Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Sabrina Janesch: Katzenberge

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.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Polish are barely visible in the bulk of German literature, despite being such close neighbours

A few things:

* Are other neighboring countries (and remember, we have more of them -- nine! -- than pretty much anyone in Europe) any more visible in German literature?

* Define "closeness". In a country as parochial and regional as Germany, any neighbor could possibly only ever be close to parts of the country (I doubt many Bavarians feel a close kinship to the Danes, say). Also, the Polish (and the Czech) language(s) are pretty much impenetrable to most Germans, in a way that Danish, Dutch or French aren't. Heck, even the Austrians are almost understandable! :)

* The regions that would naturally have felt a connection to the Poles (and did) are no longer German. Especially Silesia, but Pomerania and Eastern Prussia (Günther Grass!) as well.

* It is painful to admit but nonetheless supported by a lot of evidence that many (most?) Germans, even the educated and worldy ones, did not see the Polish as their equals (some still don't, of course), a disrespect rarely if ever shown to the French, or even the Russians, as contentious and, er, disharmonious the relations to those countries have been through the centuries (setting nazi racial insanities aside for a moment). It should not surprise us, then, if those attitudes are reflected in literature.


I realize these are tangents to the actual article, but I felt (obviously) they were important tangents!

-- Gerrit.

kjd said...

Thanks, Gerrit.

I absolutely take your points. As I've written before, few German-German writers (for want of a better term) seem to reflect the existence of ethnic minorities in their work beyond certain clichés.

I agree that the situation paints a sorry picture of a society segregated along class and ethnic lines - with the three-tiered educational system having a lot to answer for.

As you've pointed out, France and Italy (not a neighbour to Germany proper, I know) have long enjoyed a privileged position in the German cultural imagination, as reflected in the literature from Goethe to Schulze.

Yet I can't help comparing with British literature (see my article at qantara.de for more detail:
www.qantara.de/webcom/show_article.php/_c-310/_nr-648/i.html). And there, writers seem to have a genuine interest in the subject that I'm still waiting to discover in any depth here.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely take your points. As I've written before, few German-German writers (for want of a better term) seem to reflect the existence of ethnic minorities in their work beyond certain clichés.

You're welcome to my points! ;) (And the better term you're looking for is "autochthon".) However, I did not read your post as being about "ethnic minorities" (and let's not open that can of worms, okay?) and their place in contemporary German literature (as worthy a topic that may be), but about our literary relations with our Eastern neighbors who are still, as it were, in the East. (BTW: a 'punctilious German' is not a cliché!?)

I agree that the situation paints a sorry picture of a society segregated along class and ethnic lines - with the three-tiered educational system having a lot to answer for.

1) which situation? what picture?
2) which society, pray, is not segregated along class (sic!) and ethnic lines?
3) the three-tiered educational system is a relic, yes, and I would much rather adopt a Scandinavian-style comprehensive system -- but it is not the root of all evil, nor is it quite as impermeable as its critics make it out to be. If it is funded properly, as it appears to be in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, the results are not horrible.

As you've pointed out, France and Italy (not a neighbour to Germany proper, I know) have long enjoyed a privileged position in the German cultural imagination, as reflected in the literature from Goethe to Schulze.

Well, I didn't point out Italy's position in the German cultural imagination, but I agree with you (as they are the heirs to the greatest civilization of antiquity, as well as the heartland of the Catholic church, it'd be odd if they didn't hold a privileged position in anyone's cultural imagination, no?).

Yet I can't help comparing with British literature (see my article at qantara.de for more detail:
www.qantara.de/webcom/show_article.php/_c-310/_nr-648/i.html). And there, writers seem to have a genuine interest in the subject that I'm still waiting to discover in any depth here.


Yet you yourself end that article with the (pointedly relevant) question: is it not enough for migrants themselves to write about migrants? In general, "write what you know" is sound advice, and we Germans have had rather a lot on our plates to write about, even if you only look at post-war events (and really, why would you? For events to be "post-war", there must logically have been a war, and this one of course was one for the ages).

Anonymous said...

--cont.

But be that as it may, let's look at immigration in Germany. My girlfriend's mother is Belgian, our interior minister is called De Maiziére, Germany's all-time favorite tv detective is called Schimanski, Lower Saxony's newly minted Ministerpräsident answers to the name McAlister, the doyen of literary criticism, MRR, and our sharpest-tongued public intellectual are "Beute-Deutsche" (Henryk M. Broder's own term) both, born as they were to Jewish families in Poland -- none of their ancestors, presumably, fought with Herrmann to beat Varus's Roman legions, yet all of them are as German as sauerkraut (which is not all that German, or rather, not exclusively German, to begin with) today. There has always been immigration of some sort or another, yet after just a few short generations, no "Otherness" remained except for a slightly unusual last name (same story in France: Goscinny, Uderzo, and Sarkozy are as French as, er, choucroute, yet their names are recognisably Polish, Italian, and Hungarian, respectively).

In the age of satellite television, this has changed. People can be in Germany, but not of it, in oh so many ways. Read M. Geoghegan's (another immigrant!) master's thesis on that topic here: http://01.wannseeforum.de/download/MG_Magister_19Apr07_1.pdf

Germans (and their institutions) are not blameless for immigrants' lack of representation, literary or otherwise -- how could they (we) be? But we are much more welcoming and inclusive than you appear to give us credit for -- provided people show some genuine effort to be included.


And now, I'll go and listen to Ms Janesch's reading you've mentioned in the first paragraph. This is supposed to be about literature, after all.

-- Gerrit.

manan said...

"But we are much more welcoming and inclusive than you appear to give us credit for -- provided people show some genuine effort to be included."

Wow. This must be a new development, yes?

K, I enjoyed your piece, and towards your conclusion, I don't think the only options are "purely German" authors to write about migrants or migrants to write about their lives in Germany. Surely, English experience shows us that both possibilities can exist along with many others - Wilkie Collins to Zadie Smith to Kazuo Ishiguro.

kjd said...

First of all, Gerrit, I hope I didn't come across as German-bashing. I genuinely like the Germans and have felt mainly welcomed here over the past 14 years (but do bear in mind that I'm a fairly young white woman from London, with fluent German and cute freckles).

I'm aware that the country has assimilated many generations of immigrants over the centuries - my argument is, however, that the bulk of today's literature doesn't reflect the country's actual ethnic make-up.

Of course I'm not going to dictate to writers what they should be writing about. But if they're writing what they know, my suspicion is that they know very little about their Polish, Turkish, Russian, Croatian neighbours.

@Manan - obviously I yearn for a literary brotherhood of man, in which all fiction is populated by a multi-hued cast of characters far removed from any cliché (of the punctilious German or the vodka-swilling Pole). I don't really care who writes the stuff - but I'm not the only one to resent the expectation that "ethnic" writers stick to "ethnic" themes.

Jan Groh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jan Groh said...

This is a rather interesting discussion, so first of all thanks to Sabrina Janesch (I'll get "Katzenber-ge" as soon as possible - but not before I'll have moved into my new home, there already are toooo many books on my shelves to be of any help to my spine) and to Katy for your interesting review.
I think a closer look at history might enlighten why there are so many non-autochthon names a-mong the Germans and yet so little interest in our neighbours (especially to the east) - I agree with you Katy.
1. The fact is, that the 20th century was more game changing than probably most of us can imagi-ne. Take e.g. the passport. Of course the concept of a passport existed long before the 20th century, yet it was the 1.World War that made it obligatory for traveling in Europe (the pre-war situation saved the lives of quite a few pacifists and - let's call them: - human rights defenders, btw). So be-fore WW I Europe probably was much more open to its people than it is today (even if we limit our view to the EU). Of course, fewer people could afford traveling, yet, whoever wanted could go and work pretty much everywhere on the continent.
2. The discrepancies in development where huge in Europe before (and some time after) WW I. So a few countries had an enormous cultural and economical attraction to people from everywhere over Europe, e.g. the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria. And as mentio-ned before people could change their place of living much easier than today.
3. There were much less states than nations/people. So, if someone from a stateless nation looked for a career they had to and did assimilate to the multinational state their nation belonged to (this is especially true for Austria, Russia, and, to a much lesser extend, prussia/Germany. Furthermore, there was an official necessity to integrate the leading classes of stateless nations to stabilize the multinational states. This is, by no means, the case anymore today in our - with a grain of salt - mono-national states (I know, I know, there are, e.g., welsh people who still fight for the indepen-dence of Wales from England after some 600 years...).
4. There once have been economic (and other) needs to call for non-autochthon people to join our nowadays nations. A famous example are the Huguenots who found refuge from the french religi-ous wars in Prussia not only because of a merciful Prussian king but because they were well educa-ted craftsmen and Prussia was poor and underdeveloped at the beginning of the 18th century. The same was true when hundreds of thousands of Poles moved into the Ruhrgebiet during the industri-alisation of Germany in the 19th century. BTW, this development was somewhat enforced among others factors by a strong colonizing movement led by the Prussian government in the 1860ies that should secure "space of living" and German dominance in occupied Poland (no, Hitler wasn't the first one to have this idea).

to be cont.

Jan Groh said...

cont.

Today, most people don't know anything about these historical backgrounds of our modern Europe, and therefore a lot of people wonder why integration seems to be more difficult than a century or two ago. But the preconditions for integration have changed completely - and I haven't even talked about the Third Reich or Communism or the Cold War.
Today, Poland is just a neighbour to Germany - a neighbour we care as much about as most of us care about the neighbours to our apartments. Poles aren't regarded as members of the German Reich anymore. Poles do not have any perspective of becoming (second class) Germans anymore. So why should we care? (Well, we should care as Europeans and, more general, as human beings, of course - please, don't get me wrong, I am dreaming of a brotherhood of all men as much as Katy does). And why should the Poles care for the Germans? (Well, for the same reason, of course.)
In our times there has to be some curiosity to care for each other, because most necessities have gone. And it seems as if more Germans are more curious about the anglo-saxon and french and even spanish world than for the neighbours from the uglified and de-bourgeoised countries that survived communism and have little to offer our decadence beyond pelmeni. (Please notice the irony in my words.)

Jan

kjd said...

Thanks, Jan, for your enlightening comments. I hope you leave some space on the shelves for "Katzenberge" - which I think is one of those books that can tell us a lot about history where the history books fail.
Your comments about the rise of the passport, btw, reminded me of Traven's "Das Totenschiff". I'm sure I'm preaching to the converted here but just in case anyone else reads this, the hero is shunted to and fro across borders because he ends up with no papers. It must be years since I read it but it's still very present in my imagination - another example of learning about social history through fiction.

Anonymous said...

"But we are much more welcoming and inclusive than you appear to give us credit for -- provided people show some genuine effort to be included."

Wow. This must be a new development, yes?


I take it you didn't watch any world cup soccer?

More seriously, it depends on what you mean by "new". I would never argue that inclusiveness has never waxed and waned, or that some regions are not more welcoming than others. But in this regard, Germany today is no different from most other countries. No better, but arguably no worse either.

-- Gerrit.

Gerrit said...

First of all, Gerrit, I hope I didn't come across as German-bashing. I genuinely like the Germans and have felt mainly welcomed here over the past 14 years (but do bear in mind that I'm a fairly young white woman from London, with fluent German and cute freckles).

Bashing, certainly not. You translate German literature for a living, for crying out loud -- you may assume you get quite a bit of credit for that! But, again, the fact that you feel the need to point out your age, skin color, gender, metropolitan background, language skills, and, er freckles when you report your own generally positive experience in Germany lets me suspect a bias of sorts, maybe something GW Bush (of all people) called the "soft bigotry of low expectations". Mojib Latif has nothing in common with you (as far as I can tell) -- advanced middle age, roots in South Asia (though born in Hamburg), male, no freckles -- except his excellent German, and guess what? he's the nation's leading climate scientist. I realize data is not the plural of anecdote, but still!


[...] the bulk of today's literature doesn't reflect the country's actual ethnic make-up.

Maybe so. Should it (again, setting aside the dubious concept of ethnicity)? I like my literature entertaining, insightful, well-crafted, maybe innovative in some way. Whether or not it is representative is of almost no interest to me. Besides, why stop at ethnic make-up? What about gender? sexual identity(ies)? occupation? region? hobbies? age? I have yet to find a novel about an octogenarian, Hessian, bi-sexual, tuba-playing forester -- can you recommend one?

And I'm still not convinced your premise is correct. You yourself lauded the wealth of allochthon German authors of recent years. If you include non-fiction, the picture is even brighter (Seyran Ates, Necla Kelek, Cem Gülay,...). Someone must be buying all those Zaimoglu novels, and I doubt the customers are all immigrants.


[...] my suspicion is that they know very little about their Polish, Turkish, Russian, Croatian neighbours.

I live in a large apartment complex. I know nothing about my neighbors. I knew only half our neighbors when I was living with my parents in the suburbs. Neighbors, by and large, are overrated, in my mind. Maybe in the authors' minds, too? (And again the obsession with nationalities!)


I don't really care who writes the stuff - but I'm not the only one to resent the expectation that "ethnic" writers stick to "ethnic" themes.

1) apparently, you do care -- why else point out your qantara article, for a start? (And why else write for qantara, of all places?)
2) straw man alert! who is expecting "ethnic" writers to stick to anything? If anything, you appear to be expecting "non-ethnic" writers to write more "ethnically". Which might make for Erbauungsliteratur, but I doubt anyone would actually want to read it on its literary merits.

-- Gerrit.

kjd said...

Ach, Gerrit. It's not low expectations, it's the fact that friends of mine from countries held in lower esteem by some Germans have felt much less welcomed here than I have - experiencing everything from hostile looks and comments to institutional racism to physical violence. It's the "Sarrazin was right" stickers I see on lampposts in Berlin-Mitte. It's Roland Koch and Peter Trapp. It's the way primary school teachers react differently to children bilingual in English and German than to those who speak Arabic and German. It's the reactions to Kevin Prince-Boateng's foul, if we're going to talk in football terms here.

And still we live here and still Germany's making progress. I can see the point to acknowledging that progress as you do with Latif and the German national team. But I find it naive to ignore the very obvious shortfalls.

On literature: I can still enjoy a book if it doesn't feature sufficient numbers of black lesbians with disabilities. I can stomach the clichéd migrants on an individual level. It's the overall picture that gets me going. What I'm saying is that if we take literature as a mirror of society, migrants are still largely invisible. Of course it's a slightly ridiculous idea to take literature as an all-inclusive mirror of society because only a very small section of society actually writes books.

I'm not demanding that writers factor in token Turkish-German philosophy professors and Ghanaian sculptors. But speaking of progress: since writing the qantara article I've found recent positive exceptions to the clichéd migrant pattern in Norbert Zähringer and Katharina Hacker. So it is possible to evade cliché in quality writing.

I'm slightly offended, btw, by your comment on qantara, which comes across as rather dismissive. And I also have a lot of work to do, so I probably won't be getting any more involved in this discussion.

kjd said...

http://tinyurl.com/2uwlleq

Italians, French, Russians OK. Any other nationalities undesirable at Vienna open air swimming pool.

Tess said...

Hi Katy,
anyone tempted by your post can catch Sabrina Janesch reading an excerpt at zehn Seiten:
http://www.zehnseiten.de/start.php?dl=1&id=112

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