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Archive for the ‘german literature’ Category

Earlier this week this list  of 10 essential German novels, all written by men, started recirculating around Facebook. It’s not what you want to read during Women in Translation Month, is it?  So Tony from Tony’s Reading List and I curated the following alternative list:

1) Malina – Ingeborg Bachmann
Chosen by but not yet read by myself. Top of my German-lit TBR!

2) The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine – Alina Bronsky
Chosen and reviewed by myself.

3) Child of the Parish – Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.


4) Visitation – Jenny Erpenbeck
Chosen and reviewed by myself.

5) Summerhouse, Later – Judith Hermann
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

6) The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun
Chosen and reviewed (if somewhat negatively) by myself.

7) Blumenberg – Sybille Lewitscharoff
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

8) Transit – Anna Seghers
Chosen by myself.  Shares top spot of my German-lit TBR with Malina.  Tony’s review is here.

9) The Mussel Feast – Birgit Vanderbeke
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

10) Cassandra – Christa Wolf
Chosen and reviewed by Tony.

What do you think of our alternative list?  All titles are available in English translation, should you be tempted to read them. Is there another work that you would like to see included? If so, which title would you replace it with?

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My love of Theodor Storm’s C19th novellas is well-documented on this blog, as is my admiration for his English translator, Denis Jackson, whose generous response to my Meet the Translator feature (1, 2, 3) is probably the German Literature Month highlight that will never be surpassed.

Last month I finally got the opportunity to visit Storm country, although with only 3 days, there was not enough time to visit a hallig or wander out to Hattstedt, the setting of Der Schimmelsreiter (Translated by Jackson as The Dykemaster). I did, however, walk 4km along the Husum dyke to the North Sea.

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View of Husum from the dyke

Storm, famously called Husum the grey town by the sea.  Well, there wasn’t much greyness in the 3 days I was there.  Husum presented itself most colourfully, and it would appear I’m not the only person to think so.

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The colourful town by the sea

With a harbour teaming with restaurants and bars serving wonderful fish dishes (best meal of the holiday for €7.00), centuries-old houses and cottages, many decorated with roses or lavender in bloom, and a café serving cakes to die for (my favourite find of the holiday), Husum is a lovely little place.

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It is, of course, made entirely special through its links to Theodor Storm, who lived just around the corner from my accommodation (literally!) . The tourist office makes it easy for those on a Storm pilgrimage, having designed a walk taking in 34 mostly Storm-related sites.  Here are a few highlights.

Firstly places where Storm lived and died.

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Secondly settings in Husum appearing in Storm’s novellas.

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The second set demonstrates the indivisibility of Storm’s narratives and the local landscape.  While Storm’s stories put Husum and the surrounding area on the map in the C19th, they continue to contribute to the success of the area down to this day. 14th September 2017 marks the bicentennial of his birth and Husum will be celebrating its most famous son with style. I’ll party along with the new Denis Jackson translation of Storm’s novella Grieshuus: Chronicle of A Family, which was pre-ordered just as soon as I heard about it!

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Translated from German by Peter Millar

After 1945 and 1946, the third part of my fictional exploration of post-war Hamburg reaches the bitterly cold winter of 1946 and the torridly hot summer of 1947, which seemed designed to inflict further suffering on the population of the devastated city.

The Murderer in Ruins, as ice-cold as the landscape,  is killing people and leaving their naked bodies amidst the rubble of Hamburg.  There are no identifying marks. Neither are there any reports of missing persons.  Not as strange as it sounds, given that Hamburg is full of displaced persons with little to no connection to the surviving home population.  The unfortunate chief inspector Stave is tasked with finding the killer, aided by the British officer, Lieutenant MacDonald, but where to start?

Based on a real case in which the four victims remained as unidentified as the killer, Rademacher’s novel reflects the frustration of a case with no leads, no clues in a city trying to reestablish the rule of  law.  After all, given recent body counts, what difference do 4 more bodies make?  The reader must be patient – very patient – as each assumed lead draws a blank.  But, as the author explained at Newcastle Noir, he has reconstructed the case fictionally in order to provide his own solution.  And so the resolution, in which the crimes of the present are inextricably linked with German crimes of the past,  depends on a chance observation ….

I admit, as a thriller, I struggled with the tortoise-like pace of the investigation, but, as a piece of historical fiction, I was bound by the detail of Rademacher’s reconstruction of post-war Hamburg and the psychologies of the characters. Stave, himself, is damaged goods, having lost his  wife in the fire-bombing of Hamburg, and his only son to the Nazis and the Eastern Front.  Despite their ideological estrangement, the father loves his son, desperately combing Hamburg main station for him whenever a train arrives with soldiers returning from the war.  His anxiety is palpable and can only increase when he discovers his son is a POW in Siberia ….

I found Stave a very sympathetic character.  Hamburg is, despite the weather, a hot bed of vice and black-marketeering, and he is a man who understands the importance of overlooking petty crimes to prevent being deflected from the main chase. However, racked with guilt about his wife, anxiety about his son, he is in need of a break. And in Anna, a mysterious aristocratic refugee and skilled black marketeer from East Prussia, it would appear he gets one.  It’s a relationship that seems destined for  greater things, if only he can forget that she tells him nothing of her past …

The exploration of East Prussia and the people who fled to avoid the “Ivans” is continued into the second novel of what will be a trilogy.  The Wolf Children is the collective name given to the mass of child refugees who flowed westwards.  Either orphaned or separated from their parents during the mass exodus at the end of the war, they lived a feral existence in Hamburg, learning to capitalise on opportunities presented by the black market or to engage in child prostitution.  They had their enemies and there was plenty of gang in-fighting,   So when the body of a teenage boy is found lying on top of an unexploded bomb in the harbour area of Hamburg, it is assumed that he is one of them.

Inspector Stave’s second case is a little easier than the first, in that he does at least identify the corpse.  Otherwise the waters are as murky as those of the Elbe, with his prospective Wolf Children witnesses being killed almost as soon as he has talked to them.

Once again I didn’t find the case as enthralling as the social history it explored. The identification of the murderer is quite well-signposted although the motivation for the boy’s killing would be utterly unbelievable if it wasn’t based on obscure historical fact. The things we do not know! Rademacher’s vision for these novels is greater than the murder mystery, and I would say that the scope of this second novel is to investigate the impact of war on the younger generations.  It is quite heartbreaking in places – no more so than in relation to Chief Inspector Stave’s son.

The war may be over but the repercussions are severe.  The world remains fractured, its logic twisted.  Why else could nothing and nobody function without the black market and what are the British occupation forces doing dismantling the remaining machinery at Hamburg docks?  This can hardly be called peace. Personal relationships are suffering also.  Like the temperatures of the summer of 1947, resentments are rising.  Where is this heading?  I can hardly wait for the third instalment!

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When travelling,  it is important to connect with local culture. And so, while in Hamburg, I went on a quest with Uwe Timm’s The Invention of Curried Sausage to discover the origins of that particular culinary delight.  OK, I confess I bought my first one ever for the photo opportunity. Then I ate it. It was fine, but I’m not likely to repeat the experience.  Thankfully the novel was more to my taste.

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Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

The rumour is that the curried sausage was invented in Hamburg in the autumn of 1945 by fast food stall owner, Lena Brucker.  In 1989 Uwe Timm’s fictional self, who as a child indulged frequently in this fast food, tracks her down to her old people’s home, with the intention of finding out how she did it.  It takes more time that he allocated, for Lena, now a lonely old woman, knows how to string out her story – particularly, when she has a young man who keeps coming back, bringing delicious German cake to each meeting.

But Lena’s story is no ordinary one and worth the wait (and the calories!) It takes us back to the final days of the Second World War, when Lena (43) meets the young naval officier, Hermann Bremer (24), and, seemingly on a whim, colludes in his desertion.  She keeps him hidden in her flat, but although the war is almost over, this is still a dangerous action.  Neighbours still spy on each other and are quick to denounce traitors to the authorities.

Once the war is over though, Lena decides that she would like to keep Hermann to herself a little longer and so, using the same creativity she will employ in the creation of her culinary masterpiece, she invents a continuation of the war, complete with manoevres and strategies, to convince Hermann that he must stay put. Of course, this is a tactic doomed at some point to failure, but Lena enjoys herself (and Hermann) while it lasts.

The surprise return of her womanising, free-loading husband after six years forces Lena to recognise her desire for independence, and once he is out of the way, she embarks on the journey – via barter and the black market – that, step by step and by fortuitous accident,  leads to her famous invention.

I’m remembering this story as a light-hearted one, which is strange given the backdrop of war-torn Hamburg, the dangers of harbouring a deserter, and the anathema that Lena must face from her British army employer when the horrors of the concentration camps become clear.  I think that is primarily due to Lena’s resilience and indomitable spirit, refusing to let history weigh her down, continuing to achieve the seemingly impossible.  Because how else do you explain a blind old woman retaining the capacity to knit a multi-coloured intarsia from memory, weaving in the clouds and sunshine of her own life along the way?

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I tried to resist, but I suppose it was inevitable given the programme.  Two events: one with three British authors writing historical crime fiction set in Germany, the second with three German crime fiction authors.  Both with the inimitable Mrs Peabody as chair.

So into the car I jumped and drove south to Newcastle upon Tyne, listening (finally) to Sascha Arango’s The Truth and Other Lies in preparation.  But then he was a no show – apparently he was needed on the film-set (which I suppose is good news in a way, because his novel is fantastic!)  His stand-in, Elisabeth Herrmann, never made it to Newcastle either due to a bomb scare at Berlin Tegel earlier in the day.  That second event turning into a logistical nightmare for the organisers … still 5 authors, Mrs Peabody and her delightful sidekick, Erich, the Bavarian duck did make it.  So a huge round of applause for them please. And another for the Goethe Institute, sponsors of the German Noir event.

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Erich takes a bow

But let’s start at the beginning.

Arriving at the Literary and Philosophical Society (the Lit&Phil) in Newcastle, I was surprised to find a smallish space in which authors mingled and chatted quite naturally with the attendees.  I spied David Young of Stasi Child/Stasi Wolf fame immediately and couldn’t resist introducing myself with the statement I’ve got something to show you.   Cue photos from mobile phone.

“Surely you didn’t read Stasi Wolf and then visit Halle Neustadt”, he asked. As it happens, I did, but only in broad daylight! (Admittedly I was in Leipzig for the book fair and Halle Neustadt was only a S-bahn ride away.)

imageThereafter, it was straight into the German historical crime fiction event, the panel consisting of David Young (series set in the GDR), Luke McCallin (series set in Nazi times), and William Ryan (series beginning in Stalinist Russia, latest novel set in Ausschwitz).  All three talked about the gold mine of a totalitarian regime – a setting that just keeps on giving was how William Ryan described it.  How can a detective ever hope to preserve truth and justice in times when parallel moralities are at play?

William Ryan talked of the photographic inspiration for The Constant Soldier, Luke McCallin of his fear of writing about Berlin (his first two novels are set in Sarajevo, where he lived for 6 years) and David Young of his need for escape from the BBC! All acknowledged Phillip Kerr for leading the way in writing historical crime fiction set in Germany, and Luke McCallin divulged his fantasy of Kerr’s Bernie Günther and his Gregor Rheinhardt appearing in each others works!

Why are German authors not writing historical crime set in National Socialist or GDR times?  “They say it is too early”, said Mrs Peabody, pointing out to David Young that Simon Urban’s Plan D, set in an alternate present, is his nearest competition  “Oh, there’s far too much internalisation in that novel”, replied David Young. “It could have been much better.”

Cue coffee and a good old chin wag with Mrs Peabody before she left to prepare for the second event ….  Turned out it was Wulf Dorn’s 1st UK event, and only Cay Rademacher’s 2nd!

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Cay Rademacher, Mrs Peabody and Wulf Dorn – courtesy of Mrs Peabody

Wulf Dorn was a psychiatric therapist before turning to crime writing.  He likes to explore the abyss of the human mind, using Friedrich Duerrenmatt as his role model.  His motivating factor is suspense, not blood and gore.  His novels have yet to be published in English (though I believe something may be in the pipeline), but all have a fantastic premise, said Mrs P. Then she asked:  “How do you come up with these?  Do you soak in the bath, go for long walks, or do you simply have a twisted imagination?”.  Wulf Dorn:  “If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.”

Cay Rademacher’s Inspector Stave series is available to English readers.  The Murderer in Ruins and The Wolf Children are set in post-war Hamburg.  Set in the cold, cold winter of 1947, the first is based on an unsolved case, reconstructed by Rademacher to provide a solution.  The second is set in the hot summer of 1948 which heralded the beginning of Germany’s economic miracle with the introduction of the German Mark. I intend reading  both when I visit Hamburg in June.

There was discussion about the popularity of the prologue in crime fiction, something authors are taught not to write.  Both authors agreed that the prologue has grown in popularity since the introduction of e-books.  These are now so cheap that a novel must have a hook in the first few pages to prevent readers moving straight onto the next one.

Time for audience questions:

From me:  Do you think that a crime novel will ever win the German Book Prize?  Both authors were adamant that it will never happen, (which is interesting given Marlon James’s success with the Booker Prize).

Another member of the audience asked for further German crime recommendations.  Works recommended were Volker Fischer – Babylon Berlin (in TBR), Melanie Raabe’s The Trap (best forgotten IMO), and Andreas Eschbach (new name to me and more science fiction than crime?)

With that a very interesting afternoon came to a close with lots of leads for further reading.  I made only one e-book purchase, deciding I couldn’t wait until Wulf Dorn’s work appears in English. When asked which novels should be translated first into English, he answered Phobia, which is set in London with the following premise.  A woman greets her husband when he comes home from work. He is wearing the clothes he went to work in and carries the same briefcase  … but he is not her husband.  Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? (To be continued.)

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hour of the jackalWinner of the 2011 German Prize for Crime Fiction
Translated from German by John Brownjohn

Lack of evidence ensured that no-one was ever successfully prosecuted for the 1989 political assassination of pro-independence, anti-apartheid activist, Anton Lubowski. Even if the identities of the killers were known.

In The Hour of the Jackal, Jaumann imagines what would happen, if decades after the event, someone decides that justice must finally be served. A merciless, brutal assassin begins to take out Lubowski’s killers. It is a race against time for he is, himself, terminally ill.

The detective, Clemencia Garises, makes the connection between the victims after the second killing and seeks to contact the other men the hit list. Yet she is obstructed by both by the lack of urgency in her own force and by influential others: the retired judge of the failed trial and her own superiors. She would make no headway if she didn’t have the help of a German journalist, whose interest in her is a little more than professional.

Clemencia is a dedicated officer with trials of her own. In an inversion of the usual trope, it’s not that she has no family, rather that she has too much. She shares the two-roomed home, paid-for entirely by her, with her two children and her extended family, including two meddlesome, match-making aunts. (They love the journalist, by the way.) Clemencia’s only demand that she has a room of her own. The sometimes comic tribulations of Clemencia at home contrast sharply with the serious and life-threatening problems of the case, which is dark, violent and steeped in the murky politics of the late-80’s.

The novel includes a portrait of Namibia itself, a vast country with dust-track roads and a climate of extremes. Changeable with sudden storms – just like the plot. Clemencia’s family life  allows the author to inject local colour, and is reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith’s Ladies Detective Series, although Clemencia is no Madama Ramotswe. Jaumann’s assassin has much in common with Frederick Forsyth’s jackal, and I’m sure the title is no accidental homage. Like Forsyth’s jackal, Jaumann’s is hunting real people, with uncamoflagued identities.  Given that they weren’t convicted of the crime in reality, and some were still living when Jaumann named them here, the author isn’t compromising in any way. Unlike his detective, who finds herself fighting to save the lives of men whose values she loathes. It makes for a most interesting dilemma.

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This post is part of a series in which I investigate the German Krimi, guided by Katharina Hall’s Crime Fiction in German. Jaumann’s novel is discussed in more detail in chapter 5: Der Afrika-Krimi (Crime Novels set in Africa).

 

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sandWinner of the Leipzig Book Fair Prize 2012
Translated from German by Tim Mohr

I was a little nervous going into this Leipzig Book Prize award-winning novel, having previously abandoned two others. I needn’t have worried – this one is a bit of a page turner!

Somewhere in the Sahara of the early 70s, two local policemen get drunk and take an IQ test for 12 to 13 year olds.  Polidoro scores a measly 102.  His colleague, Canisades, 130.  Soon they are interrogating a suspected murderer.  Allegedly he drove into the nearby American commune and killed 4 people.  During the interrogation, it is not at all clear whether he is innocent or guilty.  Regardless he is going to pay with his life.  And then he escapes and disappears into the desert.

At the same time a nameless man – known later as Carl, because of brand of his suit  – regains consciousness in a barn somewhere in the desert.  He has a bad head injury and no memory whatsoever.  But he knows he is in mortal peril.  Fortunately he hasn’t lost his resourcefulness, because he needs it and will continue to do so for the rest of the novel.  It seems that everyone is out to get Carl – gangsters, American molls, cod psychologists, enemies posing as friends. If only he could work out his identity, there might be a resolution.  As it is, he is beaten and tortured, chased from pillar to post,  or rather from sand dune to underground mine, in the course of which he effects escapes worthy of Houdini.

At one point, as he is being chased across the dunes:

Two flat slabs of rock stood in the sand next to each other as if in a toaster.  In their slipstream a deep trench had formed.  He threw his body into it, his head between the slabs of rock , and shoveled sand onto his legs and torso.  He burrowed his arms sideways into the ground. It wasn’t difficult to make little avalanches of sand pour down on himself from the slanted sides of the trench.  Finally he rotated his head back and forth between the rock slabs. …. He breathed deeply, closed his eyes and rotated his head back and forth again. Another load of sand slid down over his forehead to his cheekbones, dusting his eyelids, cheeks and the corners of his mouth like powdered sugar.  He had only a very rough impression as to how much of his face will still uncovered.  Probably his chin and the tipof his nose.  But he couldn’t turn his head any more now.  With a little puff he blew a few grains of sand out of his nose and waited.

Buried alive.  Hellish.  And yet it’s not the scariest thing that happens to him.

The mystery of Carl is the central mystery of this novel. It may, or may not,  involve espionage, drug-dealing, gold smuggling.  It certainly involves a man named Centrois, who may, or may not,  be Carl.   After Carl’s appearance,  the first crime disappears from view. Why its inclusion?  As far as I can see, it purpose is to signal some of the games that Herrndorf will play in the main narrative. He’s not going to pander to reader’s expectations.. The question of innocence or guilt – answered in the first case at the half-way point – is never clarified with regard to Carl, although I find myself presuming guilt (for, otherwise, all these bad people wouldn’t be after him, would they?) Yes, guilty even though we can do nothing but sympathise with the poor, persecuted soul.    There is also a comic element to Polidoro and Canisades, with comedy reappearing from time to time – possibly to relieve an ever darkening mood.  Regardless, the scene with the “psychologist” is very, very funny.  And the word play on the French word “mine”,  ingenious.

Written when Herrndorf was suffering from a terminal brain tumour, it’s telling that Carl has a severe head injury.

He tried to turn his head and felt pains he couldn’t pinpoint. As if a fist were trying to push his eyes out of his head from the inside …

Is Carl’s experience a projection of the inside of Herrndorf’s head at the time of writing?  Other reviews have used the word nihilistic.   Certainly Herrndorf allows something to happen to Carl that I would find unforgiveable elsewhere, and yet, knowing the author knew his own struggles to be futile, I understand completely.


This post is stage 8 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project.

Next stop: Denmark

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