Thursday, 14 April 2011

Zsuzsa Bánk: Die hellen Tage

This is a slightly adapted version of a report I wrote for New Books in German, just in case it sounds vaguely familiar to anyone. If you're interested in books written in German and don't read it, you're missing out. Basically, they send out dozens and dozens of books to a small army of readers and we tell them whether they're any good. Then they choose the best and publish reviews, news and features - the new issue includes interviews with my friend Lyn Marven, the British writer Michael Rosen and publisher Barbara Schwepke. The best thing for publishers is that if a book is reviewed in NBG, they can get a grant towards its translation costs.

Anyway, here goes.

Zsuzsa Bánk's Die hellen Tage is a magnificent novel about three children and their mothers, about childhood and how it affects us as adults, about women surviving and bringing up children under tough circumstances. Seri, Aja and Karl grow up in a small town in 1960s Germany. The best of friends, they experience the bright days of childhood hailed in the title at Aja’s Hungarian mother’s ramshackle wooden house by the edge of the fields. Endless summer evenings, birthday parties, swimming in the lake, climbing trees, ice skating, cartwheels, cakes, poppies and long grass.

Yet all is not quite as idyllic as it seems. All the children’s fathers are absent; Seri’s died shortly after her birth, Karl’s withdrew into his shell after his younger son disappeared, and Aja’s father Zigi is a trapeze artist who visits from afar every autumn.

In between her childhood descriptions Zsuzsa Bánk focuses on the mothers and their stories, showing the hardships each of them has suffered. The lynchpin of the novel is Aja’s mother Eví, a former tightrope walker who fled from Hungary in 1956 and chose to settle down with her daughter, while her husband boarded a ship bound for further shores. We watch her develop and form friendships with the other mothers, going out to work, learning to read, starting a business and helping the others to overcome their own problems. And always with a cartwheel at the ready to cheer up her daughter and her friends – a cake-baking, party-throwing, soul-soothing cross between Mary Poppins and Pippi Longstocking.

In the second half of the novel, the three young adults move to Rome, ostensibly for their studies but of course to escape the narrow confines of small-town life and to cut their mothers’ apron strings. There, their troika turns into a love triangle, and each of them learns or reveals a secret about their past that puts their bonds to the test. How have those bright days of childhood shaped their lives and personalities? And if what they grew up assuming is not actually true, are they still the individuals they thought they were? In the end, two of them return home and there is a resolution of sorts.

One of the most moving episodes is the way Eví gradually lures Karl’s father (who is never named) out of his shell. First dropping his son off at his shuttered house and greeting him on the street, she finds odd jobs for him and then asks him to deliver the cakes she bakes for sale. Painstakingly slowly, he rediscovers a reason for living and eventually starts to speak again, going back to work as an architect and recreating Eví’s little house all around the town. When Eví needs help towards the end of the novel, he repays the favour as best he can.

Zsuzsa Bánk has returned to the characteristic style that won her so many fans for her debut, The Swimmer - and she has a heck of a lot of very vocal, mainly female fans. Beautifully done, the narrative adds detail sparingly as the children get older. So while the early chapters are sketchy and dreamlike, the later sections reveal more and more. For instance, we only learn the mothers’ names when they finally make friends with Eví, and the fact that Zigi lives in New York only really becomes clear in the closing chapters. And as the narrator Seri gets older so Bánk's prose becomes more precise, with some beautiful descriptions of Rome and rural Italy in the second half.

Bánk subtly tackles immigration issues, from language problems to prejudice to Eví’s first German passport, yet they take a back seat to the touching family stories. As in The Swimmer, political realities give the book its factual framework and are not ignored – the novel couldn't be set in any other period, for example, with changing women’s roles playing a key part – but they're not its focus. Instead, Die hellen Tage is a deeply moving story of individual fates that will appeal to a broad audience. It’s absolute Hollywood material with its many gorgeous episodes and strong female characters – I can imagine Helena Bonham-Carter as Eví and Natalie Portman as Aja – except that it would have to be a mini-series at the very least, what with its absolute wealth of material.

Long awaited, this is a beautiful and heart-warming novel that touches on many universal issues, with characters to die for. My only problem with the book is that it scrapes very narrowly along the boundary of kitsch - not that that's a hurdle in the English-speaking world.

And it looks like it'll be translated as well, with Harcourt having bought the rights after publishing The Swimmer in Margot Bettauer Dembo's translation. And they do have a nifty little line of literature in translation - coupled with a very cute and enthusiastic blog. I do take umbrage at their witty tagline though: "We publish the best literature from around the world - so you don't have to." Because we're not letting other publishers off the hook that easily. And while I'm taking umbrage, well done for adding the translators' names to the catalogue - but you know they really should be on the covers. I know you do. Congratulations though for buying this fantastic book.

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