Thursday, 7 January 2010

Finn-Ole Heinrich: Gestern war auch schon ein Tag

Printing an endorsement by Clemens Meyer on the back of a book is a little like waving a piece of cake in front of my nose. There’s no way I’m not going to take the bait. In this case it was unnecessary – I’d taken the book home before I even noticed it. Because I already know that Finn-Ole Heinrich is a bright star in the making, the secret hero of German indie publishing.

Gestern war auch schon ein Tag is his third book, in the wake of the short story collection die taschen voll wasser and the superb coming-of-age novel Räuberhände. The novel impressed me so much I did the closest I’m ever going to get to a Victor Kiam and translated part of it.

The new book contains eight stories, all told in the first person. All the narrators, though, are thoroughly different. A dustman, a bad kid, a builder, a student, a young girl about to finish school. And all their stories are moving and credible, told by simple enough means but so effective that they genuinely suck you in.

The longest, called simply “Marta”, is also the most experimental, but not overly so. Heinrich is an excellent reader, and I’ve seen him perform part of this story with pre-recorded asides in which the narrator addresses Marta, in parentheses in the printed version. A student just about to finish his dissertation finds a young woman passed out on a train and takes her home. As it turns out though, it’s Marta who makes him her pet, and he has a chance to put his theoretical studies about care work into practice. Because Marta is slowly killing herself, living a life of hedonism, forever dreaming of going back to nature. It’s a touching love story, told with no holds barred – what does it feel like to have sex with a physical wreck, and why would you abandon your own life for someone else?

“Wessi” on the other hand, a shorter piece, is closer to Clemens Meyer’s writing in terms of subject matter. We have an East German road construction worker living in a caravan by the motorway during the week, looking forward to weekends with his girlfriend. And a West German workmate who trains up animals for dogfights on the side. Ossi meets the true Wessi one night, going from contempt for an annoying colleague to admiration for his hard-hitting business practices, then repulsed by the brutal aspects of his job on the side.

Heinrich is one of very few German-language writers who create characters outside the educated middle-class demographic. My theory is that German society is so segregated that your average writer doesn’t come across the working class after leaving primary school (if at all), and thus has no idea of its existence, rather as he or she has no idea of the lives of migrants beyond the most roughly hewn clichés. Finn-Ole Heinrich, on the other hand, spent several months travelling around Germany, writing down the stories of the people he came across. You can read some of them at And he seems to understand how different people tick. He never patronises his characters; the football hooligan is just as complex as the young father faced with having to care for his disabled brother.

At some point Finn-Ole Heinrich also worked with people with disabilities, and what shines through in this collection is how closely he’s looked at people’s reactions to illness and disability. There are some who feel obliged to care, and some who simply feel fear, repulsion and shame. But where he hits a nerve is when these two aspects collide, fantastically in the first story, “Zeit der Witze”. Heinrich worms out emotions that scratch at the surface of his characters, making them all the more believable.

If I were in the business of giving patronising advice to young writers, I’d be tempted to ask Finn-Ole Heinrich to be slightly more daring in how he tells some of his stories. Because while you can tell he has some great human material up there in his head, I do miss the narrative extravagances that someone like Clemens Meyer gives us. I think another difference is that while Meyer often focuses on more active characters – the actual drug abusers and prostitutes and dog-owners – Heinrich’s narrators are almost all looking on from the outside, one step removed. The beta males to Meyer’s alphas, so to speak.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for this viewpoint; perhaps I’m simply rejecting it because the act of reading is already a step away from what purportedly happens on the page, and I want my vicarious experiences as undiluted as possible. This is good honest story-telling, often brutally honest. And that's enough.

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