Wednesday, 18 June 2008


Do you ever feel a sense of loss when you close a book? That you'll really miss even the characters you didn't like? That you'll never come to the book with the same sense of freshness as the first reading? That you might even prefer to just start all over again than to be not reading the book at all?

That's how I feel now I've finished Karen Duve's fantastic new novel, Taxi. It's bloody marvellous. What you have to know is that Duve worked as a taxi driver in Hamburg for 13 years. And that this is a novel about a young woman taxi driver in Hamburg. And that the book is so lovingly done that the actual hardback under the black paper cover is in the exact officially required shade of cream for German taxis (RAL 1015). You may notice I know a lot of odd facts about taxis. That's because I've read this book.

Before I continue, I have a personal admission to make. I have never been a taxi driver in Hamburg. But I did spend a couple of years as a courier in Berlin, which was not dissimilar. I recognised a lot of things - the way the narrator gets the job by batting her eyelids despite her lack of street knowledge, the way the men treat her as that rare creature: a woman, the way people in the job can only ever talk about work, the way the narrator ends up knowing almost only other people from work, the delights of getting jobs via walkie-talkie from a dispatcher who is almost always in a bad mood, the way people refer to each other by their numbers. My number was M-siebzehn. The main differences are that you can't really be a courier at night and that a lot of couriers talk about bikes for hours on end (yawn).

So I was kind of bound to love Taxi. But I'm not alone, and surely only a small percentage of critics have been taxi drivers, or indeed couriers, in the past. The narrator, Alex, is a likeable misanthrope who ends up driving a taxi for want of any other option. She prides herself in her good looks but ends up sleeping all day and driving all night, getting threatened and insulted and propositioned and beaten up by her customers. About every other short chapter is an anecdote about, erm, taxi driving - stingy customers, violent customers, high life, low life, old biddies, young lads, the worthwhile tours, the ultrashort tours, the ones that got away. Of course that reflects the narrator's state of mind - nothing much else exists outside of her work.
Duve pays an incredible amount of attention to detail, really sucking you in.

And then there's Alex's colleagues. She ends up in a dull, exploitative relationship with one of them, talks literature with others ("Reading Peter Altenberg was like swimming in front of a hotel sewage pipe."), getting put down on a daily basis by these incredible misogynists. I'd say I enjoyed reading the chats with her colleagues most of all - they transport a thoroughly pessimistic world view that I wouldn't like to share, but which is very entertaining in a perverse way. Disabled parking spaces are an evil invention, customers should be responsible for good service, socialism is incompatible with primates. Oh, those primates. Alex has her own philosophy, with everyone grouped according to gorilla criteria. It works for her, up to a point.

The plot? Normally I'm big on plot, but here it's kind of secondary. It's there all right, but it's not world-moving. Alex descends into depression, skipping between lovers, the odd thing or two happens to the other taxi drivers and the company, and in the end she's released from her incredible lethargy by an unexpected event. I must say, we couriers were a soap opera in comparison (especially when one of the guys married a nurse and all her workmates got designs on his colleagues). But somehow, I really don't mind that. The book works really well without a mind-blowing plot - the characters are so exaggeratedly drawn that that's enough. I just wanted to read more and more, to find out whether Rüdiger got that proper job or not, whether Udo managed to save the company or not, whether Alex ever managed to finish with Dieter and sort her life out or not.

As far as I'm aware, Duve's first two novels Rain and This is Not a Love Song are available in English, but not her third, The Kidnapped Princess. I haven't read any of them but am thinking of correcting that error toot-sweet. And I think this is a prime candidate for translation too. The only obstacle is that the book is very firmly set in Hamburg. And being about taxi drivers, there are a hell of a lot of street names in it. Perhaps a clever publisher could insert street maps at strategic intervals, Lord of the Rings-style, or maybe put a map of Hamburg on the cover. I can't say it bothered me; I like a bit of local colour, but then I've been to Hamburg a couple of times. So snap it up, clever publishers - before some other passenger jumps the queue and chugs off into the sunset.

But be warned - once you've read this book you will never engage in a friendly chat with a taxi driver ever again. You should have seen the one the day before yesterday...

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