Thursday, 15 May 2008

Literary Paranoia

My young man genuinely believes that all traffic lights turn to red when their built-in sensors see him coming. I, on the other hand, have a different paranoia. I suspect that books about Germany published in English - whether translated or not - are all about the Nazis.

What with all that fuss about Jonathon Litell and now Belgian-born Paul Verhaegen winning the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with his Omega Minor about Nazi-era Berlin (among other things), I was starting to get a bit uptight. Looking at the German Book Prize didn't help. Last year's winner, Julia Franck's Lady Midday, is about the Nazis. The 2005 winner was not entirely Nazi-free either.

Then there's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. John Boyne's book has gone the other way, translated into a zillion languages. It's on my shelf but I haven't opened it yet. But I much enjoyed Michael Arditti's A Sea Change (refugees on the SS St. Louis). Admittedly, he's also written about the Red Army Faction days. My shelves are also weighed down with Jenna Blum's fairly enjoyable Those Who Save Us and Stephen Fry's Making History (which just plain annoyed me). And Random House writes in a discussion guide on Michael Wallner's April in Paris (sounded boring so didn't read it): "Scores of novels and nonfiction books have been written about World War II. In what ways is April in Paris distinctive?"

Running out of evidence for my paranoia, I looked up "Germany" on amazon uk. Woah. Right at the top is Philip Kerr's excellent Berlin Noir trilogy. It's crime fiction with Nazis. Then there's Sebald's Austerlitz (Nazis) and Buchheim's Das Boot (need I say more). And Aesop's Fables and Ford Maddox Ford. I suspect the system for sorting fiction by country is not entirely faultproof.

Don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with writing about the Nazis. People genuinely should write about the Nazis, lest we forget... Fiction is a wonderful way to keep memories alive in people's consciousness, and to draw parallels to their own experiences. I have always been incredibly impressed when listening to people who experienced Nazi persecution at first hand, and they're not going to be around forever. So fiction is one way to tell younger people about the terrible things that happened without boring their pants off.

My paranoia is that nobody outside of Germany is interested in any other aspect of the country's history. German critics are quick to accuse writers of "writing for the international market" (as if there was anything wrong with that...) by putting Nazis in their books. I think I've read this levelled at Julia Franck and Michael Wallner. But if that's the only way they're going to get translated, it's hardly surprising, is it? I know there are plenty of German novels in translation that don't even touch on Hitler. But I'm racking my brains to think of books written by British or US authors set in Germany but with no Nazis (apart from Michael Arditti's Unity). Any suggestions?

I think I must repeat to myself a mantra of "Daniel Kehlmann, Daniel Kehlmann, Daniel Kehlmann". After all, there aren't any Nazis in Measuring the World, or are there?

7 comments:

ilsa (blog temporarily closed) said...

http://www.pen.org/author.php/prmAID/321

:)

kjd said...

I'm counting Stanisic as German, Isla. And the Germans really aren't as obsessed as the rest of the world. Presumably actually living here gives you a sense of perspective.

Another paranoia example: Markus Zusak's The Book Thief.

Bowleserised said...

Journalist friends (esp those from the States) report that it's difficult to interest editors in any stories that don't feature Nazis...

kjd said...

Groan.

Bowleserised said...

Germany = Nazis + Oktoberfest, plus possibly WW1 and the Cold War. And there's nothing else of interest.

That seems to be the general impression.

kjd said...

I forgot Philip Hensher's "Pleasured", set in Germany in 1988 with not a Nazi in sight, as far as I can remember. A most enjoyable trip back in time.

kjd said...

And Anna Funda's Stasiland, of course. Doh!