Marzahn, Mon Amour

Marzahn, Mon Amour is German writer Katja Oskamp’s third novel, but the first to be translated into English (by Jo Heinrich, her first literary translation). While the title is a playful reference to Hiroshima, Mon Amour, it is ultimately meant sincerely, however unlikely that may be given that Marzahn is housing estate of 1970s prefabricated concrete buildings on the outskirts of East Berlin. Yet the novel is exactly about finding joy in the most unlikely of places, and from the most unlikely of jobs.

The narrator is a writer in middle-aged crisis:

“You can no longer see the shore you started from, but you can’t yet get a clear enough view of the shore you’re headed for. You spend these years thrashing about in the middle of a big lake, out of breath, flagging from the tedium of swimming.”

But before we decide that yet another author wracked with mid-life doubt is the last thing we need, it is her reaction to the rejection of her latest novella that sets this apart from other novels of this type: a course in chiropody:

“None of us had taken a direct path; all of us were on the rebound, stranded or bogged down. We knew what failure felt like.”

“From writer to chiropodist – what a spectacular comedown” – or, at least, that is how it would be conventionally viewed. Yet, as the chapters which follow reveal, the narrator has no regrets, finding happiness in the simple act of helping others.

Her customers are the elderly and the frail. Frau Guse is a survivor of breast cancer who repeats the same stories on every visit – “Frau Guse and I could even swap lines; I certainly know both parts off by heart, and we have exactly the same conversation every six weeks.” Herr Paulke has also suffered from cancer:

“…he had a fatalistic sense of humour and humility in the face of the havoc old age was wreaking.”

These are qualities the narrator shares, describing another client, Frau Blumeier, “in her racy electric wheelchair, her upper body bent forward like a cyclist and her hair swept back from her forehead by the wind.” In Frau Bulmeier’s case it is polio which has led to her disability – “Only my legs, not in my head!” Erwin Fritzsche tells her he has had a heart attack and a stroke:

“His eyes tell me he has just about managed to remember these words, but that every trace of their meaning is gone.”

In the face of this, the narrator’s clients generally tend to look on the bright side. Frau Blumeier is defined by her “high spirits”. Frau Frenzel finds happiness in her dogs: when her treatment is finished and she returns to them “a shared joy erupts.” The salon is a place they are treated kindly – the narrator tells us her secret resolution is “to have every client leave happier than when they arrived.” The chair they sit in is frequently referred to as the ‘throne’. Taking ordinary pleasure in life, even when life is difficult, is a theme which runs throughout the novel, and can be seen not only in the clientele but in staff. The longest chapter describes a spa break the three beauticians take together, a trip which leads the narrator to declare (after a few drinks):

“I am overcome with love and I start eulogizing about the three of us, how we may have our quirks but we all have our hearts in the right place…”

That she is interrupted by Tiffy, who thinks she is “taking the piss”, also demonstrates the balance which Oskamp retains throughout – any danger of tipping into sentimentally is quickly averted, even if only by descriptions of the clients often grotesque feet.

The novel is much more than quirky character sketches, though. The elderly nature of the customers, who relate their life stories while being treated, creates a sociological portrait of East Germany. Nowhere is this more evident than with Herr Pietsch who was once “not only politically and ideologically on the right side, but also on the high ground, to his mind at least.” Now he is a more sympathetic figure, saving money in envelopes to get by. Things also get more difficult after reunification for less important people – Frau Janusch tells of how her husband’s furniture business collapsed:

“The easterners paid. But the westerners didn’t. That’s the way they were – who has the biggest debts?”

Her Paulke, on the other hand, has been glad to have been able to travel – “He could talk about the Norwegian fjords, the palm trees in Ticino and the pubs in Dublin.” The novel allows the characters to tell these stories without judgement; there is no sense of authorial irony overhanging their tales. This is a novel of ordinary people, a paean to everyday kindness and the dignity of work:

“The love I have inside me has turned into liquid and now runs in the most unlikely places.”


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6 Responses to “Marzahn, Mon Amour”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    What an unusual and yet unexpectedly lovely concept. Sounds as if it knows when to draw back from being too sentimental too!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    This sounds really good, Grant, and much lighter in tone than many of the Peirene releases over the past 3 or 4 years. (I actually stopped reading their books a few years ago because I’d been finding them too bleak and depressing – albeit very well-written.) It’s good to see them broadening out in this direction a little. The cover design looks different too!

  3. Booker International Predictions 2022 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Press will feature – Winter Flowers by Angelique Villaneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter) and Marzan, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp (translated by Jo Heinrich), both of which find hope in trying circumstances. If I […]

  4. Books of the Year 2022 Part 2 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] in East Berlin would become one of my favourite books of 2022, but that is, indeed, what happened. Marzan, Mon Amour is never sentimental, but often heart-warming, without ever disguising the difficulties of life. […]

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