Marzahn mon Amour- Chiropodist Tales by Katja Oskamp.

The district of Marzahn, in north east Berlin, is known primarily for its vast Plattenbausiedlung- prefabricated public housing complex- built in 1977 under the DDR- German Democratic Republic. Its towers and walkways, green spaces and wind tunnels, form the backdrop to Katja Oskamp’s latest book Marzahn Mon Amour- Geschichten einer Fusspflegerin. In the foreground are the stories and lives of the many clients whom the narrator tends to in the course of her career as a chiropodist at a Marzahn beauty clinic. As she bathes, scrubs and exfoliates the feet of her mostly elderly working class clientele, we hear stories of poverty and hardship, but also of resilience, of coping, of finding solutions in the face of illness and disability. We, the readers, are allowed into the intimate space of the treatment room to share the narrator’s compassion for her clients’ hard lives- but also to share the easy familiarity, the humorous banter that goes on between chiropodist and client.

Now, your first reaction to a book about feet may be one of revulsion. You are not alone in this. In fact, it’s this reaction that Katja Oskamp encountered when she told her literary friends she’d retrained as a chiropodist and was going to work in a beauty clinic in Marzahn. She tells us in the first chapter that she’d reached a cross roads in her life. Finding herself ‘on the other side of forty’, her daughter about to leave home, her husband ill and her writing getting nowhere, she felt her life was stagnating. She was stuck. Then her gym trainer, Tiffy, told her she was opening a beauty studio in  Marzahn and needed a chiropodist. Following Tiffy’s advice, she starts the training course in Charlottenburg, along with a group of other women, none of them young, all retraining. We’re treated to some brief sketches of these women too, the anxious doctor’s assistant seeking a profession she can combine with caring for her sick son, the blonde Russian needing to escape from her demanding brood at home. And this seam of women’s work, their options, their choices, is continued in her portrayal of Tiffy and Flocke, her colleagues. There’s a wonderful chapter called Betriebsausflug– Works Outing- when they close the studio for a day out together and brave the freezing December temperatures to go for a slap up breakfast followed by an afternoon in the sauna.

In the clients’ stories the narrator combines beautifully observed descriptions of the individuals with passages giving short biographies often in a more factual tone. Of course, the nature of her work, helping elderly people into the salon and onto the chiropody chair, means she has become an astute observer of posture, mobility, the shapes and curves of bodies as well as feet, and anyone who has spent time with elderly people will appreciate the sensitive and tender depictions here. She is also excellent at observing the efforts many women in particular go to to present their best face to the world: Frau Guse’s carefully chosen floaty blouse, Frau Janusch’s short haircut in pink and her blue leather jacket, Frau Noll’s green and grey patterned blouse with gold buttons, carefully selected for the chiropody appointment. And while there is an occasional humorous observation to herself- where did Frau Frenzel get that haircut? – the narrator describes her clients with the respect and dignity she shows them in the treatment.

The clients’s stories are varied of course, but particular themes do recur which feature in working class lives the world over. Illness and premature death are frequently mentioned and I was struck by the number of men in the lives of these clients who’d died young, leaving women bringing children up on their own. Disability is a theme, but we’re given an upbeat account in the story of Frau Blumeier:born with polio in 1955 , she defied the doctors to attend a regular school, work as a secretary, marry and have a child. Caring is a big part of the clients’ lives and there are several accounts of middle aged women caring for their ill and pensioned off husbands: from coaxing them into the chiropodists’ chair, as Peggy Engelmann does to her husband, formerly a drinker, to Frau Janusch, caring for her husband suffering from pulmonary disease and on oxygen at home. Yet most of these characters are tough, resilient, relentlessly hard working and pragmatic- they just get on with what life deals them. Once or twice we may be a little taken aback at this pragmatism, such as when Frau Paulke, on the death of her husband, seems more concerned about paying for his new dentures than losing her life partner. But one of Katja Oskamp’s strengths as a narrator is not to judge. She reports this conversation right at the end of the Paulke’s story and there it is.

Of course, not all the clients are wonderful examples of humanity. We have Herr Hübner of the horrendous feet, brought in by two women who turn out to be his social worker. He has made no effort to smarten himself up before the appointment and doesn’t apologise for the state of his feet, which all other clients do. He is unashamed in admitting he’s never worked and sits round all day watching TV with his mates. He leaves without saying goodbye or thank you. And Daughter Noll is also less than pleasant. She’s a taker- a loud, disruptive presence in the waiting room, helping herself to a handful of sweets on the counter, leafing untidily through the magazines. Worse than that she’s a bully to her tiny, frail, elderly mother. The narrator treats her with the professionalism she accords all her clients, but she gives her no extras, there’s no chat or banter during this treatment.

I’d wondered to what extent the clients’ stories would reflect forty years of the communist DDR. Though several clients had work lives disrupted through reunification and the consequent economic upheaval, the main representative of the former DDR is Herr Pietsch. He’s a dedicated party man who achieved a high rank in the DDR communist hierarchy, though the narrator is never quite sure what exactly his job entailed. He’s a numbers man too and is proud to announce the number of women he had affairs with in the past as well as the numbers of walks he’s led in his cardiac walking group. There’s some lovely metaphors employed in the account of this hierarchy focused functionary whirring up and down on the chiropodist’s chair, and some witty dialogue when the narrator adroitly rejects his advances.

This is a wonderful account of the compassion, care and humanity involved in the relationship between chiropodist and client. I loved the detailed, intimate observation of the clients and the warm and often witty interactions between them and the narrator chiropodist. I loved hearing their personal stories and have probably learned more about ingrowing toenails and rough skin paddles than I care to know. And if feet are not your thing, remember that much of the feeling and humanity explored here can be seen in all relationships involving physical care the world over. Much of this is women’s work and, as here, neither well paid nor highly valued. Yet most of us will be the recipients of care if not carers ourselves at some stage in our lives. This book is both a reading pleasure but also a call to think about the caring relationship. Germanists, do read it now and let’s hope for a translation into English soon.

Marzahn Mon Amour Geschichten einer Fußpflegerin,  Katja Oskamp,

Hanser Berlin 16, 00 €

 

 

 

 

 

 

This entry was posted in Books in German, Uncategorized, Working Class Voices and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Marzahn mon Amour- Chiropodist Tales by Katja Oskamp.

  1. Pingback: German Literature Month IX: Author Index – Lizzy's Literary Life

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