Matthias Senkel's debut novel Frühe Vögel (Early Birds) tells the story of several generations of an aviation-obsessed family, starting with Theodor Wilhelm Leudoldt around the turn of the last century. Hailing from a modest background, he is fascinated by mathematics and chess and rebels against his grandfather’s love of the railways to take an interest in flying. Our hero works his way up through a job in an insurance company to running a pioneering aviation company to not entirely voluntary involvement in the Nazis’ V2 rocket programme, before being killed during an air raid in Berlin. We also find out about his three marriages, one of convenience and two for love, and his travels to Paris and London. During his stay in Paris, Theodor hears the story of Gökhan Çelebi, an aviation ace in 16th-century Ottoman Turkey. The tale is long and entertaining, sidestepping to a star-crossed love story, and warrants a whole chapter.
After Theodor’s death the perspective switches to his daughter, Ursula, who is sent to an uncle while her engineer mother Gerlind is working in the underground rocket factory. They are then whisked away to America to work on the US space programme. Gerlind marries an all-American engineer and she and Ursula fall pregnant at the same time. In one alternative ending, Ursula’s daughter Michelle becomes the first woman on the moon but dies in the rushed attempt to outrun the Soviets, while Ursula illustrates pulp science fiction and ends up in a mental asylum. In the other version, Michelle dies at birth and Ursula becomes a high-flying mathematician, returning to Germany for the funeral of the family’s loyal retainer but still harbouring a touch of Cold War paranoia. In both versions, Ursula and Michelle have to battle against sexism to achieve their progressive goals.
Matthias Senkel draws up a new world in which the Soviet Union wins the space race and a fictitious US senator becomes president. At the end point of his projected history – related in his prologue so I don't think I'm giving too much away – Gerlind is in a retirement home, watching a report on the new Gaia II biosphere being built in the form of the perfect spaceship.
The book closes with an exhaustive appendix detailing the death of every single character in the novel – and there are many of them. From uncles and aunts to passing ticket collectors and sultans, from train and plane accidents to cancers diagnosed and unknown, strokes, stray bullets, trenches and gulags, this section is over 100 pages long and presents a historical panorama of individuals, their lives and of course their deaths.
The chapter describing the Nazis’ attempt to recruit Theodor for their rocket programme takes the form of a comic, illustrated by Maryna Zhdanko. It's drawn in the style of the pulp science fiction that plays a role in other parts of the novel, playing on clichés of the fanatical Nazi and the refined, wealthy engineering genius. Yet it continues Senkel’s quirky style, scattering in obscure references to historical fact and fiction, such as the excellent tomato crop in German Southwest Africa, and maintaining Theodor’s strong character.
As befits a book about aerospace pioneers, the novel is highly experimental (in case you hadn’t noticed already). The first two chapters on Theodor are divided into episodes in alphabetical rather than chronological order. While this seems rather arbitrary and presents a challenge for the reader, it does make the whole experience rather fun. And patient readers will find out in the appendix that the tidy-minded Theodor wrote his own life story, aided by his retainer, on alphabetical index cards – hence the seemingly random order. For those of a more chronological bent, Senkel provides links to the next sections.
The language is equally playful, changing with each historical epoch. The chapter set in Ottoman times is a delight and pre-1914 Germany also comes across well, while 1950s America is a place of healthy teeth and rocking chairs on verandas. Senkel adds echoes across time, for example showing us rather risible arts clubs in both Theodor’s and Ursula’s very different youths. He deliberately skirts around politics, allowing us to guess at what is going on when Gerlind is invited to the USA through his child protagonist, for example, and only spelling out the use of slave labour in the V2 programme in an oblique way in the appendix.
Senkel studied on the Leipzig creative writing programme but this novel isn't a typical product of that course, in that it's anything but autobiographical. What is typical - in a very good way - is that it shows a wide range of influences, from science fiction to James Joyce to TS Elliot (with Madame Sosostris putting in a cameo appearance, among other things). The major characters are very strong and provide good impetus for the storyline. However, I found Senkel did lose sight of his story towards the end of the novel and it peters out with Ursula’s unspectacular return to Germany, despite an alluring promise of Cold War intrigue that is never fulfilled. Disappointed, I then found the appendix too long and uniform to make comfortable reading, despite its delicious black humour.
Nevertheless, the book was well worth reading with its sweeping historical panorama, dark humour and alternative futures. Certainly readers interested in fictional experiments will have a great deal of fun with it.
This is a long version of a review written for New Books in German.