Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Hotlist Hotlist 2015

God, lists make for such easy blogging. The "Hotlist" is a top ten of outstanding books produced by independent publishers in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Although there is a prize in the end, awarded at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the money goes to the publisher rather than the writer and/or translator. So it's about raising the profile of these books and rewarding excellence under difficult publishing conditions. Anyway, today they released the, erm, Hotlist. Here are some links and brief descriptions of this rather diverse list.

Merle Kröger: Havarie, Argument Verlag
A dinghy full of migrants, a container freighter and a cruise ship meet in the Mediterranean – a crime novel on the edge of Fortress Europe by an award-winning writer

Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki: Tumor linguae, Edition Korrespondenzen 
Bilingual edition of selected works by a cult poet, translated from Polish by Michael Zgodzay and Uljana Wolf 

Rauni Magga Lukkari / Inger-Mari Aikio-Arianaick: Erbmütter - Welttöchter, Eichenspinner Verlag
Two women Sami poets from different generations, in German translation by Christine Schlosser, in a really good-looking edition
Arno Camenisch: Die Kur, Engeler Verlag
Novel about an elderly couple in 47 "images", whatever that may mean, by a Swiss writer who this time writes in German, I think

Dinaw Mengestu: Unsere Namen, Kein & Aber Verlag
American novel set in the Midwest and Uganda, translated by Verena Kilchling

Monika Rinck: Risiko und Idiotie, kookbooks
Essay collection by a poet, on risk and idiocy and what comes after poetry – apparently revealing and hilarious

Sifiso Mzobe: Young Blood, Peter Hammer Verlag
South African novel about a teenage car thief, translated by Stephanie von Harrach

Heike Geißler: Saisonarbeit, Spector Books
I love this book and I feel no shame at declaring it my absolute favourite. Musings on the general crapness of paid labour, triggered by a seasonal job at the Leipzig Amazon warehouse. You may have a chance to read some of it in English soon, I hope. 

Anke Stelling: Bodentiefe Fenster, Verbrecher Verlag
I'm not that keen but everyone else loves this novel about a Prenzlauer Berg mum losing her marbles. Also nominated for the German Book Prize.

Kai Weyand: Applaus für Bronikowski, Wallstein Verlag
Comic novel about an unambitious man who gets a job at a funeral parlour. Also nominated for the German Book Prize.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Sascha Reh: Gegen die Zeit

Part of my work is translating samples from German novels, which are sent out by the publishers to other publishers around the world in the hope that the other publishers will buy the translation rights. Occasionally the books I get advanced access to by this route aren't to my taste but usually they're exciting, because German publishers only have a limited budget for these translations – so they choose their most promising titles.

Sascha Reh's latest novel Gegen die Zeit falls into the Very Exciting Indeed category. Unfortunately, it's been months and months since I read it. But to ease back out of my summer r e l a x a t i o n mode and into some kind of regular term-time blogging routine, I shall now attempt to tell you more about it anyway.

The book is set in Santiago in the early 1970s. Ears pricking up yet? Yes, it's about Allende and Pinochet, but the story is built around a German narrator. Hans Everding, disenchanted by the German left and its eternal discussion circles, has gone to Chile and starts work as an industrial designer for a government cybernetics programme. Ears pricking up more now? And the action kicks in on 11 September, the day of the putsch, with Everdings and a colleague attempting to save vital data from Pinochet's clutches and also not get killed.

It seems that Reh came across a real-life revolutionary cybernetics project in 1970s Santiago and built a novel around it; a literary novel with thriller-like aspects, let's say. The material is literary gold, I have to say: computer technology put to use for the sake of the national economy, attempting to steer production in real time with no commercial interests. A third way between the Soviet planned economy and Ikea (but smaller and more impromptu than both). The author has an article about Project Cybersyn in Der Spiegel, which you should read right now if you're interested in these things. If you don't read German, go there anyway and click through the photos, which are a fabulous treat for design lovers. Orange upholstery! Moulded plastic chairs with built-in ashtrays! Because why coordinate production without a cigar?

OK, so now imagine there's a novel closely based on the events of the time, bit of a love story, bit of adventure, bit of idealism, lots of tension building up, all written in the slightly stiff voice of a German engineer with an outsider's eye who gradually softens up and begins to identify with the project and the people behind it, eventually forced to ask himself where his loyalties lie. You'd want to read that, wouldn't you? Right now you have two options: learn German and buy the book, or read my sample translation via the top link, set up a publishing house and get the whole book translated. Or you're lucky enough to read German already, in which case the path to enlightenment is considerably shorter. I recommend taking it.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Letters from Berlin

Writers writing about Berlin in English is a tricky thing for me, something I'm gradually coming to terms with as the city changes around me. Two years ago I tried to put into words how I felt about the phenomenon, and I would say I've become slightly more accepting since then. Still, though, I wasn't overly enthusiastic to begin with about the idea of The Pigeonhole's Letters from Berlin, a series of English texts about twelve of Berlin's districts. Last night, though, I heard extracts from two of the twelve, on Wedding by Marcel Krüger and on Treptow-Köpenick – my favourite so far – by my friend Joseph Given.

Yes, the event was in a micro-brewery in Wedding, where ordering a drink became a two-way linguistic juggling session with me and the man behind the bar both throwing German balls at each other before giving up and communicating directly. And yes, I shall have to pay penance by attending three bottom-achingly long German readings in a row, perhaps including poetry. But this is just to say that – although I wish someone would simply commission German writers to write about Berlin and get the stuff translated into English (at a fair price) so that Anglophone readers would get a broader picture, and although some of the pieces so far tend to revisit certain themes a little too often for my taste, and although, once again, I don't always recognize the writers' personal versions of their areas – actually you could do worse than subscribing to the whole Letters to Berlin thing.

The pieces are quite varied, from subjective accounts of arrival and home-building to more objectively informative texts to Given's more literary approach, but they all feature sneaky little extras like photos, audio and video material. You can also comment directly in floating footnotes and read other people's notes. If you've lived in Berlin for a while you might not learn many hard and fast facts, but that's not why we read anyway, is it?    

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

German Book Prize 2015 Longlist

They've announced the twenty titles on the longlist for the German Book Prize (designed to emulate the Booker), from 167 submissions. Here they are, with links, in English where possible but mostly in German:

First impressions? There are a lot of big fat doorstoppers on this list, with Peltzer, Setz, Witzel, Kopetzky and Zaimoglu, but also a couple of nice bijou treats and two babushkas. Looks like this year's judges paid attention to the clamour for more women on the longlist in 2014 (although there are only two women judges this time around). I'm looking forward to reading Erpenbeck, as you can imagine, and Helle. I've read two titles in full (Setz and Stelling), dipped into the Mahlke but lost the plot, and am working on Zaimoglu. Plus I just started reading Schwitter yesterday!

I shall track down the booklet of extracts and post my traditional take on the longlist in due time. Until then, enjoy the fun with the Book Prize Bloggers (linked via Facebook), an interestingly disparate group of people and proof that both the industry and the bloggers themselves are taking German book blogs more seriously.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Next We Take New York

I'm back! Did you miss me? I've been doing some much-needed r e l a x i n g – including the always delightful BCLT Summer School – and am pretty much back up to speed now. Note that I have recovered my natural cheer, despite it being hot as hell here right now.

And something quite exciting is coming up next month, for me at least. I'm going to the USA! My first time as an adult! I went to Philadelphia when I was seven but I don't remember it all that well apart from visiting my first ever shopping mall, where someone had kindly gobbed on the escalator handrail, thus putting me off malls for life. Worse things have happened.

Apart from just standing around with my mouth open in amazement, I shall be doing two official things in New York. Or am I supposed to call it New York City? The first is open to the public (you lucky, lucky public) and is a panel discussion at the Goethe Institut, Net Lit Unlimited. You can blame me for that title.

And the second thing is by invitation only, but if you tell them I sent you they might let you join in anyway. You probably have to have either a modicum of translation experience or a burning passion for literary translation, and you definitely have to speak German. It's a chance to bask in my infinite translatorly wisdom, an opportunity rarely available outside of Europe.

TransLab –

Workshop for up-and-coming literary translators from German to English led by Katy Derbyshire.

Date: Tuesday, September 22, 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm (subject to change)
Place: Goethe-Institut, New York
            30 Irving Place, 4th Floor
            New York, NY 10003

12:00 pm – 1:00 pm: Warm-up exercise:  What makes a good translation?
1pm – 1:30 pm: Translators will be assigned to small groups. They will translate up to three short passages.
1:30 pm – 3:00 pm: Group exercise: Editing the translations
This segment will focus on choices involving the narrative voice, and how to write a coherent text.

(Katy Derbyshire is originally from London and has lived in Berlin for many years. She translates contemporary German writers including Inka Parei, Clemens Meyer, Helene Hegemann, and Dorothee Elmiger. Katy blogs at love german books and co-hosts a monthly translation lab and the bimonthly Dead Ladies Show.)

By Invitation only. For more information, please email Riky Stock: stock at newyork.gbo.org

A collaboration between the German Book Office and the Goethe-Institut, New York.

See you there, lovely New Yorkers! And it better not be too hot by then.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Ralf Rothmann: Im Frühling sterben

A caveat to begin with: it has been a while since I finished reading Ralf Rothmann's latest novel, Im Frühling sterben. I wasn't sure what to write about it and so I didn't write anything. Now, though, I've noticed the book has stayed in my mind and I want to get it off my chest (where is it, then, mind or chest? Certainly somewhere I'd rather it wasn't).

The novel is possibly the story of Rothmann's own father; certainly, some critics seem to think so. Teenagers in 1944 but nominally protected from conscription by their apprenticeships as milkers – essential to the war effort – Walter Urban and his friend Fiete Caroli are pressed into signing up "voluntarily" to the Waffen-SS. They leave bucolic northern Germany and are sent first on a truncated training programme and then to the eastern front, which by then is in Hungary. While Walter is put into the supplies service as a driver, rebellious Fiete has to fight. His attempt at desertion falls flat and the two boys find themselves at opposite ends of a firing squad.

After the war dissolves into chaos, Walter makes his way back to the farm but there is no job waiting for him there. He tracks down his old romance, now a cynical waitress, to start a new life. The action is bookended by a description of the narrator's taciturn miner father before his death and a scene in which the narrator, a writer, fails to find his parents' grave site in a snow-covered cemetery.

Walter, too, had made an abortive attempt to locate the place where his father was buried. This unknown grandfather figure is portrayed as utterly despicable; he was a violent husband and a sexually abusive father who joined the SS and became a concentration camp guard. We learn through a letter Walter receives on the front that he was dismissed, apparently for passing on cigarettes to prisoners, and put into a penal division as canon fodder. Duly killed, he was presumably buried close to where Walter is stationed. Having rescued a commander's son, Walter is granted leave to seek out his father's burial site, but instead of finding it he witnesses the horrors of the end of the war, the brutish SS dancing on the volcano. Our naive protagonist refuses to participate – but is he guilty by association?

I have two problems with the novel. The first is its aesthetic. Rothmann is a great favourite among translators; he writes with precision and beauty about working people and their lives, and Im Frühling sterben is no exception. His language is no doubt a joy to translate, and here too we are treated to some gorgeous passages. They describe, as ever in Rothmann's work, darkness and light; the delights of a cowshed with its smells, sounds and muted colours or a seething mass of inebriated, copulating SS men. But at some point that aesthetic tipped over, for me, and became reminiscent of an instagrammed photo with its sharp focus on one detail to the detriment of its surroundings, with all the triviality that look has now assumed. I think that moment was the book's description of an American POW camp, where soldiers have cast off their dog-tags by hanging them on the fence and the metal tags jingle in the wind like an aeolian harp. It's a very pretty image but it reminded me of the cliché of children's hands clutching at mesh used to illustrate refugee camps, where everything but the emotive – i.e. the political, the causes of the situation – fades into soft-focus.

My second issue is the "good German" trope. Walter Urban is a character so virtuous that he borders on the ridiculous. He fires only one shot during the war, and maybe not even that one. He refuses to kill innocent locals, although they die anyway. He gives food to a dying concentration camp inmate on a forced march westwards. His war crime, if you like, is not deserting, not rebelling, fighting only for his own survival and no one else's, aware of the concentration camps' existence but naive about their reality. Yes, Rothmann does raise this issue by comparing Walter and Fiete. He does gently accuse his father figure of complicity through lack of resistance, as his generation famously did. And yet by creating a character with hands so clean it's almost outlandish, he perpetuates what I see as his generation's inability to go that step further and recognize their fathers as war criminals.

Let's think a little about the German family myth. The anecdotes vary between East and West. In West German family narratives, people's parents and grandparents simply didn't know the extent of the Nazis' crimes; they were allegedly unaware of the camps and kept ignorant of the atrocities on the front. In East Germany, so the narrative goes, fathers and grandfathers were in some way active in the resistance. It takes a brave person, and a brave writer, to imagine their father or grandfather as a swine or a convinced fascist, and I've been told countless stories that people – understandably – use to deal with the burden of possible familial guilt: a grandmother may have been raped, meaning they aren't the biological descendants of their SS grandfathers; their fathers were called up late in the war and were practically children at the time (see Günter Grass); their grandfathers were conscripted but had previously been socialists or even put into concentration camps at the beginning of the Nazi regime (this did happen but it doesn't mean those soldiers were necessarily paragons of virtue once they got to the front). Opa war kein Nazi. No one wants to be descended from a war criminal, and perhaps that's what makes the "good German" such an enduringly popular trope in fiction and film.

Rothmann appears to be no exception. I'm not sure how far he reflects on this himself. It might be that Walter's sudden sympathy for his dead bastard of a father is a nod to the writer's own desire to paint his protagonist in such glowing colours, comparatively speaking; as a coward but a virtuous one. The narrator's stumbling around the snowy graveyard might be pointing us in that very direction. And yet, and yet. If a father refuses to talk about his war experiences, as was common and is the case within the narrative, a child can choose what to imagine. I would say Inka Parei's What Darkness Was is a braver confrontation of possible parental guilt, although less obvious about doing so. But I would say that because I translated it.

English-language rights have sold to Picador in the UK and FSG in the US/Canada, so you'll have a chance to make your own mind up even if you don't speak German. The book is doing very well in Germany, so much so that there were howls of frustration when it emerged that Rothmann asked for it not to be submitted for the German Book Prize. I'm sure Anglophone readers will go for it too; perhaps this will be the book that makes a name for Rothmann in English. If you'd like to read his beautiful writing without the sour aftertaste, I recommend seeking out Young Light (tr. Wieland Hoban) or Fire Doesn't Burn (tr. Mike Mitchell).

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

2015 Hotlist Longlist

You can now vote for one of 30 titles nominated for the German-language independent publishers' award, the excruciatingly named Hotlist. Independents submit one book each and a committee or something chooses the top 30, then there's this online vote, then a jury of German, Swiss and Austrian literary types picks a shortlist of seven plus three from the online vote, then the jury picks one of those ten as best indie book of the year. The results are often surprising; last year it was a photo essay about employees at CERN. The € 5000 prize money goes to the publishing house and there's a second prize consisting of a € 4000 printing voucher. Then there's a big party in Frankfurt.

I've already voted.