Tag Archives: Contemporary German fiction

The Hungry and the Fat by Timur Vermes (transl. Jamie Bulloch): Marching to Fortress Europe

Cover imageTimur Vermes is clearly not a man to shy away from controversy. His sharp, very funny satire, Look Who’s Back, nailed the internet’s potential for political manipulation with admirable, if unsettling, prescience when Hitler wakes up with a bad headache in 2011 and quickly becomes a YouTube star. The Hungry and the Fat takes on the refugee crisis and Europe’s failure to deal with it in similar blistering style, following hundreds of thousands of refugees as they march towards Germany, all broadcast on prime time TV.

It begins with a new pair of shoes, a joke in a bar and the decision to stage a TV reality show finale in the world’s biggest refugee camp. The hugely popular Angel in Adversity is filmed in a German refugee centre where its star endears herself to viewers by helping with whatever’s needed. It’s an advertiser’s dream: a beautiful woman with a colourful life apparently empathising with others in desperate straits. Not being the sharpest tool in the box, Nadeche doesn’t entirely understand what her producer’s plans will entail, planning her wardrobe for the camp as meticulously as she always does. Off she goes with her entourage to sub-Saharan Africa where she spends the first day sulking in her plush trailer. The TV crew sets about finding her a guide, plumping for the man with the new shoes who they dub Lionel. Ratings shoot up even further as this handsome pair become a couple. When Lionel ‘s hopes of accompanying Nadeche back to Germany are dashed, he comes up with a plan. Perhaps that joke he’d cracked about walking to Germany in his new shoes wasn’t so ridiculous after all. Led by Nadeche and Lionel, three hundred thousand refugees begin making their way towards Europe, moving like a well-oiled machine thanks to Lionel’s enterprising skills. Meanwhile, the audience at home is watching, the politicians amongst them aghast. Surely the marchers won’t make it to Germany.

Just as he did with Look Who’s Back, Vermes takes swipes at the ridiculousness of many of our Western preoccupations and the perniciousness of others. He’s careful to avoid caricature – for all her self-absorption and manipulation Nadeche has a healthy streak of empathy. The politicians’ dismay and alarm at the smartly organised, cooperative operation that is the march and its relentless advance is well done. There are many funny, almost slapstick moments but it’s a novel with a message. Europe’s inability to address the refugee crisis in a humane and fair manner is lamentable. While some countries have offered a welcome, others – including my own – have been parsimonious with their generosity to say the least. When Minister Leubl offers his solution to the impending problem I wanted to punch the air – it’s a wonderful moment – but we know it’s no more than that. As with Look Who’s Back, Vermes’ novel is a little too long but that said it makes its sober point loud and clear while having a great deal of fun doing so.

MacLehose Press: London 2020 9781529400557 576 pages Hardback

One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig (transl. Jamie Bulloch): A wolf takes a walk

Cover imageImpossible not to comment on that title which makes the old bookseller in me wonder just how much it will be mangled in customer enquiries. I’m sure the publishers breathed a sigh of relief that Twitter have extended their 140-character limit, too. That said, it was the title which attracted me to this novella along with its setting largely in Berlin, one of my favourite European cities. It’s also translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with interesting fiction. One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century is renowned German playwright, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s first novel. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany.

Coming out of the east, the wolf turns west into a forest where no wolf has been seen since 1843, crossing many people’s paths as it moves closer and closer to Berlin. Caught up in a traffic jam on his way back from Poland to his Berlin flat, Tomasz snaps the wolf on his phone, a shot which will later seize the media by storm. Elisabeth and Micha, two runaways from close to the border, spot the wolf’s tracks deep in the forest. Charly who runs a kiosk with his partner in an up and coming area of Berlin becomes haunted by his faceout with the wolf. A woman, intent on burning her dead mother’s diaries, spots it in the distance. The whole of Berlin falls under its spell, obsessed with this interloper who inspires both fear and wonder. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t, in this carefully constructed intricate piece of fiction which offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one.

This is such a clever, beautifully structured novella which seems to me to hold a mirror up to the reunified Germany through the stories of the characters whose path the wolf crosses. Tomasz is an economic migrant, uncomfortable in Berlin and longing for home; the ageing remaining occupants of the apartment block he’s helping to gentrify in the old east Berlin are determined not to be ousted; Elisabeth’s mother bitterly resents her ex-husband for thwarting her artistic career while Micha’s father has taken to drink in the face of economic decline. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is pared-back and spare, cinematic in its images and complemented by the fragmented structure of this novella in which deftly handled coincidences abound. It’s a triumph – both absorbing and thought-provoking. I’d suggest putting aside any difficultly stumbling over that title in your local bookshop and grabbing yourself a copy.