Longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award 2012
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire
Published by Seagull Books

Inka Parei’s debut novel took 12 years to be translated. First published in German in 1999, the novel in English was published in 2011 by Seagull Books. As an object it is beautiful. A strong sturdy hardback with an evocative black and white cover adapted from photographs by Naveen Kishore.

I’m assuming that the cover shows the view from one East German appartment block onto another.  The view perhaps from the flat inhabited by the female protagonist Hell (German = bright), a martial arts enthusiast. Sharing her squat, albeit in a separate appartment, is another female, Dunkel (German = dark). The two women never have anything to do with each other, but when Dunkel goes missing and leaves, Hell alone, in the now abandoned soon-to-be-demolished building, the later becomes obsessed with finding her former neighbour. Into the mystery walks März, a bank robber, the last person to have seen Dunkel, and someone with whom Hell immediately falls in love.

Such a promising setup. Shame then that the book diverted from that path. As Hell is martial-arting her way through various half-adventures, and fighting unknown shadows from her past, I began my own fight with the wispy characterisation and unexplained motivations.  Ultimately I became disinterested. Though maybe that is the point? The reader alienated from the characters as they are from their own world? Even so, such minimalist – perhaps even postmodern – writing isn’t to my taste at all.

Yet there’s nothing minimalist or spare about the portrait of the city. It’s a very concrete presence. As Hell and Marz wander through the city, the fabric of Berlin is built one brick, one building, one road at a time constructing a snapshot of Berlin as it stood at that seminal point in history.

I simply couldn’t reconcile the discrepancy between the precise portrait of the city and the light brushstrokes used on the characters.

Then there’s the matter of the characters’ names. No problem with Dunkel. Many with Hell, not least the negative connotations of the English word and the contradictions that creates superimposed on the German meaning. I thought I’d ask the translator about her thoughts on this.

I did think about translating the names, but not for long. There were a number of reasons not to do it: Firstly because it’s very firmly set in Berlin, and it simply wouldn’t have made sense to me for the characters to have such plainly English names. I also didn’t want to make things too easy for readers – although I did add a tiny explanation of the meanings at one point, when the postman muddles the two names. But as a reader, I love solving little puzzles like that, and I thought others might too. Obviously I was aware of the issues around “Hell” in English. But I liked the fact that the meaning shifted slightly – I find those strange twists in the course of translation quite fascinating. Not to forget that German readers, being au fait with English, probably hear those connotations in the background too.

Her answer confirmed my suspicions – that this book and I are incompatible and that while Katy and I both love German books, we love different German books.  Puzzles like this, spare minimalist characterisation or even urban edge don’t do it for me.   I do, though,  like Katy Derbyshire’s supplementary  blog, www.shadowboxingberlin.wordpress.com, a photo portrait of some of the book’s settings.  No wispiness about that at all.