her younger brother, befriend a dog that effectively becomes their protector, albeit an unpredictable one. Another book featuring dogs is…

Fifteen dogs

‘Fifteen Dogs’ by André Alexis (2015)
This kooky novel is about a group of 15 dogs, all staying overnight in a veterinary clinic in Toronto, that are granted the power of consciousness and discover that they can suddenly think for themselves, talk in a new language (English) and reason with one another. It follows their individual antics as some dogs struggle with this gift, others adjust to it easily and a few use it in horrific ways. It won Canada’s Giller Prize in 2015. Another Giller winner is…

Bellevue Square

‘Bellevue Square’ by Michael Redhill (2017)
Over the years the Giller Prize has introduced me to some great books — and this is one of them. It starts off as a thriller, about a woman looking for her doppelganger, then morphs into a wonderful examination of mental illness, consciousness, identity and the blurring of lines between truth, reality and imagination. Another book about mental illness is…

‘Spider’  by Patrick McGrath (1990)
This story follows the plight of a man, who is adjusting to a new life outside of the psychiatric hospital from which he’s recently been released. He keeps a journal to make sense of the world. In it he recalls incidents from his troubled childhood, including how his father, a plumber with a violent streak, took up with Hilda, a local prostitute. Shortly afterwards, his mother mysteriously “disappeared” and Hilda moved into the family home. Another book featuring a plumber is…

‘Safe House’ by Chris Ewan (2012)
This is a rip-roaring thriller set on the Isle of Man. Local plumber Rob Hale has crashed his motorbike and is now in hospital. But when he asks about the female passenger riding pillion, no one knows what he is talking about — he was the only person found at the accident scene. So does this passenger actually exist, or is Rob losing his marbles? Another book featuring a motorbike crash is…

‘Twins’ by Dirk Kurbjuweit(2017)
In this fable-like tale, “twins” Johann and Ludwig are 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. Part of their bonding activity involves rebuilding an old motorbike, which they then ride on the road, even though they are not old enough to hold a licence. I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say this does not bode well…

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a post-apocalyptic novel to a story about teenage boys who develop a close relationship, linked via dogs, the Giller Prize, mental illness, plumbers and motorbikes!

Have you read any of these books? 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Fiction, Germany, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Twins’ by Dirk Kurbjuweit

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.

Schoolboy friendship

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.

SPOILER ALERT

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.