I often suffer from a guilty conscience about buying books from Amazon instead of real-life bookshops. So whenever I enter an actual bookshop, I'm much more likely to buy books than I used to be. The other day I was buying birthday presents for a certain little girl, and felt drawn to the display at the front of the shop for adults. This book caught my eye, by someone I only knew as a singer I didn't like very much. Going back to my thoughts on the dangers of mixing music and literature, I decided it sounded interesting enough to warrant buying nevertheless.
It doesn't sound like a very promising start, does it? But I unwrapped it at the tram stop and dived right in. And it was worth it! The prologue in itself is fascinating, a moment of exhilaration captured on paper, when the locals tear down the fence between East and West Germany on the river Elbe.
"Jo thinks much more of Jens, he comes up and up like heartburn. How can he not be here?"
And the book explains why it is that Jens wasn't there but his friend Jo was. It seems painstakingly written, with every word tuned over and over and considered a thousand times. After the prologue, we return to the present, with grown men coming back home and confronting their pasts. Or not. The subject matter was something I wasn't really familiar with: a village on the inner-German border where the security measures were extra-harsh, moving suspect families away and establishing a dense network of Stasi informers. But while the film (and novel) Sonnenallee deals with that on a very light-hearted note, this book is more ponderous, but without becoming overly sentimental or weepy.
The first chapter, or at least a version of it, was Böttcher's entry for the Klagenfurt literary competition. And I think if he'd entered the prologue or the penultimate chapter, he'd have raised temperatures a bit more. But this part is rather leaden, which of course it has to be. At first I was disappointed by the present-day storyline, but I was drawn deeper and deeper as the secrets unfolded and the characters spun out of kilt. Then the beautifully told narrative climax that had my heart racing. It all adds up to a very good book indeed.
I loved the fact that the protagonist became a political rebel through reading science fiction. Here's one of my favourite parts:
"The world upens up to him in book worlds. Jens steers his view through time, efortlessly jumping great spans, and where the things are new to him, they are also present. Once he's got his teeth into a book, even dinner tastes like cosmic basalt. The toothpaste is tooth plasma. The gloopy yellow stuff his mother drinks with the other women can only be concentrated moon sand."