Friday 22 October 2010

Nino Haratischwili: Juja

Juja was recommended to me at the independent publishers’ fair back in the summer. Albeit by the publishers themselves, which is a bit like asking Muhammad Ali if he’s the best boxer. But then it showed up on the longlist for the German Book Prize, so I decided I really did have to read it.

It’s not a book you can read quickly. Almost 300 pages in small type, with a complex plot and chapters focusing on a number of characters in different times and places. To wit: a book as a character, set in Paris in 1953, narrated by a certain Jeanne Saré, who may or may not have existed. A young writer who moves from the provinces to Paris and gets caught up on the margins of the 1968 revolts. An art historian in Amsterdam, in the present day. A mother of a teenage girl in Sydney, also in 2004. A student in 1980s Paris and her friend. And “ich” – perhaps Haratischwili herself, a quiet voice adding the occasional first-person comment to the mélange.

As I noted in my lowdown on the longlist, the book revolves around a fantastic and fascinating teenage girl, Saré, and her adventures in an imaginary 1950s Paris, all unheated garrets and cafés and fairgrounds, opium and blowjobs and self-inflicted wounds. You can almost smell the Gitanes and taste the warm croissants, served up with a generous dollop of cliché. The book is an Axolotl Roadkill of its day, ending in Saré throwing herself under a train at the Gare du Nord. Saré’s book triggered a rash of copycat suicides, rather like Goethe’s Werther, when it was rediscovered by the feminist movement in the 1970s.

Haratischwili sends her characters into the fray, describing their interactions with the book. Olga, the Parisian student, finds it on the shelves of a second-hand bookshop and descends the stairs to the dark dungeon of depression, her friend Nadine powerless to help her except by launching a campaign against the book after her death. Laura, the Amsterdam academic, is persuaded by a student to travel to Paris and research its origins. Francesca in Sydney escapes alcoholism after a family tragedy by fleeing to Paris, where she comes across the book and with it a way out. And Patrice, the writer – well, he may have had more to do with the book than just publishing it, or perhaps not.

Written in rather jagged, uncomfortable language – the author is a playwright and no friend of that whole jaded “show, don’t tell” philosophy – this is a novel that nonetheless draws you in. The secret we’re chasing, of course, is “Who was Saré?” Yet all the sub-plots are part of the draw, personal tragedies large and small that suggest Haratischwili has a deep understanding of human nature, despite being indecently young.

Towards the end as all the characters – even Saré – find some kind of closure, almost disappointingly so, the book becomes more of a novel of ideas. It raises fascinating questions about the nature of truth and authenticity. And it asks what stories do to us as readers, and what we as readers do to those stories. That automatic assumption of authenticity is disturbing; here, the characters interpret all kinds of things into Saré that are really only reflections of their own issues.

A literary character as a canvas for the imagination – the whole idea actually made me wake up in a cold sweat last night. Why are we - or why am I in particular - so enamoured of teenage protagonists? Are we trying to vicariously relive our own uneventful youths? Are we looking for someone to love in our reading matter – a Juja, a person particularly worthy of love, and if they love us back it’s even better? In their press material, the publishers Verbrecher Verlag kindly included a review from 1978 of the “original” book upon which Haratischwili based her novel. The reviewer had her own projections, just as today’s critics initially found Helene Hegemann’s writing a testament to a youth unhinged:

A daughter has spoken. Her poetry confuses, shifts and maddens our senses and sense. Her own senses did not survive this shifting; they were defeated in the struggle against prevailing resistances.

Haratischwili plays with this pathos – her text ranges from the out-and-out teenage angst of Saré’s mythology and pain-laden writing to Laura’s pragmatic conclusions. My favourite line of hers: “All this suffering – doesn’t it seem stupid to you now? I imagine it must be so strenuous having to live with it permanently…”

This is an extraordinary debut that deserves the attention it’s been getting. It could have been more smoothly plotted, but then that would have taken the edge off it. It could have been more smoothly written, but then who wants smooth? You can read the first couple of chapters at Book2Look.