Tag Archives: German fiction in translation

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (transl. Ross Benjamin): Telling truth to power

Cover imageI’ve read all of Daniel Kehlmann’s translated novels, each very different from the others but all witty and smart. His last book, You Should Have Left, was a short, gothic number, both chilling and riveting. In comparison Tyll is a lengthy, historical novel set against the backdrop of the Thirty Years War which raged across what we now know as central Europe from 1618 to 1648. Not a setting which instantly appeals to me but Kehlmann’s a writer I can‘t resist. Opening in a small village when the miller’s eponymous son is still a child, Tyll takes us from the early years of the war to the convoluted negotiations which will bring it to its end.

A sharp, clever little boy, Tyll is never quite the same after spending two nights alone in the woods in the grips of a fever after his mother went into premature labour. His father is facinated by books, keen to learn as many of the world’s secrets as he can despite having trouble deciphering them, and eager to discuss his ideas with the two passing scholars who turn out to be Jesuits on the lookout for heresy. With villagers always keen to point the finger at those who bring misfortune while placating the authorities, not least God, Claus meets an inevitable fate. Tyll takes off with Nele who’s happy to dodge the marriage, incessant childbirth and early death which looms ahead of her. These two become entertainers: Tyll performing the tightrope walk he’s been perfecting for years, dancing and playing the mischief-making fool, a role that will eventually lead him to the highest court in the land, by way of the King and Queen of Bohemia whose acceptance of the crown has launched the whole sorry venture of the devastating, seemingly never-ending war.

I’m leaving now. This is what I’ve always done when things get tight, I leave

Kehlmann’s richly imagined novel takes us from Tyll’s hungry, squalid village to Osnabrück’s gorgeously appointed Town Hall where peace is finally being negotiated. The village is a hostile world where judgement, fear and superstition rule. At the other end of the social scale, negotiations are dictated by an intricate protocol in which it’s easy to be put on the back foot by one wrong move. Kehlmann’s descriptions are vivid and dramatic, his characterisation sharp and his storytelling engrossing. The whole thing is immensely entertaining, served up with a good deal of very dark wit. Count Wolkenstein’s writing of his unreliable memoirs, leaning heavily towards self-glorification, fifty years after the event is a particular treat.

Even at a distance of half a century he found himself incapable of putting it into sentences that had any actual meaning. Naturally, he described the sight anyway

Throughout it all, Tyll is the fool who sees his masters’ folly, unafraid to speak truth to power if only they’d listen. I loved this novel with its contemporary resonance, gobbling it up. Given the diversity of his fiction so far, I’m left wondering what Kehlmann will come up with next.

Riverrun: London 2020 9781529403657 342 pages Hardback

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

The Club by Takis Würger (transl. Charlotte Collins): All too believable

Cover imageI had my eye on this one as soon as I saw that it was translated by the excellent Charlotte Collins, although I think I would have read it anyway. Set against a backdrop of privilege and entitlement, Takis Würger’s The Club follows Hans, a young German orphan whose estranged aunt has spotted a way in which her nephew’s boxing prowess can help her in her quest for retribution.

Lonely and bereft, Hans had hoped that Alex might take him home with her to Cambridge but instead he’s left at a Bavarian boarding school, taking up boxing to counter his schoolmates’ bullying. When he receives a letter from her asking him to infiltrate a Cambridge University boxing club in return for a scholarship, Hans accepts only for lack of anything else to do with his life. Alex’s PhD student, Charlotte, sets him up with the entrée he needs, introducing Hans to her father, Angus, who sponsors him, and providing him with the clothing that will mark him out as ‘one of us’. Hans’ boxing flair soon gets him noticed by Josh Hartley, the self-obsessed star of the club who thinks himself principled because he cares about the provenance of his meat. Through diligent training and assiduous lying, Hans works his way onto the university boxing team, winning his bout against Oxford for which he’s to be admitted into the inner sanctum. As with any exclusive club, there’s an initiation rite to complete – one so repugnant that Hans risks blowing his cover to avoid it. By the time, he becomes a Butterfly, Hans has come both to understand the reason Alex has enlisted his help and to overcome the loneliness that has haunted him since he was a child.

Würger explores themes of power, privilege, misogyny and homophobia in this far from comfortable read, telling his story through the voices of its principal players. Many of the details of Josh’s behaviour are so familiar from the well-documented antics of the Bullingdon Club that it’s all too easy to imagine them taken several steps further. Würger manages to nail the mind-bogglingly ghastly sense of entitlement displayed by Josh and co. with a careful but light hand. There are occasional flashes of dark humour while Angus’s lack of understanding of his own crime and concern for Charlotte in the face of the unsporting behavior of the young Butterflies is well done as is Josh’s total lack of self-knowledge, locking himself firmly in a closet of his own determined straightness. I see from Würger’s biographical notes that he, too, was a member of the Pitt Club as a Cambridge undergraduate making me squirm even more. That said, the detail may be peculiar to my own country but I suspect the generality is sadly universal. Not that I take any comfort from that observation.

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (transl. Jen Calleja): To the north

Cover imageThis is the third novel I’ve read from this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist. The other two are Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, beautifully translated by Sam Taylor, which didn’t make it onto the shortlist, and Olga Tokarczuk’s quirky Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of The Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, which did alongside The Pine Islands. One of the things I like about the prize is the joint credit given to the translator who often seems to be overlooked, even by publishers. Why not include their name on the cover? If it were not for Jen Calleja this monolingual wouldn’t have read Marion Poschmann’s novella which would be a shame. It follows a man woken by a vivid dream of his wife’s infidelity, convinced of its truth.

When Gilbert wakes from his dream, he’s affronted by Mathilda’s unfaithfulness, brooding on it all day and unconvinced by her denials. He heads to the airport, boarding the first plane that will take him far away and finds himself in Japan. He wanders the streets of Tokyo, sure that Mathilda’s failure to contact him proves the reality of her infidelity, eventually falling into conversation with a young man bent on finding a romantic suicide site. Gilbert is irritated by Yosa’s wan behaviour which reminds him of his students but takes it upon himself to deflect him from his mission, agreeing to visit a celebrated roof with its supposed view of Mount Fuji and the suicide forest where they inadvertently spend the night, before persuading the young man to accompany him to the pine islands of Matsushima, following Bashõ’s journey. They’re whisked along the poet’s route in high-speed trains, stopping here and there, composing haikus at Gilbert’s insistence. While Gilbert attempts to quash his annoyance, composing letters to Mathilda in his head and indulging in philosophical musings, Yosa seems to be fading away.

Poschmann’s novella is both playful and poignant. Gilbert cuts a comic figure with his pomposity and his research into the role of beards in the movies, ridiculous even to him, but he’s unable to shake off his concern for the young man who accompanies him, despite a constant and growing sense of irritation. Poschmann weaves references to Bashõ lightly through her narrative, her descriptions of the Japanese landscape providing a lyrically beautiful backdrop to this journey which becomes as much philosophical as physical. The novella ends on a hopeful note for Gilbert who may well have found what he was looking for even if it’s not quite what he expected.

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.