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.