Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Stephanie Bart: Deutscher Meister

I first came across Johann Rukelie Trollmann when translating the new exhibition at the German Resistance Memorial Center. He's a fascinating historical figure who stood up to the Nazis in his own way. Stephanie Bart's novel Deutscher Meister (her first with a major publisher) tells part of his story, wisely restricted to the time between March and July of 1933. 

The Nazis have come to power and are also asserting their presence in the sporting world, with boxing being made compulsory in schools. The story begins with the expulsion of all Jewish boxers, functionaries and managers from the boxing association, but Trollmann’s case is less clear-cut. Labelled “Gipsy” by the press, he comes from a Sinto family and has suffered discrimination in his career for years. At this point, however, Nazi ideologists have not yet decided whether to classify the Sinti as “Aryan” or not, and so Trollmann is reluctantly allowed to continue fighting. 

Using real-life characters in fiction is tricky – it can feel disrespectful when a writer assumes too much about what's going on inside their heads. Instead of focusing entirely on Trollmann, Bart also shows us a host of different characters around him, which I think dodges this dilemma rather cleverly. So as well as the individual story of how Trollmann was cheated out of the German Champion title in the light-heavyweight category and deliberately lost his last fight, we get a broader picture of Berlin in the summer after Hitler came to power. 

These characters are one of the novel's key strengths, for me. They come from all corners of society - boxing functionaries, SA brawlers, bakery sales girls, society gentlemen, workers and schoolgirls. And we see them either settling into life under the Nazis or beginning to suffer. We watch Berlin turning from an open, bohemian city to a place of danger for anyone who doesn't fit into the Nazis' bizarre understanding of how Germans ought to be. There's a lot of dialogue, making the most of the Berliners' sharp tongues but not using too much dialect – another thing that often backfires. And there's humour, which took me a while to pick up on but once it hit home I was chortling my way through until the laughter stuck in my throat, especially at the descriptions of historical events like the book-burning and the mass murders of Nazi opponents in Köpenick.
The other stand-out strength is the physical descriptions. It’s not easy to write about boxing without slowing the pace, but Bart uses all sorts of tricks to get around that problem. She varies sentence length, makes subtle use of metaphor (one round of boxing is compared to Trollmann playing a drum kit, for instance), sometimes dispenses with verbs to add speed, and generally shows a great deal of skill. So much so that I read the 100 pages devoted to the main fight in a single, breath-taking sitting. 

Although it may not be breaking any literary moulds, Deutscher Meister is an ambitious novel, and while I found I had to overcome a slow start I got hooked pretty quickly. I hope a British publisher will pick it up – New Books in German recommends! That would even reconcile me momentarily to the British obsession with the Nazis, because the book is less about Nazis as such and more about those whose lives they harmed, those who stood up to them in small ways. You can read a sample translation by Imogen Taylor at the NBG link just above here. I think you should.  

Monday, 24 November 2014

Hosts of Translated-from-German Books on Impac Longlist

The 142 books longlisted for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award include shit-loads of translations from German. To wit:

Julia Franck: Back to Back (tr. Anthea Bell)

Sabine Gruber: Roman Elegy (tr. Peter Lewis)

Daniela Krien: Someday We'll Tell Each Other Everything (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

Pedro Lenz: Naw Much of a Talker (tr. Donal McLaughlin)

Eugen Ruge: In Times of Fading Light (tr. Anthea Bell)

Simon Urban: Plan D (translated by me - thank you again, person at the zlb, for the patriotic nominations, ahem)

We all stand to win huge bags full of cash, although my money's on Eugen Ruge.

Translating the Untranslatable in Berlin

I love this idea and I'm looking forward to it immensely. Think of it as a reward for having stuck out a good chunk of the Berlin winter:

The "untranslatable" label is stuck on all sorts of things from puns and pop songs to poems in dialect and political polemic. In fact we translators disprove the concept every day. On 6 February 2015, Jake Schneider and Madame Zik will be hosting an evening of English translations of allegedly untranslatable German texts at the classy Villa Neukölln. This is where you come in. Each participant picks 5 minutes' worth of text (or another medium) that they would consider "untranslatable," and one of the others has to translate it anyway in the privacy of their own home, then present it onstage to an audience of friends and fellow translators. Cabaret act to follow. To participate, email Jake Schneider at jdschneider at gmail dot com. Deadline for signing up: December 20

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

BookSerf in Berlin

Oh my goodness, there's this amazing thing! BookSerf is a website out of Istanbul that connects people who want to lend and borrow books from each other. Go and look at it right now, because they're coming to Berlin - tomorrow! They're launching with an opening gala in Neukölln, which I'll probably try and go to after my event earlier on. Here's the Facebook event page for it. Go and look at that as well, please. You can just turn up and enjoy the live music and general partying with fellow book lovers, or you can choose eight non-German books you'd like to lend out to people for two weeks and take them along and photograph them and show them around. They say non-German books because they want people to buy German books. Isn't that adorable? So do I.

I'm definitely going to try and go along, although I don't think I can lug eight books from one event to another. Everybody come (after you come and watch me saying the F-word rather a lot at Schöneberg Town Hall with Deniz Utlu, obviously)!

See you there!

Don't forget!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

CrossKultur in Şöneberg

It'll be neither angry, angry, angry nor particularly crunchy, as the name might suggest – in fact, CrossKultur is an arts festival across cultures in Berlin's borough of Schöneberg (where I got German grammar drummed into me at the Hartnackschule). There's film, music, theatre, exhibitions, discussions, and all the stuff. Plus of course literature! That means readings by Emrah Serbes, Alina Bronsky – who you'll know from her English translations, no doubt, by Tim Mohr – and Urmila Goel.

And also me and Deniz Utlu, reading from his novel Die Ungehaltenen in German and English at Rathaus Schöneberg on Thursday. Exciting!

Alternative Top Ten

The usual bestseller lists in Germany are published by Der Spiegel and are often dominated by crime writing and translated (genre) fiction, which is not so much my bag. But look, I've found this alternative list compiled by the Berlin-Brandenburg station radioeins: die radioeins-Bücherliste. It comes out every Monday and consists of titles that sell well in bookshops around the region. This week it's topped by Sofi Oksanen and Robert Seethaler – two writers I approve of – and contains both fiction and non-fiction, including a diatribe against lazy teenagers translated from the Italian.

The Spiegel list is more accurate, compiled from electronic sales data from 500 bookshops around Germany as opposed to radioeins's vague "asking bookshops in Berlin, Potsdam, Cottbus, Frankfurt/Oder, Brandenburg and Rheinsberg". But the radioeins list is more personal, I suspect, reflecting what you might be advised if you asked a local bookseller for a tip. Sympatico.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Saving the ocelot

My favourite local bookshop has gone into insolvency. I've only written about the place once, which is odd because I go there a lot. It's an ambitious project – a smartly designed bricks-and-mortar store with an outstanding selection of titles, apparently excellent coffee, events, a blog, and an online store of its own. I'm talking about ocelot on Brunnenstraße, obviously. Owner Frithjof Klepp set out to make his shop stand out, and he bet big. That design didn't come cheap, and nor did the custom-made online shop. Unfortunately, it seems that extra costs for the website and unforeseen sickness pay blew the budget.

But this wouldn't be Berlin if insolvency were a genuine nail in the coffin of culture. Look at the Suhrkamp publishing house, which opened insolvency proceedings in May of last year and is still going strong. Even the city's new airport is bankrupt before the first plane has ever landed there. Unlike BER, Klepp does have a business plan. ocelot will continue trading and is looking for investors.

If you're in Berlin, the best way to support this excellent bookshop is to go in and buy books. This coming Saturday there are two special projects going on, though – this is a place with a lot of loyal fans. One plan is a flashmob: you can print out an ocelot mask and meet like-minded book-lovers across the road at 4 p.m. to descend on the shop and prowl around, before buying a book. If you're not the kind of person who likes to wear animal masks on public thoroughfares, you can also just turn up at any time on Saturday, get your picture taken and uploaded to this as-yet empty site in support of the place (and presumably buy a book). They explain it better on this Facebook event page.

If you're not in Berlin but you are in Germany and you like ordering books online, you can use their website to do so, with free delivery. And I believe they're planning to add international deliveries at some point – which would be an excellent way to get hold of German books when you live outside the German-speaking world, don't you agree?

It seems a little odd that so many people would rally around one particular bookshop when all of them have it tough. It feels like favouritism, in a way. But I have to say that ocelot is a very special bookshop and it would hurt if it had to close down. Maybe it's the enthusiasm the place radiates, the love it seems to give back. Pop in and buy a book, why don't you? Every little helps.