Tag Archives: German fiction

Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (transl. by Susan Bernofsky): Opening the doors

Cover imageRegular readers of this blog will know I’m a fervent Remainer but I’m not a blindly naïve one. The EU is an institution ripe for reform but I’ve long believed that international issues are best tackled together. We Europeans failed dismally, however, to find a humane solution to the 2015 refugee crisis, dumping responsibility on the Greeks and Italians who, as the arrival point of those pitifully overloaded and rickety boats we’ve all seen on our TV screens, have the legal responsibility to take their occupants in and decide their case. Then, Angela Merkel bravely opened Germany’s doors. It was this that I had assumed Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel would explore but instead she winds the clock back to the Oranienplatz occupation and its fallout, seen through the eyes of a recently retired widower at a loss to know what to do with himself.

Richard is dismantling his professional life, packing up the books filling the shelves of his office at the Institute where he was a Classics professor and taking them to his lakeside Berlin house. A blank future stretches ahead of him until his interest is piqued first by the hunger strike of ten African refugees, then by the occupation of Oranienplatz, an area he knows well. Richard was once a refugee, coming from Poland with the mother he was almost separated from en route to Germany after the war, but his life now is a settled, respectable one in stark contrast to the Oranienplatz occupants. He decides to find out more about them, a research project which his academic credentials allow him to navigate around the authorities. When the camp is moved on, an agreement negotiated with the Berlin Senate, he moves with it. Friendships are made, stories told, gestures of generosity offered and possibly abused. Richard is transformed by his experience but the refugees are left stranded, still unable to work and with desperately uncertain futures.

Go Went Gone is very different in style from The End of Days and Visitation, the other novels I’ve read by Erpenbeck. It’s a much more conventional narrative which humanises the men through their stories of the often calamitous events that made them leave their homes and the appalling difficulties of their journeys. It’s also Richard’s story – a man who removes himself from the sidelines and becomes involved in the refugees’ lives, sometimes taking his friends with him. Officialdom may prove to be both baffling and obfuscatory but the kindness of strangers who eventually become friends offers hope. As with Erpenbeck’s previous novels, there’s a consciousness of Germany’s own fractured past running through it – Richard hardly knows the western sections of the city he grew up in despite the falling of the Wall decades ago. He remembers the weeping West Berliners expecting a poignant reunion with their Eastern compatriots when all it meant to him was a quicker journey to work on the U-Bahn.

This is a moving and enlightening novel, all the more so for the bald statements which stud it, the most effective being ‘I don’t know who I am anymore’, ‘Where can a person go when he doesn’t know where to go?’ repeated over two otherwise blank pages. I read it with a sense of national shame at the paltry number of refugees my own country has taken in. I’m not so starry-eyed as to think that Angela Merkel’s generosity has been universally welcomed in Germany, or that it’s without its problems, but I applaud it wholeheartedly. Good luck in Sunday’s elections, Chancellor Merkel.

Where Love Begins by Judith Hermann (transl. Margot Bettauer Dembo): A comfortable life made uncomfortable

Cover imageIn the very early days of this blog I reviewed Judith Hermann’s beautifully put together set of interlinked short stories, Alice, under the banner ‘Small but Perfectly Formed’. The same heading could stand for her new novel, Where Love Begins, although its subject matter is quite different. Alice explored grief and how we endure it, both from the point of view of the bereft and those around them who perform small acts of kindness yet feel impotent in their efforts to soften this hardest of blows. This new, equally accomplished novel takes a more sinister route with its portrayal of Stella whose unremarkable life is turned upside down by a stalker.

Thirty-seven years old, Stella is married to Jason who she met on the plane she caught home from her best friend Clara’s wedding after catching the bridal bouquet. They live a prosaic enough life on a housing development in a small German town. Stella is a nurse, making home visits to the sick and elderly some of whom are grateful, others not so much, while Jason’s work often takes him away. Their five-year-old daughter, Ava, happily attends the local kindergarten. Stella misses Clara, looking forward to her letters and remembering their heady days sharing a flat together. She thinks about her marriage and how she met Jason who took her hand, calming her fears as the plane took off. One day the doorbell rings and Stella finds herself reluctant to answer it using the intercom instead. The man outside says he just wants to talk to her but Stella tells him to go away. So begins the almost daily visits from Mr Pfister who drops perplexing things into her mail box – a ball of twine, a home burnt CD, an empty yellow envelope.

In other hands this might have been just another somewhat clichéd thriller – a woman stalked by disturbed man with perhaps a horrible finale thrown in – but Hermann’s novel is much more complex than that. In her coolly elegant, quietly contemplative style she explores an ordinary life with all its discontents, small regrets and difficulties suddenly unsettled by the unwanted attentions of a stranger. What suspense there is low-key – disquieting rather than nail-biting and all the more effective for it. Hermann writes in that understated way that I find so impressive occasionally punctuated by vivid images: ‘A flock of sparrows flies up out of the trees in the garden across the way, as if hurled into the sky by a large hand’; in summer ‘the warm air enters the house like a guest’. The intimate almost tender exchanges between the carer and the cared for are delicately described, like an artist’s sketches, and Ava’s prattle is beautifully caught. All this is, of course, sensitively translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo whose work on Alice I so admired. Altogether a very fine piece of work. Time to explore Hermann’s backlist, I think.

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck: The twentieth century through Eastern European eyes

The End of DaysI suspect The End of Days is a bit of a Marmite novel: you’ll either marvel at the way Jenny Erpenbeck deftly handles the constant shifts in narrative throughout this complex novel or you’ll despair of ever keeping track. Just as Jane Smiley sets out to tell the story of an American century through the lives of one family in Some Luck, so Erpenbeck views the Eastern European twentieth century through a woman whose fate is constantly reimagined rather in the way that Kate Atkinson does with Ursula Todd in Life After Life.

The novel begins in Galicia in 1902 with the death of an infant, barely eight months old then follows her Jewish mother and her goy father as they try to cope with this horrible event. She takes one route, he another leading him to emigration to the US. Then it’s all change as the baby survives, moving with her family to Vienna. At seventeen, just after the war and the break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the daughter is alienated from her family, falling in love with her best friend’s fiancé who she hopes to claim as her own when the friend dies of Spanish influenza. Things end badly but onward we go to Moscow where our heroine is writing an account of her life, the third in a bid for Soviet citizenship. She’s married but her husband is in prison, and she’s caught up in the factions surrounding Stalin. Onward again and her teenage son is attending her funeral in East Berlin where she has been garlanded with praise and honours for her work as a writer. And finally, in 1992, she’s in a nursing home on the eve of her ninetieth birthday,  her son bringing her a souvenir from Vienna as a present. She has a name, at last: Frau Hoffman

You have to have your wits about you when reading this novel. Hats off to Susan Bernofsky for her translating skills – it can’t have been easy following the many different threads or keeping track of the nameless characters. It’s divided into five books, each with a different version of events, with short ‘intermezzos’ laying the foundations for that change. By reinventing her central character, Erpenbeck explores different aspects of the century – the immigrant’s arrival at Ellis Island with its attendant humiliations, the appalling privations of the First World War and its aftermath, the factions surrounding Stalin fighting like rats in a sack, life in the GDR and the fall of the Wall. There are recurrent motifs running through the novel helping to hold it all together: an offered lemon glimpsed in a painting; a fall downstairs; a lie about a father’s disappearance and a set of Goethe’s works. Whether you appreciate The End of Days or not depends on how you feel about non-linear narrative. For me, it’s a masterly piece of work although I found myself floundering trying to unravel the various political strands of the Stalinist era – a little too esoteric unless you’re familiar with the period – or perhaps that’s the point. So there we have it – it’s the kind of book that will either make you run screaming from the room or leave you amazed at its invention and breadth of vision.

F: A match made in heaven

Cover imageI don’t read as much fiction in translation as I should but when I see a novel translated by Carol Brown Janeway in the publishing schedules I sit up and take notice. It was through her that I first discovered Daniel Khelmann’s fiction, beginning with the very fine Measuring the World about two eighteenth-century German mathematicians: Alexander von Humboldt who enthusiastically travelled the world measuring everything in sight willing to endure the most horrendous conditions accompanied by the long-suffering Bonpland, and the irascible but brilliant Carl Friedrich Gauss, reluctant to leave his own bedroom let alone cross a border. Very different from the playful, episodic Fame which satirises celebrity and is also immensely enjoyable. F is yet another different kettle of fish and already I have that rare feeling of looking forward to reading it again. There’s so much in this slim novel that one reading won’t suffice.

It begins with one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve read in a while:

Years later, long since fully grown and each of them enmeshed in his own particular form of unhappiness, none of Arthur Friedland’s sons could recall whose idea it had actually been to go to the hypnotist that afternoon.

Unhappiness, indeed. Martin grows up to become a faithless priest struggling and failing to keep his burgeoning weight under control, still in the grips of his boyhood obsession with Rubik’s cube. Eric becomes a financier, on the brink of ruin having lost his most important client’s fortune, unable to keep his sexual peccadilloes under control and plagued by a terrifying paranoia, while his twin Ivan, the executor for the artist Eulenboeck whose work fetches a pretty price, satisfies his own thwarted artistic ambitions in a somewhat unorthodox way. Their father, immune to the Great Lindemann’s hypnotic techniques, or so he insists, packs up and leaves shortly after the performance on that long ago afternoon in 1984, becoming a household name when his book My Name is No One, triggers an existential crisis in the nation. That’s the bare bones of it but Kehlmann’s novel is very much more subtle than that.

Written in a mixture of three different first-person narratives with third-person sections criss-crossing time and assorted other devices you’d think that F might become a little fragmented but Kehlmann is so deft that it flows beautifully. You never quite know which way you’ll be taken next but that’s part of the enjoyment. Along the way, Kehlmann takes swipes at both the art and financial worlds, religion and a whole barrage of modern obsessions, carefully aiming barbs here and there with a hefty helping of quiet humour. All the various pieces of his puzzle fit together beautifully, clicking smoothly into place. If Jeffrey Eugenides hadn’t already used the analogy, I’d compare it to Martin’s beloved Rubik’s cube. Of course none of the many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle would fit so snugly were it not for Janeway’s faultless translation. They truly are a brilliant pairing. If you know of any other combination aside from Murakami’s translators – also a match made in heaven – I would love to hear about it.

Look Who’s Back: Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?

Look Who's BackAdolf Hitler wakes up with a dreadful headache. He’s a little bemused to find himself lying in what seems to be a wasteland. He picks himself up and makes his way to a news kiosk where he’s astonished to find that it’s August 30th 2011. He’s at a loss to know what’s happened but the newspaper seller whose stand is frequented by media types spots an opportunity. This guy, who appears to be a method actor, is such a dead ringer for the Fürhrer all he needs are a few introductions to the right people. Before long Hitler’s spot supporting comedian Ali Gagmez on TV is so successful that he gets his own show. There are a few hitches with the contract – just what is his real name – but soon he’s the current YouTube phenomenon. The trouble is, nobody quite gets it: they think he’s particularly edgy stand up comic – he thinks he’s launching a campaign to restart National Socialism.

Satire can often go horribly wrong, particularly if you choose to narrate your novel through the voice of one of the 20th century’s greatest villains, but Timur Vermes carries it off beautifully, chucking lampoons in all directions and managing to hit his mark nearly all the time. Celebrity culture, modern politics, the internet, TV, social media, tabloid newspapers, binge drinking – they all get a bashing. Hitler spends much of his time in a state of furious astonishment at the idiocy of the modern world and the parlous state of the German people, led by a woman for god’s sake. When he’s exposed to modern TV for the first time he’s amazed by its vacuous nature; he fears there must be a bread shortage when he’s given a granola bar and finally sees the point of those pesky ringtones when his secretary assigns him The Ride of the Valkyries. Like all good satire, there are sharp observations within the jollity – Hitler has trouble with his email address as so many people have already nabbed the appropriate ones, he’s gratified to find so few mixed race children despite the Turkish immigrant population, after the initial wonder of the ‘Internetwork’ he’s quick to spot a propaganda tool. At times he’s horribly plausible, and of course he loves animals and children. The novel ends on a warning note – maybe there are some people who think he wasn’t all bad. It’s hard to keep blistering satire up for well over three hundred pages even if it is punctuated by slapstick hilarity and, for me, the novel was a little too long. That said, no one could accuse Vermes of being anything but original. Hats off to translator Jamie Bulloch, not just for an excellent translation but for adding a short essay on the German historical and political context for the novel.

Not surprisingly, Look Who’s Back caused a bit of a stir in Germany when it was published. It stormed up the bestseller charts and stayed there for 70 weeks, apparently. It’s a brave author who tackles a taboo subject in the way Vermes has – I’m British but I felt a little squirmy at times. What do you think? Are there any subjects you’d consider completely verboten?