Thursday, 3 November 2011

Annett Gröschner: Walpurgistag

So there I was complaining that German writers tend to leave the exotic and what they endearingly term the “underclass” to exotic and “underclass” writers – more on that on another occasion – when along comes Annett Gröschner’s Walpurgistag. I discovered Gröschner through my colleague and now friend Lyn Marven, who included one of her short stories in the outstanding anthology Berlin Tales. Her 2000 debut novel Moskauer Eis (which I haven’t read) is also in critic Richard Kämmerlings’ top ten of contemporary German-language novels. Two rather persuasive referees, I must say.

But Walpurgistag doesn’t need them. The novel’s a firecracker, a sparkly, loud, wonderful advertisement for itself. Set on one day in 2003, the book follows a ragbag (almost literally) of characters around Berlin as they go about their business, either banal or bizarre but mostly the latter. We open with Alex, a tramp who lives on Alexanderplatz but may have some kind of shady Stasi past. And as Alex closes the novel as well and is one of two characters narrating in the first person, he shall be our hero of sorts, and he does indeed intervene in the other characters’ lives in various ways that I shan’t tell you about. Suffice to say he’s a magnificent character who has made me look at homeless people rather differently.

Then there’s Annja, who is storing her father in a large freezer and needs Alex’s help to move house. Yes, you read that right, it’s that quirky kind of book, but the dad doesn’t seem to be 100% dead. Or young Paul, who pacifies his alcoholic artist mother with stolen schnapps after a day of fare-dodging on high-speed trains. There’s Gerda, who moves into a retirement home on Kollwitzplatz after a lifetime down the road in the Bötzowviertel and is swiftly integrated into a band of three daredevil drunken old ladies. Andreas drives a taxi and gets a blow round the head. Micha cuts off people’s gas when they haven’t paid the bill, Katrin delivers pizzas and is looking forward to a hot blind date, Heike’s unexpectedly pregnant, Helga’s lost her memory, Viola finds her son’s long-lost father, and Sugar, Cakes and Candy don’t quite succeed in combating sexism and racism, but not for want of trying. And there are more – all criss-crossing the city on foot, by car, by public transport and on a skateboard. That multiple motion keeps the pace skipping along throughout.

As the day proceeds, most of the characters gradually convene on the Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg. It’s not just any day, you see, it’s 30 April – Walpurgis Night. Germanists will know all about it from Goethe’s Faust, which features a wonderful witching scene that Thomas Mann plays on in his Magic Mountain. And Gröschner gives us three sets of three witches from three generations – virgins, whores and hags, as my charming university tutor would no doubt have put it. They all come together to leap over the witches’ fire in the park before the story folds in on itself most satisfactorily.

There are things I love about the book in a formal way – primarily the fact that it shows us a cross-section of Berlin’s population, or perhaps a cross-section of the people who don’t usually feature in bright, sparkly Berlin novels: first-generation Turkish immigrants and their children, single mothers, homeless people, policemen, circus artistes, funeral musicians, special needs teachers, dog-owners, people who mend broken coffee makers rather than throwing them away. And Gröschner’s strong, sensuous female characters make my jaded feminist heart skip a beat.

And then there are things that I love about the book in a purely personal way – the way objects occasionally tell stories, to wit that coffee machine or Gerda’s removal boxes. The way the knowing literary references (Döblin is never terribly far away) all seem to come with a tongue firmly in cheek. The way Gröschner uses obscure locations like graveyards and bars and the only job centre I’ve ever been to here, the one that used to be the Stasi headquarters, adding local colour but not for colour’s sake – they all have something to contribute to the plot. The way she tells us so many life stories from East and West Berlin and raises so many issues in only 440 pages. The way her characters all have unique voices, from old-fashioned Berlin dialect to Sugar, Cakes and Candy:
Sugar’s picking her nose. ‘Would you stop doing that? Eat crisps if you need more salt.’ (…) Sugar grins and moves on to the other nostril. ‘I’ll chop off your index finger,’ hisses Cakes. ‘No point, Sugar would squish her thumb up her nose.’ Candy’s the only one who laughs at her joke.
What all this suggests is that Walpurgistag is an example of a novel that just happens to be a bit right-on on the anti-racist and feminist fronts but is first and foremost really good literature. A joy for fans of a well-spun plot, for Berlin-lovers, for documentary filmmakers, for aficionados of magic realism, for historians, for taxi drivers, for people who can’t sit still, for you, and definitely for me.

For a taste, follow the link above to read a nice long sample in German.


glenn said...

so much fun reading about cool books knowing it'll be at least 2yrs before i'll maybe have a chance to read 'em.

kjd said...

You could learn German and then refuse to ever read translations because they're not "pure". But that would take more than two years and possibly a humour bypass.