Clemens Meyer: Im Stein [In Stone]

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The latest addition to my website is Clemens Meyer‘s Im Stein [In Stone]. This book has been much discussed in Germany for its controversial depiction of a fictitious East German city, focussing on the underbelly of the city. The key element is prostitution and Meyer gives us a vivid description of the prostitutes themselves, their clients and the pimps who claim not to be pimps but businessmen. He focusses on one such “businessman”, Arnie Kraushaar, and his “girls”, as he calls them. Though the prostitutes figure strongly in the book, drugs, petty (and one or two not so petty) criminals, the police and various other denizens of the night and shadows are also depicted. It is a long book but, to all intents and purposes, has no real plot and while Meyer’s writing is superb and its descriptions first-class, I did find that swathes of descriptions sometimes left me longing for more to happen. Maybe that is just a weakness of mine, as critics have generally loved it and it has been shortlisted for the German Book Prize for this year (link in German – see Katy Derbyshire’s discussion of the longlist for a description in English). It has not been translated – only a collection of his stories, translated by the aforementioned Katy Derbyshire has been translated into English of his works – but I would suspect that it will be.

Hans Henny Jahnn: Das Holzschiff (The Ship)

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The latest addition to my website is Hans Henny Jahnn‘s Das Holzschiff (The Ship). This is the first book in an incomplete trilogy, with the second book, meant only to provide a tenth chapter to the first one, ending up as 1600 pages. Only this one has been translated into English. Though long since out of print (in both German and English), the English version is to be republished in December 2013. It tells the story of a large, three-masted sailing ship (which, as the German title but, for some reason, not the English one, states) is made out of wood. The ship arrives in a port where it appears to be carrying some mysterious goods which no-one, not even the crew, knows what they are. The captain plans to have his daughter, Ellena, accompany him on the journey but, at the last minute, her fiancé, Gustav, stows away. Gustav and Ellena discover secret passages on the ship and even suspect that the owner may also be stowing away. The strange supercargo adds to the mystery though first Ellena and then Gustav get to know him better. When Ellena disappears, Gustav finds even more peculiar goings-on, all of which upset the crew. It is certainly an interesting book though some of the mysteries are not really explained till the second volume.

Daniel Kehlmann: F

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The latest addition to my website is Daniel Kehlmann‘s F, a superb new novel from Kehlmann about family, fate, faking and forgery and various other F-words (but, no, not that one). It concerns two twins, Iwan and Eric, their half-brother, Martin, and their father, Arthur. The twins only meet Martin for the first time when they are thirteen and, soon after that, Arthur disappears to become a famous but Pynchon/Salinger-like reclusive novelist. Martin grows up to be a priest who does not believe in God but who does eat a lot and is an expert Rubik’s cube player, Eric becomes a financier whose initial success fades even before the European financial crash and who may be facing criminal charges, while Iwan wants to be a painter but ends up a forger. Kehlmann tells us superb story about Germany in the early part of this century but also a story about family and authenticity and people fighting their demons and how we struggle with life. In my view it is a far superior novel to his big success Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World). Fortunately, though not yet available in English, it surely will be soon.

Volker Braun: Das unbesetzte Gebiet [The Unoccupied Area]

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The latest addition to my website is Volker Braun‘s Das unbesetzte Gebiet [The Unoccupied Area]. It tells the story of an area of Saxony called Schwarzenberg during a six week period at the end of World War II. The German army surrendered on 8 May 1945 and Schwarzenberg awaited the imminent arrival of American or Soviet forces. Neither arrived. For six weeks, they were independent and created a sort of socialist republic which Braun clearly saw as a model, albeit an unrealisable model, for the future. The Soviets took over on 26 June 1945, ending the dream. Braun tells the story as an eyewitness account but then, in the second part of the book, adds little odd snippets – from history, from that period but also from the present day which, in some cases, are directly relevant and in others clearly not. It is certainly an interesting novel and not the first novel on the topic from Germany. Sadly , it is not available in English.

Timur Vermes: Er ist wieder da [He’s Back]

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The latest addition to my website is Timur VermesEr ist wieder da [He’s Back]. This book has had considerable success in Germany and also caused a lot of controversy. It is based on the idea that Hitler suddenly returns to Germany in August, 2011. He does not know why but assumes that it is because he is needed to help Germany with all its problems, such as Turkish immigrants and a woman chancellor. Other Germans assume that he is an actor playing the role and playing it very convincingly. He is soon offered a slot on a TV programme, where he is so authentic that it becomes wildly successful on YouTube. Vermes plays it partially for laughs, with lots of jokes about Hitler discovering new technology but also about how the producers and audience think that he is acting and he is convinced that he is back to steer Germany towards the way he thinks it should be. But Vermes also has a serious point, namely that, if Hitler were to return, he would not be rejected out of hand. The book is not yet available in English but is being translated and should appear in 2014 in English. I am sure that it will be very successful when it does appear in English.

Thomas Brussig: Helden wie wir (Heroes Like Us)

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The latest addition to my website is Thomas Brussig‘s Helden wie wir (Heroes Like Us). This had considerable success in Germany, as it was one of the earlier novels about the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, it takes a somewhat different approach from other such novels as the narrator of the novel claims that it is his penis that is responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall. The earlier part of the novel is about his upbringing and focuses extensively on his penis and his masturbatory fantasies à la Portnoy’s Complaint. The second part of the novel sees him joining the Stasi, the East German secret police, where he reveals the total incompetence of that organisation. Finally, we see his penis bringing down the Berlin Wall. It is certainly amusing but does get a bit too obsessive about the penis/sex bit.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf died yesterday.  You can find links to obituaries in both English and German on the Christa Wolf page on my website. She came in for a lot of criticism, firstly because it was discovered that she had worked as a Stasi informer and secondly because she had opposed German reunification. However, it is too easy to sit comfortably in the West (and, yes I do mean both the general political sense of the West, as well as West Germany) and criticise her. Let us not forget, as a teenager, her family fled the advancing Soviet army (she was born in what was then Germany but is now Poland). Moreover, though she did work for the Stasi, she soon withdrew. According to this article (in German), she prepared just three reports, all of them generally positive. The Stasi, not unsurprisingly, criticised her reporting for Zurückhaltung und überbetonte Vorsicht (restraint and excessive caution). Thereafter, she herself was under surveillance. As for her opposition to reunification, shared by other writers, she (and the others) felt that there should be a true social democracy in Germany and West Germany certainly was not it (nor, of course, was East Germany). She hoped, probably very naively, that East Germany, after the fall of Communism, could become a true social democracy. It is highly doubtful whether this could ever have happened but there is no doubt that her fear of capitalism and its consequences seem to have been borne out in recent months.

There continues to be criticism of Wolf and, as she is reassessed after her death, there will undoubtedly be more. I would argue that it is not really justified and that she should be remembered for writing three first-class novels – Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven), Nachdenken über Christa T. (The Quest for Christa T)and Kassandra (Cassandra), all of which have been translated into English.