To Die in Spring, Ralf Rothmann, translated by Shaun Whiteside.

With memorial services marking the First World War’s battle of Passchendaele and the Product Detailsrelease of Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, the horrific and senseless loss of life in war has been playing on my mind.  So it seemed timely to turn to Ralf Rothmann’s latest novel Im Frühling sterben, set in Germany at the end of World War Two, and now appearing in an English translation by Shaun Whiteside. I’m a great fan of Ralf Rothmann since reading his novel Junges Licht. Im Frühling sterben is as compelling a read as the earlier novel but very much a war novel, telling the story of Walter Urban, a 17 year old farm hand from North Germany, dragooned into volunteering for the Waffen SS with his friend Fiete only months before Germany’s defeat.

The story starts with his life on the farm. He is coming to the end of his training and there is a feeling of contentment, quiet confidence and ease in his sensitive handling of the animals. He has cordial relations with his boss and fellow workers, including the refugee families from the East who have found temporary shelter on the farm and begins a flirtation with young Liesel. At the same time, the war in its final stages is in the background: the farm has suffered bomb damage, the Russians are at the River Oder and there is an unspoken awareness that the end, and probable defeat, will come soon. A party is held one night by the Reichsnährstand, a kind of Food Committee, to which the Waffen SS turn up. Bragging about their heroic deeds for the Fatherland and puffed up with empty rhetoric about the Endsieg– final victory- it becomes clear that they are out to sign up new recruits. Walter and his friend Fiete find themselves forced to ‘volunteer’ and within hours are on their way to the front.

Walter goes first to Adelsried in Bavaria and then into Hungary. He learns to drive, which saves him from certain death at the front, and is engaged in driving provisions to the front and transporting the wounded back to the field hospital. The narrative offers us many accounts of carnage and destruction and Rothmann’s descriptive powers convey the physical and sensual impact of these on the young 17 year old : in the kitchen and canteen at Adelsried the stench of blood, pus and urine overrides the smell of cooking fat or ersatz coffee. Alongside heartrending accounts of individual suffering and death, Rothmann gives us the bigger picture, well documented elsewhere, of an army on its knees, sent back again and again to the front, when the Russian air superiority was obvious, the Germans had only one quarter of their men on the ground and the troops were so hungry that they would raid the kit bags of fallen Russian soldiers and eat their bloodied provisions.

In this way the narrative weaves a more generalised account of the suffering and pointlessness of war together with an account of events that happened at this particular moment in history. So on the one hand, the treatment of the miller, his wife and servant, seems to be the expression of a ghastly sadistic streak in the perpetrators. Yet the activities of the Waffen SS as a group range from lawless to unspeakably cruel. We have the young Ernst at the call up scene remarking in throw away fashion that they had to decimate villages of civilians in reprisals for partisans attacking their men- was this Tulle? Oradour-sur-Glane? or the Balkans? They are seen by many as an elite troop who are a law unto themselves and the several dangling bodies of deserters seen by Walter testify to the fact that they take no prisoners. And give a forewarning of what is to come in the story, an event which is to traumatise Walter for the rest of his life.

Walter survives the war though spends the last days in a field hospital, sick with his nerves. Many of his friends and comrades have died. He returns to Essen, his home town, to see his mother and sister. Though he has an affectionate relationship with his sister, his mother has no time for him so he heads north to track down Liesel- he’s been offered a job on a farm but it’s for a couple and he needs a wife.

Now you might think readers are left crossing their fingers that Walter and Liesel can make something of their lives after this traumatic period of their youth. But we already know how their lives pan out because of the frame around Walter’s story, narrated by the first person narrator/ Ralf Rothmann. The  frame, and the novel, starts with the word Schweigen– silence- and introduces the narrator’s father. He is a silent, serious, melancholy man, who rarely smiles. We are told that his life is darkened by his past and he only mentions the war when telling his children his wiry hair resulted from the birch sap rubbed into it at the front. The epilogue wraps around the story from the other end and has the narrator visiting his parents’ graves one last time before they are given up to make room for the more recent dead. He stumbles through the snow, unable to find the grave, just as Walter was unable to  find his father’s grave when searching for it at the front, knowing he had fallen close by.

This novel about war and its terrible impact on young lives covers some similar ground to novels like All Quiet on the Western Front. Yet the framing device, letting us know from the beginning that Walter, the narrator’s father, is a damaged man, gives us a sense of the permanence of that damage- and the mirroring of the father and son both searching in vain for their father’s final resting place leaves us with a sense of loss going across generations. This is a powerful story, rendered more so by Rothmann’s meticulously detailed description of the youth of the protagonists- the young soldiers’s soft skin, their eyelashes- and it may make you weep for their loss. Read it, but be prepared.

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Human Acts- Han Kang translated by Deborah Smith

This novel is an account of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea and the massacre and repression which followed. Told from different points of view, the accounts are pieced together like a mosaic and tell us of those who died and those who survived- and the price they paid. The novel starts in the gymnasium where the small and slight middle schooler Dong-Ho has come to look for his friends Jeong- Dae and his sister Jeong- Mi. The gymnasium is the place where the bodies are brought from the hospital and laid out in coffins, some covered, some open, for families to identify. The bodies are swollen, already putrefying, many disfigured and maimed from blows and slashes.The stench is overwhelming. I was reminded of Nina Jäckle’s book der lange Atem where bodies are bloated and distended, hard to identify. There it’s the Tsunami which has caused such damage, whereas here it is humankind which has maimed, shot, crushed and tortured these mostly very young people in a brutal response by the state to their demands for freedom and democracy.

The novel goes on to explore the stories of other characters introduced in that first story while always keeping our awareness on the body. So the next section is narrated by a soul hovering around his physical body, which finds itself at the bottom of a pile of bodies ‘stacked in the neat shape of a cross’ after being dumped in the countryside. We learn that this is Jeong-Dae also seeking his sister amongst the bodies and the souls and how he died. Kim Eun-sook, an older student whom Dong-Ho meets working at the gymnasium, later works for a small publishing house. She is interrogated about a translator they use and receives seven slaps to the face so hard that the capillary blood vessels ‘laced over her right cheekbone burst, the  blood trickling out through her broken skin’. To put this behind her she tries to devote one day to forgetting each slap and through her attempt to forget we learn what she has been through since the uprising. In The Prisoner 1990 we hear an account of torture and brutal prison conditions from a man who shared a cell with Kim Jin-Su, another student working at the gymnasium. The particular method of torture and its physical consequences for the prisoners’ hands are clearly described. Here it is not just the physical torture they endure which is shocking but the ruined lives which follow: the men meet by chance some years later, both heavy drinkers, unable to hold down a job or relationship.

Han Kang’s close attention to physical detail-to skin, knuckle and bone- has been seen already in The Vegetarian, particularly in its section on the painting of the body. Here she also uses detail to good effect in characterisation, as in Kim Eun-sook’s take on her boss whom she does not trust ‘from close up, his open, unguarded eyes seemed unaccountably tinged with fear, and the lines circling his neck were deeper than one would have expected for someone his age’. She evokes youth and vulnerability as well as the tender mother’s eye when describing Dong-Ho ‘ There was no mistaking those toothpick arms, poking out of your short shirtsleeves. It was your narrow shoulders, your own special way of walking, loping like a little fawn’. It is through the body that she describes the unbearable humidity of the summer months: ‘the heat and humidity of an August evening pummels you… at the top of your back the sweat- soaked fabric has darkened to an inky black….the sweat clinging to the hair behind your ears crawls down over your jaw and drips onto your shirt collar’.

And there is an awareness of skin- a porosity as souls pass through the physical confines of the body to hover nearby. The horrific scene where the young machinists, defending the strikers take off their clothes in the belief that the soldiers will respect their young and virginal bodies. But there is also the feeling of solidarity evoked by skin touching-the prisoner remembers people lining up to donate blood after the massacre, singing the national anthem, ‘Those snapshot moments, when it seemed we’d all performed the miracle of stepping outside the shell of our own selves, one person’s tender skin coming into grazed contact with another, felt as though they were rethreading the sinews of that world heart, patching up the fissures from which blood had flowed, making it beat again’.

The title Human Acts seems at first to refer to the barbarity and cruelty shown by the army and police in the uprising and later violence-especially in a world where we see daily acts of barbarism via our 24 hour media. Yet the novel also contains moments of solidarity, of human goodness like the singing together of the blood donors. In The Factory Girl 2002 Lim Seong-ju, also working at the gymnasium that day, reflects on her political activism over the years and particularly on her relationship with the tireless Kim Seong-hee, a labour rights activist working to improve the conditions of young machinists. She remembers the bus full of young women workers waving their banner and singing,on their way to the main square on the fateful night of the army reentering the city. Her memories are of collective action, of unbelievable strength and solidarity. She reflects that she would have done the some again, if she were able to ‘go back’.

The author, Han Kang, was a child at the time of the uprising and has a personal connection to the events of the uprising-this is referred to by the translator, Deborah Smith, in her helpful introduction and becomes clear in the last section of the book. In this, The Writer 2013, Han Kang returns to Gwangju to find out more about the uprising and to find the grave of the boy, Dong-ho. It is a deeply moving account of her experience.

This is a powerful novel about the uprising in South Korea, its brutal repression and the long term consequences for individuals and families. But it is also about the moments of solidarity and strength which can occur. Thanks to Deborah Smith for her seamless translation and to English Pen for bringing us this work.



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August- Christa Wolf’s last short story.

August, the first short story in this slim volume of three, was written in 2011, and was the last short story written by Christa Wolf before her death in December of that year. She catapults the reader straight in to the heart of the story in the opening sentence: August remembers that just like all the children arriving by train in Mecklenburg at the end of the war without his parents, he was asked when and where he’d lost his mother. And he couldn’t remember whether the air raid had happened before or after the train crossed over the Oder and he was pulled out of it by a strange woman, hiding then in the undergrowth until the all clear, climbing back on to the train, never again to find the stranger nor his mother. He remembered his mother weeping on receiving a letter saying his father was missing in action- but he didn’t tell the Red Cross lady that, certain his father would come looking for him. He could tell her though that he was 8 years old and after examination by a doctor was sent off to a TB hospital with a cardboard sign saying ‘orphan’ around his neck.

The story then continues in the TB hospital where children and adults are being treated in desperate conditions at the end of the war: not enough food, inadequate medical facilities and treatment, children orphaned and traumatised. The one shining light for August in all this is Lilo, an older girl who stands up to the strict head nurse, cares for the other children, sings the younger ones to sleep and helps in the rudimentary schoolroom. He develops a huge crush on her, follows her everywhere, burns up with jealousy when she favours other children and especially when he sees her flirting with Harry. As the female patients laugh kindly to themselves – he is the page to her princess.

Parallel to the story of this small child at the end of the war runs the story of the adult August, now a coach driver approaching retirement and driving a coach load of pensioners home to Berlin after a holiday in Prague. As he drives northwards he reflects on periods of his life and we learn that he feels lucky to be trained as a driver, to have work and later to meet his wife Trude. Places on route such as Dresden trigger memories of Germany’s past but also of his life with Trude who has recently died. Thinking back to Lilo, he remembers the last time he saw her as she waved to him from the ambulance taking her, now cured, off to the station. He felt as if he would never again feel joy. As he returns to his flat in Marzahn at the end of the trip, he dreads the emptiness he’ll find- he has still not adjusted to living alone. But, still, he feels thankful to have known, just once in his life, happiness. Happiness with Trude or the joy he felt with Lilo? This is left open.

This beautiful story paints a sobering and heart rending picture of the lives of ordinary German civilians at the end of the war- and unlike much fiction set at this time gives us the longer view of what actually happened to those civilians who lost so much in the rest of their lives. The story is made all the more poignant by the child’s perspective through which it is told-we adult readers can all too easily interpret the signs of deteriorating health observed by the little boy in the other children and the overheard conversations between medical staff. And August’s devotion to Lilo, the compassionate and brave, in these circumstances is both utterly believable and unbearably touching. This is Christa Wolf’s last story and must be one of her finest- it will stay with me for a long time.

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Thus Bad Begins-Javier Marias

This most recent novel by Javier Marías is set around 1980, four or five years after the death of Franco. Taking this period, la transición, as one of its themes, it depicts a nation coming up for air after nearly 40 years of oppression. The novel explores the implications of confronting individual behaviour during the Civil War through a story about unearthing family secrets, and with this touches some profound questions about how we deal with the past and move on from it.

The story is narrated by  Juan de Vere, a young graduate who has come to work as a secretary/ assistant to the film director Eduardo Muriel. Based in his home, de Vere is well positioned to observe Muriel’s family life and it’s clear that Muriel’s marriage has broken down. He is verbally abusive, scornful and cruel towards his wife, Beatriz, and while eavesdropping de Vere gleans that his hatred was triggered by some event in the past. At the same time, Muriel tasks de Vere with following a friend of his, Van Vechten, asking him to report back on his attitudes and behaviour. Muriel has learned something about Van Vechten’s past concerning his treatment of a woman which has shocked him and wants to see if any of it could be true.

So our narrator sets off to entrap the 60 year old Van Vechten by befriending him and inviting him out night after night to dance and party with his young friends- and there was some frenetic partying going on in the clubs and bars of Madrid at that time, with the lid lifted from the repressive facist regime. Our suspicions about Van Vechten grow as he shows an excessive interest in Juan’s sexual exploits and sleazy behaviour around Juan’s young female friends. They go through the roof when he admits to excitement when a woman is cooerced and we are imagining some truly horrific behaviour in his past.

Now, Juan’s role slides interestingly between that of narrator, spy and voyeur: at times he chooses to follow Beatriz and is excited to find her, improbably, having sex at a window. Another facet of his gaze is that of film maker and cameraman. The world of film is a theme of the novel and several scenes are depicted as if a film still, or even, as with Beatriz as part fantasy. But the narrative perspective of Juan is often a highly sexualised one: there are several long intense scenes of watching Beatriz in her diaphanous nightie as well as the skirts of most female characters riding up over their thighs, which frankly bored me and surely must be written for male titillation. Marías may have been deliberately overdoing the male gaze to underline the sexual prowess of young men- also a theme- but these were times when I felt like throwing the book across the room.

And the voyeurism/ spying trope is just one of several favourites of Marías revisited here. As in A Heart so White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, the plot involves reaching back into the past, long intense conversations between two people in claustrophobic interiors, with another character eavesdropping. He delights again in word play, returning again and again to examining the Shakespearean quote of the title, (here, thus bad begins and worse remains behind from Hamlet). There is a wonderful pleasure in the playfulness and infinite creativity of language in the florid character of Professor Rico who invents his own onomatopoaeic exclamations and idioms as well as in the writer’s choice of the names de Vere and Van Vechten and the multiple associations they provoke- the English de Vere who some allege was behind Shakespeare’s plays, the origins in the Netherlands of the name Van Vechten, and Spain’s imperial past. Words, meanings and associations ricochet back and forth in some sections, adding to the rich and ambiguous texture of the narrative.

It is not only the manic partying which gives the book its historical context. Early on in the book we learn in a discussion between Beatriz and her women friends that divorce is not yet legal in Spain and that both women and men throughout the land are stuck in loveless marriages as a result- unthinkable to us now. We are also told early on that at that time- just 4 or 5 years after the collapse of the regime- there was a quiet agreement not to delve into the past activities of individuals either during the Civil War or later during Franco’s rule. This was a condition on the part of the ‘Nationalists’ for granting a democracy-that there should be no calling to account- and this didn’t only mean no court cases but no discussions in private either. As the plot develops, the past unravels and we are asked to consider the implications of this silence for Spain and its people.

I very much enjoyed the evocation of this period and the length and scope of this long novel allowed it to drip through the pages and get under your skin. That this is a masculine novel can be seen by the overlong erotic gaze and the fact that there is only one female character, Beatriz, whose voice we rarely hear. This is important because it means I would recommend this book to women friends who are interested in Spain, but not necessarily to others, who may become as impatient with the male gaze as I did. Still, and to my surprise, my attention was drawn back to the plot and I was riveted in the last 50 pages when we finally find out what happened between Beatriz and Eduardo- a story as human and moving as it was unexpected.

And what is also well done and similarly dripped through the book is the awareness of time and generational difference. Our young narrator has a male erotic gaze but the suggestion is that relationships between young people in the Spain of 1980 are different and more equal than before. When it comes to confronting a nation’s past and individual misdeeds within that past it is suggested that time, the demise of the protagonists and the appearance of a new generation will inevitably lead to those deeds sliding into oblivion. The novel concludes with a brief fast forward to the future relationship between de Vere and the Muriel family, which for all its brevity, left me with a feeling of optimism- that the younger generation will manage things better than their parents. We should look to them.






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A man who falls – Ein Mann, der faellt- by Ulrike Edschmid

ThiImage result for A man who falls + Suhrkamps is the story of a man who falls from a ladder while decorating his flat and suffers life changing injuries. At first diagnosed as paraplegic by the doctors, he regains some feeling and movement but is permanently disabled. Related by his female partner, it is the story of how they learn to live with and come to terms with his disability. It is also a story about Berlin. It is the summer of 1986 and the couple are renovating a flat in Charlottenburg, in the former West. The narrator observes a range of colourful and often eccentric characters moving in and out of the Wohnhaus. Beyond their own lives, the couple live through the dramatic changes to the fabric and population of Berlin when the wall comes down in 1989 – fascinating reading for people who knew that city before and after 1989.

The narrator is away in Frankfurt when the accident occurs. She finds him in the clinic, completely paralysed, catheterised, his face stitched after being gashed by his workman’s trowel. After a few days he is transferred to a specialised clinic for paraplegics in Zehlendorf, a residential suburb in south west Berlin. A sort of parallel narrative then emerges, one strand detailing the narrator’s afternoon visits to her partner and the second outlining her focused organisation of workmen, planning and purchasing materials for the continuation of the flat renovations. There is barely a shred of anguish, self pity or even shock on the narrator’s part, which would after all be quite understandable in response to this catastrophic event. It’s as if this energy for the renovations is a kind of reaction- as if by ordering and organising she is taking a stand against life’s unpredictable disasters. It is when she moves his possessions into their flat- his cycle, his running shoes- that she thinks about the man he was and the life they had together, aware this is now in a past they can never return to.

The man improves in tiny, incremental steps. He is very gradually raised in the bed to a sitting position and eventually transferred to a wheelchair. The narrator’s attention to detail in recounting his progress leaves us in no doubt as to the huge effort and indescribable pain he goes through. But there is also a question of identity. The man refuses to accept the doctor’s dictum that he will be a wheelchair user. They both loathe the shapeless tracksuits the patients wear and one day the narrator brings in her partner’s linen suit for him to wear. There is a wonderful triumphant moment when she finds him waiting for her at visiting time, wearing his grey linen suit and smart town shoes, one leg casually slung over the other. Yet she knows what it cost him to arrange his legs in such a position.

Eventually towards the autumn the man leaves the clinic and moves into the now renovated flat. He is using crutches and a stick and his walking is very tentative and unsteady. The narrator describes the difficulty he experiences with getting up and down the stairs to their second floor flat when neighbours forget to close the lift doors, the difficulty he has sleeping at night with the rowdy Spanish restaurant below, the problems when pavements ice over. Yet it is also an account of the practical steps they both take to adapt to and come to terms with the new reality. This includes an eventual return to work for him. He works for a firm of architects concerned with renovation and restoration and when the wall falls in 1989 the firm expands into East Berlin. Though no longer able to work on site, he is able to meet clients and agree plans. There is an evocative account of him taking a slow walk through the buildings, barracks and storerooms used by the former border guards, now abandoned symbols of an abandoned regime.

The narrative describing how they both adapt to these changes is interleaved with glances to the past, sometimes a snatched memory- of cycling, walking, dancing the tango- activities they will not share again. Sometimes the memories are more focused on him, the man he once was. He was a talented and innovative photographer: at one of their first meetings he viewed and photographed her textile work. Together, they broached the barbed wire fencing round the bombed out Belvedere temple in Sans Souci Park- to drape it in her hangings for him to photograph. At the end of this account, she states simply that, no longer quick or steady on his feet, he’s had to give up photography.

The narrator is a visual artist too, a seamstress, and it is her visual eye which brings to life not only scenes from their personal lives, but also vignettes of Berlin. One of their favourite walks was along the river Havel, from where they could see the Kirche von Sacrow, in Potsdam, which at that time lay in the former East Germany and therefore out of reach for them in West Berlin.  (I was so fascinated by her description of this Romanesque church with the blue tiles which I didn’t know that I found its website and have pasted in the photo! ) She evokes a more recent side of Berlin in her account of attending an opening visit of the new Jewish Museum in 2001. He cannot walk fast enough to keep up with the group, and as they get left further and further behind the deliberately disorientating architecture of the building brings them to a state of near panic.

The writer enjoys too describing the cast of eccentric characters who pass through their lives, often finding a temporary haven in the melting pot of the Weltstadt Berlin. In the 80s their neighbours include a Korean church, a purveyor of S and M equipment, a trans woman. Down at street level the Spanish restaurant is noisily in business all night long. With the fall of the wall, property speculators take the building over, Eastern European voices are heard on the street and cars with Polish number plates queue up to buy video recorders en masse from a shop opposite, sprung up overnight. After 9/11, the Iranian women’s Resistance movement moves in, the women in headscarves working tirelessly all night for their comrades in Iran. And then there is René, from Switzerland, now landed in Berlin, with an unprobed but possibly murky past behind him, who comes to help them, a former butler, now sort of factotum who after a while just disappears from their lives without a trace.

As with Ulrike Edschmid’s two other novels, Die Liebhaber meiner Mutter and Das Verschwinden des Philip S. one suspects a strong autobiographical element here and this is confirmed in Peter Henning’s review in Spiegel Online. He also explains that Ulrike Edschmid herself fell ill and struggled to finish the book. But she did finish it and has written a detailed and moving account of this life changing accident and the struggle to come to terms with the new reality. It is the simplicity and succinctness of her writing and her visual sensibility rendering the past so vivid which brings home to us the finality of this loss, this change. This will be a moving read for anyone wishing to understand how people live after such an event, and of course offers a fascinating account of Berlin, before and after the fall of the Wall. Let’s have it translated into English soon please!



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A Whole Life- Ein Ganzes Leben, by Robert Seethaler translated by Charlotte Collins

This slim novella chronicles the life of Andreas Egger, a simple Austrian living in a mountain village, and spans the 20th century with its social changes and upheavals. The novel combines beautifully lyrical descriptions of mountainous landscapes and snow with a frank and unsentimental account of the rural community in which he lives. Starting with his arrival in the village as a little orphaned boy in 1902, the narrative takes us through to his old age at the end of the century and shows both change and continuity in this main character and his village.

A great story teller, the writer draws us in from the start in the opening scene, where the adult Andreas finds the goatherd Horned Hannes emaciated and near to death in his hut above the village in the deep February snow. He places him carefully in a wooden frame which he straps to his back to bring him down the treacherous mountain path to the village, Hannes protesting and warning of the proximity of Death , the Cold Lady. The narrative then goes back to Andreas’ childhood. Taken in by his uncle, he is not accepted by the other children and this, combined with a broken leg and consequent permanent limp after a beating, means he remains a friendless outsider within the family and in the village.  Nevertheless he finds work on the new cable car construction, finds a woman he loves and makes a living in the village until he goes off to fight on the Russian front. He returns years later in the early 50s to a community now living increasingly from tourism and he becomes a mountain guide for several years. The social developments of the 50s and 60s, like television and the moon landings are related and then Andreas’ decline into old age.

Now it is quite a tall order to describe a Whole Life in a novella sized book. One way the writer achieves this is by his vivid painting of particular episodes and moments which engage us emotionally. One such is the account of the kindly grandmother’s sudden and unexpected death. An animal fight during her funeral procession dislodges the coffin lid and the little boy sees her yellowing hand dangling over the edge of the coffin as if waving him a last goodbye. These moments often involve detailed and evocative description which engages our senses: we can smell the snow, hear the cows’ ‘muffled chomping’, the moths’ wings as they ‘beat against the pane with a barely discernible papery sound’.

The power of these moments lies of course also with the translator. Charlotte Collins has done a fantastic job with the demands of this text. She works with the longer more complex German sentences in lyrical passages to produce rhythmical sentences in English which really work: ‘ the goatherd stared at him out of the darkness, emaciated and ghostly pale, and Egger knew that Death already crouched behind his eyes’. She recreates alliteration to wonderful effect: ‘ the snow fell so thickly and incessantly from the sky that it seemed softly to swallow the landscape, smothering all life and sound’. She works equally well with the different requirements of straight narrative and dialogue and her use of idiom is just right. She has created a really compelling, fluent and readable rendering of the original.

The one reservation I have about this book is its aim to recount a whole life in less than 200 pages. Both when reading the German and the English translation, I felt my commitment and interest lessened in the second half of the book. I felt that massive life experiences, like spending 8 years in a Prisoner of War camp were skated over, and I wanted to know more about the influx of tourists in the Austrian mountains in the early 50s ( really? who were they? German cities were still in ruins, rationing was still in force in Britain, I’m not saying there were no tourists but tell me more about them please). But this may just be me, a matter of personal taste- I remember feeling luke warm about Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna for the same reason, though she’s a writer whose work I generally admire.

So this is a beautifully written book and an excellent translation. I’m looking forward to reading more of both Robert Seethaler and Charlotte Collins.




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Letti Park- Judith Hermann

I first came across Judith Hermann some years ago when reading her début short story collection Sommerhaus, später. Imagine how pleased I was then to come across her latest collection, Letti Park, Lettiparkwhen having the time of my life browsing in Dussmann in Berlin. The delight in her stories comes from the delicacy of her language, the light touch with which she describes a character adjusting to a new truth and conjures up images which linger in the mind.

The stories, unlike those of Jackie Kay, or Jhumpa Lahiri, are not anchored in a particular social milieu depicting characters intensely bound up or challenged by the norms of their group. They will not tell you about a topic in the way that Christos Ikonomu tells us how the Greeks are affected by austerity. Rather, the characters float above social categorisation and the stories are more concerned with showing individuals encountering each other, sometimes unexpectedly, and the small changes which sometimes then occur in their take on the world.

The stories frequently have female protagonists and sometimes, as in the title story and Solaris, involve female friends meeting again after a lapse of several years and a reconsideration of power relations in the friendship. A range of relationships between parents and children are depicted, from the heart melting tenderness between mother and child in Papierflieger to the dutiful coolness in Gedichte. Hermann’s characters span a wide age range: I loved the relationship between Maude and her elderly landlady in Manche Erinnerungen and was moved by the depiction of old age in Mutter.

Men often don’t come off well. Even long and apparently happy marriages end ‘von einem Tag auf den anderen’ (from one day to the next)  and in Gehirn Philipp puts his camera between himself and emotion. In Letti Park the friends Rose and Elena, who meet by chance years later in a supermarket, now have men who are definite, practical, commanding.But they are connected by a previous relationship with Page Shakusky, who gave Elena a book of photographs he’d taken of Letti Park, her favourite childhood park. It’s all snow showers, creating drifts and shifts, blurred outlines and uncertainty, as unreliable as memory itself.

These images are powerfully handled in the stories. Like the snow in Letti Park the image of pollen invading the courtyard in Pappelpollen is vividly depicted. Despite being ethereal and insubstantial it seems to fill the yard so thickly the inhabitants mistake it for smoke and call the Fire Brigade. At the end of Papierflieger, Tess stands with her friend and children watching the paper aeroplanes they’ve launched from the window shine white against the darkness.

Though I said the stories are not concerned with social issues, one or two set outside Germany involve the characters feeling out of their depth in a different culture. My favourite is Osten, where Jessica and Ari arrive in Odessa, which she has been keen to visit with her romantic ideas about the Black Sea. Jessica finds the grimy reality and grinding poverty of Odessa completely at odds with anything she has come across before.

Now there are one or two short stories which I found elusive- as if the meaning was just beyond my grasp- but on the whole I enjoyed this collection, as much for the clarity and simplicity of the language as for the content of the stories. A collection to be read when you feel like detaching yourself from the hectic rush to enjoy those images of a yard full of pollen floating and the soar of paper aeroplanes.

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