Nov 222014

Winters in the South, Norbert Gstrein, tr. Anthea Bell and Julian Evans, MacLehose, 2012.

Winters in the South is set in the former Yugoslavia and Argentina, just as the ethnic conflicts that saw the break up of Yugoslavia began, in 1991. Marija has recently turned fifty and has lived in Vienna since she was five, having fled there from Dalmatia with her mother at the end of World War II. Her father, who fought on the losing side in that war as an anti-Communist, had escaped to Argentina and made a new life for himself, but Marija and her mother never knew what happened to him, and he told people that his wife and child were dead.

Marija is a university lecturer married to a high-flying journalist who used to be a well-known Communist supporter in Austria. Their marriage is on the rocks and Marija does not seem to like him much at all any more, especially since she found out about his latest affair. Once, he used to think she was special because she came from the former Dalmatian coast and he prized her as his ‘Mediterranean beauty’, but now they have lapsed into squabbling and are bored with one another. So, just as it looks like war will break out in Yugoslavia, Marija decides to leave safe Vienna and travel to dangerous Zagreb and stay there for a while. Her husband is not too happy about this but offers to drive her, and off they go.

Meanwhile, a Viennese policeman named Ludwig has been having a holiday in Argentina. He has recently suffered a personal trauma and needed to get away for a while. On his last day there he meets a beautiful woman who offers him a job as a family bodyguard, and not really wanting to go home – he has nothing there except his ex-wife and their young daughter – Ludwig agrees to meet the woman’s husband and learn more about the job offer. The husband turns out to have escaped from Yugoslavia after World War II, for unspecified reasons, and he is now rich and married to his third wife and has young twin daughters, two snarling German Shepherds, and a firing range in the basement of his house.

Back in Zagreb, Marija picks up a young soldier who is in town for a few days of R&R before heading off to the fighting again and they have a tawdry sex thing. I guess this is where I completely lost interest in the book, because Marija’s character reads like a man’s fantasy of how a woman might act, and I did not buy it. The man in Argentina’s young wife is another male fantasy of ‘the feminine’, with her bleached hair, layers of makeup, rampant sexuality and monetary greed. I am the last person to play the gender card when it comes to fiction, but I just did not buy these two characters as anything more than stereotypes that have been written a million times before. The two main male characters, Ludwig and his unnamed employer, are equally as unoriginal – the escaped war criminal (depending on which side you fought) and the traumatised cop – and Gstrein’s treatment of them was entirely predictable.

Anyway, when it looks like war will break out, the man in Argentina hies back to his old country, eager to be of relevance once again. He thinks he might find his lost daughter via an ad in the newspaper, and lo and behold! she just happens to be there in Zagreb and reads it. What happens next? Well it is probably not what you expect, or maybe it is. The soldier brings a mate with him the next time he visits – oh joy! – and then the narrative plods to an end that is not in the least surprising. By this stage, I just wanted the book to be over because I was tired of the lack of light and shade in the text, and I was really tired of the three main characters. It is not a matter of ‘liking’ them or ‘not liking’ them, but more a matter of them being dull stereotypes that I did not find in the least interesting.

The prose is nice and the translators have done a good job with the English version. Obviously, this was not my kind of book. I read it because I am interested in Balkan politics and hoped to gain some further insight into the conflict there. I have never been able to get a precise picture in my head about who was at war with whom and why, and I am none the wiser after reading this book.

Nov 202014

I wanted to post a couple of poems by Henriette Hardenberg (1894-1993) but the translations are subject to copyright, so here is a link instead.

I really like ‘Spring’. There is such inference and meaning packed into those few perfect words. I wonder how it reads in German? I would love to find out more about Ms Hardenberg, the pseudonym of Margarete Rosenberg, who lived to be ninety-nine years old and seems to have had a very interesting life. I wish someone would translate this book, the title of which, so google translate reliably tells me, is Southern Heart: Posthumous Seals. Hmmm.


I read what little I could find of Henriette Hardenberg’s work in English for German Literature Month 2014.

Nov 192014

After The Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life That Came Next, Jana Hensel, Pubblic Affairs, 2008.

Several months ago I began to wonder what the experience of living in the GDR had been like for children. I checked the library catalogue and laughed cynically when it turned up not a single book about the history of Germany, let alone a memoir. Methinks the library ladies have been weeding the books again! Anyway, a quick search at The Book Depository led me to this book, which I ordered and promptly forgot about. By the time the book turned up in the mail my brain had jumped the tracks and hared off in another direction, but I read the book anyway, and not feeling terribly impressed by it, put it on a shelf to gather dust. However, when I signed up for GLM I decided to re-read it and pay more attention this time.

Jana Hensel was thirteen in 1989 when the East German government resigned and the Berlin Wall fell. She writes:

There was no way for me to know that fall of 1989 that I was living the last days of my childhood. Now, when I look back on those years before the Wall fell and the whole world changed around us, it seems like a far-away, fairy-tale time. It’s a remote past with different hairstyles, different smells, and a different pace of life.

The thing that struck me about Hensel’s memories of her childhood is the sense of security and structure she had as a child growing up in the GDR. There were after-school activities most days, and it sounds as though the children were taught to be responsible and polite. Yes, they were politically indoctrinated, but it sounds as though Hensel felt that she belonged to a community that worked together for a common cause and she does not appear to have been unhappy as a child. After the Wall was opened, everything changed for her. She felt lost after the pictures of Lenin and Honecker disappeared from her classroom and adults no longer turned up to supervise her extra-curricular activities. Snacking on food from the West and watching television became her after-school activities instead.

One by one, we stopped all the activities through which our Socialist pedagogues had hoped to mould our personalities and to prepare us for future careers as engineers, cosmonauts, teachers, or transportation workers. Contact lapsed between us and the industrial managers who had served as our state-sponsored godfathers and who were responsible for initiating us into the mysteries of Socialist production.

Later on, Hensel went to university and travelled, and she seems to have made a reasonable life for herself as a journalist. However, at the time she wrote the book, in 2004, she felt like a fish out of water. She did not like what had become of Leipzig, the city where she grew up and went to school, and she missed the familiar things she had known as a child. She did not seem to get along with her parents, who were busily acquiring as much stuff as they could, and she missed having a sense of community and common purpose. Hensel writes a lot about the class divide between East and West Germans which was painful for her as a young woman, and she also writes angrily about the way in which people referred to the ‘former GDR’ and made it sound like a terrible place, because in her mind it was not terrible at all.

I must admit to finding this book really annoying at times. The translation is exceedingly Americanised, which bothered me a lot, and the chapters jump backward and forward in time, leading to repetition of the main themes. The writing is quite juvenile in tone and I found it hard to empathise with Hensel, who seemed to me to be somewhat ungrateful for the opportunities the Universe sent her way. She could have been a drudge working in a factory for the rest of her life. She could still be locked behind a wall and not be free to travel the world and see and do whatever she wants to. Yes, I can understand that the sudden change she experienced was extremely disconcerting, and I understand her nostalgia for her childhood and her confusion about where she belonged as a young adult:

We’re the children of a zone, in which everything was started from scratch, in which things were torn down brick by brick and in which few of the heady goals of the early ’90s have yet been attained. Our entire generation arose because out nation disappeared. That’s what defines us: absence.

However, I cannot help but think what it was like for the adults who, after World War II, found their lives turned upside down when powerful men drew lines on a map and divided Germany. What was it like to be cut off from their family and friends, to be locked behind a wall in what was effectively a satellite state of the Soviet Union? I think that perhaps older generations, including that of Hensel’s parents, had a lot more decisions and adjustments to make than she did after the Wall fell. It seemed to me while I was reading that Hensel was entirely self-interested and did not stop and think about what older generations were going through now that everything had changed beyond recognition. Maybe I am allergic to self-centred people or something, but I thought that she needed an urgent attitude adjustment, and I was quite glad when the book ended.

Most things are none of our business. The key questions in our new lives are: Who am I? What do I want? Who can be useful to me? Whom do I need? It’s not nice to have all these people around telling us how much society values us and what our responsibilities are. We don’t pitch in any more. We spend our time taking care of ourselves.

I read this book for German Literature Month 2014.

Nov 142014

The Mussel Feast, Birgit Vanderbeke, tr. Jamie Bulloch, Peirene Press, 2013.

I was vaguely disappointed with The Mussel Feast. I know it is considered a modern classic in Germany and is studied widely in schools, but I found it a bit ordinary, really. Presented as the interior monologue of a teenage girl, the novella is a fairly straightforward allegorical tale of a dysfunctional family/society that is repressed and brutalised by a tyrannical father/state. Written just before the collapse of the GDR and the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is a prescient imagining, but the narration style left me cold. I have seen posts describing the tone as ironic and funny, but I fail to see anything funny about a man who throws his baby daughter at a wall because she is crying,and who beats and verbally abuses his children. Also, I fail to see anything amusing about the psychological and financial abuse perpetrated by the same man towards his wife and children, or the way the mother is complicit in the abuse of her children by remaining passive, compliant and complicit. No, I did not find anything to smile about, lest of all when the narrator tells us that she drags one leg behind her as she walks because the bone never developed properly. May we surmise that this is a result of being thrown at a wall in infancy? Perhaps.

Apart from the allegorical aspects of the narrative that allude to the repressive and brutal nature of the GDR, there is a feminist slant to the story, symbolised by the mussels that feature so heavily. Freud (dear old Sigi, can I never get away from you?) seemed to think that shellfish, including mussels, symbolise female genitalia. In light of this theory, it seems to me that the mussels in the story allude to feminist and psychosexual concerns: mussels are the father’s favourite food, the brother also likes them, but the mother and daughter find them disturbing. The daughter is so disturbed by the mussels that she thrusts a knife into each shell to make the mussels close and stop clattering their shells together. It seems to me that by using a phallic symbol (the knife) to penetrate the mussels she is, in effect, reflecting male-dominant behaviour and in usurping masculine power, she demonstrates her refusal to conform to her culturally-sanctioned passive feminine role. This act of feminist ‘rebellion’ may be extrapolated to point to the way in which the East German population rebelled against an overly dominant regime that exercised power over the populace in a way akin to patriarchal dominance of women.

My mother walked to the living-room door with this swaying, wobbling movement, but didn’t go in; she stopped at the door and held on to the frame, but the telephone didn’t do her the favour of stopping. She peered into the room from the door. We couldn’t see what Mum could see, or whether she’s closed her eyes; all we could see was her back in the door frame, which she held on to for a time; I’m sure the time was no longer than a second, but it was a long time, too; I felt nothing except time, which was no longer laid out before us, but had shrivelled up into this ringing of the telephone. Then my mother turned around and looked at us, not with her eyes agog as before, but calmly and thoughtfully, and then she said, very clearly, on the other hand; the telephone went on ringing and my mother came back; all of sudden she was walking fairly upright again, with just the odd sway. When she reached the table she repeated, on the other hand, louder and with determination, glaring in sheer disgust at the mussels in their bowl. She took the bowl, which had sat in front of us all evening with those vile mussels, she went into the kitchen with the mussels, and all we could hear were the shells ratting, we couldn’t hear the telephone, only the shells rattling as my mother emptied the mussels into the dustbin….

Perhaps it was the translation that I did not like overly much. I have had a few problems with some of Bulloch’s other work recently. I find his translations rather British in expression and tone, which does not always sound authentic to me. I know it is hard to strike a balance and if you are translating for a British publisher and a British book-buying public, then it stands to reason that you cater for them in the words you choose. I did expect a bit more sparkle, though, a narrative that reached out and pulled me in, but I did not encounter any fireworks in this book. However, it did make me think of my own experience of mussels.

When I was a child my father and I would often drive to the beach a couple of hours away where he would pick mussels straight off the rocks. We would trudge with a half-full bag of mussels up the black beach [the sand is black on the west coast of NZ and white on the east coast], gathering driftwood along the way. When we reached the car park, which was just a spot between sand dunes where the wind couldn’t rip the skin completely off your face, my Dad would make a fire ringed by a circle of stones and lay a piece of corrugated iron on top. He would tip out some mussels and slowly cook them on the tin. I always thought this was cruel and horrible and I imagined the mussels screaming in pain in a frequency humans could not hear. Despite my tearful protests, my Dad ate the mussels on thick slices of white bread liberally smeared with butter and washed down with black tea. I sulked and went hungry. Whenever I was at the beach I remained vigilant never to turn my back on the ocean because of a story someone had told me. Apparently, a mythical Maori maiden with long hair (I had hair nearly down to my knees as a child) turned her back on the ocean one day and in anger the sea God, Tangaroa, turned her body to stone and her hair to seaweed. I guess it was a fairly sensible thing to tell a child, because the beaches on the west coast of New Zealand can be quite treacherous, with strong rips and crashing waves. There were some amazing creatures in the rock pools that were revealed when the tide went out and I spent hours just watching all that life going on.


I read this book for German Literature Month 2014.