Monday, 27 February 2012

Make Mine a Homonym, Bar Tender! Wolfgang Herrndorf: Sand

Blogging about Wolfgang Herrndorf is quite fun because I know his editor. So what happens is, I write something vaguely contentious about Wolfgang Herrndorf, Wolfgang Herrndorf denies the vaguely contentious thing, and his editor relays this information to me. To which I reply, Well that’s how I remember it and I was there too. At which point his editor says, Wolfgang Herrndorf says he’d never do such a thing, and I say, Well, maybe I misinterpreted it then. And everybody’s happy. So just to set the record straight: Wolfgang Herrndorf denies having done that vaguely contentious thing I accused him of here

This time I don’t have much to say about Wolfgang Herrndorf except that I saw him riding his bike down Torstraße once last year, which is kind of unexciting. He indicated correctly and then turned left. Try denying that, Wolfgang Herrndorf! My other not that exciting anecdote is that I sat sort of opposite a different Rowohlt editor on the train to the Leipzig book fair two years ago, when Wolfgang Herrndorf’s previous novel Tschick was nominated for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair. And during the journey the editor got a phone call to inform him that Wolfgang Herrndorf had been cruelly robbed of the award, which everyone sitting around him picked up on because he was so sad about it. We all grimaced and averted our eyes in embarrassment.

Luckily this time Wolfgang Herrndorf is in with another chance with Sand. I’m not taking the train this year, so I’ll have to just wait for the awards ceremony to see if he wins. Meanwhile, I read the novel ages ago but kept getting distracted from writing about it. So this “review” might be a bit vague. Sorry about that.
It’s set in a fictional corner of the Maghreb in 1972. While I was reading it I kept wondering whether Wolfgang Herrndorf went on holiday to Tunisia with his parents in 1972, but that’s probably irrelevant. The setting is important because of all the sand, and the timing because of all the spies, but it may well have been influenced more by William Burroughs and Mike Murphy than any first-hand experience, what do I know?

The story opens quite slowly with a slightly incompetent French police detective who has to deal with a young man accused of shooting multiple European hippies in their commune. Then there’s a beautiful American woman just arrived to rep cosmetics. And a dead spy with a Scandinavian name who came to deliver a strange piece of equipment. But 85 pages in everybody’s been introduced and we cut to the action. Which is fine really because there are still another nearly 400 pages to go.

A man wakes up in the desert and doesn’t know who he is. And nor do we, which is one of the excellent things about the novel. He crosses the path of the American beauty, who takes him under her wing. But then he’s accosted by a local gangster, who seems to have kidnapped a wife and child our man didn’t know he had. In return for their lives he wants – a mine.

Now this is where we linguists have to suspend our disbelief. If you’re not a linguist you’re going to find this paragraph incredibly petty, so just skip it. If you are a linguist, the book may well be fatally flawed for you, because much of the plot pivots on the fact that the German word Mine has three homonyms (I hope that’s the right term – I’m only a pretend linguist really): like in English, the mine where you dig for gold and the small explosive device, plus an ink refill for a pen. But in the novel, the characters who mention the Mine are speaking French. Well, logic dictates that they’re speaking French – the book being in German, their speech is rendered in German too. But as far as I can tell, only two of the three meanings apply in French, strictly speaking. I’m pretty sure about this and I checked with my cousin and my French auntie, but I’m willing to admit I’m wrong if anyone knows better because my French is abysmal. Whatever the case, this majorly niggled at me all the way through. I know, I should get a life.

Anyway, the mystery man attempts to get hold of the mystery item, while attempting to find out who he is and attempting not to fall in love with the American beauty. As Mike Murphy would put it, there is violence, cold-bloodedness and even cruelty! Meanwhile, Wolfgang Herrndorf (or should I say, Wolfgang Herrndorf’s narrator) plays with his readers as if we were cats chasing a string. Each chapter is headed with a quote, slanting the content ever so slightly. From Herodot on Africa to Hitchcock on psychoanalysis to Ulla Berkéwitz on, ummm, evolution, my favourite is attributed to someone called Marek Hahn and goes: “‘Allusions, there are allusions in this book,’ I thought, ‘I want my money back.’” At which point Wolfgang Herrndorf throws us poor kitty-cats a huge feathery string with a bell on it, in the form of an Asterix comic. Very nice.

I can’t really tell you much else about the plot because it’s a very plot-driven book. So let me tell you about the writing instead. It’s enjoyable, intelligent, not overly wordy but infused with subtle humour, as they say. A great deal more literary than any spy thriller but less literary than Reinhard Jirgl. It would be fun to translate. It was fun to read. It’s been reviewed very favourably and has been doing very well as far as I know. And guess what? My friend Isabel Bogdan is mentioned in the credits at the back. So it must be good.

Also, I hear translation rights for Tschick (my review) have sold to the States, so maybe one day Sand will be available in English too. Plenty of homonym fun for the lucky translator!

Update: Wolfgang Herrndorf's editor has kindly informed me that mine can in fact mean a ballpoint refill in French. It's not in any of the five paper dictionaries I looked in, nor in two online bilingual dictionaries, but is is in the PONS online French-German dictionary. My attempts to search for the terms "stylo bille mine" left me in a great deal of confusion followed by days of advertising banners for French stationery. So there you go. Obscure but probably true. Sorry it took me so long to correct this - I was hideously embarrassed at admitting my ignorance.

And Sand has also won the public vote for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair, which I believe Tschick did too. No doubt his editor will correct me if I'm wrong.    


pupil said...

Mmm, Magic stylo refill...?

sally said...

Fiction to rile linguists: Das amerikanische Hospital has a woman who translates bits of French poetry into German for a man with whom she is supposedly speaking French, which makes no sense. To confuse matters further, the man is American. This would have ruined the book for me completely were it not for the fact that I didn't like it anyway.

kjd said...

@pupil: ah, that's the problem. A mine in French goes in a pencil but not a pen, whereas in German it can be both. Very tricky business.

But as I said, I think, or at least as I meant to say, it shouldn't spoil the book for anyone who isn't totally anal about these things.

@Sally - groan! Thank God you didn't like it. That would drive me mad too.