is a rollercoaster ride ( almost literally) of a book, about two 14 year olds, Maik Klingenberg and his classmate Tschick, who steal a car and embark on an anarchic journey south from Berlin at the start of the school holidays, meeting different characters, often oddballs and outsiders like them, on the way. Except that Maik is not a social outsider, coming from a materially well off German family just fallen on hard times, but nevertheless neglected by his twotiming father and alcoholic mother and left to his own devices. Tschick appears in the Gymnasium ( grammar school) class at the end of the school year, a Russian immigrant, ignored or ridiculed by other class members, he is a focus of fascination for Maik with his erratic grades, hangovers and apparent indifference to classroom politics, unlike Maik who yearns to be popular and to gain the attention of the beautiful Tatjana. The two teenagers bond over their status as class outcasts when they confess that neither has been invited to Tatjana’s party, and with nothing left to lose, they set off for the South and the Walachei.
I was gripped by the story from the powerful beginning which takes place in a police station: there is blood, a scared teenager pissing himself and a mystifying argument about 14 or 15, which a few pages in you realise is about the age at which one is ‘strafmündig’ or criminally responsible in Germany. Obviously this young lad is in a lot of trouble. We are drawn in further when we find out he has a serious leg injury. This opening and the consistent first person narration keep us with Maik emotionally all the way: we have been there as the class reject, have felt for others in that role, have seen the lonely kid in classes we teach. The narrative standpoint and invitation to empathise feeds in however to the question: who is this book aimed at? Is it for young people or adults or both? Certainly, the plot, the youthful protagonists, the themes of identity ,friendship and relationships with authority will all appeal to teenagers. However Herrndorf is also addressing adults when he invites us to laugh at Maik’s naivety : His guileless and simplistic take on society’s rules is both comic and tragic to us the more sophisticated adult readers who know how much trouble he is in. ‘ da können sie mich foltern. Obwohl die deutsche Polizei, glaube ich, niemanden foltern darf. Das dürfen sie nur im Fernsehen oder in der Türkei’. ( Then they can torture me. Although the German police are not allowed to torture anyone I think. They can only do that on TV or in Turkey). I was worried about the escalation of their criminal acts and the insouciance with which they are committed( car theft, theft of number plates, shoplifting) even as I laughed at their scrapes and their nerve, whereas a younger reader with less life experience would probably not have the social worker response.It is this clever addressing of adults and teenagers which gives the book its humour and depth.
British teenagers can now decide if this is a book for them as the English translation called ‘ Why we took the car’ has recently appeared.I ‘ve got two further points: why was the title changed for the English translation ? And what do readers think of the ending of the book, with its different outcomes for Maik and Tschick and suggestions of a different future for them?
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