The German Room

The German Room, the debut novel by Argentinian writer Carla Maliandi, is a novel of escape, its narrator abandoning her life in Argentina to return to the world of her childhood in Heidelberg, Germany, where her father lectured at the university. In a sense, she is fleeing her adult life, uncomfortable with who she has become and perhaps seeking to discover the adult she wishes to be. Her departure has been sudden and unannounced:

“Going down with the plane would have been easier than landing in Germany with my life in shambles, without having told anyone in Buenos Aires what I was doing.”

Later she reflects:

“How much longer will I be able to disappear from the internet too, from the lives of others? How much longer will the e-mails continue to pile up, their demands for explanations, their concern over things that I can’t even remember anymore?”

She has rented a room in student accommodation (though without enrolling at the university), perhaps because it allows her to feel, closer to her father, perhaps because she wishes to return to a point in her life when choices sill seemed possible. Her life here is a series of chance encounters with others, encounter she often seems eager to avoid. These characters are often kind to her, a kindness she generally returns with indifference. An Argentinian student, Miguel Javier Sanchez, makes it his duty to take care of her from the moment she arrives, sharing his breakfast with her. That she calls him ‘the Tucamano’ (after the area where he comes from) immediately feels like a distancing technique rather than an endearing nickname. As he speak to her, her mind wanders:

“Then I stop listening to him, he carries on talking and I think about how I’m going to cut my hair.”

It is Miguel Javier who first tells her she is pregnant, a fact she later confirms with the help of a Japanese student, Shanice. Shanice persuades her to go to a karaoke party where she lets a student kiss her only to drift off in her thoughts once more:

“The redhead stops kissing me and looks at me in silence. I apologise, tell him I was distracted because I remembered something.”

The party only makes her realise she doesn’t belong:

“But I don’t belong to this group. Even if I course the whole world looking or a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere.”

What she doesn’t realise is that she is not the only one to feel isolated and, the next day, Shanice commits suicide.

So far the novel has been very much a sympathetic character study of an individual who has lost their way, but the arrival of Shanice’s mother, Mrs Takahashi, sets a new tone. Shanice will warn the narrator about her in a dream:

“Warn you that my mother is full of a very dark sadness…and, ya know, that she can bet inside you.”

Further darkness is injected into the novel when Miguel’s sister, Marta Paul, back in Argentina, decides to consult a medium, Feli, much to Miguel’s distress:

“Feli is not a good person, Feli… is a horrible woman. That’s’ what’s wrong. I’m not there and she’s getting into trouble is what’s wrong.”

Feli will herself (via Marta Paul) provide a warning: “The girl is dead but the mother is alive. The girl knew that the mother was dangerous.” At this point the novel seems to be channelling a certain type of Japanese literature with its detached narrator, its emphasised ordinariness, and its ominous, even supernatural, overtones.

The narrator also complicates her own life when, after moving in with an ex-student of her father’s, Mario (now a lecturer at the same university), she begins sleeping with the man she assumes is his partner, Joseph. It is the first time she has attempted to get close to anyone but the circumstances are not auspicious. Mrs Takahashi keeps reappearing in the narrator’s life, Marta Paul goes missing, and everything seems certain to be heading to a cataclysmic conclusion. However, Maliandi is a far more subtle writer, and her final pages transcend rather than end.

The German Room (ably translated by Frances Riddle) is a surprisingly gripping novel, its drifting, disorientated narrator unexpectedly sympathetic. She tells Mario that:

“…maybe all my life I’ve idealised my childhood here, maybe I remembered this city as a place where time passed in a different way. Here we hoped that everything would get better so we could go back, and in the meantime, we were in limbo, far away, happy.”

Her return to Heidelberg seems another limbo, her escape altogether uncertain.

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4 Responses to “The German Room”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Am I right in think that this publisher specialises in literature from South America? There’s a lot of interesting stuff coming out of that region at the moment, clearly a territory to watch.

  2. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    Looking forward to seeing what Charco Press bring out in 2019 too.

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