Peter Härtling

I an surprised that the English-language press has not picked up on the death of German writer Peter Härtling yesterday (10 July 2017), aged 84. He will be remembered for his poetry as much as for his prose fiction. His novel Eine Frau (A Woman) was translated into English and is well worth reading. I also enjoyed Niembsch, a biographical novel about the not very well-known Austrian poet Nikolas Lenau, which has not been translated into English.

Juli Zeh: Schilf (UK: Dark Matter; US: In Free Fall)

The latest addition to my website is Juli Zeh‘s Schilf (UK: Dark Matter; US: In Free Fall). This is a novel where theoretical physics meets the detective story. Two theoretical physicists – Oskar and Sebastian – have been firm friends since meeting physics class at university, though the friendship is no longer as strong as it was. Oskar, still single, lives in Geneva, working on the particle accelerator, while Sebastian, who is married to Maike, with a son, Liam, teaches physics at the University of Freiburg. Maike, a keen cyclist, is going away on a cycling holiday and Sebastian is to take Liam to scout camp, giving him a joyful couple of weeks on his own to work on a physics problem. On the way to the scout camp, Sebastian stops to go to the toilet, leaving the sleeping Liam in the car. As he leaves the toilet, his phone rings. The car and Liam have gone and the apparent kidnapper tells him that Dabbelink must go. Dabbaelink is an anaesthetist, who cycles with Maike but whose boss is involved in a medical scandal. Sebastian eventually does kill Dabbelink, only to find, a few days later, that Liam is alive and well and at the scout camp. Schilf is sent from Stuttgart to solve the problem. Schilf is dying (he has a brain tumour) but is a very successful though unconventional detective. The second part shows how Schilf, using, to a certain degree, theoretical physics, solves the problem leading to what can only be called an unexpected and unusual conclusion. It is very cleverly done, as Zeh mixes in police work and theoretical physics, particularly the many-worlds interpretation, one of whose main exponents is Dieter Zeh (no relation).

Juli Zeh: Nullzeit (Decompression)

The latest addition to my website is Juli Zeh‘s Nullzeit (Decompression). This novel tells the story of a diving instructor, Sven. He has fled Germany, after realising he does not want to be a lawyer, accompanied by his girlfriend, Antje, ten years his junior. For fourteen years, they have now had a successful diving business. Their latest clients are Theo and Jola. He, seven years old than her, is a writer who has written nothing for some time. She is the daughter of a major German TV and film producer and is herself the star of a TV soap opera. She wants to learn to dive for a possible film role. It soon becomes apparent that things are not well between the couple. She starts flirting with Sven and Sven finds it hard to resist, even though he has been shown to be conventional and fairly passionless, at least as regards the opposite sex. The triangle between Theo, Jola and Sven develops throughout the novel and inevitably comes to a head. It is made more interesting that we follow both Sven’s narration and Jola’s diary and the two narrations give clearly different, often diametrically opposed accounts of the same events. However, as I indicate in my review, I find the plot to be inconsistent, even if the clash between the two relationships is well told.

Daniel Kehlmann: Du hättest gehen sollen (You Should Have Left)

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The latest addition to my website is Daniel Kehlmann‘s Du hättest gehen sollen (You Should Have Left). This is a short (ninety-six pages) novel and a slightly different approach from Kehlmann, in that it is something of a horror story. A family – unnamed narrator and comedy scriptwriter husband, his wife, a beautiful actress, called Susanna, and their four-year old daughter, Esther – rents a holiday home in a remote part of the country, with a view of mountains and two icebergs. The marriage is under strain as the two are always squabbling. One or two odd things happen in the house – strange dreams, a picture that has not been seen before, getting lost in the house. While out for a walk in the rain, both decide that they have had enough and decide to leave at once. As she made the booking, he goes to her phone to get the number of the owner and finds out why she has been texting so much. A big row ensues and she leaves with the car. The narrator is left in the house with their daughter and strange things start happening, not helped by the weird local shopkeeper telling him that Devil had once built a tower there and that most people who rented the house left early, one even disappearing, never to be found. Gradually, it gets worse. The book got mixed reviews in Germany but I thought that, while not Kehlmann’s best work, it wasn’t too bad, somewhat reminiscent of Mark Danielewski‘s House of Leaves. It will come out in English in June 2017.

Jenny Erpenbeck: Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days)

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The latest addition to my website is Jenny Erpenbeck‘s Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days). This is a non-whimsical variation on a technique we have seen in Kate Atkinson‘s Life After Life. In this case, the heroine, who is only named at the end and then only with her married name, Frau Hoffmann, dies four times, before her final death shortly after her ninetieth birthday. In each case, we are told what happened had she died but we are then given a series of logical scenarios in which her life could have been spared. Erpenbeck picks one of these and Frau Hoffmann’s life carries on. Not only does she have these events (unlike in the Atkinson book, she is completely unaware of the alternative scenarios), she lives through troubled times. She is born in Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now part of Poland, of a Jewish mother, whose family had been the victims of anti-Semitic attacks, and a non-Jewish father. She lives through Vienna during and after World War I, with major food shortages, emigrates to the Soviet Union when Hitler takes power and returns to East Germany after the War, living through the fall of the Berlin Wall. As a communist with a Jewish background, her life is not easy. Erpenbeck tells a very serious story well, focussing on the randomness of life but also its harshness.

Herta Müller: Herztier (The Land of Green Plums)

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The latest addition to my website is Herta Müller‘s Herztier (The Land of Green Plums). This is a remorselessly grim story of life in Ceausescu’s Romania, told by an unnamed female narrator. At the beginning of the book, she is sharing a room at college with five other young women, including Lola. Much of what she writes in the titial part of the novel comes from Lola’s diary. We learn that Lola comes from a very poor part of Romania. Her behaviour is often strange, borrowing things from her room-mates without permission. Lola often goes out to the factories at night, and has sex with men coming off the night-shift. She is also having an affair with the gym teacher. When she gets pregnant, she hangs herself. The narrator then becomes friendly with three young men. They have a hiding place in a summer house in the park, where they hide Lola’s diary, mildly subversive poems and photos, including those of the prison bus. After college, all four go to different parts of the country, where they have grim jobs and where they are pursued by Major Pjele, a secret service officer, who suspects them of subversion and harasses them. Life is unremittingly grim for the four but also for most other Romanians and Müller does not hold back in describing it, including the secret service agents at every corner, eating green plums. Eventually, three of them emigrate to Germany but their mental state does not seem to improve that much. This novel, perhaps Müller’s best-known of her novels about the horrors of life under the Ceausescu regime, is relentlessly miserable and humourless but very effectively told.

Herta Müller: Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel)

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The latest addition to my website is Herta Müller‘s Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel). This tells the story of Leopold Auberg, a seventeen year old German-Romanian. When the Soviets capture Romania at the end of World War II, all those of German origin aged between seventeen and forty-five are rounded up and sent to a labour camp in the Soviet Union for no other reason than that they are of German ethnicity. Most of the novel is about their time there and their struggle with hunger, cold, brutality and missing home and family. Hunger is the driving force as the English title implies and hunger and the need to satisfy that hunger excuses much of their not always good behaviour. Müller describes in some detail the life in the camp, the activities, the deaths, the little victories and the relationships between the inmates and between the inmates and the guards. While the novel is certainly well written and helped bring Müller fame in Germany, we have seen it before though, admittedly, normally about Russian rather than Romanian nationals and I did not really feel that this novel added much new on the subject, though, perhaps, emphasising the brutality of the Soviets is never amiss.

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, ging, gegangen [Go, Went, Gone]

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The latest addition to my website is Jenny Erpenbeck‘s Gehen, ging, gegangen [Go, Went, Gone]. This is a very timely book, as it is about the refugee crisis and is, indeed, the second book about refugees I have read recently. The other one showed that Europe (or, at least, France) was more welcoming but then the numbers were few. In this book, written before the current Syrian refugee crisis, the numbers are greater, as is the hostility towards them, both the bureaucratic hurdles they face as well as hostility from the locals. The story concerns Richard, a recently retired professor of classical philology, a former East German, a widower with no children, living in the Berlin suburbs. He almost inadvertently becomes aware of the refugee crisis, as a group of refugees from different African countries protest against their treatment, which generally means that they are not allowed to work and not granted asylum, often because of complex German and EU laws. Slowly but surely, he becomes involved with this small group, studying them but also helping them, as it is this that becomes his retirement project. Erpenbeck shows the horrors that the refugees have escaped from and the horrors they faced coming to Germany (via Libya and Italy) and makes subtle comparisons with Richard and his former East German friends who have had their problems but obviously nothing compared to the refugees. It is a well-written and well-meaning account of the situation, with Erpenbeck making it clear that she very much sympathises with the refugees and their plight. The book was considered a favourite to win the German Book Prize but it did not, beaten out by a much longer book, dealing with the Baader-Meinhof Group.

Herta Müller: Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt (The Passport)

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The latest addition to my website is Herta Müller‘s Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt (The Passport). This short novel tells the story of a small German community left in Romania after World War II. The main character is Windisch, the miller. He is eager to get a passport to emigrate to West Germany but, while in theory possible, it requires bribery of the mayor and the militiaman and even the priest, in the form of flour, and sex, with his daughter, Amalie. The price keeps going up. His friend, the skinner, manages to get one but Windisch is left there with his friend the nightwatchman, a man who does not reproach his late wife for her extramarital affair but does reproach her for dying and leaving him alone. Windisch also reproaches his wife, for having slept with various men in the internment camps at the end of the war. Windisch’s first wife and his second wife’s husband both died in the war, and the pair miss their respective deceased spouses. All around them, there is death and decay. The nightwatchman has lost his wife. The Widow Kroner dies. A travelling cooper dies and no-one knows where he is from or even what his name is. All they can hope for is that their passport application will eventually be approved.

Herta Müller: Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (The Appointment)

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The latest addition to my website is Herta Müller‘s Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (The Appointment). This is a grim tale of life in Communist Romania. The narrator is on her second marriage, married to Paul, an alcoholic, who works in an engineering factory. She works in a clothing factory, a job she hates. She had had a brief affair with her boss but she ended it. She has been accused of planting marriage proposals in the shirts she makes, which are destined for Italy, and is accused of defamation of Romania and prostitution. At the beginning of the novel we learn that she has been again been summoned to see Major Albu of the Secret Service. She has clearly been to see him several times before. She believes that the accusations against her – of planting similar notes in clothes destined for France and Sweden – are the results of revenge tactics by Nelu and claims her innocence. We follow her long bus journey to the appointment with the Major, as well as learning about her early life, such as her father’s affair with a girl she was at school with, the fate of her friend, Lilli, who was planning to flee the country with her lover, before they were caught and what happens to Paul, who seems to be a victim of Nelu’s revenge against the narrator. Müller, who came from the German-speaking minority in Romania, tells a fine tale, whose motto is the last sentence – The trick is not to go mad.