You remember the first single you ever bought, right? And your first kiss, and the first time you seduced a Mormon, and the first time you made popcorn and ruined a perfectly good saucepan. But can you remember your first German book?
Mine was Christine Nöstlinger's Conrad - the factory-made boy, translated by Anthea Bell and published by Anderson Press. In fact I met Klaus Flugge, the man behind Andersen Press, and he told me it was the first book they'd translated from German too. And last year I translated Learning to Scream by Beate Teresa Hanika for them, my first novel-length published translation. Isn't it beautiful how things come full circle?
But back to Nöstlinger and Conrad. We read the book at school and I remember it really capturing our imaginations. I can't remember the name of our teacher that year, which is a great shame because she chose a great book for us to read. But I do remember all sorts of plot details including the huge key to open the huge tin delivered by accident to Mrs Bartolotti. Inside the tin is Conrad, a perfect child made in a factory. Mrs Bartolotti grows very attached to goody-two-shoes Conrad and has to take action when the factory wants him back, with entertaining consequences.
What I remember most clearly was my confusion over one scene. Mrs Bartolotti communicates with the girl in the flat downstairs via some kind of heating vent in the bathroom. Now maybe you can imagine this if you've been to Vienna, or indeed Berlin, and seen the kind of nineteenth-century apartment buildings they have there. But at the age of about ten, I certainly hadn't ever seen anything of the sort. The only flats I was familiar with were on council estates near my house, and they were concrete and brick monstrosities where we'd go to ride our bikes and watch the occasional Bollywood film. All the flats had their own front doors reached via damp and dingy walkways, as if to persuade people they weren't completely nasty. And I'm pretty sure they didn't have heating vents running between the bathrooms, or at least I was back then, and I was throughly confused.
Now my daughter has an audiobook of Konrad oder Das Kind aus der Konservenbüchse, read in a delightful Austrian accent by Sissy Perlinger. Another full circle. And Christine Nöstlinger just won an award for lifetime achievement from Buchliebling in Austria. The judges said:
With this award, the jury recognizes the many years of creative work by this versatile, critical and sometimes uncomfortable Austrian writer, whose books, especially her children's books, have always championed freedom of the individual and who has fought in particular for children's and young people's independence and self-determination.
Well put. Conrad is about a boy's freedom not to be good. We followed that advice to the letter – and look where it's got me now.