927 pages. 927 pages. I for one do not usually read books this long, because I tend to get bored. So it’s quite an achievement for a book of 927 pages if I even pick it up in the first place. Let alone read it all the way through.
But here comes the full disclosure: I met the author Jan Brandt at a drunken party the year before last. And I remember being quite impressed because after I spouted off high-octane vitriol on some subject or other, he had a similarly vitriolic tale to tell. This, I thought, is a man who knows how to hate, and to package that passion in an entertaining form. Actually I didn’t think that at the time, but I do now. Which is probably like meeting aged ska legend Laurel Aitken still in his cardigan in the ladies’ toilets before a gig and assuming he’s a pervert rather than just not having his glasses on. But that’s another story.
Anyway, to get back to the main pre-strand to this piece, a number of people subsequently told me how amazing Jan Brandt’s book Gegen die Welt was going to be, including the author himself. On which occasion he also predicted that I would end up translating it. We shall see about that. I would certainly relish the challenge, but first a publisher must be found who would relish the financial challenge of getting 927 pages translated. For the time being, I’m very pleased to have translated a sample from the book for your delectation.
So, we have 927 pages and they’re about the inhabitants of a village in East Frisia. I know! It sounds like the world’s dullest book. But it’s so totally not dull, I assure you. Because Brandt has injected his very long narrative with a number of vitalising ingredients. First of all there’s his obvious love for the region’s geography. It’s not there in the form of overly long nature descriptions of the D H Lawrence variety, more in the details of fog or sudden snow, bike rides between fields or the marks the railway has left on the land. Then there’s his contempt for some of his characters, mostly the minor ones like the local businessmen busily undermining each other to the ultimate detriment of the village. And his affection for others such as the main character’s mother and his friend Volker, an obese underage smoker with a pessimistic outlook on life.
And of course the plot. Because far from being an autobiographically based ramble through Daniel Kuper’s youth as one might expect, the novel is held together by a fairly complex storyline. Or several, to be precise. But mainly the one about Daniel, whom we meet on the day he meets Volker, aged about six. A fairly confident little boy, he later falls victim to bullies and is then apparently abducted by aliens. The entire village, indeed the entire world, seems to believe that the Plutonians have landed in a corn circle and kidnapped young Daniel, leaving him semi-naked, bruised and unable to explain what has happened. From then on he’s the village outsider and becomes a scapegoat for all manner of things.
At grammar school he makes new friends and ends up getting drawn into a bullying incident himself, with dire consequences. The boys involved never talk about what happened, but in the course of the book every one of them dies young. These deaths are announced in advance by our omniscient narrator, so I’m not giving too much away here, and yet that just makes for even more compelling reading. The grammar school section is told in a remarkable way, in two parallel strands juxtaposing the boys’ rather banal lives with the more tragic tale of a local train driver – separated by two parallel lines just like a train track. For me, this was writing that doesn’t just play with form for art’s sake – there is a point at which the two strands do meet, and that apparent impossibility is a moment of shock, just like arriving at infinity would be.
The locals’ stories are peppered with pop cultural references, and I particularly enjoyed the ironic references to Dallas. Daniel’s father is the philandering J.R. who runs the village drugstore, constantly competing with his rivals the chemist and the supermarket manager. Then there are the biblical references, the village going by the name of Jericho and rather a lot of religion going on there. Plus the closeness to the work of Uwe Johnson, particularly Mutmassungen über Jakob, which I haven’t actually read but is set in a place called Jerichow. Lots of heavy metal music, and I also fancied a spot of David Foster Wallace in there too, what with the complexity and rather a lot of Jeopardy! – including as a metaphor. And illustrations of adverts and posters. And smatterings of Greek and Latin. And paranoid letters to the chancellor. And long lists of people or groceries that are actually a joy to read. And every time a car appears we’re told its make and vintage. And I’m sure I’ve missed a great many more references. Manic realism, the author seems to call it. In fact the literary world that is Jericho is so saturated that he’s provided a useful reference work online.
It’s not a novel that makes you want to move to the countryside. The atmosphere in oppressive and aggressive, especially as Daniel gets older and the swastika raises its ugly head. As the details settled in my mind, I thought I made out a political message about what people in Germany are willing to believe in order to shift the blame for their own extremism. But maybe I didn’t. It could just be an attempt to document very ordinary lives in an un-boring way. Strangely though, while I normally can’t relate to less ambitious novels about growing up in obscure corners of West Germany – not having grown up in any corner of Germany myself – I found Gegen die Welt had a broader appeal.
Masterfully, the novel closes with a section told from Volker’s perspective as an adult. But rather than coyly tying up all the loose strands – which it does to some extent – it throws a whole new light on other aspects. And it ends suddenly with