der geteilte Himmel- They divided the Sky- by Christa Wolf

I really enjoyed this novel,download renowned for being one of the best works of the East German writer Christa Wolf and for its portrayal of East Germany in the period leading up to 1961. The writer Christa Wolf has been hovering at the edges of my consciousness all my adult  and German reading life, but I’ve never read her books. I started this one, wanting to read Christa Wolf as a German woman writer first and foremost and to leave her political standing to one side. I read the novel in German. There have been two translations into English, the most recent ‘They divided the sky’ by Luise von Flotow, usefully reviewed in The Economist.

The novel starts with the protagonist, Rita, recovering consciousness in a hospital bed after an accident. She is suffering from psychological trauma and depression and her recovery over several weeks provides the framework for the main narrative, told in flashback. Rita was brought up in a village in East Germany and meets Manfred at the age of 19 at a local dance. He is older than her and has just completed his PhD in Chemistry. They fall in love and begin an intense love affair. Rita is working in an insurance office, much to the chagrin of her schoolteacher, who thinks she is wasting her talents. She is offered the possibility of teacher training and takes it. This means moving to the city and the couple move in with Manfred’s parents, the Herrfurths.

Before starting her course, Rita gets a job at the railway carriage manufacturing plant where Manfred’s father works and is introduced to life on the factory floor and industrial practices in East Germany at that time. She makes friends with both workers and those in managerial roles (all men) and grows to understand the dilemmas for people working within the Communist system as well as the wide range of attitudes to work and the demands of the state. Manfred is less interested in engaging with the concerns of the workers. As a talented chemist, he wishes to work in a situation where he can carry out research free from ideological trammels and it becomes clear as the novel progresses that his project will not be funded in East Germany. Eventually he stays on in West Berlin after a conference ( this is just before August 1961 when the Wall went up, stopping movement from the East) and asks Rita to join him. She visits him in West Berlin and has to make the agonising decision, to stay with her lover or return to her hometown in the East.

The novel is richly seamed, with East Germany and the early 60s as the backdrop to the story. I enjoyed Christa Wolf’s depiction of place, the smog ridden city dominated by the factories, dwarfing the human, contrasting with the restorative nature of village life and the quiet expanses of countryside, apparently unchanging. The descriptions of rural life evoke feelings of nostalgia for a past now gone, but also, as seen by Rita, now a young adult, nostalgia for the simplicity of her own childhood.

The impact of living under Communism is explored, both within the factory and outside, from many perspectives. The question of productivity is shown to be both an opportunity to build pride and solidarity, as well as a tyranny, exemplified in the workforce’s various attitudes to the ‘norms’, the requirement for workers to produce a certain number of piecework products per shift, which was of course relentlessly increased by the bosses to increase productivity. Freedom of speech and expression are circumscribed and characters are afraid to speak their minds in public, lest they lose their jobs or are vilified. The fear created by this atmosphere is illustrated well in the story of Sigrid, whose parents flee to the West with her younger brothers and sisters, leaving her to cope not only with the loss of her family, but also with the fear the Party will take revenge on her by throwing her off her teacher training course.

The era of the early 60s with its winds of social change hovers in the background too. We see Manfred’s excitement at the potential for science aiding mankind when he talks about the automation of homes and cities. This was a universal theme at the time as was the space race, referred to her when the community learn ‘die Nachricht’ – the piece of news-that the USSR have put their first cosmonaut in space. Family relationships are also typical of that era.  Manfred’s hatred towards his parents, expressed in his harsh naming of their home as ‘mein Lebenssarg’- the coffin of my life-I found shocking in its ferocity, yet his rejection of and alienation from the older generation was characteristic of young people the world over at that time. Manfred’s treatment of Rita reflects the sexism of those days: his reaction to her telling him she wants to train to be a teacher is to belittle and undermine her, saying she won’t stick it out. And it’s not just Manfred- when Rita goes for a drink with Wenland, the works’ boss, he orders for them both! Yet this was how men behaved towards women pre-feminism, patronising and infantilising them, deeming them incapable of playing an equal role in society as men.

I read this novel as a coming of age novel too. Rita is indeed pushed to despair- to the ‘accident’ in the factory and the ensuing weeks of depression-for love. But during the months of working in the factory and observing the daily lives of people around her she has pulled away from Manfred and started to develop her own ideas and frienships. At the end of the novel she has made her own choice, closing the door softly on her sick friend Meternagel, whom she was visiting but also on her girlhood and this chapter of her life.

Christa Wolf has created a moving love story, but also a compelling portrayal of East Germany in the early 60s through detailed description of people and landscapes. Her characterisation demonstrates the complexity of human behaviour within the strictures of Communist society at that time, and her talent for storytelling makes the human impact so vividly moving. For those who want to find out more about Christa Wolf, may I suggest this excellent full obituary by Kate Webb in the Guardian. As for me, my next Christa Wolf will be ‘Nachdenken über Christa T.’, ‘an assault on patriarchy’. Watch this space.


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This too shall pass- Milena Busquets, translated by Valerie Miles

I came across this novel p1000980via the Women’s Literature blog Literary Friction  and their August translation spot. It’s a novel set in Barcelona and Cadaqués, where I spent some time hanging around in my youth, and so I tuned in to the theme of a woman in early middle age going up to Cadaqués to mourn the loss of her mother.

The first person narrator and main protagonist is 40  year old Blanca and the novel begins at her mother’s funeral which takes place in Cadaqués, a charming fishing village and desirable holiday spot north of Barcelona on the Costa Brava. This first chapter sets the scene and tone for the rest of the book as Blanca reflects on her mother’s life and their relationship, while the mourners at the funeral prompt recollections from the past about her mother’s ‘progressive’ friends, the summers of laughter and dinners till dawn, cards, drinking and skinny dipping. The ache of her own loss is vividly expressed when she addresses her mother directly: ‘Mum, you promised that when you died my life would be on track and structured, that the pain would be bearable. You never said I would feel like ripping my guts out and eating them’. And sometimes the intimacy is comedic, as when she explains to her Mum why they can’t bury her dog, Patum with her- ‘This isn’t Pharaoh’s Egypt, you know…if you stop to think about it, she’s a big dog and she would never have fitted in the niche- I can just imagine the two undertakers pushing her in the bum to squish her in’. While Blanca’s eyes rove over the crowd gathered to wish her Mum farewell, they linger over the one interesting man there, a stranger, and she feels her ‘radar’ honing in on him. For this too is Blanca, sexually active and open to adventures, even at her mother’s funeral.

The narrative then follows Blanca back to her flat in Barcelona, where she’s having an affair with Oscar, the father of one of her sons. (Both he and her married lover Santi have other partners, but this doesn’t bother Blanca who just enjoys sex). It is Oscar who suggests that Blanca goes up to spend some time at her mother’s house in Cadaqués- and agrees to join her there. So she gathers together a group consisting of her sons, friends and ex lovers and they drive up there-while all the time Blanca is talking to her mother in her head, poignant and tender recollections, interspersed with the  occasional allusions to those sad hard last months of illness, immobility and, finally, mental deterioration.

The house at Cadaqués is a kind of ancestral home, where ‘memories tangle into a tight blanket that for once doesn’t smother me’. Blanca describes the sensuous plenty of growing up there : ‘there was Marisa’s gazpacho, and the eternal bread – and -butter breakfasts, the railing bedecked in a colourful garland of drying beach towels, the naps that were taken only reluctantly, dressing up to go to town, the afternoon ice cream, archery practice’, then as adolescents, ‘the first loves, the first sunrises, the first drugs..’ . Memories of her strong and generous mother in her prime mingle with sadder and more recent memories:  when her mother grew old and ill, the house closed its doors a little and grew old with her.

But while her mother and loss is ever present, Blanca does not spend all her time alone and grieving. She is enjoying drinking, partying and flirting with men, old friends and new, living out the maxim thatp1000981 ‘the only thing that momentarily alleviates the sting of death -and life- without leaving a hangover is sex.’ So she comes across ‘the beautiful stranger’ at the funeral and makes a play for him as well as reconnecting with old friend Nacho. Now, while there is a lot of sex in the book which irked some reviewers on Good Reads, I would say that the boundaries between friendship and sex are interestingly fluid and Blanca’s lovers of old are also looking after her, aware of her loss. The sex is part of a lifestyle which is anarchic and hedonistic , but one in which all friendships and relationships are valued, relationships with women friends, her children, not to mention with her dogs.

Because for me, Blanca’s sex life is not at issue. Maybe she’s looking for it more right now to heal her, maybe her radar is always switched on. The emotional power of this short novel lies rather in the way her mother lives on in her consciousness, the conversations she has with her, her presence. And the epilogue is a powerful paean to her, ‘you taught me the love of art, of books, museums, the ballet, absolute generosity with money, grand gestures at the appropriate time, precision in action and in words…you gave me the gift of this outrageous laugh, the thrill of being alive, the ability to surrender to things completely, the love of games…. and a sense of fairness. Nonconformity. The dazzling awareness of joy at the moment you have it in your hand, before it flies away’. But it is also about what heals-sex, friendship, pleasure, memories- and the natural beauty of a place like Cadaqués.



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Poetry in the Peak- The Remedies by Katharine Towers

What a privilege to hear Katharine Towers read from her latest collection of poetry, The Remedies,P1000979 in Hathersage this week. The centre of the collection contains a series of poems based on Bach’s flower remedies which perfectly capture the shape, habitat and colour of the chosen flowers. A careful observer of the animal world, in ‘Murmuration’ and ‘ The Grasshopper’ she evokes both mechanism and movement in a way which makes the heart soar. Both here and in her first collection, ‘The Floating Man’, music is a theme. In ‘The Glass Piano’ she imagines the strange story of the Bavarian princess who felt she had a glass piano inside her. But my favourite poem is ‘Field Oak’ where she expresses the grandeur and delicacy of the great tree all at once, in word choice, rhythm and syntax. Thank you for a lovely evening and collection. And thanks to Hathersage Social Club for complementing the poetry with their delicious canapés and warm welcome.

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Tightrope- Simon Mawer

This novel,90b2c6e58e7075b644d29429d15087d5 a sequel to The Girl who Fell from the Sky is a terrific read. It follows the story of Marian Sutro, parachuted into France to help the resistance during the war, from her return to the UK in spring 1945, though the end of the war and into the bleak post war period. For me the novel seems to fall into two halves: the first, Marian’s experiences of post war Britain as she struggles to overcome her own trauma and find her place in society, the second a fast paced thriller as she is drawn yet again into intelligence networks. And both sections are anchored in historical detail, both great events and the texture and fabric of post war everyday life, which give the narrative authenticity and depth.

The novel starts in 1945 when Marian arrives back in the UK. She has been held in captivity by the Gestapo and then held at Ravensbrück concentration camp, which makes her an object of admiration but also horror for her family and friends because of her skeletal appearance and shattered nerves. Their fascination mixed with repulsion is expressed in dialogue ridden with the banalities and platitudes of the British middle classes, at a loss for words for once, which contributes to the evocation of post war Britain- with its flat and bland austerity.  Marian’s fragile mental and physical state is described in detail and while she rebuilds her physical strength, her mental state -flat moods, unwillingness to socialise, insomnia, preoccupation with death- is shown to be harder to overcome. Through her flashbacks we learn about what she endured at Ravensbrück and of the fate of several of her comrades.

Gradually Marian becomes better and, to the surprise of some, marries Alan, a dull good sort, and finds a job at the Franco- British Peace Union. The theme of peace is back on the agenda after August 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, marking the beginning of an entirely new era of warfare and destruction. Marian is passionately committed to avoiding all out nuclear war and organises a talk with Bertrand Russell, while at the same time learning from her nuclear scientist brother Ned that several eminent scientists see giving nuclear secrets to the Russians as the only way to maintain the balance of power and to avoid nuclear war. When Marian meets the Russian Absolon and lets desire get the better of her, the stage is set for a complex web of secrecy and betrayal : Marian is indeed walking the eponymous tightrope, where falling off to either side will spell disaster.

Now, it’s not strictly true to say that the novel starts in 1945 – there is a framing narrative which starts the story off, and that’s an account of Sam Wareham, an old family friend of the Sutros, visiting the elderly Marian, now living in Lausanne, to ask for details of her last assignment in order to ‘close the file’. The novel is then essentially the story as told by Marian through the narrative voice of  Sam. However, as Sam was a 12 year old boy at the time of Marian’s return and met with her over the years, we also have the adult narrator reflecting Marian as seen by his 12 year old self. The erotic potential is used to the full here, as the young Sam lusts after the beautiful Marian and the prose lingers languorously over her lovely limbs ( but I am not going to tut about the male gaze in this book as Marian herself is an active initiator of sex on several occasions). But eroticism aside, this technique does give us a more distanced, framed, view of Marian which complements well the free indirect style of most of the narrative. What it also does so effectively is to place the post war period followed by the Cold War firmly into the past: Marian is elderly and fragile, Sam himself middle aged, this is the last chance to fill in the gaps in her story.

I can’t comment any further on gaps being filled without spoiling but for me the final section of Marian’s story saw her character and life foregrounded again- rather than a novel of two parts I saw a woman irrevocably marked by her wartime experiences. Unable to settle down into a humdrum life of marriage and family, she is drawn to excitement and risk taking in all its forms. So the damaged character of the first half of the book becomes of necessity the restless woman and ruthlessly intelligent spy of the second half. This is a compelling, moving and woman centred exploration in fiction of what happened to those courageous  SOE agents who survived and returned. Thank you Simon Mawer.

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breach – stories from the Calais refugee camp by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes

Two writers, Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, were commissioned by Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press to go to the Calais refugee IMG_0631 (2)camp to listen to refugees’s stories and rework them into fictions of their own. The result is this gem of a book, ‘breach’, a collection of eight pieces or short stories about the lives and experiences not just of the refugees but of others who connect with them- volunteers, a Calais landlady, smugglers, an elderly teacher of English in Bolton. Through these stories we learn about the tough conditions in the camp- the mud, the cold, the anxiety, the desperation- but also hear the backstories of the individuals and the dire circumstances which set them on the route to Calais in the first place. Having read some reportage about the refugees’ journey in Wolfgang Bauer’s book ‘Crossing the Sea’ and seen the outstanding BBC2 documentary ‘Exodus’, I was curious to see whether fiction could bring an extra dimension to the story of Calais and as a fan of short stories was keen to see how the form could express the refugees’ experience.

The book starts with Counting Down, a story focusing on the friendships between a group of men in the camp- the title refers to them joking around about the record time to cross the border. They joke too about names, calling themselves nicknames- Obama, MG, GPS, Calculate- and while depicting the good humoured banter, the narrator describes each face in striking images- of MG ‘he can make his face become a curtain that opens fast’ whereas GPS’ ‘face closes. He needs to lock it so nothing can come in and nothing can leave’. We readers are invited to share the intimacy of the narrator’s gaze, to become part of the group and are all the more shocked then when Calculate is shown to have other motives in his concern to protect the young MG. The complex motives of friendship and questions of trust are raised in this first story and MG demonstrates his rude awakening to the duplicitous side of  adult behaviour by spitting at his erstwhile friend. Echoing the reference to that man on the beach who spat at the refugees pitching up there, saying that ‘tourism does not want to see any dead bodies floating onto the sand’.

Narrative voice is used to great effect in the next story, ‘Terrier’, told from the point of view of a middle aged French woman who has taken a brother and sister refugee pair into her home, paid for by the local Calais council. Being practical, she could do with the money, especially out of season with no holiday makers to take her rooms, but being aware of local opinion, she keeps this little money spinner quietly to herself. Yet she is curious about the young people and her feelings for them ricochet between a business like distance and an emotional intensity seen in her narrator’s response to the girl Nalin,  ‘ her eyes are eerily blue, blue- green but transparent in the way that clear water flowing over sand is transparent, full of light’ and when Nalin kisses her suddenly in thanks, the ‘three breathy kisses’ are ‘like butterfly wings beating’.  As if the young people are offering some kind of emotional connection missing in her own life.

‘Extending a hand’ is another story with female protagonists-24 year old Habena and her friend Mariam are desperate for money to send home to Mariam’s mother who has an ulcer- worries about family, phone calls and texts back home are a constant backdrop to the stories. The problem becomes acute when the ulcer bursts and Habena agrees to help her friend find the money by offering her sexual services to the truck drivers who wait nightly outside the camp. A sideshow in this story is that of the annoying volunteers- the ones who offered Habena all those dowdy comfortable old clothes when she wants tight leggings- the smiling volunteer who won’t leave them in peace when they’re on a desperate phone call with Mariam’ s mother. Volunteers move into centre stage in the next story ‘Paradise’ . Here we meet Julie, an idealistic young British student, come to volunteer at the camp with her seasoned leftie campaigning aunt Marjorie to the chagrin of her right wing Dad whose views nevertheless loom large in Julie’s consciousness as her ‘inner Dad’. At the same time we meet the handsome and charismatic refugee Muhib, closely bonded with his friend Isaac. Julie and Muhib have a romantic encounter and yet afterwards Muhib is dreaming of the well in his village, his mother, the loss of his friend Isaac, who leaves the camp. The gulf between his world and Julie’s is great indeed.

‘Ghosts’ shows us another side of the refugee experience in a kind of slow reveal. The narrator is tailing another man he refers to as ‘Ghostman’  around a city, to a casino, to women, to bars. He is angry with ‘Ghostman’ for his weakness, which is the weakness of talking. We don’t know the relationship between them at first but it becomes chillingly clear that it is one of power connected with people smuggling. And in this, one of the hardest stories, the brief referral to their past and the reasons for their flight-from local warlords and the Taliban- give us a glimpse of the effects of cycles of violence and abuse of power.

An easier read is ‘Lineage’ which starts in the line for the barbers’ where Farrukh seeks to befriend the melancholy Ramzi who bizarrely wants to be smuggled back to Iran to visit his sick mother. He has already applied for leave to remain in the UK but can’t apply for a visa with a pending application. While the two have tea in the Afghan cafe a plump guy asks Farrukh to recite a poem by his namesake- a poet I take to be Iranian as Farrukh is in the Iranian camp. He is unable to do so and sneaks off to do some other shady business. In the meantime the plump guy himself steps forward to recite and his performance is described with heartstopping prosody. The effect on the teadrinkers is transformative : ‘the whole shop starts clapping’ and Ramzi’s melancholy mood is lifted.

Themes of friendship and the ruthlessness of the smugglers are explored in ‘Oranges in the River’ where childhood friends Jan and Dlo seek to cross the channel in refrigerated containers, known to be one of the most dangerous ways of crossing. This story makes palpable the fear and anxiety endured by the refugees attempting this kind of crossing; whatever instructions the smugglers give them, they run the risk that the lorry drivers will park up for too long and they will freeze to death. The friends take different routes and become separated. Gaining one objective by crossing the channel can mean losses too.

Finally ‘Expect Me’ deals with the relationship between Sudanese Alghali and his English conversation teacher Mr. Dishman in Bolton. There is an interesting account here of their mutual need and similarity- the English lessons provide a structure and motivation for them both- while Alghali is prey to racism which erupts on the night of the Paris bombings. We gradually realise that this is in fact the Alghali from the first story and discover what has become of the group of friends.

So the book comes back to those first characters and this, together with the repetition of themes of friendship, trust, vulnerability, separation, through all the stories make them seem less separate stories but more like chapters in the same book to me. I also felt the cumulative effect of the ambiguity expressed in repeated gestures like Jan gripping Dlo’s shoulders ‘through to the bones’- is this gripping in support, crushing or coercive? By the time  I got to Mr. Dishman who ‘walks Alghali to the door, a hand on his shoulder’, for me this had undertones of frogmarching as well as kindness. So the careful use of repetition of images and ideas through the different stories allows the emergence of a rich and complex picture of the Calais camp, its residents and our responses. And herein lies the power of fiction. Which is not to take away from the real, often devastating experiences on which the stories are based. This book will deepen and enrich your understanding of the lives of all those people living in the Calais camp just 30 miles from the UK. I cannot recommend it enough.



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Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe- Wolfgang Bauer translated by Sarah Pybus.

This book, published in Germany in 2014 and in the UK this spring, 2016 ,P1000938 is an account of the experience of Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean to reach safety and asylum in Europe. The author, Wolfgang Bauer, is a German journalist working for ‘Die Zeit’. He and photographer Stanislav Krupar posed as teachers of English fleeing a republic in the Caucasus in order to accompany a group of Syrian refugees from Alexandria and to see what they have to endure in order to find a better life in Europe. Their true identities were known to only one of the group, Amar, and he is one of the central characters in the narrative. In fact Bauer and Krupar only accompany the group on their first attempt at crossing the sea; they are picked up by coastguards, thrown into prison in Alexandria and then deported via Turkey back to Germany. The narrative then continues with the further attempts of Amar, Alaa and his brother Hussan to cross the sea- Amar finally gives up on this route and reaches Europe via Africa.

P1000937So this is a gruelling account of the crossing, some of which will be familiar to readers from the television news- the ramshackle boats used, the overcrowding on the boats, the lack of food, drinking water and life jackets, the dangerous conditions in which the boats set sail, the deaths by drowning. Less familiar will be the days and weeks of waiting for the crossing, the tension and anxiety caused by never knowing when you will be leaving, the huge amounts of money demanded by everyone involved- the agents, the smugglers, the people in whose apartments you are hanging around in, waiting, the kidnappers who unexpectedly take you to an apartment, lock you in and demand a ransom for your liberation. The lies you are told, thinking you must be nearing Italy when all the time you are cruising the coast of North Africa. The utter helplessness.

And the effect of this is made more real by focusing on the personal stories of the group Bauer is travelling with: Amar is a middle class Syrian who left in 2011 to continue his import business in Egypt. Life became more difficult for Amar and family after the overthrow of Morsi and increasing hostility towards Syrians. Amar realised he could no longer continue to support his family in Egypt and would have to leave. He would go first and they would follow on- if he made it. We follow the story of two brothers Alaa and Hussan, the latter a vulnerable young man, reliant on family members to make decisions for him, now literally tossed onto the seas of fortune. Poignant details from family life , of love and loss make the accounts all the more heart rending- Elias tapes his sister’s medical records to his stomach for safety. She has Down’s syndrome and asthma and he hopes she will receive better medical treatment in Europe.

The refugees’ suffering does not of course stop once they have reached Europe- or Elysium as the chapter headings call it. Alaa and Hussan are also exploited by a taxi driver who charges them 400 Euros to cross the border from Germany to Denmark and a train conductor takes advantage of Alaa’s confusion to pocket 120 Euros from him-I was really shocked at this account. And though decently housed in Sweden, they feel ill at ease in their small town in the middle of forests and lakes-and in the face of  a swelling anti- foreigner feeling looming  in response to the sudden influx of literally thousands of refugees. I was also shocked at the ease with which passport officials could be bribed in Africa, allowing refugees from the Middle East to enter Europe via Africa on false papers. In this account it seems that money is the only thing which speaks.

Now, as we know, refugees are continuing  to make these crossings, exposing themselves to danger, exploitation and death, to arrive in a Europe which is often less than welcoming. In his epilogue to the English Edition, written in December 2015, Bauer lays the blame for the collapse of Syria and the rise of IS at the hands of EU ministers who would not introduce no- fly zones as part of a strategy to combat Assad’s forces. It seems as if Europe is still dragging its heels on finding a solution to the crisis in Syria- the UK is shamefully ungenerous and slow at offering practical help to refugees- as Amelia Gentleman points out in her Guardian article  of 03/08/ 2016 on how little Britain has done to get the unaccompanied children out of Calais three months after the Dubs amendment. This personal account of human suffering, endurance, courage and loss, translated with sensitivity into a very readable account by Sarah Pybus, gives us just a glimpse of what the Syrian refugees are going through. Read this and add your voice to Wolfgang Bauer when he ends the epilogue by pleading for us to have mercy. To do something to stop forcing the men, women and children onto the boats.

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The Proletarian Poet- Junges Licht by Ralf Rothmann.

If this novel is anything to go by, the sobriquet ‘proletarian poet’  ( referred to by Alexandra Roesch in New Books in German ) fits Ralf Rothmann like a glove: ‘Junges Licht’ is set in a working class milieu in the Ruhrgebiet in the early 1960s and describes the constraints, pressures and economic hardships of those times. Narrated by a  12 year old boy, Julian, the environment and characters are described in minute and arresting detail, conjuring up vivid images of people and situations. At the same time, the adult world with its complex relationships, demands and sexual desires is looming on the edges of the young lad’s consciousness and Rothmann’s ability to show us the world through his still innocent eyes is just one aspect of his literary skills.

The novel starts on the first day of the summer holidays. As Julian opens the curtains and slowly surveys the garden below with its few scattered toys, fruit bushes and the Gornys’ house next door, we share that moment of heightened excitement at the prospect of days of freedom and potential ahead. At the same time we are introduced to the physical layout of the houses in this miner’s ‘Siedlung’ or estate : living cheek by jowl as they do, the Gornys can see up into Julian’s house and vice versa, which enables each family to check on the movements of the other as well as creating a more generalised and diffuse feeling of threat.

The narrative proceeds episodically through Julian’s world: we see him caring for his beloved menagerie at the Tierclub- animal club- housed in an abandoned builder’s lorry in a nearby wasteland, cutting out figures from magazines while looking after his younger sister, Sophie, negotiating the intricacies of gang behaviour and ever alert to the behaviour and reactions of the adults around him- though sometimes misinterpreting them. The sexualised adult world begins to encroach through Julian’s contact with the 15 year old lodger Marusha and the unwelcome attentions of the creepy Herr Gorny, but there is much innuendo and evasiveness leaving Julian only half grasping the adults’ motivations and desires. Other aspects of the adult world encroach too- Julian’s mother is ill- ‘sie hat etwas mit der Galle- something wrong with her gall bladder’, they are very hard up, and the whole family is aware of the hard toil endured by their father in the mine.

The plot develops further when Julian’s mother leaves with Sophie for a holiday in the country on her parents’ farm. Julian is left in charge of running the household and Marusha takes the opportunity of his father working nights to invite her boyfriend Jonny round. The close proximity of Marusha’s bedroom to the balcony means that Julian hears every noise coming from the bedroom while not being quite aware of what it all adds up to. However in the account of Julian crouched listening on the balcony to what is going on behind the curtains Rothmann shows his genius for slowly building up tension in an atmosphere of claustrophobia- and this is repeated in the scene where Julian and his father, accompanied by Marusha, visit his father’s old friend Lippek. The men get drunk and though they feebly protest at first they allow Marusha to get drunk too. Lippek engages Marusha in a sort of lewd banter riven with smutty insinuation, interrupted only by knocking back another Schnaps. The scene goes on, the tension winding up ever tighter and it is as if the characters are immobilised in the tiny attic flat of the ageing bachelor. I felt like running out of the room screaming myself and this flight response is that taken of course by Julian on occasions, starting with him running away from school. Here, as in other  interior domestic scenes in the book, Rothmann evokes feelings of constraint and claustrophobia,sometimes in response to a threat lurking beneath the surface, but also in response to the dreary everyday routine: Julian’s mother is desperate for a holiday not only for her physical ills but also to get her out of poverty and the daily grind for a while.

The working class milieu is evoked in detail, both physically but also in terms of its social norms. We see the uniformity of the housing estate with the ever present mine in the distance, as well as the interior of the houses- and the fridge with no food in it. But there are hierarchies within this milieu. The Gornys think they are a cut above Julian’s family because they own Julian’s house as well as their own and Julian is aware that their son is going to the grammar school in September. The shop keeper treats Julian with real contempt when he buys his mother’s cigarettes on tick, deriding her for not having the bottle to ask for credit herself. Yet some of the behaviours may be attributed to the era as much as to the social milieu: the sadistic metal edged ruler used in punishment in school is thankfully a thing of the past, as is, in general, children being physically chastised by their parents. I was horrified by the savage beating Julian receives from his mother- and all the more shocked when she coolly opens the door to her friend straight afterwards as if nothing had happened.

Now to say the novel opens with Julian is not strictly true: there are two narrative threads here and it is the second one which briefly opens the book. This second narrative is a third person narrative describing the work of ‘der Mann’ in the mine and interleaved into the main narrative. This character is both Julian’s father and more generally representative of any miner. Each section describes in detail the work he is carrying out, with detailed descriptions of the rock face with all its contours and characteristics as well as the machinery used. We are left in no doubt as to the hard physical toil of this work, as well as to the dangerous and unpredictable conditions within which the miners at that time were working. And that the miners were forever marked by this work is shown on the body: the scars on Julian’s father’s arms are impregnated with coal dust which cannot be removed. So these sections remind us at regular intervals as we read of the other underground reality. But they are also a reminder of a possible future for Julian, showing that this is what men in his community do and where he may end up working. And so they feed into the exploration of masculinity which is also present in the book with its protagonist on the cusp of adulthood. Will he go down the pit, or will he- gifted at sketching, loving to his younger sister, caring for his animals and acutely aware of every change of expression on his mother’s face- get away and forge a different kind of identity as an adult male?

‘Junges Licht’ is a beautifully written and poignant account of the last summer of childhood; as Julian closes the door of his bedroom on the last page he is closing the door on this chapter of his life. I was delighted to be introduced to the book by the critic Wolfgang Schneider at a talk he gave for the Goethe Institut, but at that time- 2012- the shop assistant at Dussmann had to get up a ladder to find the copies stored high up and out of sight. Hopefully now, with a feature film released in May of this year, 2016, the books will be stacked up ready for reading on the front table where they rightfully belong.


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