Regular readers will know I’m far from impartial on the subject of Sabrina Janesch, having translated her entry for the Ingeborg Bachmann competition a while back, met her, thought she was charming, etc. etc. Unlike the most vocal of the judges at the competition, I found the extract from her novel, out now under the title Katzenberge, very intriguing. I enjoyed the blend of historical subject matter with tense writing underlain with threat. I didn’t particularly share the criticism that we found out too little about the narrator – but that point is well and truly cancelled out by the full novel.
That narrator is Nele Leibert, a young German journalist with a Polish mother, who travels to her family’s roots after her grandfather’s death. For her Polish family actually originate from East Galicia, now part of Ukraine. And her grandfather was one of the first Polish settlers in Silesia after the ethnic Germans were expelled from the region. So this is a story of shifting borders and the effects of world history on individuals, but also of a family itself.
The narration switches between the present and the past, opening on a misty early morning in rural Poland as Nele sneaks out of the family home to the graveyard, obviously planning something. And its tight construction keeps us holding out for that ritual until the very end, maintaining a great sense of tension throughout. We learn a little about the young journalist’s life, her budding career and her unfulfilling relationship. More interestingly, I felt, Janesch shows us the prejudices Nele faces as a Polish German – on both sides of the border.
The Polish are barely visible in the bulk of German literature, despite being such close neighbours. With one exception – my friend and fellow translator Isabel Cole has a theory that the Polish cleaning lady is the German equivalent to the Black mammy. Peter Stamm’s Sieben Jahre might be a case in point, contrasting an unattractive Polish woman with a successful and glamorous female architect, German of course. But then the very idea of it put me off so much I couldn’t bear to read it, so I may be wrong. The Polish-German writer Artur Becker has done much to right this imbalance, winning the Chamisso Prize for his work last year. Yet his best-known novels at least are set very much in Poland, not exploring cross-cultural issues to any extent. And from what I’ve read – only extracts, I’m afraid – Becker would appear to play rather a lot with the cliché of the vodka-swilling Pole.
Not that Janesch doesn’t let her characters indulge in a spot of vodka-drinking. There are family funerals and get-togethers with plenty of home-brewed liquor on the table. We see a close-knit family – but one with an unusual patriarch, Nele’s grandfather, a man who spurns Catholicism and most company. Very lovingly portrayed, he acts as a second narrator, telling his stories through Nele in a way that gets slightly less logical and plausible as the plot unfurls. But hey, by that point you’ll be truly caught up and you won’t even notice, I promise.
Because Nele sets out to return to her grandparents’ village in East Galicia. Not an easy task under today’s conditions, and with the whole family against the idea. One strand of the novel, then, is a road movie of sorts, with the narrator travelling in trains, buses, trucks and vans from Berlin to Ukraine, almost constantly delayed – much to her dismay as a punctilious German. Along her way, we learn about her grandfather’s life, first arriving in an abandoned farmhouse in Silesia where a sinister threat awaits him, then going back to what is now the eastern edge of Poland where he arrived as a traumatised refugee, and finally ending at the beginning in a remote Galician village where Ukrainians and Poles lived side by side until ethnic massacres began in 1944.
There is a dark secret in the family, of course, which emerges as the novel continues and drives the pace rather well. And the spooky elements from the extract are spread more evenly throughout the book, coming across as earthy superstition and folk magic, mainly in stark contrast to the modern-day characters and their lives. The novel bravely tackles a relatively unknown slice of history – conflicts not quite solved to this day between Poland and its neighbours on either side. Yet it brings that history down to a very personal level and ultimately has a conciliatory message, with the narrator coming across two women with rather ambiguous relationships to the respective “other side” on her journey to her family’s roots.
The prose and structure are tight and enjoyable, the narrator ever so slightly irritating in that way earnest young Germans can be sometimes – but she does develop a sense of humour and relaxes as the story goes on. All in all, Katzenberge is a very well-rounded novel that I can envisage would work extremely well in translation. Combining moving historical fact, an affectionate family portrait and a secret curse, it has a great deal to offer readers – small wonder then that Günter Grass wishes it many of them in large letters on the cover.