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AC2CBA34-9700-4D1E-83D7-9C95927BC9FETranslated from German by Jamie Searle Romanelli

I opened this book in the expectation of gossipy anecdotes about misbehaving chefs or clientele.  It may have been the mood I was in (work on the house was not going well) combined with the book jacket.

There were plenty of anecdotes, but no muck-slinging (apart from one anecdote on page 129, which I’ll come back to) for this is a serious history of the restaurant and its place in our society, though written so entertainingly that you don’t realise how learned you have become, until you have been educated. Should you want to formalise that education, you can always dive deeper into the extensive bibliography.

There are four chapters, which take us from the beginnings of the restaurant through to modern times.   Development of restaurants in all their gastromical guises are included from best restaurants in the world to the fast food joints in America.  I particularly enjoyed the story of how ‘foreign’ restaurants began their post-war takeover of Germany with a pizzeria in Würzburg railway station.  The history is told chronologically, although multiple stories are told in parallel in short anecdotal passages interweaving with each other.  This could be frustrating, but, actually the style doesn’t take much getting used to at all.

The style is especially effective in showing how the bigger picture affects the individual experience.

Gerta Pfeiffer, a textile designer in a south German weaving mill, sits at an inn with her colleagues. She is enjoying the atmosphere, something she rarely does nowadays. Since the ‘Nuremberg Laws’ of September 1935, her life has been dominated by fear. She is feeling increasingly isolated, and less and less willing to talk to people in public. She is afraid that either someone could start a  rumour about her for being a Jew, or that someone else could come to harm through having contact with her. While other young people go dancing, she spends most of her time alone. Tonight, though, here in this restaurant and in the company of her colleagues, Gerta Pfeiffer is feeling cheerful again. Which prompts the diners at the next table to tell the innkeepers that if they see the Jewess laugh one more time they’ll throw her out onto the street.

Poignant, without being wordy.  (The good news provided in tbe endnote is that Gerta Pfeiffer managed to emigrate to Britain.)

Ribbat fills his book with the stories of the famous and the not so well-known (both establishments and personages.)  The reader’s prior knowledge will determine how many fall into the latter category. For me, it was many. My knowledge of famous cooks is limited to the modern day celebrity chef, and even then just a handful.  And so, when Ribbat added a new name to his soup, this was the start of a career in my head and I could enjoy the success story. When Ribbat mentioned  a name I did recognise such as Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) who worked in the kitchens during his down and out days in Paris, or Heston Blumenthal, I experienced many well-well-I-never-knew that moments.

The glamour of the fronthouse is contrasted with the hard graft in the kitchens and it is 99.9% fact.  I recognised the one fictional anecdote on page 129 from Melinda Nadj Abonji’s novel reviewed here.  I breathed a sigh of relief when Ribbat confessed its true nature, because I really, really didn’t want to believe that the human race would stoop so low. (Though actually and unfortunately …)

And so it was that Ribbat’s history of the restaurant, the workforce and the clientele had me ruminating on philosophical and sociological matters. I’m sure Ribbat had these issues in mind (the subtitle gives it away somewhat), but they are interwoven lightly and won’t spoil the pleasure for someone reading solely to discover more about main subject.

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B969618D-3781-4CC7-AE5A-99A22926A5B5Kehlmann specialises in subversion and both of his 2018 releases run true to form.

Firstly the short novella, You Should Have Left, that documents a family vacation in the scariest holiday accommodation ever.  Perfect for fans of David Mitchell’s Slade House.  It has been very well received on the blogosphere.  (cf reviews from Annabel and Grant here and here.)

Secondly, something quite different. Kehlmann’s play, The Mentor, translated by Christopher Hampton, runs to only 51 pages.  It premiered in Bath earlier this year, and I do wish I could have been there, because it is an absolute riot.

Kehlmann is sending up his profession, and he is  merciless.

Mentoring programmes are all the rage, aren’t they?  Someone experienced takes a newbie under their wing and gives them the benefit of their hard-won expertise.  It makes the mentor feel philanthropic and the mentee grateful.  Lifelong friendships are formed and mutual respect is guaranteed.

Well …

As the curtain rises, Martin Wegner is delivering his acceptance speech for the Benjamin Rubin prize.

Forget him? Forget the maestro, my friend, the great Benjamin Rubin? Ladies and gentlemaen, today, as I receive this prize named after him, the memories come powerfully crowding in ….

The rest of the play is a flashback to the days when Martin Wegner was a young playwright, hailed as ‘the voice of his generation’, seeking to capitalise on the success of his debut.  He takes part in an experimental mentoring programme  – his mentor,  “the great” Benjamin Rubin.  Only it soon becomes apparent that Rubin, already at the end of his career and never having lived up to the promise of his early success, knows more about Scottish whisky than writing plays.

Lowland malts are very safe, and bland, a bit boring.   Highland whiskies are bituminous, like liquid tar, like drinking smoke. Speyside malts come from the border between the Highlands and the Lowlands. The Spey flows through the Eastern Highlands, then down past Balmoral, for which good Scots have never forgiven it, But the region produces the most balanced whiskies.   Cragganmore may not be the best in the world, but it’s very drinkable.

That speech is almost a leitmotif, So yes, he is an opinionated bore.  And a diva. Not in the slightless bit philanthropic.  He’s there for one reason only – the big fat fee.

Martin Wegener, the young playwright, doesn’t really believe he’s in need of any help.  But he has brought the script of his second play with him.  He, too,  has been enticed by the big fat fee, paid by the Kurt Freytag Foundation.

What happens when two egos collide?  Or rather when Wegener’s manuscript meets Rubin’s red pen?  BOOM!

Caught in the crossfire are Wegener’s wife and Erwin Wangenroth (Erwin red cheeks).  She, the wife who has made all the sacrifices for the sake of her husband’s art, tries to keeps to keep her husband’s ego in check, while Wangenroth, the foundation’s administrator and would-be artist,  has the thankless task of scuttering around the two egomaniacs, trying to keep the mentoring programme on the road.

Their efforts are, of course, doomed, but, for both, these events provide moments of clarity that point to happier futures ….

This is the funniest thing I’ve read all year.  It takes an hour or thereabouts to read and is a perfect pick-me-up.  Though possibly because I’m not a writer.  I suspect that Kehlmann is exposing the secrets and insecurities of the writing life and the writerly ego more than I could possibly imagine.

D11FD7CC-7875-4428-B5D3-C7C3595C99D6Winner of the 2012 Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize

Translated from German by Daniel Bowles
Winner of the 2016 Kurt and Helen Wolff Translation Prize

Once upon a time there was a man who believed that one could live on coconuts alone.  He set off from Germany to establish a colony in the Bismarck Archipelago (nowadays known as Papua New Guinea) where he and a select number of followers would prove the theory and live happily ever after.

Not a fairy tale.  Fact, apart from the happy ending, as we shall see.

Kracht’s novel Imperium begins at a point of departure.  August Engelhardt is sailing towards his new home in the South Seas. As a vegetarian on a ship full of well-nourished meat-eating Germans, he is somewhat unique.

The planters, in turn, peeped out from under their eyelids and saw sitting there, a bit off to the side, a trembling, barely twenty-five- year-old bundle of nerves with the melancholy eyes of a salamander, thin, slight, long-haired, wearing a shapeless ecru robe, with a long beard, the end of which swept uneasily over the collarless tunic, and they perhaps wondered for a moment about the significance of this man who at every other breakfast, indeed at every lunch, sat in the corner of the second-class salon alone at a table with a glass of juice before him, studiously dissecting one-half of a tropical fruit, then for dessert opening a paper package from which he spooned into a water glass some brown, powdery dust that by all indications consisted of pulverized soil. And then proceeded to eat this very dirt pudding! How eccentric!

First impressions count and the vulnerability of Engelhardt is what counted to me in this first description of him.  And then when I was told of his worries for the thousands of books he was transporting with himself, I was on his side.  It’s exactly what the narrator intends (at the beginning of the novel at least). After all, Engelhardt’s travelling fellows are:

Sallow, bristly, vulgar Germans, ressembling aardvarks … lying there and waking slowly from their digestive naps: Germans at the global zenith of their influence.

Packs a punch our 3rd person omniscient narrator, doesn’t he? Fans of Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World will recognise the detached ironic style, and, indeed, Kracht consulted with Kehlmann on the narrative voice, although I would say that Kracht’s narrator is more sardonic than ironic. There are some very hard edges at times.

Were was I? Travelling with the vulnerable Engelhardt and his books and his inheritance to Kakoran. Exotic locations and mishaps aplenty: con merchants can spot a soft target at a thousand paces and it’s a wonder Engelhardt makes it to his destination with any assets at all! But he does get there and purchases a small island and coconut plantation – at what he thinks is a bargain price but we know, thanks to our omniscient narrator, that it is anything but.

Still Engelhardt is where he wants to be. And he founds his colony on Kakoran. The native population are welcoming, and help him establish himself. In turn, he persuades them to reduce their meat intake (at least when he is around). Kakoran may be at the furthest ends of the earth, but Engelhardt doesn’t lack followers. In fact, there is one bizarre scene where he has to turn people away – the island just cannot support that many!

This, however, is not an idyll. Not everyone who visits the island leaves it alive ….

And, of course, Engelhardt simply thrives on his strict diet of coconuts, doesn’t he? As well as can be expected.  Exactly what that does to a body and mind becomes all too apparent throughout the course of the novel. Not that Kracht lays it on thickly. Instead he adds what feels like incidental commentary of Engelhardt’s physical state whenever he is seen by another person. The result is almost a slow motion horror movie as Engelhardt disintegrates before our eyes.  The fact that he survives as long as he does means that he must have got his protein from somewhere …. And he did.  The revelation is in one of those incidental details.  I’ll leave you to discover it for yourself.

Because I do recommend this book despite the controversy that surrounded it on publication. (Covered here on Love German Books.)  In my opinion, the accusation is as nonsensical as that condemning Conrad as a racist for writing Heart of Darkness.

Imperium is a historical novel, albeit one that plays loosely with the facts.  It is a satire, not only of the German aardvarks mentioned above, but also of its main protagonist and his idealistic, aesthetic ways.  There’s adventure, comedy, horror, and literary reference aplenty.  With never a dull moment, not even when Engelhardt is discussing his ideology with others. That’s all down to the sardonic narrative voice.  The novel just flies, despite having no dialogue at all.

It’s not often I quote blurb, but in this case:

Playing with the tropes of classic adventure tales such as Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe, Kracht’s novel … is funny, bizarre, shocking, and poignant. His allusions are misleading, his historical time line is twisted, his narrator is unreliable – and the result is a novel that is a cabinet of mirrors, a maze pitted with trapdoors. Both a provocative satire and a serious meditation on the fragility and audacity of human activity, Imperium is impossible to categorize and utterly unlike anything you’ve read before.

Except perhaps Kehlmann’s Measuring The World.

 

  • IMG_0163Shortlisted for Winner of the 2017 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation

Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky

This is the third of 4 multi-generational novels I am reading for German Literature Month VII;  Buddenbrooks and This House is Mine being books 1 and 2.  This story of 3 generations of polar bear is undoubtedly the quirkiest of them all.

Each polar bear has its own dedicated section: the nameless Russian but globe-trotting grandmother; the mother, Tosca, the supreme circus bear and performer, and Knut, Tosca’s son, the baby bear reared by humans in Berlin zoo.  Tosca and Knut were real bears.  There’s information on both on the web – more about Knut than Tosca admittedly, which might account for how each section becomes more and more grounded in reality. (After all, facts can be cross-checked.)

For quirkiness aside (and who can deny that a novel written by polar bears themselves isn’t something of immediate appeal), Tawada demands a suspension of disbelief like nothing else I’ve picked up in years.  The grandmother is a performing, talking polar bear.  Moreover capable of writing her own, publishable and highly successful memoirs, which eventually lands her in hot water with the Russian authorities.  Who are about to ship her to Siberia, when her supporters arrange for her to escape to Germany.  From there she emigrates to Canada, before returning once more to Berlin to raise her daughter Tosca.

You just have to accept that polar bears were highly literate in those days, completely  integrated into human society.  That no-one would take a second glance at a polar bear doing its own shopping in the fish aisle of the supermarket.

Tosca, however, has lost the power of speech. No reasons are given.  Again the reader just has to accept.  Nor am I completely sure how she came to be a performing circus bear, but here we are in the middle section and the narrative switches from autobiography to biography.  Barbara, Tosca’s trainer, is telling the story of her time with Tosca. (Or is she?  No more on this – I’ll leave you to discover the surprise at the end of part two.)  The essence of this tale is the development of a deep relationship between bear and trainer in which communication is telepathic.  This results in the development of “The Kiss of Death”, a supreme act of trust on behalf of the trainer, in which Barbara sensationally places a sugar lump on her tongue, and Tosca leans down to take it from her.  The act is a sensation. Bear and trainer reach stratopheric success in East Germany, but all good things must end.  Barbara and Tosca are separated.  Tosca is introduced to Lars and Knut is the result.

Again something is lost between generations.  This time, Tosca’s ability to nurture her young.  She rejects her son, Knut and so part three opens with the baby bear awakening in a crate in Berlin Zoo.  There is no doubt that this section, written in free direct style from Knut’s point-of-view is the most emotive.  It fair tugs at the heart strings.  How the little bear grows up believing his trainers are his mother.  How he is so keen to please.   How he has lost all sense to self, writing of himself in third person – until a cruel moment of enlightenment, brought on by the wolves, a not so pliable species.  At which point, his narrative switches from third to first person, indicating his dawning self-consciousness.  Yet this brings no happiness, because growing-up for Knut is inevitably going to lead to separation from his “mother”.  He becomes too big and too dangerous to continue playing with “her”. Increasing loneliness, isolation, even if he is the celebrity with thousands of adoring fans. Remind you of anyone?  Michael Jackson, perhaps – and it’s at this point – towards the end of Knut’s narrative – that the surreal elements, when Michael Jackson starts visiting Knut from beyond the grave, that the surreal elements begin to take over once more.

I remind you of the need to suspend your disbelief to make it through these pages.

At this point I’ll confess.  I reread this novel for GLM VII.  I read it earlier in the year and somehow found it wanting.  I’m not a fan of magical realism, and, if you’re reading this just for the quirky storyline, then that’s what it is.  Far-fetched, silly and inconsistent at times.   But on this reread, I started to see more.  On one level, you can read Memoirs as a creative and non-preachy commentary on the relationship between man and the animals, on the rights of animals. How our relationship with the animal kingdom has become more and more unnatural, exploitative and distorted, to the point where we have to question whether it be is kinder to put down a cub rejected by his mother rather than raise it via a human substitute.    On another level, assume that the polar bears are humans, and ask whether we treat the weak and vulnerable among ourselves any differently.  I’m not sure the novel is entirely successful when read like this, but the exploitation of the grandmother by her publisher (hopefully, not based on the author’s personal experience) and the scenes with Michael Jackson make it clear that Tawada intends to include this interpretation. What prevents it from being obvious?

The polar bears are just too iconic.  They quite simply steal the show.

In this month’s 6 Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate, I am leaping from Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero straight to the realms of German literature and staying there for the duration.  What else would I do during German Literature Month?

1) Less than Zero was Bret Easton EllIs’s debut novel, published in 1986.

2) Happy Birthday, Turk! was Jacob Arjouni’s debut crime novel, also published in 1986.  It is narrated in the plain matter-of-fact style of the hard-boiled.

3) In absolute contrast to the lushness of Patrick Süsskind’s phenomenally successful historical crime novel, Perfume.  Also a debut novel, published in 1986. John E Woods’s English translation won the PEN Translation prize in 1987.

4) Tess Lewis is latest recipient of that prize for her translation of Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion.  The German original won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2011.

5) There is another link to the author of Malina.  Both Haderlap and Bachmann were born in the Austrian state of Carinthia.

6)  Ingeborg Bachmann wrote Malina in response to Max Frisch’s Gantenbein, which she saw as a betrayal of their 5-year relationship.  I haven’t read either book (yet), but given the tumultuous nature of their love affair, I am somewhat eager to get to them.

7) Frisch was a member of the left-wing Swiss writing group, Gruppe Olten.  So, too, was Friedrich Dürrenmatt, author of the last book in this month’s chain, The Inspector Barlach Mysteries, which I read, appropriately enough, for last year’s #germanlitmonth.

Kruso – Lutz Seiler

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On the Baltic Island of Hiddensee

On a clear day, the Danish island of Møn is visible from here. It’s about 65 km away. Hard as it is to believe, there are those who tried to swim across this stretch of water in the times of the DDR. Or paddle across on boards. Most did not make it; their unidentifiable decomposing bodies eventually washing up on Danish or Swedish shores or being recovered from the sea by foreign ships.  Escapees took no paper work to prevent retribution on their families, who were simply left in limbo.  Much is known of the victims of the East German Wall, not so much about the forgotten dead of the Baltic. These tragedies are not the point of Lutz Seiler’s German book prize winning novel, but they are both start and end points.

For Alexander Krusovitch (the Kruso of the title) lost his sister, Sonja, in this way to the Baltic many years ago.  Kruso has established a microsociety on Hiddensee. The focal point is the pub, the Klausner, where Kruso and his team work mighty hard to cater to both the daily tourist trade and an ever-swelling number of dropouts, who make their way to Hiddensee planning their own Baltic escape route. Kruso’s aim is to dissuade them – not through any patriotic motive, but to prevent a repetition of his sister’s demise.

The community, if you can call it that, is joined in the summer of 1989 by Edgar Bendler, a literature student, struggling to process the sudden death of his girlfriend, who simply decides to leave his own life behind.  Following his initiation into Kruso’s alternative society, (and it is an initiation with many other strange rituals and practices plus lots of drinking to follow), he is enthralled by Kruso, and the two form a close bond.  Bendler definitely sees himself as Kruso’s man Friday, at first the helper, and then the successor.  But time is limited. It is the summer of 1989, and we all know the DDR is living  on borrowed time.  As the summer proceeds, the number of visitors to Kruso’s community drops – the Iron curtain is fraying and there are now less dangerous ways to flee the country.

As the numbers in his community dwindle, Kruso loses his raison d’être and his grip on reality, with Edgar once more following in his footsteps.  The authorities strangely, having previously shown much tolerance and restraint, turn hostile.  Soon Edgar is the last man standing – he becomes the recluse foreshadowed in the pub’s name, as obsessed with Sonja’s disappearance as Kruso himself had been.

This is a long novel written by an award-winning poet.  The style is lyrical, packed with detail and literary allusion.  The poetry of Georg Trakl (which I have not read) appears frequently, and I’m sure there are more intertextual references that passed me by entirely.  I found it strange and hallucinatory at times, at others simply gross.  (I really didn’t need all that detail about washing-up and the contents of the drains in a busy tourist pub.) Repetitive also, as Edgar washes ever more dishes and his mind circles round and round his experiences on the island.

The novel is a slow read, even slower (almost interminable) on a Kindle. I don’t think I would have finished it, had I not actually been on Hiddensee at the time of reading.

That said, Seiler does encapsulate the spirit of the island.  He spent time there during the last days of the DDR, and, while it’s hard to say how much of Kruso’s strange society is based on his own experiences, other details of life on Hiddensee remain unchanged.  For instance: tourists outnumber inhabitants; cars are prohibited; horse/cart and bicycles remain the main modes of transport; house ownership is denoted with runes on exterior walls. The preservation of the landscape is a priority.  Most of the island is a national park,  and actively managed by the Hiddenseers.  To their credit.  The island is clean (apart from the horse tracks), the air is pure.  The local speciality, sea buckthorn cream cheese cake is just heavenly!  It’s easy to understand why Nobel prize-winner Gerhardt Hauptmann made the island his home. It was and remains another world.

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Kruso won the German Book Prize in 2014. It was translated into English by Tess Lewis.

——————

Other winners of the German Book Prize translated into English and reviewed on this site are:

2005 Arno Geiger – We are doing fine (Trans. Maria Poglitsch Bauer)
2006 Katharina Hacker – The Have-Nots (Trans. Helen Atkins) (in the TBR)
2007 Julia Franck – The Blind Side of the Heart (Trans. Anthea Bell) (My favourite)
2008 Uwe Tellkamp – The Tower  (Trans Mike Mitchell)
2010 Melinda Nadj Abonji – Fly Away, Pigeon (Trans.Tess Lewis)
2011 Eugen Ruge – In Times of Fading Light (Trans. Anthea Bell)

The Altes Land (I hesitate to let use the term Old Country because the English connotations are quite different) is situated within an hour of Hamburg. It is also known as Germany’s garden because of its vast output of agricultural produce. Finding myself in Hamburg with time on my hands one beautiful day at the end of September, I took the ferry across the Elbe to Finkenwerder and then a bus to the small village of Königreich in the Altes Land.

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I was met with a truly agricultural landscape – a world away from the cosmopolitan metropolis of Hamburg .  I mean where in Hamburg would you get a restaurant closed for two days to go duck hunting and elderberry picking? (cf the blackboard in the centre of the collage.) Acres and acres of orchards, their fruits ready for harvest, with dykes protecting both orchards and idyllic thatched cottages from the ravages of the Elbe. These were wonderful scenic views for the literary tourist.

This is not how the Altes Land presented itself in the winter of 1945 when Hildegard von Kamcke and her daughter Vera arrive as refugees from East Prussia; the long cold march having claimed the life of Vera’s baby brother.  They find accommodation in an old farmhouse, owned by Ida Eckloff,  who begrudgingly accepts their presence, but refuses to make them welcome. Not that this fazes Hildegard, who refuses to play the victim.  She is a survivor, and when Ida’s traumatised son, Karl, returns from the war, it doesn’t take long before Ida finds herself with a new daughter-in-law.

Vera suddenly has a home, one with the following inscription on its gables.

This hoose is mine ain and yet no mine ain, he that follows will call it his.

That certainly proves true for Ida, who finds herself usurped by Hildegard.  And it proves true for Vera also, even if she never leaves.  There’s something about the old, cold house that never lets her settle.  Possibly the circumstances of her arrival, or perhaps the fact that her mother leaves her there with PTSD-suffering Karl when she runs off with some richer, healthier, architect from Hamburg! It’s going to take a long time before Vera comes to an understanding of what family and home mean.

Ironically it’s Hildegard’s granddaughter from her second marriage who is destined to provide the answer.  When Anne’s relationship with Bernd breaks down, she flees with her son from Hamburg to seek refuge with Vera in the now even older, even colder house.   When Hildegard met Ida, the result was domestic warfare.  Will the same thing result 60 years later?

It was this contemporary strand of the novel that I enjoyed the most.  Hansen uses it to contrast trendy urban attitudes and values with the more traditional values of the Altes Land.  Nowhere is this more pronounced (and funny) than in the educating of Anne’s son. Both Vera and Anne find themselves bemused due to the culture shocks each inflict on the other, with both having valuable lessons to teach and to learn.

As I mentioned earlier, the Altes Land is a stone’s throw away from Hamburg and, as such, it is the subject of romantic notions concerning the simplicity of life in the country.  Hansen satirises that whole urban mentality with the subplot of downshifter, Burkhard Weisswerth, who moves into the Altes Land to publish a magazine called A Taste of Country Life.  Well, as you can imagine, he’s about to understand that life in a farming community is anything but simple.

Hansen, who lived in the Altes Land for many years, is calling for the place and its people to be shown more respect.

I soon realised that the scope of the novel is much bigger than generations of women engaging in domestic warfare over a single stove; that it really seeks this encapsulate a community and a lifestyle. As I read though, I came to the conclusion that the English title does the novel an injustice and it really began to bug me. But I do understand the reason why a literal translation of the German title couldn’t be used. Even I was reluctant to use it in the first sentence of this post.  I can imagine the discussions between publisher and translator and the need to settle for something catchy that will appeal to English speakers. And yet, as I now write this, I do see an underlying theme of finding one’s place, finding one’s house (in the sense of home). The German title is the best, but maybe the English title isn’t such a bad one after all.

This House is Mine, ISBN 978-1250100856, translated by Anne Stokes, is longlisted for the 2018 Dublin International Prize,