Tag Archives: Portobello Books

Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (transl. 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.

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (transl. Allison Markin Powell): An endearing little gem

Cover imageThree years ago I reviewed Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo, praising the publishers for its splendid jacket and I’m delighted to see that they’ve used the same designer for The Nakano Thrift Shop. It’s not the only thing this quietly charming novel has in common with Kawakami’s previous book: it’s also narrated by an introverted, slightly awkward young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances.

Mr Nakano’s shop has been open for over twenty-five years. Sometimes it’s busy, sometimes quiet but there’s always something to keep Hitomi occupied, whether it’s speculating about the regular customer who turns out to have eloped with a schoolgirl years ago or selling the many household bits and pieces acquired by Mr Nakano and Takeo. Hitomi is a little socially awkward but in comparison with the taciturn Takeo whose most likely utterance is ‘Sorry’, she’s a shining example of confidence and self-possession. As these two stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister Masayo cheers them on from the side lines. Mr Nakano has his own romantic troubles, although at times he seems blissfully unaware of the emotional damage he’s wreaking. As the year wears on, Mr Nakano becomes increasingly entangled, Masayo pops in regularly exerting a magnetic attraction for customers, Takeo keeps himself awkwardly to himself and Hitomi wonders about everyone else’s love life while finding her own increasingly perplexing. A few things are bought and sold.

Written in quietly understated prose infused with a gentle humour, Kawakami’s novel is an absolute delight. The four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging. Mr Nakano has a tendency to launch into sudden gnomic pronouncements, a continuance of his internal monologue, often eliciting a dumbfounded ‘What?’ from the astonished Hitomi. Masayo sagely offers romantic advice despite her own troubles while Takeo is both enigmatic and exasperating. The star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Over the course of a year, these four become woven into the fabric of each other’s lives. It’s an episodic novel, held together neatly by a series of objects which provide the focus for each chapter. There’s a nice little catch-up in the final chapter, three years after Hitomi’s year in the shop, and the ending is all you could wish for. I loved it – a welcome antidote to the twenty-four-hour misery cycle that is our news at the moment, and a reminder that joy can to be found in the most prosaic of lives.

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (transl. Susan Bernofsky): 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.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (transl. Allison Markin Powell): Judging a book and its cover

Uk cover imageThis slim, beautifully written novel begins one evening when, ordering a meal at a bar, Tsukiko sits next to an elderly man who chooses exactly the same dish. She recognises him as her teacher from her secondary school days but cannot remember his name saying nothing until he notices her. To cover her embarrassment she calls him Sensei, and will never call him anything else. They begin by occasionally bumping into each other at the bar, then becoming regulars pulling the barman into their orbit and going with him and his cousin on a mushroom hunt. Sensei is a pedant, constantly correcting Tsukiko but never irritating her – she is a loner, unaware of her isolation until her feelings for him begin to change. She flounces off from a cherry blossom party with an old school flame in a fit of pique at what she perceives as Sensei’s exaggerated interest in the attractive art teacher but somehow she can’t return the younger man’s interest. Sensei invites her to go away with him US cover imagebut they sleep in separate rooms. She avoids him for months but can’t forget him. Then they meet again.

Expertly translated by Allison Markin Powell this is a beautifully understated love story, a novel of sadness, longing and gentle humour. Although it was written in 2001 as far as I know it’s the first novel by Hiromi Kawakami to be published in the UK but I hope there will be more. Portobello Books have done a brilliant job in packaging the novel. A fellow blogger told me that it was published in the US with a rather uninspiring cover under the title The Briefcase which makes complete sense if you’ve read the book but sounds a bit dull if you’re browsing. In contrast, Portobello’s title is intriguing and the book’s jacket is a thing of beauty that makes you want to pick it up and start reading. I hope lots of readers will.