Archive for March, 2015

The Giraffe’s Neck

March 31, 2015

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Judith Schalansky’s first book to appear in English was Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, its meticulous design, maps included, indicating her ownership of the book as an object (she has also published a compendium of font, Fraktur Mon Amour). Her latest novel, The Giraffe’s Neck, though more conventional in construction, also comes interspersed with illustrations. Though a designer rather than an artist, Schalansky reminds me of Alasdair Gray who similarly crafts the design and illustration of his work; indeed, Poor Things (a novel in which medicine is prominent) is full of anatomical illustrations (from Gray’s Anatomy, of course) just as The Giraffe’s Neck is littered with pictures one might expect to find in a Biology text book.

Appropriately so, as its protagonist, Inge Lohmark, is a Biology teacher. Whether Lohmark is a joke or simply a fortuitous coincidence with the English low mark, I cannot tell, but the novel itself is often very funny. Take, for example, her class seating plan, which contains such comments as “Unscrupulously ample, competition bosom”; “Unnoticeable as weeds”; and “Vacuous expression: still thoroughly stunned by nocturnal emission.” Lohmark is what might be euphemistically called an ‘old fashioned’ teacher and the novel reads at first as if she is intent on sharing her accumulated classroom wisdom:

“It just wasn’t worth it, dragging the weak ones along with you. They were nothing but millstones which held the rest back…The later you left getting rid of a failure, the more dangerous he became.”

Of course, as the novel progresses, these early pronouncements seem increasingly ironic, as does her question to the class about species threatened with extinction. In fact, she sees everything through her narrow, Biological viewpoint apart from her own position:

“No, these children really didn’t strike her as jewels in evolution’s crown. Development was something quite different from growth.”

Even the view out of the window is subjected to her subject knowledge:

“The trees had already started to change colour. Decomposed chlorophyll made way for bright leaf pigments. Carotinoids and xanthophylls.”

This is not simply a comic novel, however: Lohmark’s redundant attitudes are echoed in a school which is running out of pupils, and a town which is running out of people. (“This town here would never recover from its population dip”). These in turn exemplify an East Germany (and Communist Bloc) which has lost its evolutionary struggle with capitalism. Lohmark herself is revealed to be a deeply lonely individual, her narrative voice a shield against those feelings of isolation. In particular, she has not seen her daughter, Claudia, in twelve years (she lives in America – she has adapted in a way Lohmark has not). Their relationship is a troubled one:

“She had given birth to Claudia and fed her. She had fulfilled her duty. What else could she have done?”

Glimpses of their shared past reveal that Lohmark’s discipline is in fact an inability to relent, to relax – to adapt. Claudia’s vegetarian ‘phase’ is simply dismissed and Lohmark’s insistence on facts is also damaging:

“Claudia had once asked her if she was beautiful. What were you supposed to say to that? You look funny. Wide face, dark freckles, slight overbite.”

The novel progresses Jean Brodie like towards her downfall, and, as with Brodie, it is not for the reasons we expect, but Schalansky neatly ties in the moment when her relationship with Claudia was sundered irrevocably with the moment her career as a Biology teacher ends.

As one might expect, is a beautifully crafted novel. I enjoyed the way our view of Lohmark changes: one moment we are laughing with her, the next shocked and angered, and (again like Brodie) at times almost sympathetic. The bravado with which Schalansky uses biology to both create Lohmark’s character and explore her themes, though it may prove a little too narrow for some readers, suggests a confident writer who is worth watching.

Tiger Milk

March 29, 2015

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Tiger Milk is Stefanie de Velasco’s debut novel and, appropriately enough, its focus is youth. It tells the story of a group of teenagers in Berlin, centring on the friendship of two fourteen year old girls, the narrator, Nini, and Iraqi refugee, Jameelah. The girls are rebellious and sexually precocious: in an opening section clearly designed to set the tone, Nini compares the taste of a piece of chewing gum she finds on the snowy ground as a young child with “the first time I put a condom on using just my mouth”. Details such as the mittens she was wearing and the Barbie doll she uses to spear the chewing gum emphasise the journey she has made in just a few years; that she and Jameelah talk their own language, replacing key vowels with ‘o’, suggests that she has not come as far as she thinks. However, as Jameelah says:

“We need to practise for later on, for real life, at some point we’ll need to know how it all works. We need to know everything so nobody can ever mess with us.”

This crossroads between childhood and adulthood (“real life”) is symbolised by the Tiger Milk they drink: disguised in a plastic container of chocolate milk, it contains “a little of the school cafeteria milk, a lot of maracuja juice, and a decent slug of brandy.” The suggestion they need the comfort of milk reminds us they are still children; that they require the attitude of a tiger tells us about the inhospitable world they must survive in.

Nini is the more innocent of the two. Not only is she often led by Jameelah, but she dismisses the threat of deportation which her friend faces:

“You have no idea how it works, Jameelah says, it can happen just like that.”

Much of the novel’s action is fairly conventional: we learn of the boys they love and their attempts to attract their attention. The fact they live in a community of immigrants, however, adds a different dimension, particularly when they are faced with a genuine moral choice when they witness the murder of one of their friends, Jasna. (Her death is the result of tensions between Serbs and Croatians). The scene of the murder is constructed to emphasise the way the girls are trapped between childhood and adulthood. It finds them running round a play park naked at midnight throwing rose petals, as per the instructions of a book of spells, in an attempt to win the love of their chosen ones. When Jasna appears they hide in the play fort – their outsized adult bodies confined in the child sized space. The murder itself is presented in a way which demonstrates their confusion and incomprehension:

“Are they dancing?
I think so.
Jameelah giggles softly.
Tarik and Jasna dance and they both start to cry, practically groaning…suddenly Jasna turns to the side and holds her hand to her stomach.”

Jameelah is insistent they tell no one what they have seen, even when another friend of theirs confesses to the crime; Nini is less certain. The friendship is put under strain as they are dragged unwillingly into a world of adult responsibilities as well as pleasures.

Tiger Milk gives the reader an insight into the world of working class teenagers in Berlin, and presumably in cities around Europe. There is a sense in which de Velasco presents Nini and Jameelah as typical – but this also makes it more difficult for them to stand out as characters. The community of immigrants is the novel’s most fascinating aspect, but as this is incidental to the narrator it remains in the background, though strangely fundamental to the novel’s plot. The novel was translated by Tim Mohr, who has also translated Charlotte Roche. Reading first person novels from the point of view of youthful protagonists, I wonder whether they are written in the particular register of the original country’s younger generation, almost impossible to translate into English without losing something (imagine Trainspotting in standard German, or even The Catcher in the Rye). This may be one reason I found this novel largely unaffecting.

By Night the Mountain Burns

March 24, 2015


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In an Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist dominated by European (one might even say German) literature, Juan Tomas Avila Laurel’s By Night the Mountain Burns offers something completely different. Laurel is a writer from Equatorial Guinea who now lives in Spain, and this is his first appearance in English, ably translated by Jethro Soutar. Soutar has spoken about how, although a translator’s job is to translate the book’s words, you also have to translate cultures, and this is particularly important when the novel is primarily designed to convey a way of life.

By Night the Mountain Burns is set on what the narrator calls “Our Atlantic Ocean island”, Annobon, as he recounts his memories of childhood. The island is particularly isolated, with only two houses over a storey high, and two public buildings – the vidjil where the men gather, and the Church. The novel is written in the style of oral literature. This is evident not only in the way the narrator addresses the reader, but in the frequent repetitions and reminders:

“I’ve already talked about my house and where it is located. I said how you could hear the waves breaking on the shore at night and that you could sense the dangers that might emerge from the sea.”

However, this is not oral literature such as might be told on the island as it is clearly aimed at a foreign audience:

“Like all the inhabitants of out Atlantic Ocean island, we lived in the big village during the rainy season, and went to the settlement in the dry season, to eat whatever we could find there.”

The story, we are told, is the result of “white people” coming to the island to “recover our oral storytelling tradition” – presumably a criticism of the romantic expectations of Europeans. The island doesn’t so much have an oral storytelling tradition as a mishmash of superstitions and imported Catholic beliefs. The narrator’s childhood reveals a life of hardship where death is never far away, a story he tells with an unresolved ignorance that’s best exemplified when he talks of his grandfather.

The novel opens with a description of his grandfather’s strange behaviour. He never leaves the top story of their house, a house he had built next to the sea but facing away from it:

“I never saw my grandfather come downstairs and I never saw him eat, either.”

Laurel uses the oral nature of the story to stretch out the mystery, saying on page 43, after he and his siblings visit their grandfather’s room on a rare occasion when he is not there, “What did we see in that room? Before I say…”, only to still be promising a revelation on page 79:

“And like I said, I’ll talk about what was in his room later, when it’s time to talk about him again.”

If you are expecting the novel to climax in an explanation, you will be disappointed: Laurel’s intention seems to be to demonstrate not so much the unknowable nature of the grandfather, but the limited experience of life on the island which makes comprehension of difference difficult.

Laurel can certainly not be accused of painting a romantic picture of life on the island. Some of the most memorable sections of the narrative are the outbreak of cholera and the scene where a woman is beaten to death, despite appealing to the priest for help. In the latter, the circuitous nature of the storytelling works well: the incident is described as seen, and then later we learn what led up to it.

By Night the Mountain Burns is what might be termed anthropological literature, the primary purpose being to transport the reader to an alien culture. Initially, I found the absence of both plot and character as we normally understand them frustrating, but on consideration, I feel that Laurel is deliberately undermining these expectations to convey the nature of life on the island. In this sense the novel’s form exactly matches its subject.

In the Beginning Was the Sea

March 21, 2015

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In the Beginning Was the Sea is Columbian author Tomas Gonzalez’s first novel, originally published in 1983, and the first to be translated into a spare, incisive English by Frank Wynne. The dream of its protagonists, Elena and J, to escape urban life in Medellin for a self-sufficient existence on the land, however, is one that continues to fascinate to this day. Hints that they are perhaps not entirely prepared for this new life arrive early: Elena has brought with her a sewing machine – a remnant of her first marriage (one of very few facts we learn about their lives before) – which is broken on the journey; J a trunk full of books. Character flaws are also foreshadowed: Elena’s furious reaction to the sewing machine’s damage; J drinking with the boatman on the journey to the run-down house they have bought. Their optimism remains intact, however, Elena cleaning the house in a “frenetic whirl of activity” and J observing:

“It’s exactly how I pictured the tree in the Garden of Eden.”

Gonzalez has other ideas, quickly revealing that all will not end well:

“The other bedroom, where they would later set up the shop and where, later still, the corpse would be bathed, was completely empty.”

From this point on, every action is loaded with foreboding.

J and Elena’s troubles really begin when J loses all his savings, which he had asked a relative to invest. Gonzalez goes out of his way to make clear that J should bear the blame for this, in another of the very brief glimpses we get of their life before they moved to the coast:

“The man had a chequered history – something J knew, but managed to overlook – and more than once he had been sued for breach of trust. There were rumours that he was a professional swindler. But J ignored such stories.”

This is a key moment in the novel, as J realises he must attempt to make money from his land immediately rather than having time to plant and plan ahead; however, so heavy-handed is the description of the man he entrusted with his life savings that it’s difficult to retain much sympathy for him. Elena is, likewise, an unsympathetic character. She distrusts and dislikes all of the local people and has a ferocious temper:

“J knew that when Elena was in a rage, nothing and no one could calm her down; the only thing to do was wait it out until her anger, like a volcano, subsided.”

Her antipathy reaches a peak when she encircles their beach in barbed wire to prevent the local people walking across it. When J begins logging the trees on his plantation in order to raise capital it seems as if his dream of an idyllic existence in the country has died. The novel becomes a catalogue of their misfortunes, with happier moments harder and harder to come by. Their relationship is increasingly strained and, though the death may be difficult you predict, a happy ending is unlikely.

The novel’s title, with its Biblical echoes, refers to the final lines, where (if this was a film) the camera pans out to the waves as the credits roll:

“In the beginning was the sea…The sea was everywhere and everything. The sea was Mother. The Mother was not a woman, nor a thing, nor nothingness. She was the spirit of that which was to come and she was thought and memory.”

While I can’t claim to understand this, it is quite effective in a novel that has up to this point been very careful to avoid abstraction. It certainly conveys a sense of the sea outlasting human endeavour – and in particular the hubris of J. This unchanging nature is reflected in the novel’s characters too – neither J nor Elena can adapt to their new life; the local people cannot adapt to them. The death itself, it could be argued, arises from a refusal to change, or accept change.

In the Beginning Was the Sea is an intense, claustrophobic novel which keeps the reader at arm’s length from its characters, perhaps reflecting the displacement Elena and J feel. Its story is intentionally predictable, but lacks much in the way of psychological insight to balance the fact that we know where we are heading. How you respond to it may depend on how you respond to Gonzalez’s pessimistic vision.

Look Who’s Back

March 17, 2015

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It wouldn’t be the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize without the Nazis. Last year we had A Meal in Winter; the year before HHhH and Trieste – in fact, I’m fairly certain, that were you to consult every long list there would be at least one book with some connection to Nazi Germany. The likelihood is this simply reflects the increased chances of translation into English should there be a swastika waving somewhere in the background of your story. This year we have reached the apogee with a novel narrated by Hitler himself – Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back.

Look Who’s Back takes a simple premise (Vermes has said, “It is odd that no-one has thought of it before”): What if Hitler reappeared in the present? Not an allegorical Hitler, or a Hitler like figure, but Hitler himself, transferred from the last days of the war to contemporary Germany:

“I remember waking up; it must have been early afternoon…It was relatively quiet; I could not see any enemy aircraft flying overhead, or hear the thunder of artillery fire…My first thought was, ‘What did I get up to last night?’”

Hitler is met with either indifference or the belief that he is a Hitler impersonator. The more he insists on his identity, the more he is congratulated on his method acting. This leads to some very funny exchanges in the novel’s opening:

“’What are you in? Have you got your own programme?’
‘Naturally,’ I replied, ‘I’ve had one since 1920! As a fellow German you are surely aware of the twenty-five points.’
‘But I still don’t recall seeing you anywhere. Have you got a card? Any flyers?’
‘Don’t talk to me about the Luftwaffe,’ I said sadly. ‘In the end they were a complete failure.’”

Humour is also created by his displacement in time. On seeing evidence of a large Turkish community he imagines “the deployment of Turkish forces had brought about a decisive turning-point in the war.” He does not, at first, recognise a television set:

“To begin with I assumed that the dark, flat plate in my room must be some bizarre work of art. Then, taking into consideration its shape, I speculated it might serve as a means of storing my shirts overnight without them creasing.”

Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to laugh at Hitler: humour has been used throughout the ages to undermine the powerful, and was indeed used in Allied propaganda during the war. However, Hitler is not the object of the satire in Look Who’s Back – what would be the point? Hitler is instead used to satirise the present, and, in particular, our belief that such figures are firmly of the past, and could not emerge to popular acclaim today. It is not an accident that, in the novel, his popularity is established on what he calls the “internetwork”. We also see how those who humour him are quickly caught up in following him, for example when his secretary agrees to call, him “mein Fuhrer”, or when he ends a meeting of television executives by getting them to respond to his “Seig” with “Heil!”

The first person narrative is also a tool in this, ensuring the reader is enticed to feel sympathetic, especially when his criticisms of the modern world ring true. Vermes does not avoid his anti-Semitism (in fact he cleverly faces up to it with the double-edged phrase, “The Jews are no laughing matter”), but he also includes his vegetarianism, love of animals, and respect for the ordinary German. If we were uncertain of the novel’s warning, Hitler himself makes it clear:

“These days people like to assert that an entire Volk was duped by a handful of staunch National Socialists…In 1933 the Volk was not overwhelmed by a massive propaganda campaign. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word.”

As with many novels which start with a brilliant idea, Vermes seems uncertain when to stop. (It’s never a good sign when one of the Reading Group questions is ‘How do you think the story might be continued?’) It could be argued that Vermes makes his point long before page 365, and that the ending, though amusing, is rather arbitrary. That said, this is still an entertaining novel with a serious message at its heart.

Boyhood Island

March 14, 2015

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As the volumes of Karl Ove Kanusgaard’s My Struggle sequence gradually appear in English (thanks to translator Don Bartlett) it becomes possible to see an alternate, chronological reading order, in which Boyhood Island becomes the opening book. It begins, after all, prior to Knausgaard’s own memory, as he is quick to point out (“Of course, I don’t remember any of this time”), as he creates a picture of his father, mother and older brother walking with baby Karl, a Karl too young yet for his own identity:

“His brother, barely eight months old, lay in the pram staring up at the sky, oblivious to where they were or where they were going.”

Knausgaard goes on, as he has done in the previous volumes, to discuss memory itself:

“Memory is not a reliable quantity in life…Memory is pragmatic, it is sly and artful, but not in any malicious way; on the contrary it does everything it can to keep its host satisfied…That which is remembered accurately is never given to you to determine.”

Once this caveat is in place, however, Boyhood Island becomes a conventional memoir of Knausgaard’s childhood, beginning as he starts school and ending in adolescence. The adult Knausgaard is largely absent; there are no detours into the present as we have seen in previous volumes, or complex weaving of time frames. Both the previous volumes worked to some extent in contrast: the first contrasted his memories of his father with the circumstances of his last years and death; the second contrasted the origins of his relationship with Linda with the stresses of being a husband and father. The chronological nature of volume 3 reflects its subject: that of growing up. However there is also a clue in the title: boyhood exists as an island for Knausgaard, a time separated from adulthood, a different world. And it in is presenting childhood as a form of life outside adult experience that the book’s success lies.

As always, Knausgaard inhabits the time he is writing about completely. This is not a writer reflecting on his childhood with irony and humour, but feeling it as it felt at the time. When his mother buys him a flowered swimming cap for his first swimming lesson, we encounter, not an amusing anecdote told in retrospect, but an excruciating moment of terror and shame. When a beautiful girl agrees to date him and the only way he can think of to kiss her is to suggest they try to beat a record of ten minutes set by a friend, a scene which in another writer’s hand would be laugh out loud funny, is imbued with paralysis and regret instead. This, I think, is part of Kausgaard’s appeal, that he awakens not so much similar memories in his readers, but similar emotions.

Boyhood Island, then, works very well as a stand-alone book. However, its spacing within the sequence adds a further layer of understanding for those who have come to it third. His fear of his father is prevalent throughout, for example when he loses a sock at swimming:

“I frantically went through my clothes again, shook item after item in the air, hoping desperately to see it drop out onto the floor in front of me.”

His father‘s unpredictability seems to be at the heart of this – his ability to become ferociously angry at the slightest infringement – but Knausgaard also paints himself as a bit of a weakling, in keeping with the self-deprecation of previous volumes. There are frequent references to him crying at very little. He also shines a light on his arrogance, particularly when he decides to vote for himself in a class election against all protocol, and receives only one vote:

“But I was the best student in the class! At least n Norwegian! And natural and social sciences! And in Maths I was the second best, or perhaps the third. But, altogether, who could be better than me?”

In the latter part of the book, the focus turns to his relationship with girls. He longs for one girl after another, but is uncertain what he is longing for:

“I was going out with Kajsa! Oh, everything I wanted was within reach! Though not yet. What would I talk to her about? What would we do?”

Only at the end does he return to memory with a comment that:

“…every detail of this landscape, every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch.”

Superficially this conveys the importance of the truth of his account, but Knausgaard is careful to preface ‘true’ with ‘ring as’; the musical simile conveys the artistic truth of the account which is important rather than the documentary nature of events.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015

March 12, 2015


The announcement of the long list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is always an exciting time as for the last four years I’ve attempted to read all the books (though I haven’t yet succeeded). This year, privileged to be among the Shadow Jury, I have found myself experiencing new levels of anticipation. Luckily the wait is over and the chosen books have been revealed:

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, By Night the Mountain Burns (Spanish: trans. Jethro Soutar), And Other Stories

Tomas Bannerhed, The Ravens (Swedish: trans. Sarah Death), Clerkenwell Press

Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (German: trans. Susan Bernofsky), Portobello Books

Marcello Fois, Bloodlines (Italian: trans. Silvester Mazzarella), MacLehose Press

Tomás González, In the Beginning Was the Sea (Spanish: trans. Frank Wynne), Pushkin Press

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (Russian: trans. Andrew Bromfield), Peirene Press

Daniel Kehlmann, F (German: trans. Carol Brown Janeway), Quercus

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Boyhood Island (Norwegian: trans. Don Bartlett), Harvill Secker

J.M. Lee, The Investigation (Korean: trans. Chi-Young Kim), Mantle

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping (Dutch: trans. Paul Vincent), Pushkin Press

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Japanese: trans. Philip Gabriel), Harvill Secker

Judith Schalansky, The Giraffe’s Neck (German: trans. Shaun Whiteside), Bloomsbury

Stefanie de Velasco, Tiger Milk (German: trans. Tim Mohr), Head of Zeus

Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back (German: trans. Jamie Bulloch), MacLehose Press

Can Xue, The Last Lover (Chinese: trans. Annelise Finegan), Yale University Press

While there are some surprising omissions (Mathias Enard, Elena Ferrante, Andres Neuman) and once again my favourite Peirene title has had its place taken by another, I must admit I probably would have been more disappointed if the long list had simply reflected my own tastes. Much of the enjoyment over the last few years has been in the discovery of new authors, and hopefully that will prove to be the case this time. Once again, having read five of the books, I hope to read the other ten before both the Shadow Jury and more substantial one decide on their short list.

A Man: Klaus Klump

March 11, 2015

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Though A Man: Klaus Klump is the fourth novel by Goncalo M Tavares in the Kingdom Cycle to be published by Dalkey Archive Press, it is in fact the first in the sequence. (Those devotees of crime fiction in translation will recognise the inconvenience of works appearing out of order). I first encountered Tavares last year via The Neighbourhood – an ongoing (as far as I know) series of stories set in an imaginary writers’ quarter populated by such authors as Italo Calvino, Paul Valery and Robert Walser. The writers do not interact with each other (it’s not a soap opera) but each have a book of very short stories – one might even say fragments – devoted to them. These stories play on the ideas and style of the writers. A Man: Klaus Klump (translated by Rhett McNeil), however, is a much less playful work; while it retains the sharp wit of The Neighbourhood, it exercises it in a devastating critique of war.

The novel opens as Klump’s country is occupied. The opening lines portray the fatalistic tone of many of its aphoristic paragraphs:

“A country’s flag is a helicopter; gasoline is necessary to keep the flag aloft; the flag isn‘t made of fabric but of metal…”

While there is still humour to be found in the expression of ideas, it is a very bleak humour indeed:

“Tanks were entering the city. Military music was entering the city and serene music went into hiding throughout the city. Someone out in the street was wildly attempting to sell newspapers. Tanks were coming into the city, the news rushed into the paper.”

Klump is an editor with an ambition to publish books. He is particularly unsuited to war: early on he is seen kissing the boot of a soldier to avoid having his glasses broken. Though his family are rich, he has distanced himself from them to devote himself to publishing. He lives with his lover, Johana, and her mother.

“No one loves a coward, which merely means that while you’re in love with someone, you’re unable to see their cowardice.”

When Klump is out, a group of soldiers appear and Johana is raped. This is the turning point in the novel which will change the destiny of both Klump and Johana: soon Klump has left for the forest to join the resistance, and Johana begins a new life as a collaborator, becoming the mistress of the officer who raped her. The narrative gaps and the matter of fact tone in which information is presented leave it up to the reader to decide if this is an example of opportunism or powerlessness. Johana isn’t the only female character to use her sexuality to accommodate the enemy; when Klump spends the night with Herthe, he wakens to find himself surrounded by soldiers:

“And not just her garden plot: Herthe had living, fully intact parents by her side. And Herthe still had a twelve year old brother, living, healthy, intact, well-treated and well-received by the soldiers.”

The brother is a nice touch, making condemnation of Herthe difficult (particularly through the clever use of the word ‘intact’). In fact, it becomes difficult to condemn anyone as no-one escapes the brutalisation of the war, and any suggestion that Klump is transforming from a coward to a hero Hollywood-style is soon quashed.

A Man: Klaus Klump is a short book (just under 100 pages) but it packs a punch. Much longer works have failed to convey the way in which war corrupts the character so successfully. The final chapter is a masterpiece of cynicism and irony. Yet, despite its fatalistic tone, it’s also a novel which forces the reader to look at things in a new way simply through its use of language. I found it horrifying and captivating in equal measure.

The End of Days

March 8, 2015


Jenny Erpenbeck’s last novel, Visitation, curated a number of stories around a particular setting. In her latest, The End of Days, she displays the same dissatisfaction with the single story, but this time the nucleus is character. If this sounds more traditional – after all, don’t most novels tell a number of stories connected to one character? – it isn’t: each of Erpenbeck’s tales ends in death, only for her character to resurrected by the power of fiction and continue along a different path. (I haven’t read it, but the premise of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life sounds similar, though the titles themselves suggest a difference of tone).

Erpenbeck’s novels often explore human cruelty and The End of Days is particularly concerned with the treatment of Jews – not only in Germany (Erpenbeck is German) but throughout Eastern Europe. A key scene which reverberates throughout the novel is the death of the central character’s grandfather in Poland after a mob breaks into his house. Though his wife escapes to the roof, he is murdered before he can make it through the gap they have created. It is difficult to decide what is most horrific: her husband’s violent death or the peaceful scene that greets her when she looks down from the roof.

“First she is holding her husband by the hand, and then all she is holding is a clump of flesh, for there is no longer anything alive left she might pull up to where she crouches in then open air. Then she is a Jewish widow holding Death by the hand. She lets go, gets up, and looks down beneath her and the open landscape.”

The contrast between this vicious blood-frenzy and the everyday is typical of Erpenbeck’s writing, as is the perfect, almost poetic phrasing – aided, once again, by the expert translation of Susan Bernofsky. The widow moves away with her daughter – the first of a number of moves in the vain hope of finding a safe haven. In some versions of the stories which follow the daughter never discovers the reason for her father’s absence. The daughter marries, and the novel opens with her own daughter dying:

“The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than there had been to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up.”

It is this potential life, or lives, which Erpenbeck goes onto unfold, after first demonstrating the consequences that the baby’s death has for the mother and father. This first Book is followed by an Intermezzo which begins, “But if, for example…” and goes on to describe the effect of the child’s survival, including the relocation of the family to Vienna. We then re-join them in Book II shortly after the end of the First World War. The pattern is now set: each of the five Books will end with her death at different stages of her life; the Intermezzo which follows will suggest a route to survival, and we will begin again.

There is nothing life-affirming in this journey, however. We are taken beyond the effects of the First World War, through the Second World War, and east to Russia. The girl’s birth in 1902 means that her life is that of the 20th century. When she survives as teenager she becomes radicalised and joins the Communist party, leaving for Moscow as result of the rise of Nazism. In her final life she lives long enough to see the reunification of Germany. Throughout Erpenbeck demonstrates that, though she may be able to conjure survival with her pen, survival in the world itself is difficult – and not dying is the least of it, particularly for women. Avenues of survival are few, and often rely on men – prostitution features more than once. While Erpenbeck uses the novel’s structure to show the role fate plays in death, it is the characters’ lives which feel fated, and often outwith their control:

“How long does a life last anyhow?
Seventy or eighty years?
Doesn’t she already know more than she can bear?”

Throughout the family carry with them a complete set of Goethe – representing the civilisation they never find – until eventually it, too, has to be sold. When the protagonist’s son unknowingly encounters it in an antique shop – along with other jetsam from his mother’s life – he contemplates buying it, but decides:

“…who knows whether he’d still have time to read an edition of collected works, he isn’t getting any younger.”

Time may seem to be the enemy, but Erpenbeck’s novel suggests that we might live many lives unfulfilled.

The Well

March 4, 2015

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The Well, a debut novel by Catherine Chanter, is set in a near-future United Kingdom where it has all but ceased to rain. Only a few places resist the drought, one of which is the titular farm which possesses not only an underground spring, but continues to see rainfall. The farm was acquired before the drought by Ruth and Mark Ardingly, who retire to the country after life in London ends ignominiously as Mark is charged (and cleared) of possession of child pornography. The Well is more Mark’s dream than Ruth’s, and she finds it particularly difficult to be exempt from the suffering the drought entails, until the arrival of the Sisters of the Rose, a religion which has sprung up since the water shortage began. In the midst of all this, her grandson, Lucien, is killed, and the novel is also a whodunit as Ruth tries to discover who is responsible, regarding herself as a possible suspect.

Much of this is revealed early in the novel as events are largely recounted retrospectively by Ruth. The novel begins with her return to the Well under house arrest after a spell in prison for unspecified reasons. From that point the story unfolds in two time-frames: her search for the truth in the present, and her memories of what happened at the Well from the moment she and Mark decided to buy it, a scene laden with irony from:

“’You think it’s too good to be true?’ suggested Mark.

To Lucien’s comment:

“I think it’s the best place in the world.”

Things turn sour when the drought begins and the Well is unaffected. Mark is determined to keep the farm but Ruth is less resolute:

“Do you know what? I’ve had just about enough of being on the receiving end of the general public’s accusations. We did that in London and it was no fun. Now, I just want to be like everyone else. I’d actually prefer to be party of their fucking drought.”

Only when the Sisters of the Rose arrive and declare the Well a sacred place, convinced Ruth has spiritual power, does she feel reconnected to it, though at the expense of her relationships with Mark and Lucien. Sister Amelia, the leader of the Sisters, is a particularly manipulative character from her first appearance:

“She said that she knew how hard it had been for me, but that she was there for me now, her and all the sisters, that I wouldn’t be alone any longer.”

The implications of that aloneness is, of course, that Mark and Lucien don’t count (particularly because of their maleness – the Sisters are an exclusively female religion), and soon Mark has left and Lucien is dead.

It is worth pointing out a few things that The Well is not. It is not dystopian fiction in the vein of, for example, J.G. Ballard’s The Drought, examining the effect of catastrophic climate change on society and individuals. Our focus is entirely with the Well; we occasionally here of Mark’s excursions to the outside world, but Ruth remains at the farm. The effect of the drought is only vaguely sketched, and its seriousness difficult to gauge. The key creation of the drought is the Sisters of the Rose, a more homely version of other post-apocalyptic religions as seen in Margaret Atwood’s fiction, or Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse. Even that, though, despite Ruth’s participation, we witness largely from the outside, as Ruth always remains at one step removed, living at the farmhouse.

In many ways the novel’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Ruth’s narration works well at unfolding the mystery of Lucien’s death, particularly as she cannot rule herself out as a suspect. However, it does leave us limited to her point of view, with all the other characters subsumed within her story. (It’s telling, for example, that she refers to the soldiers guarding her only by the nicknames she has for them like Boy). At times it felt that Mark was reduced to the role of shouty husband as these were the only points he punched through into Ruth‘s consciousness (for example, destroying the greenhouse after Ruth breaking the one promise she’d made him to help on the farm). The experience of reading the novel is not unlike that of a well – long and narrow with little light getting in from outside.

Overall I felt this was a promising first novel – it’s always exciting to see a writer with the confidence to mix genres – but one that didn’t quite succeed in everything it attempted.

Thanks to Canongate for a review copy of The Well.