Monday, 21 April 2008

The Boy with the Robber's Hands

I finished it a couple of days ago - Finn-Ole Heinrich's Räuberhände. It's the story of two boys - one has the perfect parents to the point of cliché, the other has an alcoholic mother who drinks outside the supermarket. They're best friends from the age of about 13 or so, and Samuel practically moves in with Janik and his parents. The narrator is Janik, just after the two have finished school and head off to Turkey in an illusory attempt to find Samuel's Turkish father - whose name he doesn't know. But before they left, Janik had overstepped a line and their friendship is now on the brink of collapse.

So the story takes place on all sorts of time levels. The most obvious is the tiny snippets of future at the beginning of each chapter - so you read with a permanent sense of slight foreboding, not knowing quite what's going to happen. But you're also regaled with tales from happier times - psychological tricks played on the perfect parents, a Kleingarten paradise, young love, how the two boys became friends. And then there's Istanbul, where the two of them chase Samuel's unknown father at a whirlwind pace - all heat, dust, sweat and resentment at fever pitch. And the structure works incredibly well, keeping up the pace so you're always on your toes but never irritated.

The critics have praised the film-like descriptions - which is a bit obvious really,seeing as the author is studying film - or at least he is when he's not writer-in-residence in lovely Erfurt. But it's true - they seem to glide by your mind's eye in technicolour. What I like most about the book, though, is the characters. Apart from the clichéd parents, they are all wonderfully painted: first and foremost Samuel and Janik, but also Samuel's mother Irene, Janik's girlfriend Lina, and another local alkie, Bubu. And the simmering resentment between the two boys is ever-present but rarely boils over - Janik resents Samuel for being the apple of his parents' eye, and Samuel resents Janik for having everything he wants.

The book also looks at national identities, although not overtly. Samuel has never met his father, but believes he is Turkish - and reinvents himself as a Turk. He learns Turkish from cheap cassettes, starts singing and dancing and yearns for his one true love - who has to be a Turkish girl, of course. As the narrator points out, Samuel has no idea what Turks are really like, it's all just a desperate romatic projection. On the other hand, Janik and his parents are such typical middle-class Germans it almost hurts. Wellmeaning teachers, wholemeal vegetarian lasagne, barbecues in the garden. The two (imagined) cultures meet in the middle at the boys' Kleingarten - a concept, I believe, alien to other nationalities. They create their cliché of Turkey there, in the most German of settings, alongside a grubby canal.

It's a book that makes you feel for the people who inhabit it, that makes you care what happens to them. It's a book you want to read again once you've finished the last page. I hope it'll do really well. Here's a brief sample from the very beginning:

(All his stuff and everything of hers worth saving is packed in boxes and stored in our garage. My parents helped me. Nine boxes, fourteen rubbish sacks. It took nearly three hours.)

My parents love Samuel. And he loves them. When Samuel gets on my nerves I sometimes call him their adopted child - that's his sore point, so to speak. Samuel and I have been friends as long as we've been in the same class. Nearly seven years now. And since then, Samuel's slept at our house almost every night. He's had his own bed in my room for ages. It was a present from my parents. They asked me first of course, if it was OK for me. They'd never make a decision like that over my head. But it's not as if I'd have minded. I'm not jealous, Samuel's my best friend and if my parents hadn't asked me, I probably would have asked them.

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