Translated from German by Jo Heinrich
Following Wednesday’s visit to a C19th mansion on the Landwehr Canal, we are now travelling eastwards, 14 stops on the M6 tram, to the district of Marzahn, one of the GDR’s massive Plattenbau estates, built in 1977. An area with an infamous reputation: after the fall of the Wall it became associated with neo-nazis, and in 2008 Nicolas Kulisch warned “foreigners should not even to go there”. Resi, the protagonist of Anke Stelling’s Higher Ground, was distraught at the the thought of moving to this concrete jungle, full of drug addicts and social deprivation. Yet the title of Oskamp’s work signals very different feelings …
Marzahn, Mon Amour is autofiction, as it is based on Oskamp’s mostly positive experiences as a chiropodist practising in a salon based in Marzahn. Having reached middle-age, the nest empty, her other half ill, her writing disappearing into the mid-list, her self becoming invisible, Oskamp retrained, and began to practice her new profession two days a week. This is her story of reconnecting with others (writing after all is such a solitary profession), of being able to give something of value to people in need (those with bad feet will understand), and of finding new friendships (with her boss and her colleague).
Yet while the chiropodist is central to each chapter, she is not centre-stage. That spot is reserved for her clients, each raised high on the treatment chair, each paying €22 for each session. While these people are not on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, they are not privileged. Many have had lives, full of hard, physical toil, and that is reflected in the state of their feet. Some have lost husbands, wives and are lonely. Not all are sympathetic characters – Herr Pietsch, the former SED-party man and Frau Noll who abuses her frail elderly mother, by locking her in her flat so that she does not go awandering. Herr Hübner turns up, having made no effort at all to make himself presentable, totally unashamed about not having worked in his life. He is accompanied by two women, who are presumed to be his wife and daughter … until they check out at 3:30 on the dot. They are his social workers.
Nothing escapes the chiropodist’s observant eye, especially not individual coping strategies. The clients who have dolled themselves up for the appointment. Frau Janusch with her hair dyed pink … so as not to become invisible. Frau Frenzel has Amy, a pampered pooch, substituting for a partner. The chiropodist is not there to judge; she is there to offer a service: to listen, to chat, to indulge in repartee, and to provide much needed relief to the owners of these poor feet. Some of which are in a really sorry state. It’s not surprising that almost everyone apologies for the state of their feet at their first appointment …
There is a lot of detail about the treatments, which is why, footphobe that I am, I never had any intention of reading this. That all changed when I discovered that Peirene Press (unfailing arbiters of quality) were going to publish the English translation. I made a good decision, because all that foot care infuses a sense of intimacy, of respect, of value into these lives on an estate where the individual can easily become anonymous and abandoned. I don’t think Katja Oskamp is trying to rehabilitate the reputation of estate. She doesn’t even sugarcoat it, acknowledging the darkness that exists through the suicide of the Russian woman – incidentally the only unnamed character in the book, a signifier of the intense isolation of the character. But Marzahn, Mon Amour resists being overtaken by that darkness by focusing instead on the positives of connecting with the community and respecting the elderly, who have spent most of their adulthood on the estate. And the one benefitting most from these connections? The chiropodist herself, who unexpectedly gains an improved sense of self and purpose from the attention she gives to others. Mid-life crisis over and out.
Peirene Press was founded in 2008 by Meike Ziervogel, with the goal of bringing award-winning European novellas to a UK audience. The company is now directed by Stella Sabin and James Tookey, who took over in June 2021. Marzahn, Mon Amour, the third release under their directorship, is a warm-hearted gem.
I’m so happy to hear you changed your mind and decided to read this. When you mentioned footphobe, I had to stop and imagine what that might have meant in the context of reading a book, I guess there could be visceral horrors, but the observations of her practice as you so rightly point out merely help create the intimacy, care and compassion that the exchange between client and practitioner offers.
I loved this story, for it’s exploration of a community and the celebration of the importance of touch and care in a world where so many live without it.
Re footphobe: if you had feet like mine … 🤫
I have a copy of this and everyone I know who has read it says it’s wonderful! I need to push it further up the pile I think.
Do it; you’ll not regret it.
This is getting such love online right now, and does sound a little less stark than other Peirene titles….
Like you, I was a bit put off initially by the details of the foot treatments, but in spite of myself read a chapter or two. It was great! I did put put the novel aside for other things that were more pressing but I’ll definitely come back & finish.
On a somewhat different note, I was interested in your reference to Higher Ground, a copy of which is awaiting me on my TBR. I hadn’t realized it was set in the same district of Berlin.
To clarify – Higher Ground is not set in Marzahn, but it ends up there …
Thanks for the clarification, particularly as I was being inexact. I was simply delighted to recognize the name of an area in Berlin!