Peirene Press novellas are reliably excellent but rarely cheery reads. Katja Oskamp’s Marzhan, Mon Amour bucks that trend with its tender, affectionate portrait of a community told through a set of thumbnail sketches of her clients by an unnamed writer turned chiropodist. Regular readers might notice that this is the second visit to Berlin in a fortnight after Emma Harding’s Friedrichstrasse 19. This time, we’re further out in the suburbs.
Our work is priceless! Our clients are the best! Marzhan, mon amour!
Our narrator has reached her middle years when invisibility is welcome but her publisher’s rejection of her latest novella is not. Her partner is sick, and her daughter long since left home leaving her not quite knowing what to do with her life until a beautician friend suggests retraining as a chiropodist and working in her salon in the old East Berlin suburb of Marzhan, built in the 1970s. Every working day our narrator takes the S-Bahn, opens the salon and prepares to meet her clients, many of them ageing, all with a story to tell. Our narrator listens attentively to each of them, from the ex-party official proud of the sexual prowess he once enjoyed to the couple enjoying their middle age, from the ancient matriarch who hears more than she lets on to the two women, now firm friends, who met through the love of their dachshunds. Once a year, our narrator and her two colleagues enjoy each other’s company at a day out at a thermal spa. After four years, our narrator is writing again, fitting brief stints in between her days at the clinic.
Better ten dachshunds than one man
Oskamp’s novella is an absolute delight, telling the story of this suburb of which our narrator is so proud through the lives of her clients with an empathetic humanity. She begins with a meditation on middle age, happily embraced in the novella’s final section with its pleasing update on her various clients. There’s a poignancy about some of their stories nicely captured by our narrator, alert to their needs but never intrusive. In its gentle humour and style, it reminded me of Robert Seethaler’s The Field which tells the story of a small community through the voices of its dead. A lovely piece of writing, beautifully translated by Jo Heinrich who, like our narrator, changed careers in middle age. This is her first piece of published translation and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more.
Peirene Press: London 9781908670694 144 pages Paperback