ED77D864-4214-48BD-8059-B3D26522E404What usually happens during #germanlitmonth is that piles of recommendations are stored in my wishlist, purchased when I have spare cash and then left to collect dust in the TBR until … who knows when?  This year I decided that I would read and review at least one new-to-me recommendation before the month was out.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect it to be a selection of stories, with surely the longest and quirkiest title of the month, published in 1811!  Yet Johann Peter Hebel’s The Treasure Chest was added to the wishlist after reading The Old Book Appreciator’s review at the beginning of the month.  When Thomas of Mytwostotinki added an endorsement saying it was one of his favourite books ever, I was moved to the purchase stage.  Yet £12.99 seemed quite expensive for a 208-page paperback.  Plus the risk.  Early C19th century moral fables? They might be hard to swallow. So instead I spent 80p on the Penguin Little Black Classic as a 26-story sampler.

Never has so little money been spent on so much pleasure.

These stories were everything that the Old Book Appreciator and Thomas promised.  (And I urge you to go read that review, which puts the whole into context. It would take me weeks to put something so well-crafted together.)  Yes, some of these short stories do have a moral, but they were written by a pastor who understood not to sacrifice the entertainment value of his tales, and a pastor who might have been a little subversive at times – because the bad guys don’t always get their just desserts.

Though some do.  In the ghastly story from which the Little Black Penguin takes its title (and is too long to retype) two murderers are undone when, after killing a travelling butcher for his money, and their own child who witnessed the murder, the butcher’s dog uncovers the corpses.  The conclusion, as Hebel reports it demonstrates a black sense of humour and the twinkle in his eye which can always be glimpsed in his narrative style.

The criminals were taken and brought to court. Six weeks later they were put to death, their villainous corpses bound to the wheel, and even now the crows are saying, “That’s tasty meat, that is!”

Stories, such as Unexpected Reunion (incidentally Kafka’s favourite story) have a more emotional register. A week before their wedding,  a couple are separated forever by a fatal mining accident. 50 years later, the well-preserved body of a young miner is brought to the surface. No one recognises the corpse or even remembers the accident from so long ago. Until his former bride-to-be hobbles up on her crutch. As the only person laying claim to him, she gives him a decent burial. Who can fail to be moved at her parting words?

Sleep well for another day or a week or so longer in your cold wedding bed, and don’t let time weigh heavy on you! I have only a few things left to do, and I shall join you soon, and soon the day will dawn.

In his essay on Hebel contained in A Place in the Country, W G Sebald discusses Hebel’s “vision of a better world designed with the ideals of justice and tolerance in mind.”  Of course, that is a C19th century vision, not necessarily aligned to C21st values. (Though the way I’m feeling right now, I’m not convinced of the latter.  But that is a completely different story.) It is also a vision with biblical precedents – as is to be expected from the pen of a Lutheran pastor.  Some of this can be seen quite clearly in stories such as The Clever Judge, a witty reworking of the Solomonaic judgement, in which the judge is asked to adjudicate, not over two mothers fighting over a child, but a package containing 800 thalers.

032F2B42-563C-4B00-8FB1-2A2D24F48D59In the introduction to The Treasure Chest (because, of course, I have now purchased the Kindle edition to carry around with me on my phone for some cheering company, whenever I have a spare 5 minutes), Hebel’s translator, John Hibberd discusses Hebel’s enduring appeal. Regarding the naturalness of his writing, he says:

It was undoubtedly that secure naturalness that appealed so strongly to Kafka as a contrast to his own abysses of uncertainty. Hebel had no problems deciding what was true and what was right, when it was appropriate to laugh and when to cry, and the modern reader may well, like Kafka, find welcome relief from some of the products of modernism (and its successors) in an author who is eminently accessible, is not ashamed of sentiment, is cheerful and humorous and sane and humane.

Amen to that.

Hebel’s vision is all the more remarkable given the times he lived in.  Tumultuous is the least that can be said of the Napoleonic era in which Hebel’s early hopes that Napoleon would be a harbinger of beneficial change were gradually dashed.  And yet, he retained his sense of humour.

I’ll leave you with the final story in “How A Ghastly Story …”.  It’s always good to end on a laugh, whatever the circumstances. And this is a particularly good way to end the 2017 edition of German Literature Month.

The Safest Path – translated by Nicholas Jacob.

Now and then someone drunk has the occasional notion or good idea, as a fellow did one day who didn’t take his usual path home from town but walked straight into the stream running alongside it instead. There he met a good man ready to offer a hand to a fellow, even a drunk one, in trouble. “My good friend,” said the man, “haven’t you noticed you’re in the water? The footpath’s over here.”  He too, replied the drinker, generally found it best to use the path, but explained that this time he had had one too many. “And that’s just why I want to help you out of the stream,” said the good man. “And that’s just why I want to stay in it,” replied the drinker.  “Because if I walk in the stream and I fall, I fall on to the path, but if I fell when walking on the path, I’d fall into the stream.”  And that’s what he said, tapping his forehead with his index finger, as if to show that he still knew a thing or two that might not have occurred to anyone else, despite being a bit the worse for wear.


Footnote:  Another unplanned read for me this #germanlitmonth, which saw me – at last – break my Sebald duck!


As we came into the final week of GLM VII, I noticed that my female:male author ratio, whch I try to keep at 50:50, was woeful.  Not through lack of effort on my part, but because the ladies simply weren’t cutting it.  Of the 4 German titles longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, I have abandoned 2 and am so underwhelmed by a third that writing about it is an impossibility.  This is not what I intended at all.  Desperate measures were needed, and so I turned to an old favourite, (Though I’m not so sure I should use the term old in connection with Zeh.)


Translated from German by Christine Slenczka

Eagles and Angels is her 2002 Deutscher Bücherpreis winning debut novel.  (This award was the precursor of the Leipzig Book Prize,  not the German Book Prize.)  It is full of the verve and vim I was missing in the more literary offerings alluded to  above, and this kept me reading even though novels with drug addled narrators are not usually my preferred reading material.

Max is traumatised. His girlfriend, Jessie, shot herself in the head while talking to him on the phone and he is not coming to terms with it at all.  The solace provided by the lines of coke he snorts diminishes in direct proportion to his increasing intake.  One night he decides to phone in to a late night radio show to confess.  While he is not directly responsible for Jessie’s death, he confesses to the murder of her previous boyfriend, Shershah.  Instead of turning him over to the authorities, the radio host, Clara, tracks bim down.  Turns out she is researching for a psychology degree and sees him as an interesting case study.

She convinces him to tell his story, and so a tortured and surprising history unfolds as Max dictates it into one cassette after another.  Max hasn’t always been the loser we know him to be.  He was once a hot shot lawyer, specialising in the expansion of the EU to the East.  He should have known better than to get involved with Jessie, but an early teenage infatuation with the drug runner’s daughter makes it impossible for  him to walk away when she comes to him, years later, in her hour of need.

As he makes his confession, more and more unexpected connections are made in Max’s mind.  Like the connection between his seemingly stellar career and the opening of drug routes from Yugoslavia to Europe during the Balkan Wars in the early 1990’s.  He becomes convinced that Jessie was murdered, and that he is next.  Death is something to be welcomed and so he sets off with Clara from Leipzig to Vienna.  In his mind it is a journey back to the  hornet’s nest, where he is bound to be killed.  When the hit squad doesn’t arrive, he (and we) are forced to ask why?

Given that Max, in his drug-addled state, is the most unreliable of narrators, things are more weird in Vienna than I was expecting.  He and Clara are squatting in some kind of derelict outhouse – don’t ask me if they’re lying low or wanting to be found, because they send out some very mixed messages.  Of course, everything is filtered through Max, so what sense can we expect to get out of a coke-head?  The only person with any semblance of common sense is Jacques Chirac, not the politician, but Jessie’s great dane!

The question constantly running through my head was why does Clara put up with this? Because let’s be clear. Max is not good to her.  He hits her.  Is psychologically cruel.  Feeds her coke when she is sick. She must be really struggling for a subject for her Ph.D to continue with this field study.  Or does she have other motivations?

Of course, nobody is what they seem and Max is in the midst of a smaller circle than he could ever anticipate. What’s really clever is that there is nobody to sympathise  with wholeheartedly. . Not Max.  Not Clara. (Even if her psychological manipulations are much to be admired.) Jessie maybe?  Only maybe.  The great dane? Definitely,

And the victims of the Balkan wars.

Zeh’s plot ingeniously welds a grimy, gritty, private tragedy to the horrendous fate of those caught up in the Balkan conflict of the 1990s.  Is it a fictional connection? Probably not – Zeh used to work for the UN and is, therefore, fully aware of the machinations at the heart of European politics.  And how that implicates what we – the public – may think of as honourable institutions.

In a rare moment of lucidity, Max surveys the land outside the squat,  It’s littered with dog turds (because, of course, he and Clara, cannot be bothered to clean up after Jacques Chirac.)  I wonder if that patch of land is symbolic of a greater political landscape.

IMG_0019Translated from German by Denis Jackson
And so to the fourth multi-generational family tale I read for GLM VII, which turns out to be a precursor to the first.  Written in 1884 by Theodor Storm, the similarities witb Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901) are striking.  It should come as no surprise – but it did, a very pleasant one at that – for Mann once said of Storm “he is a master, his work will survive”.

So for example Grieshuus, The Chronicle of A Family could easily be renamed Grieshuus, The Decline of A Family, because that is what it chronicles, a family coming to the end of a line in 4 generations as does Buddenbrooks.  Any similarity between the families and the plots ends there.  Storm’s family is from the Junker (noble) class, while Mann’s family is a family of merchants.  Mann’s novel is heavily autobiographical.  Storm’s novella is not.  And at a mere 94 pages in length, Grieshuus is an exercise in concision.  (Which is not to say that Buddenbrooks at 600+ pages is wordy.  I wouldn’t cut a word from it. ) But Grieshuus is a novella from the pen of an author at the height of his powers, making full use of all the poetic and literary techniques at his disposal: foreshadowing, symbolism, leitmotif.  The same techniques that Mann uses to such fabulous effect in Buddenbrooks,  You really can see Storm coaching Mann when you read these two works in close succession.

Grieshuus (The Grey House) is set in the tumultuous time of the Northern Wars of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a time when Schleswig-Holstein was not yet Germany, but was being fought over by Sweden and a coalition of other European powers. This serves as background, and only really becomes important towards the end of the story.  Up till that point, this is very much a family tragedy precipitated by class issues

*** Spoilers ahead – you may choose to skip the next paragraph ***

Junker Hinrich (2nd generation) becomes infatuated and marries the low born Barbe, thus precipitating a rift with his father and twin brother, Detlev.  Hostilities become so inflamed that, losing all control (his temper being foreshadowed in the very first scene of the novella), Hinrich actually kills his brother and flees.  Years later, he returns, unrecognised, to the Grieshuus estate, not to reclaim his place but to act as estate manager.  The intervening years have chastened and mellowed him and he wants to spend time with his grandson, Rolf.  (His daughter, having served her purpose, has died in childbirth.)  But, time is not on the side of Hinrich’s family and that great Northern War has its own agenda.

*** End spoilers ***

At the heart of the plot, then, is a classic Cain and Abel story, but one in which Cain is pays his penance and achieves redemption, although is unable to avert the ultimately tragic outcome for his family.  It is a dramatic storyline though I would say a typical 19th century one.  What makes Grieshuus less grey, if you will, is the power of Storm’s storytelling.  For instance the structure: the absolute break that is represented by the murder is reinforced by the break between books one and two.  There is also no sense of outrage that the murderer escapes. Storm has told us enough of preceding events to ensure that we understand his psychology and perhaps more than empathise.  How modern is that?   There are layers of natural description and symbolism that only a lyric poet and natural storyteller of Storm’s abilities could weave into his tale without overloading it for those of us with less poetic sensibilities (myself included). At this point I’m going to refer you to David Artiss’s excellent introduction in the Angel Classics edition with its clear breakdown of these elements.  It’s a boon in particular for interpreters of animal symbolism: a multiplicity of birds, all with malignant reputations, bloodhounds, wolves.  Ah yes, wolves.  Artiss points out that these function as a leitmotiv, mentioned every 3 pages.   I hadn’t noticed that.  Which means that it did not irritate me.  Perhaps this is one lesson Mann didn’t quite learn from the master. (I’m thinking here of Gerda’s overcooked brown eyes ….)

But I must not forget the horse.

A riderless dark-looking horse then appeared from the forest, with its white tail and mane flying in the moonlight; it was as if it was racing over the low ground and in he btidge to hurl itself into the midst of the flying soldiers; its dark eyes blazed, its small head flung from right to left, “That was no horse that we have known” …

Storm afficionados will recognise the precursor of The Dykemaster’s horse in that passage.  What does it say about me that I found it inordinately exciting?  (Rhetorical question – please don’t answer.)

Grieshuus is the 6th volume of Storm’s stories, published by Angel Classics and translated by the phenomenal Denis Jackson.  Reviews of a selection of the other volumes, plus my Meet the Translator interviews with Jackson can be found here.

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.

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 gentlemen, 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 Wegner, 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 Wegner’s manuscript meets Rubin’s red pen?  BOOM!

Caught in the crossfire are Wegner’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 stratospheric 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 indirect 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.