There were various reasons why I read this book. First of all, I’m going through a very forgiving phase in which I seem to be overcoming all sorts of irrational prejudices, and I just didn’t get the extract from the novel (trans. Martin Chalmers) that won Rammstedt the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize a couple of years ago. Secondly, I’m on a panel with the writer on Thursday so I thought I’d better swot up on what he does. And thirdly, I’ve met him and he was quite a nice chap and seemed not at all fazed by my drunken ramblings on said occasion. Oh and fourthly, everyone I know who’s read the book really loved it.
And what’s not to love? It’s light and fluffy on the surface and rich on the inside, like an inverted Milky Way. It makes you laugh once you get your head around the quietly bizarre humour. And it’s a joyful caper all the way through, with two completely odd but good sex scenes to lift it out of the good clean fun segment.
The title, sadly, doesn’t work in translation. Meaning literally “the emperor of China”, it’s what people say when something sounds highly unlikely, as we use “then I’m the king of Siam!” in English. So the book is about unlikelihoods, on two different levels.
First we have the unlikely narrator Keith Stapperpfennig, poor guy. He and his brothers and sisters live with their grandfather, a ladies’ man and control freak who has decided he can’t treat them all equally so will simply lavish all his attention on Keith. Grandfather decides he’s going on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to China with Keith – only unfortunately Keith loses all the money for the holiday in a casino after accidentally proposing to his grandfather’s girlfriend, with whom he’s having a clandestine affair. The novel opens with Keith hiding under his desk, pretending to be in China, as he finds out his grandfather has gone and died while also pretending to be in China a few miles down the road.
Meanwhile Keith has been writing letters to his family from an imaginary China culled from the pages of a Lonely Planet guidebook. These start off harmless enough, written in the slightly stilted tone of tourist guides. But then he starts adding bizarre details – non-stop dental hygiene shows on the TV, dog vaccinations at the post office – and the letters get longer and longer. And he begins weaving a second (or third, or fourth?) fiction, a long-lost tragic love story between his grandfather and a Chinese circus fat lady. Eventually, he concocts a story that covers up the unexpected death and may even get him out of getting married.
I can understand that it might sound a tad odd. And it is, and more than a tad. But that’s all part of the appeal. At one point Rammstedt himself tricks us with a tiny cruel plot twist of the “Murder, She Wrote” type – you know when Angela Lansbury discovers some key fact about a suspect right at the end and you feel slightly cheated because you could never have guessed? Well it’s like that. Only it’s so blatantly in character with the book that it makes you laugh out loud.
I liked it. A lot. I liked suspending my disbelief for Keith's sections and reinstating it for the letters. I liked the variation in the language between the two formats. I liked the hopeless loser Keith, reluctant to deal with his grandfather's inconvenient death. I liked the sex scenes (did I mention that?). I had fun. And I know what you're going to say... German humour? But no, it really works here, it's almost Pythonesque in its scurrility. So go ahead, it won't bite.