Christoph Peters' fifth novel, Wir in Kahlenbeck, is longlisted for the German Book Prize. I might not have noticed it otherwise, although I did enjoy his Mitsukos Restaurant, which was a very thoughtful and quite funny novel about a Japanese woman running a restaurant in a German backwater - and all the fantasies the locals project onto her.
His latest is loosely based on his own years at a strict Catholic boarding school. Let me clear one thing up right now: I haven't read the book. I don't intend to read the book, unless it actually wins the big prize. So this isn't a genuine review. But I did attend a very entertaining and informative event with the author last night, which I wanted to tell you about.
Peters was in conversation with the critic Gregor Dotzauer. Both men are classic lapsed Catholics, but of two different kinds. Dotzauer is the hating kind, and Peters the forgiving kind. So the conversation was quite fascinating. Dotzauer would niggle away at the novel, trying to make it an anti-Catholicism tract, and Peters would nudge him right back onto the fence, but in a very intelligent, considered way. Not quite bulls locking horns, but you get the picture. The event, incidentally, was standing-room only, and full of other writers. I assume this is a good sign.
The novel revolves around Carl Pacher ("Note the initials!" said Dotzauer, and we laughed, although not the gentleman next to me, who took it all very seriously.). He's 15 and trying to accomodate a burning curiosity about girls into his life as an almost fanatical Catholic at a boys' school. Which is genuinely funny. Meanwhile, the priests at the school try to drum the fear of God into their charges with physically repulsive collective punishments and theologically questionable blanket statements. And the boys, being boys all lumped together, are horribly cruel to each other on top of all the other tortures.
The writing, I have to say, is gorgeous. Lyrical descriptions, convincing dialogue, all beautifully put together. I wasn't as bowled over as the rest of the audience by the bathos of teenage utterings against the backdrop of the nature descriptions, for instance, but you know what they say about German humour. Peters told us he tried to write about Catholicism with a neutral, ethnologist's eye, and certainly he didn't seem to be trying to get his own back on anyone, from what I could tell. But I'd still question whether it's possible to write like a scientist about something that was so much part of your own life - formative years spent at a Catholic boarding school are going to leave a mark on you, whatever happens. Incidentally, Christoph Peters' wife, the writer Veronika Peters, was a nun when they first met. I bet Easter is fun round their house (I know. Cheap joke. I was going to delete it but I changed my mind).
Peters assured us that the novel is just as suitable for non-Catholics as it is for Catholics, as he assumes no prior knowledge of the faith - East Germany, he told us, is the most secular place in the world, so plenty of readers will know little at all about religion. But still, I personally don't want to spend 512 pages exploring a Catholic boarding school, no matter how well written those pages are. I do realise, though, that for other lapsed Catholics, former boarding school pupils, former teenage boys, and people with more interest in religion than me, this could well be a life-changing novel. Maybe you should try it.