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.

 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Egypt, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Maclehose Press, Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing, Picador, Publisher, Roland Schimmelpfennig, Saqi Books, Setting, UK, USA

3 novellas by Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing and Roland Schimmelpfennig

I do love a good novella.

Wikipedia defines these books as “somewhere between 17,500 and 40,000 words”, but I generally think anything under 150 pages qualifies. Alternatively, anything I can read in around two hours is a novella to me.

Here are three excellent novellas I’ve read recently, all of which I highly recommend.

‘Memoirs of a Woman Doctor’ by Nawal El Saadawi

Fiction – paperback; Saqi Books; 128 pages; 2019. Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

First published in Nawal El Saadawi’s native Egypt in 1960, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor is a fictionalised account of growing up female in a restrictive culture where women are second-class citizens and often denied a chance of an education.

In this first-person story, our narrator defies tradition — and her family’s claustrophobic expectations that she’ll marry and produce children — to go to medical school. Here, in the autopsy room, she dissects a male body — her first encounter with a naked man — and “in the course of it men lost their dread power and illusory greatness in my eyes”.

Later, she forgoes her independence to marry a man, but that turns sour when he tries to control her at home. She wastes no time in divorcing him — a huge no-no in Egyptian society — wondering if she will ever find a partner who respects her as a person and not as a “chattel” to own and objectify. The ending, I’m happy to say, is a satisfying one.

This fast-paced novella, which spans decades in less than 120 pages, reveals the sexism at the heart of Egyptian culture and the courage required for a woman to be accepted in a profession long dominated by men. It has proved an excellent introduction to this author’s work, which has just been reissued by Saqi Books as part of a new series of classic work by writers from the Middle East and North Africa.

‘Crudo’ by Olivia Laing

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 176 pages; 2018.

I ate up Olivia Laing’s Crudo in an afternoon. It is an amazing little book about the power of now — or, more specifically, the summer of 2017 — when the main character, Kathy, turns 40 and falls in love but is scared of committing herself to the one man. She goes ahead with the wedding regardless.

It is all stream-of-consciousness, written in a fast-paced, fragmentary style, but riveting and so akin to my own line of thinking about the modern world — Brexit, Trump’s America, politics, social justice and climate change et al —  that it almost feels as if it fell out of my own head.

Supposedly based on the work of Kathy Acker, whom I had to look up on Wikipedia (her entry is a fascinating read in its own right), it took me on a short but jam-packed journey about art and love and life and everything in between. A wow of a book that I hope to read again sometime soon.

‘One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century’ by Roland Schimmelpfennig

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 240 pages; 2018. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

This German novella has been reviewed favourably by Annabel at Annabookbel and Susan at A Life in Books, but I think I probably saw it first at Winstonsdad’s Blog.

It’s a highly original story that follows a diverse group of disparate characters living in Poland and Germany who are all united by one thing: they have spied the same rare wild wolf in the snow en-route to Berlin.

Written by a German playwright, the book is intensely cinematic and told in a fragmentary style using sparse prose and small vignettes which provide glimpses into the lives of those who people it, including two young people on the run, a Polish construction worker and his pregnant girlfriend, a small business owner who runs a kiosk with his wife, and a woman intent on burning her mother’s diaries.

It’s an absorbing, if somewhat elusive, read, one that requires a bit of focus to keep track of who’s who as the narrative twists and loops around itself, a bit like the wandering wolf at the heart of the tale. But on the whole, this is a fascinating portrait of modern Berlin and its diverse population after unification.

Have you read any of these books? Do you like novellas? Do you have any favourites you can recommend?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, Kerstin Hensel, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘Dance by the Canal’ by Kerstin Hensel

Dance by the canal

Fiction – paperback; Peirene; 122 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Jen Calleja.

Kerstin Hensel’s Dance by the Canal gives voice to the voiceless: a homeless woman living under a canal bridge in East Germany.

First published in 1994 under the German language title Tanz am Kanal, it has recently been translated into English by Jen Calleja and published by independent press Peirene as part of its East and West Series.

View from a bridge

The book opens as follows:

Now that I am sitting down here by the left pillar of the bridge with this large, smooth sheet of packing paper at my feet, I feel joy for the first time in years. It’s no coincidence that fate has brought me this paper — I’ve been chosen to write. I’ve been put on this earth for no other purpose than to tell the story of my life, and today I will begin.

What follows is a narrative that swings between two time periods — Gabriela von Haßlau’s childhood under Communism in East Germany in the 1960s and her current life as a homeless woman intently focused on scribbling her autobiography on scraps of paper salvaged from rubbish bins.

From this we learn that Gabriela was the daughter of a vascular surgeon, who rises to become Chief Medical Officer, and a society hostess and that she grew up in Leibnitz, a (fictional) industrial town in East Germany, where her parents were famous for their bourgeois ways and big parties.

Schooled with the children of labourers, textile workers and machinists, Gabriela stands out, not least because the “von” in her name indicates she’s a descendent of noble Anhaltinian stock. Yet, whether by accident or design, Gabriela does not really shine and fails to fulfil her educational potential.

Despite being taught by one of the country’s leading violinists, Gabriela shows a shocking lack of musical talent and it’s only when her teacher puts her “forceful strange tongue, thrusting and churning between my teeth” that her parents agree she can stop the lessons. She’s only five years old.

Disturbing look at life under Communism

Later, when her parents separate, Gabriela lives with her father, who becomes increasingly reliant on alchohol. He sinks into a depression, loses his job and falls out of favour with the Communists. It’s all downhill from there.

Dance by the Canal paints a convincing (and disturbing) portrait of how an oppressive political system can have long-lasting repercussions on individuals, damaging their psyches and leaving them at the mercy of a rigid, often uncaring society.

While Gabriela’s tale is told at an emotional distance in simple, succinct language, there are “muddled” passages which indicate the state of her mind. Her confusion and desire for acceptance as an individual, rather than as a cog in a machine, is heartbreaking.

Intense, sobering and dripping with melancholy, this novella leaves a dark impression on the reader.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Five fast reviews, Heather O'Neill, Heinrich Böll, Patrick deWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist

Five Fast Reviews: Heinrich Böll, Patrick DeWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist and Heather O’Neill

Five-fast-reviews-300pix


‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or How violence develops and where it can lead’ by Heinrich Böll

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 140 pages; 2000. Translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz.

Lost-honourFirst published in Germany in 1974, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is widely regarded as a German classic — indeed it’s listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a dark morality tale about the “unscrupulous sensationalism of the mass media”. I think it could also be described as an examination of a misogynistic society hellbent on keeping women in their place and denying them the right to lead independent lives.

This short but powerful novella charts the downfall of Katharina Blum, a strong, independent woman, who meets a man at a party and takes him home, not realising he’s a wanted criminal. When he goes on the run, she is interrogated by the police who insist she’s an accomplice to his crimes even though she had never met him before. The city newspaper drags her name through the mud, portraying her as a whore and a communist. Her reputation in ruins, Katharina is forced to take drastic action, shooting the reporter who has distorted her story out of all proportion.

Written in a dry, somewhat detached style employing an omnipresent narrator, I can’t say that I was immediately grabbed by the story. But the message is a powerful one — and still rather relevant in today’s climate of social media shaming and bullying.

 

‘Undermajordomo Minor’ by Patrick DeWitt

Fiction – Kindle edition; Granta; 304 pages; 2015. 

Under-major-minor-domoLonglisted for this year’s Giller Prize, I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor for my Shadow Giller Jury obligations and found it an enjoyable, if somewhat surreal, romp hugely reminiscent of the kind of kooky fables that British writer Magnus Mills pens. The sinister elements of the story reminded me a little of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it’s not a horror story per se, more a dark, often very funny, Gothic fairy tale set in an unnamed country in an unspecified era.

The tale begins when one young man, Lucien (or “Lucy”), moves out of the family home to begin a new job — and life — working as a helper for the old “majordomo” of a creepy castle in a distant village. Lots of strange and unexplained things happen to Lucy, who befriends some local thieves and falls in love with a pretty girl, whom he woos using every trick in the book.

There’s no real plot line — the story works on character and a series of kooky set pieces — but it’s a fun, if somewhat unsettling (and occasionally violent) read from the author of The Sisters Brothers.

 

‘A Place Called Winter’ by Patrick Gale

Fiction – paperback; Tinder Press; 368 pages; 2015.

A-place-called-winterPatrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter is epic storytelling at its best. Written with warmth and great sensitivity, it charts the formative years of Harry Crane, a shy, stuttering gentleman of independent means, in Edwardian London, before a sex scandal forces him to abandon his wife and young daughter for a new life on the Canadian prairies.

The book opens with a middle-aged Harry undergoing treatment in an experimental sanatorium, but we do not know how he got there or what condition he is being treated for. The story then flashes back to his earlier life, and these two narrative threads — a current story framed by flashbacks — alternate to provide a rich tapestry of Harry’s life and search for self discovery.

Admittedly, this kind of story isn’t normally my cup of tea, but I enjoyed the change of pace and found the writing style reminiscent of Anita Shreve, who is one of my go-to authors. The book has been shortlisted for this year’s Green Carnation Prize and the 2015 Costa Novel Award.

 

‘Terra Nullis: A Journey Through No One’s Land’ by Sven Lindqvist

Non-fiction – paperback; Granta; 248 pages; 2012. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.

Terra-nulliusProving that my reading tastes are wide-ranging, this non-fiction book explores my interest in the issue of racism against Aboriginal Australians. First published in Sweden in 2005, it charts the history of black and white relations in Australia from the first point of contact in the 18th century to the current day.

The author Sven Lindqvist, an accomplished essayist and journalist, seems to have made a name for himself writing about cultural genocide (he has written similar books about black and white relations in Africa), and much of what he covers here makes for uncomfortable reading. Yet sometimes his passion (and fury) gets a little overwrought, and detracts from the important message at the book’s heart.

But on the whole, I found this an eye-opening read. Part entertaining travelogue, part searing polemic, it’s certainly one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read all year.

‘Daydreams of Angels’ by Heather O’Neill

Fiction – Kindle edition; Quercus; 369 pages; 2015.

Daydreams-of-angelsI’m familiar with Canadian writer Heather O’Neill having read and reviewed two of her previous novels, Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, but Daydreams of Angels is a slight departure for her, because it’s a short story collection. I read it because it was shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

The book is subtitled “Tall tales and twisted fairy stories” and that’s a pretty good description for the contents:  there are 21 stories about cherubs, talking bears, cats that dye their own fur and children who fend off marriage proposals, amongst others. Most are set in Montreal, others on the battlefields of World War Two. Some are surreal, others more grounded in reality.

The writing is sharp and witty, filled with wonderful descriptions of places and atmospheres, and the author has a particular “thing” for a clever simile — for instance:

“When a car of boys slowed down next to her on the sidewalk, she leaned in the window and wiggled her butt back and forth as she talked to them, like a bumblebee getting nectar out of a flower”

But on the whole I found the voice too similar throughout so that there was nothing to separate one story from another, and now, almost two months on, I find that nothing really stands out in my mind. I rated it pretty low against the other books on the Giller Prize shortlist, though my fellow jurors begged to differ

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, historical fiction, Jenny Erpenbeck, literary fiction, Portobello Books, Publisher, Setting

‘The End of Days’ by Jenny Erpenbeck

End-of-days

Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 280 pages; 2014. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Every November bloggers Caroline and Lizzy host German Literature Month, which is a good excuse to dig out those German language books languishing in my TBR. This year, however, I decided to treat myself to a new novel, which is how I came to buy Jenny Erpenbeck’s award-winning and critically acclaimed The End of Days at Waterstone’s late last month.

One woman’s life

The novel, which is broken up into five parts, tells the story of one woman’s life from cradle to grave. But it does not follow the normal narrative conventions, for at the end of each part cruel fate steps in and the protagonist dies.

But then the author plays with the idea of “what if?” and the next section of the book explores what might have happened if the (unnamed) woman had continued to live.

All this is played out against the backdrop of Europe’s turbulent 20th century history, including anti-Semitism, the rise of the Third Reich, and Communism.

It’s a neat way to explore how chance and choice and the little decisions we make every day can have a big  impact on our lives, and begs the question, is that what happens with world history, too?

An uneven narrative

Admittedly, reading this book was an uneven experience for me. The first two parts were some of the most compelling — and moving — literary fiction I’ve ever read. Who could not be intrigued by the idea of a baby dying in her cradle, aged just eight months, and then seeing the outfall on her parents — a Gentile father, who flees to America to escape the pain of his loss, and a Jewish mother, who falls apart emotionally and accidentally falls into prostitution to support herself?

The second part, which explores what would happen if the baby had  survived (because the parents had rubbed a handful of snow on her chest to bring her back from the brink of death), follows the now 17-year-old girl being uprooted from her home in Eastern Europe and settling in Vienna, where it is hoped she will lead a better life. But it’s 1919 and food, fuel wood — and hope — is in short supply. There is increasing, yet unspoken, pressure on her to sell herself in order to sustain her family, but instead she enters into a suicide pact with a fellow student.

The third part charts a new variation of the young woman’s life had that pact failed, but this is where my interest in the novel began to wane. I’m not sure if that’s because I’d got used to the “trick” of the story, or whether it was because the prose style suddenly became dry and detached, a mirror perhaps of the period of Communist history in which it was set.

I won’t elaborate on the final two parts of the story, but I found the narrative recaptured my attention once again, and I was left feeling slightly shattered by the time I’d reached the final page.

Power, passion and philosophy

The End of Days is a relatively short novel, but it’s a powerful, passionate and philosophical one. The prose is rich and evocative, and the story so filled with ideas, concepts and political, socio-economic and cultural themes that it would take an age to unpack them all. But, in my opinion, the narrative power, so strong in the first 115 pages, isn’t sustained, weakening the overall effect.

Not that my opinion really matters: this book was described as a “work of genius” when it won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction prize earlier this year.

For other takes on this novel, please do read the review on Lizzy’s Literary Life and the one on JacquiWine’s Journal

Author, Book review, Fiction, Fred Uhlman, Germany, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Reunion’ by Fred Uhlman

Reunion

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 98 pages; 2012.  

Fred Uhlman’s classic novella Reunion — first published in 1971 — is a universal story about the friendship between two teenage school boys. But this is no average story, no average friendship, for it is set in Germany in the early 1930s, just as Nazism is on the rise.

Teenage friendship

The story is narrated by middle-class Hans Schwarz, the son of a Jewish doctor and grandson of a rabbi, looking back on a special friendship he shared with the aristocratic Konradin von Hohenfel, whose parents sided with Hitler, some 25 years after they lost contact with one another.

He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again. […] I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair.

The book charts the rise and fall of their friendship over the course of a year. Right from the start Hans, who is friendless and lonely at school, is enamoured by Konradin’s arrival in their classroom for the first time:

We stared at him as if we had seen a ghost. What struck me and probably all of us more than anything else, more than his self-assured bearing, his aristocratic air and slight, faintly supercilious smile, was his elegance. We were all, so far as our style of dress was concerned, a dreary lot. […] But with this boy it was different. He wore long trousers, beautifully cut and creased, obviously not off the peg like ours. His suit looked expensive: it was light grey with a herringbone pattern and almost certainly “Guaranteed English”. He wore a pale blue shirt and a dark blue tie with small white polka-dots; in contrast our neckwear was dirty, greasy and rope-like. Even though we regarded any attempt at elegance as “sissy”, we couldn’t help looking enviously at this picture of ease and distinction.

It takes a concerted effort to “woo” Konradin by the shy Hans, but eventually they bond over a shared love of coin collecting. Konradin is welcomed into the Schwarz family home after school on a regular basis, but the favour takes a long time to be returned — and when it is, it doesn’t take Hans long to realise that he is only ever invited over when Konradin’s parents are away.

Tensions in the friendship become heightened — almost in tandem with the rise of anti-Semitism in German society — and things come to a head just as Hitler is about to be appointed Chancellor. I won’t say any more, but the book has a spine-tingling — and quite unexpected — final sentence that gives the story extra resonance and poignancy.

A portrait of an ideal friendship

Reunion is a beautiful depiction of an “ideal friendship” between two 16-year-old boys from different backgrounds. Though we largely experience it from Hans’ point of view, it perfectly captures the all-pervasive need to have that one special person in our lives — with whom we can share our interests, our troubles, our desires — when we are teens. It also highlights how loyalty can be tested, in this case to the extreme, by circumstances beyond our control.

I loved the mood of the book — it’s nostalgic and wistful without being sentimental — and it’s written in a perfectly matter-of-fact way but is done so eloquently the sentences feel as if they’ve been spun from silk. It’s a quick read, too, but it’s the kind of story that stays with you, not least because it shows how friendships can endure beyond the worst of human catastrophe.

My edition includes a short introduction written by French novelist Jean d’Ormesson in 1997, but the novella has also been championed by Arthur Koestler, who described it as a “minor masterpiece”, and Rachel Seiffert. It came to my attention via Armen, a member of my book group, who recommended it to me late last year.

Finally, I should point out that Uhlman wrote Reunion in English, not German. He emigrated to the UK in 1936 after stints in France and Spain. You can read more about his eventful life on his Wikipedia page.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, Haus Publishing, holocaust, literary fiction, Monika Held, Poland, Publisher, Setting

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held

This-place-holds-no-fear

Fiction – hardcover; Haus Publishing; 277 pages; 2015. Translated from the German by Anne Posten. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Monika Held’s This Place Holds No Fear is an extraordinarily beautiful novel — about survival, the power of love and the strength of one exceptional marriage.

It’s also about the Holocaust (fittingly, it was published on Holocaust Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz just six weeks ago), but it’s quite unlike any Holocaust novel that I have read. That’s because it’s not so much about what happens to those who are sent to the death camps while they are there but explores what happens to the survivors afterwards — how do they get on with their lives after such unfathomable horror and trauma?

A love story

The novel is essentially a love story between Heiner, a Viennese man, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 as a Communist, and Lena, a translator from Germany, who is 10 years his junior.

They meet by accident when Heiner is called to give evidence as a witness at the Auschwitz trials, held in Frankfurt in 1964, in which former SS officials and guards were tried for war crimes.

Lena is working in the court, translating evidence from Polish into German. On the 52nd day of the hearings, Heiner collapses in the hallway of the courthouse, where Lena rescues him — she wipes his brow, helps him to a chair and gets him a glass of water — forging the beginning of a love affair that endures for the next 30-plus years.

The Auschwitz legacy

As the couple’s story unfolds we learn that Heiner’s experiences at Auschwitz will forever mark him.  As prisoner 63,387,  he worked as a typist in the prisoner’s infirmary typing death records for those internees who had died.

Several times a day the SS man brings us a list with names and numbers of the dead. We don’t know how these people died. We can choose from thirty different illnesses. According to my typewriter people die of heart failure, phlegmons, pneumonia, spotted fever and typhus, embolisms, influenza, circulatory collapse, stroke, cirrhosis of the liver, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and kidney failure. Under no circumstances is anyone tortured, beaten to death or shot at Auschwitz. No one starves, dies of thirst; no one is hanged, no one is gassed.

On a daily basis, Heiner witnessed great brutality and unspeakable acts of cruelty and inhumanity by the SS officers and guards, but he knew that he had to survive in order to be a witness. But life was cheap and at any point he could be the next to die:

That was the first lesson he’d learned: You can die. For looking too curious, too horrified, too bold, too submissive or not submissive enough. For walking. Too fast, too slow, too casually. You can die for saying your number wrong. Too softly, too loudly, too hesitantly, too slowly, or too fast. You can be killed for not knowing the words to a song. If a person wants to kill, any reason will do.

But after liberation there were new challenges to overcome— “He’d survived — but what was the point? The perpetrators were convicted and would serve their sentences without remorse, without understanding, without any shock over what they’d done” — and no one understood what he had gone through:

 At home people had looked at him mistrustfully: How come you’re still alive? We thought there was only one way to freedom at Auschwitz: through the chimney. Their eyes asked: What did you do? Were you a Nazi stooge? At whose cost did you survive? If only they had asked him directly. He found their secretive looks repugnant.

His first marriage, which is mentioned only in passing, falls apart when his wife and young child are unable to cope with Heiner’s ongoing suffering and his inability to escape from the shadow of Auschwitz that continues to loom over him.

By the time Lena meets him — almost 20 years after liberation — Heiner is still in the grip of that shadow. Their marriage works, not because Lena helps Heiner to overcome his pain — he can never overcome it — but because she accepts that it is part of his character, part of his being. As she tells Heiner’s friend, Tadek, who is also a Holocaust survivor, “it’s like living with a singer who can’t stop singing the song of his life”:

He sings it in the morning, he sings it at noon and in the afternoon, evening and night. It has many verses. You have to like the song or you’ll go crazy.

Marriage governed by trauma

This Place Holds No Fear offers a poignant, often moving but never sentimental, glimpse into a marriage that is governed by trauma. It’s never maudlin, however, but it distills in clear, eloquent prose (beautifully translated by Anne Posten), an unconditional love that knows no bounds.

It particularly comes into its own in the second half of the novel when the couple travel to Poland, now under Communist rule, to deliver relief supplies to other Holocaust survivors. Here, Lena listens into conversations that deeply move her, because in meeting Heiner’s comrades she comes to understand that they all share a deep need to tell their (disturbing) stories. Yes, they are psychologically damaged men, but they have managed to stay sane not by forgetting what happened to them but by remembering their unnatural pasts.

The novel is based on a true story — the author interviewed and spent time with Auschwitz survivors — so it feels incredibly authentic. It’s certainly powerful and compelling. And when I finished it, the first word that sprang to mind was not “depressing” or “traumatic” but quite simply this: “beautiful”.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Farrar, Fiction, literary fiction, Peter Handke, Publisher, Setting, Straus and Giroux

‘The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick’ by Peter Handke

The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

Fiction – paperback; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 133 pages; 2007. Translated from the German by Michael Roloff.

Austrian writer Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick was first published in 1970. According to the blurb on the back of my 2007 reprint, it caused quite a stir in Europe and the United States at the time, because of its “innovative use of language and its searing portrait of a troubled man in an equally troubled society”.

It came to my attention after I read a rather wonderful interview with MJ Hyland in which she named it as one of her influences. I love Hyland’s work (you can read all my reviews of her novels here) and this book sounded like something I’d like, so I promptly ordered a copy online. Fittingly, it arrived just in time for German Literature Month, which runs throughout November, and was an “interesting” palette cleanser after reading a steady stream of Canadian fiction for my Shadow Giller obligations.

An accidental murder

The story is a simple one (though it’s astonishingly told): Joseph Bloch is a once-famous soccer goalkeeper (the “goalie” of the title), who has just lost his job on a construction site. With nothing to occupy his days and no friends of whom to speak, he fills in time by going to the cinema, where he develops a “thing” for the cashier, whom he later murders, almost by accident and without thinking of the consequences.

He flees to a village on the Austrian border, where he re-establishes contact with an old girlfriend, who runs a public house. By coincidence the neighbourhood is filled with police, all on the hunt for a missing boy.  Bloch’s days are mostly filled wandering around aimlessly, observing the search efforts from afar; his evenings drinking in the pub. Nothing much happens.

But it’s not so much the actual things that Joseph does, but what goes on in his head that makes this novella such an intriguing read. Surprisingly, given it’s written in the third person, we get an alarming view of Bloch’s mental state and his subsequent decent into a kind of madness.

In many ways it’s like Bloch is watching a movie with the sound turned down too low. He has problems with his memory — he often gets a feeling of deja vu, as if it takes his mind a few seconds to catch up with his actions  — and constantly mishears things or is woken up by noises that don’t actually exist.

Bloch was wakened by a banging and wheezing on the street, trash cans being dumped into the garbage truck; but when he looked out, he saw that the folding door of the bus that was just leaving had closed and, farther away, that milk cans were being set on the loading ramp of the dairy. There weren’t any garbage trucks out here in the country; the muddle was starting all over again.

The prose style is detached, so detached it’s almost weightless, which lends the tale quite a chilling atmosphere, effectively echoing Bloch’s troubled mindset.

Indeed, Handke does rather wonderful things with language in this book, which demonstrates how muddled and confused Bloch becomes as the story progresses. This paragraph is a good example:

The policemen, who made the usual remarks, nevertheless seemed to mean something entirely different by them; at least they purposely mispronounced phrases like “got to remember” and “take off” as “goats you remember” and “take-off” and, just as purposely, let their tongues slide over others, saying “whitewash?” instead of “why watch?” and “closed, or” instead of “close door”. For what would be the point of their telling him about the goats that, he should remember, had once, when the door had been left open, forced their way into the pool, which hadn’t even been officially open yet, and had soiled everything, even the walls of the restaurant, so that the rooms had to be whitewashed all over again and it wasn’t ready on time, which was why Bloch should keep the door closed and stay on the sidewalk?

Admittedly The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is a difficult read, not least because it presents a man battling his own sanity, but because it’s written in such a dry, almost monotonous, manner it’s sometimes hard to maintain interest. That monotony is no doubt deliberate because it simply mirrors the dullness of Bloch’s life (one can’t help but wonder if he didn’t murder the cashier simply to alleviate the boredom), so it’s something of a relief that the book is only 133 pages long.

It’s not a cheery read by any stretch of the imagination — and it ends far too abruptly for my liking — but the way in which it reveals the hidden mind is nothing less than impressive. And I would certainly explore more of Handke’s back catalogue: he has dozens of novels (and plays) in translation.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Peter Schneider, Publisher, Setting

‘The Wall Jumper’ by Peter Schneider

The-wall-jumper

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 139 pages; 2005. Translated from the German by Leigh Hafrey.

One of the seminal events in my life was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I was 20 years old at the time, but I can still remember watching the live coverage on TV from my living room in Australia with a mixture of joy, fascination and unbridled optimism for the future.

Peter Schneider’s classic German novel, The Wall Jumper, which was penned in 1982, provides a fascinating glimpse of Berlin life before the wall came down.

Life in a divided city

The book follows the lives of a handful of East Berliners who move to the West: Robert, who misses the rigid predictability of his previous life; Pommerer, who spends his time trying to outwit the system; Lena, a woman infected by suspicion and paranoia; and the unnamed narrator, who spends quite a lot of time crossing the border to visit family and friends.

The best time to cross the border at Heirich Heine Strasse is between twelve and two in the afternoon. The checkpoint is almost empty: just one other traveler, with a shepherd dog on a leash, waits under the loudspeaker for his number to be called. I could simply drive up to the shed from which a border official will soon emerge to hand me my numbered ticket. But I know the consequences of crossing the white line unasked: the officer, even if he is there and ready, will wave me back and make me wait until he gives me a sign. I can’t follow impulse: I have to wait for his beckoning hand, and I can’t afford to miss it. The message in this ritual is clear and seems deliberate: I am entering a state where even things that will happen anyway require authorisation.

Much of the book revolves around the narrator collecting stories of people “jumping the wall”, which are told anecdotal style in this plot-free narrative. Many of these anecdotes show the ingenious (and sometimes hilarious) lengths people will go to, the risks they will take, to outwit the system and cross the border — and the absurdity of having to risks their lives to jump through such hoops.

The author’s overall message seems to be that even with the wall removed, there would still be divisions between east and west, because it is difficult for people to ignore the way they are raised and the political values to which their society subscribes. Or, as the narrator puts it:

Pommerer and I can dissociate ourselves from our states as much as we like, but we can’t speak to each other without having our states speak for us. If I insist on majorities as instinctively as Pommerer distrusts them, it is because we have been equally receptive sons of the system that has brought us up.

Such ingrained attitudes become apparent when both of them witness a violent protest in the street one day: the narrator thinks the protest is purely an act of spontaneity; Pommerer believes it is a set-up by police designed to give them reason to prevent a real protest at a later date.

Heavy read

The Wall Jumper’s short length might suggest it’s a quick read, but it is actually quite heavy going, seeing as it explores many big issues — freedom, repression, the line between the state and the self, propaganda and politics, capitalism and communism, to name but a few — and does so in a dry, authoritative style, occasionally lightened by humour.  Indeed, I had to double-check this wasn’t a non-fiction book when I began it, because it feels like reportage or long-form journalism.

But as a slice of fictionalised history it does an important job of showing how people lived their lives in the shadow of the Cold War’s most tangible symbol.

Author, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Peirene Press

‘The Mussel Feast’ by Birgit Vanderbeke

Mussel-feast

Fiction – paperback; Peirene; 105 pages; 2013. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast is a classic in the author’s native Germany, where it was published to critical and popular acclaim in 1990. It won the prestigious German-language literature award,  the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, that same year. It has recently been translated into English by London-based Peirene Press.

I loved this book so much, I read it twice — when it initially came out in May and then again last weekend. It’s a tiny package, but reading it is like peeling an onion: there are so many layers that it’s almost impossible to appreciate them all first time round.

Celebratory feast

On the face of it, the story appears to be a very simple one. A woman and her two teenage children sit around the dinner table awaiting the arrival of the patriarch of the family, whom they expect to return home with news of a promotion at work. A celebratory feast of mussels and wine has been prepared. But the father is late and there is no word from him to explain his delay. Why has he not called? Has he been in an accident?

In the meantime — as the mussels grow cold and the wine gets consumed — the daughter begins to recall memories of her father and his role in the family. This is when the story takes on a deeper purpose: to show that there is more going on than meets the eye.

What emerges is a rather startling portrait of a tyrannical man, whose idealised version of what constitutes a family and family life can never reach his unrealistic expectations. And instead of drawing everyone together, he has splintered his family apart by his funny notions and cruel ways. It is, essentially, a metaphor for East and West Germany, reflecting the time period in which the book was written, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Odd ideas and notions

It turns out that the father has some rather odd ideas but is so convinced by their “rightness” that he can never be properly challenged on them. So, for example, when the children are growing up, he never lets them play outside in the fresh air with the neighbourhood children on a Sunday afternoon, because one of his “notions about a proper family dictated that all of us should all do something together” — this usually meant a very long drive, but by the time they arrived at their destination the car park would be full and their father would become furious.

He also has very funny ideas about money and thinks “that scrimping on investments is the height of provincialism”. He lives in fear of being seen as stingy or poor. This means he is overly generous with his tips at restaurants, despite not being able to afford it, and considers any clothes bought off-the-peg as “rejects”.

You can spot off-the-peg clothing from miles away, my father said, and whenever my mother wore a new dress he immediately spotted that it was another reject. You don’t have any style, he said; my mother agreed that she didn’t have any style, how could I have any style when I need to ensure that we have enough, while you’re throwing heaps of money out the window; but my father said, it’s not heaps, and, I can’t help it if you’re stingy, and then the door would slam and my father rushed out, coming back in the early hours, drunk.

Humour in the horror

This may make the book sound like a rather grim, depressing tale, but the beauty of Vanderbeke’s narrative is the highly nuanced and intelligent “voice” which lets us “read between the lines” and catch glimpses, not just of the terror at the heart of these people’s lives, but of the hope and wit too.

And because the story is narrated by the daughter, in one long, often repetitive, hypnotic monologue, the picture that emerges feels authentic and real.

I wouldn’t describe it as a black comedy, but I laughed a lot while reading this book — mainly at this man’s preposterous ideas and the ways in which his wife and his children humoured him. You get a very real sense that he is tolerated, perhaps even respected, but the first chance they get to live their lives the way they want to live them, they will take it — with both hands. If he doesn’t appear at the dinner table, then perhaps it won’t be such a tragic turn of events after all…