Sunday, 27 November 2011

Steven Uhly: Adams Fuge

The writer Steven Uhly has been in the German press rather a lot recently - firstly for winning the Tukan literary prize with his novel Adams Fuge (Adam's Fugue) and secondly for taking part in a feature on the TV magazine Aspekte, in which he went to Jena and talked about how uncomfortable he feels in the former East Germany, prompting much indignation in said university town. I will mention only briefly that I find the feature's format dubious and superficial, especially bearing in mind that the very same team already used it during the summer to rush racist ex-politician Thilo Sarrazin through multi-ethnic Kreuzberg, enraging the locals there too. But I assume it's good for viewing figures and cheap to make.

Why Jena, and why Uhly? Because Jena is where the three neo-Nazi terrorists ("NSU") originated from who murdered ten people over the past 13 years before two of them were found dead in a caravan. And because Uhly's novel touches on one of the most scandalous aspects of this already extremely scandalous case: the V-Leute in neo-Nazi organisations.

I'm not sure how other inland security agencies work, but the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution uses long-term informants within groups it investigates, called V-Leute. They were originally called V-Männer (and Hitler was one too, according to Wikipedia) but they obviously thought up a gender-neutral term. They're not members of the security services themselves but they are paid for their involvement in the organisations in question, be they illegal or merely suspected of endangering the constitution. In 2003 the constitutional court found there was no case for banning the extreme right NPD party because its organisation and its policies were propped up by paid informers. About 15 percent of the top officials were secretly being paid by the government, as The Guardian reported at the time. Let's say it's a grey area as to how active these informers are. In the case of the terrorist cell from Jena, very grey: the three terrorists were considered members of the "Thüringer Heimatschutz" - a network masterminded by the V-Mann Thilo Brandt that forged links between neo-Nazis groups. There has also been speculation about a former security agent who was present at the scene of one of the murders. And certainly, the large amounts of money thrown at the V-Leute in neo-Nazi organisations didn't prevent ten people from being murdered and didn't lead to the terrorists' arrest.

Ulrich Peltzer looked at an informant within a left-wing group in his excellent novel Part of the Solution (trans. Martin Chalmers). Here, the V-Mann is the one who steps up the intensity of the group's activities, acting as an agent provocateur.

In Uhly's novel, the V-Mann is a neo-Nazi who creates a computer game in which players have to kill as many Turks as possible. He also seems to be double-dealing with all sorts of agencies and forces, from Mossad to Kurdish nationalists. But back to the beginning.

Adams Fuge is a very eccentric book. To attempt to sum up the plot: a boy is born to a German mother and Turkish father in Mannheim, the mother leaves her violent husband and he moves to Turkey with his three children. The boy joins the army and happens to kill a Kurdish rebel leader, more or less by chance. He is given a medal and sent back to Germany under a false name as a reluctant secret agent. His task is to get rid of the neo-Nazi but before that he finds his long-lost mother and her new family. There follows much bizarreness. More agents and double-agents crop up than in a Mission Impossible double-bill, but Adam/Adem is haunted by the people he kills on his rather clumsy trip around Germany, who help him to survive. His father is kidnapped by the Kurds, who demand a mysterious file which is embedded in the racist computer game and Adam/Adem and the whole reunited family set out to rescue him, evading the police as they do so.

Family secrets are flushed to the surface and, as one might expect, Adam's mother has the odd issue with her son committing rape and murder all around the country. And there's an extended family discourse on anti-Semitism prompted by the involvement of a Mossad agent. Having suffered a shot through the head, Adam begins to lose his eyesight under pressure, during which he comes across his childhood first love. A spot of romanticism between the sheets soon puts that right though and rids him of all those ghosts, just in time for him to save the day. If only it weren't for his bungling Turkish brothers...

The outlandish plot is a pastiche lightly camouflaging some deep-ish ideas about identities. Adam's official nationality wavers in the course of the novel as he is given one passport after another: from Turkish to German to Israeli to American. Like Adam/Adem himself, the other agents he encounters have rather fluid motivations (like the aforementioned V-Mann, who does of course come to a satisfyingly sticky end). All of them lead dual lives with multiple names, and almost all of them are double-dealing somewhere along the line, whether for pecuniary or personal reasons. As the narrator cack-handedly bumps off enemy agents (usually to his own great regret), their identities pass over into his own and they carry out dialogues inside his head – at times he's unsure who he really is. And of course he's half-German and half-Turkish, which prompts some thoughts on the issue of multinational origins. The Tukan Prize jury wrote:

The secret services play a double game and impose identities on their agents to replace their humanity. Only when Adam refuses to define himself via national or religious affiliations can he stop the killing. (...) In Adams Fuge Steven Uhly plays provocatively with our prejudices, only to demolish them in the end.
I'm not entirely sure that second part is true, although it may have been his intention. The characters do indeed seem like caricatures - the liberal German grandfather, the wife-beating Turk, the wandering Jew, and so on. But he doesn't have time to demolish our prejudices about them individually because he's too caught up in his fast-moving plot. So all the work of demolishing is done by means of rather clumsy inner monologues or discussions within the family. And perhaps I'm missing something, but there are times when these sections just read like bad writing and made me want to skip a page.

What attracted me to the book in the first place is that it's a rare example (in German-language literature) of a phenomenon that the scholar Katrin Sieg calls "ethnic drag". That is, donning a different ethnic identity on stage such as the Jew or the Native American. Another recent example would be Astrid Rosenfeld's strikingly similarly titled Adams Erbe, featuring a Jewish narrator. In this case, Uhly is of German-Bengali origin, "with partial roots in the Spanish culture" as it says at the back of the book, whereas his narrator is a Turkish German. I can well imagine he gave him this national identity both in the belief that national identities are bunkum and in the assumption that a book about a Bangladeshi secret agent wouldn't work terribly well. But because the characters are so two-dimensional I got the impression that he hadn't gone to much trouble to research that particular identity other than giving his narrator an affinity to minarets and an unhealthy respect for his superiors. Add to that the fact that he pronounced his name wrong when I saw him reading from the novel, and the whole effort seems to fall slightly flat.

Nevertheless, it's worth reading for the sheer fun of it all.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Axolotl Blockbuster

So as various newspapers reported yesterday, Helene Hegemann is making a film of her fantastic and wonderful novel Axolotl Roadkill. Regular readers will know that I loved the book so much I bought the company translated it. The English version should be out next year from Constable & Robinson in the UK. Actually, I've known for some time about the film project, but being a very discreet kind of person I didn't let on. One reason I knew about it is that a less discreet person, the critic and chair of the jury for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair Verena Auffermann, announced the fact on stage at the awards ceremony last spring. But obviously no one else was listening.

Anyway, another thing I know is that it's going to be an excellent film, slightly less dark than the novel, and again playing on Hegemann's collage technique inspired by Kathy Acker. And it's going to have an amazing soundtrack. According to the press, the production company Vandertastic Productions have received a public funding injection of €50,000.

Little Miss Hegemann (19) has just staged her first play as well, by the name of Lyrics. I'm not quite sure exactly what it's about (except that it's entirely unrelated to Axolotl Roadkill and she was mentored by René Pollesch and it's what they call "anti-narrative") but it premiered in Düsseldorf and it's coming to Berlin in January. You can also watch her debut film Torpedo, which she made when she was about eight and which you could see as a kind of prequel to Axolotl Blockbuster. And I believe there was a puppet show version of the novel too, but that went too far even for me.

I'm taking a deep breath and reminding myself that I was having a great time at the age of 19 myself. Just in a different way.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Stay in Sweden, Support Poetry Publisher

Publishing poetry is not likely to get anyone rich. So how to finance it? Already slightly unusual, the Sweden-based German poetry imprint Edition Rugerup has come up with a novel way to subsidise its books, which are mainly international poetry translated into German.

As trade mag Börsenblatt reports, you can now book a stay in the small village of Rugerup itself, in the home of the publisher (and translator) Margitt Lehbert. They say:
The house, built in 1866, has a large library but also German TV and – for those who like that kind of thing – a Spiegel subscription. There's an Internet connection to keep you in touch with the world. The household includes two lively children, aged 13 and 11,  sheepdog Laika and two cats.
Photos on the Rugerup Facebook page.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Swiss Book Prize to Catalin Dorian Florescu

Oops, I blinked and missed the announcement of the Swiss Book Prize. It went to Catalin Dorian Florescu, a Romanian-born writer, for his novel Jacob beschliesst zu lieben. 

Apparently it's a 300-year epos of a Swabian family that settles in Rumania, mainly focusing on the Jacob of the title in the 1920s to 50s. Love, friendship, betrayal, dictatorship, deportation, survival - European history.

Reviews have been mixed. A lot of critics loved the sweeping epic and colourful folklore, while Jörg Magenau pointed out that unlike Herta Müller, Florescu seems unwilling to place any blame or find any explanations for hunger, mistreatment and war, and got rather upset about it.

Florescu is reading at February's exciting Festival Neue Literatur in New York - and you can read an English sample from the novel (translated by John Hargraves) on their website.

Monday, 21 November 2011

no man's land Events

no man’s land in Hamburg: sailing on The Story Boat
8 pm – 11pm,  Friday, 25th November
Centro Sociale, Sternstraße 2, Hamburg-Sternschanze (U-Bahn: Feldstraße)

In a Hamburg first, The Story Boat is hosting no man’s land, the online magazine for new German literature in translation. With translators Mark Terrill and Henry Holland and work by Jörg Fauser, Peter Rühmkorf, Christine Marendon and Mirko Bonné.

no man's land # 6 launch reading
November 28, 8 p.m.
Saint Georges Bookshop
Wörther Str. 27, Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg
with Zehra Çirak, Michael Roes and Daniela Seel.
no man's land launches Issue # 6 with a bilingual reading featuring authors Zehra Çirak, Michael Roes and Daniela Seel. Zehra Çirak holds the prestigious Chamisso Prize for writing in German as a second language, along with numerous other awards. One of Germany's leading "poets of the foreign", Michael Roes is a novelist, poet, anthropologist and filmmaker. Daniela Seel, publisher of Berlin's legendary KookBooks, is also an accomplished experimental poet.

Tonight's authors reflect the range of an issue that also includes poetry by Lars-Arvid Brischke, Dieter M. Gräf, Christine Marendon, Monika Rinck, Peter Rühmkorf, Ulrike Almut Sandig, Donna Stonecipher and Jan Wagner and fiction by Eleonore Frey, Michael Lentz, Eva Menasse, Lutz Seiler and Keto von Waberer, and a documentation of Ann Cotten's and Monika Rinck's performance "The Igel Flies Tonight". Issue # 6 will appear November 28 at

As usual, drinks will be available from the Saint Georges bar, and you are welcome to linger, chat and celebrate with us after the reading!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Celebrate/Commemorate Kleist

On Monday, 21 November it will be 200 years to the day since the German writer Heinrich von Kleist killed the salonnière Henriette Vogel and himself on the shore of what is now Berlin's Kleiner Wannsee. All sorts of commemorations have been taking place in Berlin and the rest of Germany for "Kleist Year". Theatre, as you might imagine, but also exhibitions visual and acoustic and a new gravestone for the two of them at the spot where they died, as suicides were not buried in churchyards. I rather like the look of this docu-drama screened on TV in March, which of course I missed: die Akte Kleist.

Anyway, if like me you've missed out on everything already - or in fact are not actually physically present in Berlin - you still have a chance to join in the fun and frolics. Because Monday sees an amazing number of Kleist readings all day long, all around the world. From Togo to Kazakhstan, there are literally way too many for me to list here, so please go to the list of readings. The ones in the English-speaking world are in Oxford, Cambridge (UK), Galway (Ire), Sydney (Aus), Auckland, Wellington (NZ), and Albuquerque, Williamstown,  Long Beach, Fayetteville, Washington DC, New York and Pittsburgh (USA). I may have missed some. The one in Berlin is at the gravesite.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

A Few Links to My Buddies

First off an interesting interview with Robert Walser translator Susan Bernofsky at Bookforum. Among other things, she talks about her excellent blog Translationista:
People send me books to review on the blog and I would love do more of that; to have a review where the reviewer is required to talk at length about the translation as part of the review. Not enough book reviews do that in significant way because there’s limited space and it’s not a priority to discuss the translation. But from my point of view it is a priority, so I’m going to create a space where that priority can be honored.
I'm looking forward to that.

Then we have a piece on Indian publishers Seagull Books, with sound bites from my friend Donal McLaughlin and myself on what exactly they do with translators, in trade mag Publishing Perspectives. I really must watch my use of exclamations marks.

And another dear friend, Jamie Lee Searle, writes about a great new mentoring scheme for emerging translators in the UK at her blog between the lines.

Monday, 14 November 2011

World's Best Writers' Grant?

There are writer-in-residence programmes where you get to stay in remote villages and contribute to the local community. There's a new programme for a visiting German writer in New Zealand, where they give you a mobile home and tell you to bugger off for a couple of months. You could stay in a dead writer's Los Angeles villa and hire a car to get to the nearest supermarket. But what if you'd just like to, you know, stay at home and get on with things?

Well, lucky old you - there's also the Berlin Writers' Grant. Oh, there's a small drawback. You have to already live in Berlin, and I believe you have to write in German (although I have anecdotal evidence that at least one British writer wangled a grant back in the golden olden days of West Berlin). But that's pretty much all they ask. Thirteen writers each get €12,000 spread over six months, to do whatever they ruddy well like with. No need to write a blog, no need to feature the place in their next novel, no need to even leave the house for six months. In fact the lady from the art subsidies department said they don't even care if the writers spend the money on a fitted kitchen.

With an official tally of 1200 professional writers living in Berlin, there's a bit of competition for the grants. Which means the projects they support are of consistently high quality. A jury, changed every year, picks the lucky winners out of about 300 applications, and every November there's a public reading. This year's was yesterday, and I went along as I have in the past couple of years. It's near my house in the opulent mirrored salon at the Berliner Ensemble, it costs €3 for a whole stack of writers plus live music, and they serve free food and wine. I tell you this every year, to be honest, but you all forget again by the time the next November comes around and don't actually join me at what is possibly the world's best publicly subsidised Sunday lunchtime literary activity.

This year, as it turned out, I knew a good handful of the writers. We had Deniz Utlu reading rhythmic, slightly pathos-laden prose about a young outsider and Dagmara Kraus reading fun soundscape poems mixing Mary Poppins with Australian hunting implements. There was Steffen Popp, a man whose previous prose I have attempted to translate and felt woefully inadequate, with more flipped-out stuff on the boundaries. Thomas Pletzinger read from an entertaining project of interlinking short stories set in a village, or possibly he just read entertainingly and the project is deadly serious. Lucy Fricke gave us a frustrated Foley artist in Japan, which sounded intriguing. Hendrik Jackson shouted some Siberian post-Stalinist poetry, followed by Ulrich Schlotmann with a collection of apparently unconnected sentences that he said take a great deal of time to put together - one suspected a kind of anti-profit motif behind the whole undertaking.

Marion Poschmann read something beautiful but I've completely forgotten what it was about. Annika Scheffel had researched into villages that get flooded to make reservoirs (and sported by far the best outfit), and Bernd Cailloux shared some delightful prose about a sixty-year-old man with a new girlfriend. My favourite was Rainer Merkel, who took a year off writing in 2009 to work as a psychologist for an NGO in Liberia. I translated an extract from his last novel about a failing relationship, which I enjoyed in a slightly masochistic way, but his new project seemed very different. Written from the perspectives of a German child visiting Liberia and a blind Liberian child, it was humorous and touching and seemed to address some important issues, such as the psychology of NGO workers themselves. And he also managed to steer clear of the dangerous traps of the twee and the worthy.

I like to kid myself that attending the reading gives me a special insight into what writers are working on. The atmosphere is always very relaxed and it does feel rather honest - possibly because the event is during the daytime but also, I think, because the authors are talking about their projects for more or less the first time in public. So they haven't said it all five hundred times before, even if they do umm and ahh a little - especially when it comes to the question of when they'll be finished.

One writer did mention privately that he had in fact bought a kitchen during the grant period. But Bertolt Brecht, we were told, said it was perfectly alright for the arts to be subsidised as long as pork was too.* So here's to the artificially low-priced sausage.

*BB is Germany's equivalent of George Bernard Shaw in that he obviously never stopped talking and left a wealth of apocryphal witticisms for posterity. A very brief internet search certainly provided no evidence to support this anecdote, but it's still really cool and I'm going to quote it on every possible occasion.

Friday, 11 November 2011

All the Lights Playlist Part 3

Here's the third and final installment of the playlist to go with Clemens Meyer's short story collection All the Lights. Do go out and buy a copy, why don't you?

Story Eleven: Riding the Rails – two men who form a bond in prison meet up again on the outside and travel around Germany pulling petty crimes. The song: KD Lang’s Ridin’ the Rails – because this is how the two imagine themselves, a romantic couple of hobos. The title (which is a long way from the original “Wir reisen”) wasn’t inspired by the song, but it could have been.

Story Twelve: Your Hair Is Beautiful – a man abandons his wife, having fallen for a prostitute he believes to be Lithuanian. The song: Joe Cocker, You Are So Beautiful – because it’s ridiculous and obsessive and OTT and imagine someone saying something like that to you. You’d want to do something nasty to them too.

Story Thirteen: A Ship Will Come – a young asylum-seeker boxes her way up through life. The song: Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life – because it’s punchy and go-getting and there’s no resisting it. And it's in Trainspotting, which a few people have compared Clemens' writing to.

Story Fourteen: Carriage 29 – a wine salesman finds himself on a train and can’t quite work out what on earth he’s doing there. The song: The Beatles’ Helter Skelter – because this is one of those Clemens Meyer stories that whirls you round and makes you dizzy and brash with confusion, just like the protagonist.

Story fifteen: The Old Man Buries His Beasts – an old man kills his animals and says goodbye to his neighbours in a dying village. I have to admit I was stumped to find a song to go with this very precisely told, melancholy story. To I crowdsourced it and my colleague Shaun Whiteside came up with Randy Newman’s Old Man – the perfect match.

Anyway, thanks for your patience, and do excuse the rather strange link choices. It's partly because a lot of material isn't available for viewing in Germany due to Youtube restrictions.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

All the Lights Playlist Part 2: Guest Post by Jamie Lee Searle

Following on from yesterday’s Part 1 of the playlist, I jumped at the chance when Katy asked if I’d like to write a guest post and choose the next five tracks. I was lucky enough to edit her translations of Clemens Meyer’s All the Lights, and fell for many of the stories in the process. Here are my picks:

Story Six: I’m Still Here – a journeyman boxer from Rotterdam on the road in Germany, who gets knocked down time and time again, but keeps on trying to make money to support his wife and future child. The song: Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer, not just because of the title, but the lyrics: ‘In the company of strangers/In the quiet of the railway station running scared.’ And, because he gives into temptation on occasion too: ‘I do declare, there were times when I was so lonesome/I took some comfort there.’

Story Seven: All the Lights – A man meets up with an old flame. Perhaps my favourite in the collection; the simple but powerful prose highlights everything they don’t say to each other. The song: Neil Young’s Heart of Gold. Because, for me, it fits the mood – that wistful awareness of what you could have had, but moving on all the same…

Story Eight: The Short Happy Life of Johannes Vettermann – a disturbing tale of a man holed up in an opulent hotel suite with drugs and hookers and memories. The song: Jimi Hendrix’ Purple Haze. Because the tense, hallucinogenic atmosphere of the song matches how I felt when I was reading and editing it.

Story Nine: A Trip to the River – a guy gets let out of prison and goes to visit his cellmate’s daughter to pass on some money to her, only to find she’s working as a hooker. The song: Johnny Cash’s San Quentin. ‘And I walk out a wiser, weaker man’. Because both the story and the song tell of difficult lives, bad things happen and repeat through the generations – but there’s an element of gritty determination to keep going too. And also because I love Johnny Cash and was determined to fit him in somewhere.

Story Ten: In the Aisles - about a shelf-stacker who spends his nights working in the aisles of a cash'n'carry and forms a tentative bond with two co-workers, an old man and a young, fragile married woman. The song: Barbara Jones' I Can't Help it, Darling. Katy actually suggested this one and I agreed as soon as I listened to it - because it has a bitter-sweet feeling that reminds me of the prose.

Thanks, Katy, for letting me join in!

Jamie Lee Searle is a German to English translator and blogs at
Many thanks from me too, for the editing and the playlist. Come back tomorrow for more musical fun, pop-pickers!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

All the Lights Playlist Part 1

Earlier this year I translated Clemens Meyer’s short story collection All the Lights, which you can get in good bookshops all over the UK right now, brought to you by the publishers And Other Stories. There are fifteen stories in All the Lights, and I just thought it might be fun to think up a playlist of one song to go with each story. Sort of like a translator’s soundtrack to the collection. It may not make a lot of sense to anyone else, but here it is (part 1):

Story One: Little Death – a man’s on the dole and missing his ex-girlfriend, losing his grip on life in general. The song: Richmond Fontaine’s Let Me Dream of the High Country – because of the first lines, “It’s time for him to get up, but he won’t / until he’s late." And because I met singer Willy Vlautin through Clemens. Although he’s not actually singing on this version:

Story Two: Waiting for South America – a man receives a series of postcards from a friend who says he’s come into money and gone travelling. The song: Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz, The Girl from Ipanema – because the story’s not really about Latin America, more about what we imagine it to be (among other things).

Story Three: The Shotgun, The Streetlamp and Mary Monroe – a man’s trying to go cold turkey and his girlfriend’s in bed. The song: Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender – because the first time I really met Clemens he sang this song (he was practicing for an upcoming karaoke session) and because this is a story about love and needing other people.

Story Four: Fatty Loves – a teacher doesn’t quite give into temptation, but he can’t control his physical appetite. The song: Boomtown Rats, I Don’t Like Mondays – because school can be hell for all concerned.

Story Five: Of Dogs and Horses – a man bets all he has at the races to save his dog’s life. The song: The Pioneers’ Long Shot Kick De Bucket – because it’s a song about how a horse can spoil your day.

More over the next couple of days...

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Translators Recommend...

Ah, translators! Where would you be without us? You'd be stuck on a gloomy little island reading books about tea and biscuits with the vicar*, that's where. In the interests of world peace and eternal literary harmony, Donal McLaughlin, Tess Lewis and myself (three venerable translators) have recommended some books for German Literature Month for Lizzy and her literary life. And Lizzy, being all-round lovely and more appreciative than most, kindly writes: "If, like me, you tend to read German literature only in English translation, it’s only fair and right to thank the wonderful translators, who make it possible."

I'm feeling all warm inside now.

*Insert cliché about your country and its national literature here.

Erpenbeck, Kehlmann, Schlink Longlisted

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is the largest and most international prize of its kind. Libraries from all round the world nominate books written in any language (but available in English) to form a whopping great longlist. The nominees for 2012 are all books first published in English during 2010. And this year's longlist includes three German books: Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation, trans. Susan Bernofsky,  Daniel Kehlmann's Fame, trans. Carol Brown Janeway, and Bernhard Schlink's The Weekend, trans. Shaun Whiteside.

Let's keep our fingers crossed that one or other of them makes it onto April's shortlist of ten. Certainly the lovely Visitation has been shortlisted for all sorts of things - wouldn't it be nice if it won something?

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Open Mike 2011

The Open Mike is probably - no, not probably, absolutely - the most important competition for young writers in German. It takes place across an entire weekend in November in Berlin, and has launched many a career. The idea is to take 22 writers under the age of 36, I believe, whittled down from over 700 entries this year, and get them to read for 15 minutes each, under the misleading title of "Open Mike". It's presumably the English title that encourages these young writers to sprinkle their texts with English phrases - or I'm just over 36 and don't understand the youth of today. Anyway, and then three writers choose their favourites and they get a bunch of flowers and are whisked away, Miss World-style, on a whistlestop tour of appearances in other cities.

There's also the taz-Audience Prize, where mere mortals choose their favourites and they just get a bunch of flowers and a nice taz mug and their story in the paper but not all the Miss World treatment. Regular readers may remember that I myself was one of the mere mortals allowed to choose the audience prize last year. This year, unfortunately, I couldn't actually attend the main competition - but I did go to the pre-event reading by past winners and also managed to catch the awards ceremony.

I'd been looking forward to the reading on Friday night because I was interested to find out what had become of our audience winner from last year, Sebastian Polmans. In fact I do know what's become of him; he's just published his first novel with Suhrkamp. I also know he had the contract in his pocket before we gave him the prize, but my vain ego wanted to hear grateful words from Polman's own lips for my personal part in building his legend. It was not to be - Polmans was sick and couldn't attend the event. Instead, we had Ondřej Cikán, who isn't a past winner in the strictest sense, not having actually won, but who did read some great cowboy poems in 2009. Alongside Konstantin Ames, who did win with his poems in 2009, and Rabea Edel, who won with prose in 2004.

German critics have been arguing recently about whether the autobiographically influenced first-person narrative has passed its zenith. Certainly, Friday evening was evidence of German writers who couldn't be much further away from that first-person model. Ames was not my cup of tea. I shall give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it was nerves that made him react so rudely to the moderator. And also that he is capable of thinking beyond national clichés à la: the British are better at irony. Whatever the case, however, he stated that poetry is not there to be understood, and his poems were indeed magnificently impenetrable. We learned nothing whatsoever about Konstantin Ames from his poems, except perhaps that he speaks English and French and reads Jandl.

The pattern continued with Cikán, who read from a glorious novel by the name of Menandros und Thaïs. It's set in ancient Greece! Sort of! With gruesome battles and abductions! And cups of tea! I was truly impressed and enjoyed the reading enormously, partly because it was such fun to see a writer go ahead and write about ancient Greek warriors and their soap-opera adventures. Ah! And then came Rabea Edel, who for me is the epitome of beautiful artifice. I mean that in a good way, Rabea. I know her vaguely, and like her, and yet I know absolutely nothing whatsoever about her because she seems to be a very private person. She read from her second novel Ein dunkler Moment, which again couldn't be more distinct from me, me, me literature. It's based very loosely around the Amanda Knox case, and I found it extremely chilling and extremely well-written, with a plot that is extremely unlikely and so all the more fascinating. There are writers, then, who prefer to keep themselves to themselves when it comes to their literature, despite the benefits or the ease of marketing oneself even through one's writing - I was going to call it banking in on the autobiographical, but that sounds too judgemental. Because of course it's a perfectly legitimate thing to do, and it's really the critics who need to stop discovering imaginary trends every ten minutes.

So then today I arrived at the venue just in time to catch precisely 30 seconds of the very last reading. This, I decided while talking to everyone else who'd just sat through two days solid of readings, was a great strategy. I bought the anthology to read later and appeared astoundingly witty and cheerful in comparison to the rest of the audience. It helped that my friend and I had a portion-sized bottle of fizzy wine each, which we drank through straws like the supermodels do, apparently. Just for that Miss World feeling. The drawback was that I couldn't enjoy the usual bitching sessions about the pretentious/talentless/bad-haired writers, but a few stock phrases got me by well enough: I can never concentrate on poetry, I hate it when they put English words into all their texts, They're just not adventurous enough these days, Why all the adjectives? and the classic: Didn't like her outfit much.

Eventually the juries had made their decisions and the press conference had been held, and we all took our seats for the ceremony. But what was this? Last year when I was on the audience jury - did I mention that already? - we had to go on stage and introduce ourselves personally in front of hundreds of people. And I died a million deaths and looked really shite. I know that because I saw a photo of myself later, so even if you were there and you saw me there's no point denying it. This year there was none of that, just a very brief list of the names and a wee speech from one of the jury members, none of whom looked shite. They chose Christina Böhm for her story "Platzanweisung", which was a bitter reflection on the culture industry from its margins, dripping with black humour. It also featured Kleist and Wyatt Earp. I wonder if Böhm would appreciate that it reminded me of Helene Hegemann? My quibble would be the ending: And then I woke up.

The jury jury (Felicitas Hoppe, Tilman Rammstedt and Kathrin Schmidt) also chose Christina Böhm, along with Joseph Felix Ernst for "Dora Diamant", which I found great fun, a fragmentary text about Dora and Kafka in the last few months of his life, and featuring a chess match rendered entirely in algebraic notation and a scientific lecture about moths and also several mentions of Kleist. I rather wish I'd seen Ernst reading it, although my favourite of Kafka's ladyfriends is of course Milena Jesenská. The designated poetry prize went to Sebastian Unger, who I'm assured is very good. Certainly his poems appear to be highly intertextual and semantically inventive.

Next year I'm sure I'll enjoy myself all the more for not having attended this time around.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Annett Gröschner: Walpurgistag

So there I was complaining that German writers tend to leave the exotic and what they endearingly term the “underclass” to exotic and “underclass” writers – more on that on another occasion – when along comes Annett Gröschner’s Walpurgistag. I discovered Gröschner through my colleague and now friend Lyn Marven, who included one of her short stories in the outstanding anthology Berlin Tales. Her 2000 debut novel Moskauer Eis (which I haven’t read) is also in critic Richard Kämmerlings’ top ten of contemporary German-language novels. Two rather persuasive referees, I must say.

But Walpurgistag doesn’t need them. The novel’s a firecracker, a sparkly, loud, wonderful advertisement for itself. Set on one day in 2003, the book follows a ragbag (almost literally) of characters around Berlin as they go about their business, either banal or bizarre but mostly the latter. We open with Alex, a tramp who lives on Alexanderplatz but may have some kind of shady Stasi past. And as Alex closes the novel as well and is one of two characters narrating in the first person, he shall be our hero of sorts, and he does indeed intervene in the other characters’ lives in various ways that I shan’t tell you about. Suffice to say he’s a magnificent character who has made me look at homeless people rather differently.

Then there’s Annja, who is storing her father in a large freezer and needs Alex’s help to move house. Yes, you read that right, it’s that quirky kind of book, but the dad doesn’t seem to be 100% dead. Or young Paul, who pacifies his alcoholic artist mother with stolen schnapps after a day of fare-dodging on high-speed trains. There’s Gerda, who moves into a retirement home on Kollwitzplatz after a lifetime down the road in the Bötzowviertel and is swiftly integrated into a band of three daredevil drunken old ladies. Andreas drives a taxi and gets a blow round the head. Micha cuts off people’s gas when they haven’t paid the bill, Katrin delivers pizzas and is looking forward to a hot blind date, Heike’s unexpectedly pregnant, Helga’s lost her memory, Viola finds her son’s long-lost father, and Sugar, Cakes and Candy don’t quite succeed in combating sexism and racism, but not for want of trying. And there are more – all criss-crossing the city on foot, by car, by public transport and on a skateboard. That multiple motion keeps the pace skipping along throughout.

As the day proceeds, most of the characters gradually convene on the Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg. It’s not just any day, you see, it’s 30 April – Walpurgis Night. Germanists will know all about it from Goethe’s Faust, which features a wonderful witching scene that Thomas Mann plays on in his Magic Mountain. And Gröschner gives us three sets of three witches from three generations – virgins, whores and hags, as my charming university tutor would no doubt have put it. They all come together to leap over the witches’ fire in the park before the story folds in on itself most satisfactorily.

There are things I love about the book in a formal way – primarily the fact that it shows us a cross-section of Berlin’s population, or perhaps a cross-section of the people who don’t usually feature in bright, sparkly Berlin novels: first-generation Turkish immigrants and their children, single mothers, homeless people, policemen, circus artistes, funeral musicians, special needs teachers, dog-owners, people who mend broken coffee makers rather than throwing them away. And Gröschner’s strong, sensuous female characters make my jaded feminist heart skip a beat.

And then there are things that I love about the book in a purely personal way – the way objects occasionally tell stories, to wit that coffee machine or Gerda’s removal boxes. The way the knowing literary references (Döblin is never terribly far away) all seem to come with a tongue firmly in cheek. The way Gröschner uses obscure locations like graveyards and bars and the only job centre I’ve ever been to here, the one that used to be the Stasi headquarters, adding local colour but not for colour’s sake – they all have something to contribute to the plot. The way she tells us so many life stories from East and West Berlin and raises so many issues in only 440 pages. The way her characters all have unique voices, from old-fashioned Berlin dialect to Sugar, Cakes and Candy:
Sugar’s picking her nose. ‘Would you stop doing that? Eat crisps if you need more salt.’ (…) Sugar grins and moves on to the other nostril. ‘I’ll chop off your index finger,’ hisses Cakes. ‘No point, Sugar would squish her thumb up her nose.’ Candy’s the only one who laughs at her joke.
What all this suggests is that Walpurgistag is an example of a novel that just happens to be a bit right-on on the anti-racist and feminist fronts but is first and foremost really good literature. A joy for fans of a well-spun plot, for Berlin-lovers, for documentary filmmakers, for aficionados of magic realism, for historians, for taxi drivers, for people who can’t sit still, for you, and definitely for me.

For a taste, follow the link above to read a nice long sample in German.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Readings Online

The lovely people at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin have a lovely new project. As you may know, the Germans do like a good reading. Aside from being more plentiful, the readings in the German-speaking world are often much, much longer than anywhere else. Which calls for a great deal of patience and comfortable seating. But of course you can't always make it to every reading that might interest you, or you might be there but possibly sort of drift off and start admiring the architecture or playing that "who would I procreate with if the end of the world were nigh" game in your head and so rather miss out on some of the content.

Or maybe you don't happen to live in Berlin (shame on you!). Or your time machine is out of order. What you need is 134 readings (so far) dating back to 1990. Featuring big names and award-winners, obscure poets, wordy moderators, bearded publishers, and all manner of people in between. How about this rather interesting one for a start: Günter Grass reading and talking to the now Büchner Prize recipient FC Delius back in 1992 about The Call of The Toad, among other things.

Oh, and if you only have a small amount of time, I find rather good for short, plain readings by German writers.

So put on your intellectual hat and relax with a nice German reading.