Tiger Milk, Stefanie De Velasco, tr. Tim Mohr, Head of Zeus, 2014.
The sex, drugs, and teenagers gone wild coming-of-age story has pretty much been done to death, so I think that such a novel needs to be brilliantly written, or have a shattering twist, in order to make it stand out from the myriad others on the same theme. Sadly, Tiger Milk did not hit that spot for me. I think it is a solid debut novel, but the version I read in English translation seemed rather one-note and, deliberate attempts to startle the more mature reader notwithstanding, a tad bland.
The first chapter sets out to shock unwary readers with lurid details about what two fourteen-year-old schoolgirls get up to in the red light district of Berlin. They are playing at being prostitutes so they can practise their sexual technique, or some such improbable thing. We are supposed to believe that they are still virgins until two-thirds of the way through the book, despite their regular ‘active research’. Yeah, right. The narration style is more reportage than anything, and it moves along at a frenetic pace: the girls are constantly dashing hither and yon to see friends, to engage in some after-school shoplifting and, of course, to don their thigh-high stockings and wait on the street for a punter to engage their services. Although I found the narrator’s voice appropriate for a silly and naive girl, I did not believe what I was reading, and that was rather a problem for me. Is this supposed to be realistic fiction, or does the book belong to one of those many other genres of writing that I have no idea about?
Anyway, Nini and Jameelah live in a poor part of Berlin, perhaps in public housing, and have been friends for a long time. Jameelah and her mother fled Iraq and are temporary residents facing deportation. Nini and her siblings live with their depressed mother who lies on the sofa all day. It is quite a bleak little world they inhabit:
The planet is a big ugly concrete ball right next to the mall at Wilmersdorfer station. There are a bunch of smaller planter or moons around the big one, all of them made out of concrete too. In summer, when it’s hot, foamy yellow water sometimes shoots our of the small planets, but most of the time the whole thing is dry. I have no idea who put it here. I guess it’s supposed to be art but it just looks like shit. I think they wanted mothers to sit around the planet with their kids and eat ice cream and splash around in the fountain or whatever. But you never see mothers and children at the planet, only alcoholics and crazy people like us.
The girls are also friends with Amir, the son of a fractured and traumatised Bosnian family living in the same apartment block as Jameelah, and when one of his sisters makes public her engagement to a Serb boy, the other family members are not best pleased. I must say that I was not exactly pleased by the depiction of what happened next, because it draws on stereotypical notions of Muslims and how they behave, and I am tired of seeing and hearing such hackneyed cultural representations. When I started reading the book I was pleased to see that the characters were multicultural, reflecting an aspect of Germany that I, living on the other side of the world in relative ignorance, do not often get to hear about. However, I started feeling glum when it became apparent that the author had relied on conveniently stereotypical characterisations.
When I go to Jameelah’s I always cross the playground. The playground’s pretty big and right in the middle is a huge sandbox. Somebody drew an invisible line right through the middle of the playground so the German and Russian kids never go on the slide and the Arab and Bosnian kids never go on the swings. Back when Jameelah and I roller skated around the playground there wasn’t yet an invisible line.
It came as no surprise to me to read that a screenplay adaptation of the book is being written, because the novel consists of a series of ‘scenes’ that will translate easily to film, and Western audiences will probably lap up the ‘brave depiction’ as being something novel, as they would tiger milk, a disgusting concoction of milk, fruit juice and brandy that the girls mix and drink in order to gain courage before embarking on their nefarious adventures.
The translation from German to English is not without its problems. The language is Americanised and apart from a few references to place names and Jameelah’s heartfelt assertions that she wants to be German, the action could have taken place in any Western city. Also, Nini annoyed me sometimes with her incorrect grammar usage. I had to stop at one point, page 100, actually, to check the correct usage of laid and lain, because I wondered if it were me, Nini, or the translator who had it wrong. When I read that ‘Jessi laid down on the bed with Mama…’ I wondered why on earth she had laid duck feathers on the bed, and then I realised that the sentence meant Jessi had lain on the bed with her Mama. Later, on the same page, Nini reports that ‘I laid in bed’ and I channelled my mother and snarlingly declared to the ether that Nini is not a chicken. If the book belonged to me instead of to the library, I am sure there would be a snarky diatribe about crap grammar decorating that page right now.
Other problems I had with the book include the fact that there seemed to me to be a few too many characters who were only there for window dressing, and the ‘thing that happened’, which should have been a big dramatic moment, was written with complete restraint and in the exact tone as Nini tells us about putting on her pyjamas. I would have liked the narrative to have been more of a symphony, with light and shade, with contrasting loud cymbal crescendos and soft flutings. Nini does experience a lot over the course of one summer, but she does not seem to learn much from her experiences. I cannot imagine a bright future for her; she seems doomed to make all the mistakes her mother made and to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and dependency. Jameelah was by far the more interesting character, independent, funny and headstrong, but I doubt that those personality traits would do her much good in the long run. I wanted to like this book, but for me, it just lacked sparkle.
I read this book for German Literature Month 2014.