Sunday, 28 October 2012

Thomas Meyer: Wolkenbruchs wunderliche Reise in die Arme einer Schickse

As you know, I went to Switzerland. So obviously I had to read a Swiss book while I was there, if only out of mere respect. It turned out to be Wolkenbruchs wunderliche Reise in die Arme einer Schickse by Thomas Meyer, which is nominated for the Swiss Book Prize. The winner's announced on 11 November, by the way. I bought the book in Switzerland, so I can report that the end of fixed book prices there hasn't made books cheaper. Unless they were incredibly expensive beforehand.

The novel is narrated by Motti Wolkenbruch, an orthodox Jewish student in Zurich. His mother is trying to find a wife for him, but unfortunately all the young ladies she introduces him to are rather like her. Whereas Motti's rather keener on his Goyish fellow student Laura. Adventures ensue.

What I loved about the book is Motti's voice, for two reasons. Firstly, he's a great character with a wry sense of humour, and secondly Thomas Meyer gives him a language that code-switches between German and Yiddish. Now I don't know Yiddish but you can figure it out as you go along, especially when you speak German. There's a glossary at the back of the book - a very nice edition, incidentally - but of course I only found that at the end.

So you get fantastic observations about other characters, my favourite being Herr Hagelschlag the insurance expert with his ever-present paper bag from the kosher bakery:
Herr Hagelschlag machte grojse ojgn in die Tüte hinein, rief: "Einer hot kejn apetit zim essn, der anderer hot kejn essn zim apetit!", erhob sich und verschwand, um mit neuem nasch zurikkzukehren.
(Meaning something like: Herr Hagelschlag made big eyes into the paper bag, exclaimed "One man has no appetite for his food, the other has no food for his appetite!" got to his feet and disappeared, only to return with new snacks. Only of course if you were going to translate it, you'd have to decide whether to leave all the Yiddish in the original or at least how much of it you could get away with.)
So the linguist in me was rubbing her little hands in glee, while the sense of humour representative was kept busy too. Also, later in the book, my libido enjoyed a couple of very charming sex scenes. But something was nagging away at me. I managed to ignore it while reading, no doubt a good sign. But sitting down to write this review*, I did think: Is it OK to write about orthodox Jews when you're not one yourself? Ah, my political conscience.

Thomas Meyer addresses the issue head-on in this interview:
Your book is a comedy that laughs at Jewish reality, to some extent. Aren't you afraid you might be accused of anti-Semitism?
I'm convinced that will happen, in fact. As soon as anyone deals with it (Jewish life) in any way that accusation comes from somewhere. The more religious people are, the less humour they have.
Could a non-Jew have written the same book?
No. The Jewish comedian Oliver Pollack says "I'm allowed, I'm Jewish" – the same goes for my novel. A Jew making jokes about Jews is funny. If a non-Jew starts playing with   clichés you instantly ask yourself whether he might think they're true.
So he's not orthodox but he seems to have done his homework. According to a Zurich-based translator acquaintance, all the details are true to life - the right make of car bought from the right car dealer, and so on. And he seems to take a respectful approach, although I might see that differently if I was a religious person. As it is, I know next to nothing about orthodox Judaism - which is not terribly visible in Berlin, for obvious reasons, although things are changing here with immigration from Russia, for the main part. I learned a great deal from Motti Wolkenbruch, which can't be a bad thing. I'm pleased to say, however, that that wasn't the reason I enjoyed the book.

Whatever. Read it and see for yourself. Apropos of nothing, Thomas Meyer seems like a fun guy. Here he is doing the punctuation police thing, and here's a startling collection of postcards he designed, which will come in handy for all your stalking needs ("Here's proof of me thinking about you all the time" made my fingers itch. A lot.).

*The term review is used loosely here.


Lauren said...

Seemed as good a post as any to use for my "coming out of lurkerdom" moment, so hello! I've read Meyer's novel, and really, really enjoyed it, but I'm both Jewish and reasonably conversant in Yiddish. I wasn't sure how much wider appeal the story would have, so I'm glad to read your comments.

It made a nice change, actually - there's quite a lot of German-Jewish literature out there, but I find most of it either unbelievably depressing or representing positions I can't get my head around. (I periodically wonder if my lack of inherited trauma is a problem!) So reading something fun was very pleasant. (The author sounds rather cool!)

(Oh, and to introduce myself - I'm an Australian living here who read the German classics at uni and now reads far too much trashy German crime fiction, and is trying to expand her horizons. If only my little city had half the literary happenings of Berlin...)

kjd said...

Thanks Lauren! It's really interesting to hear your point of view - and I know a couple of German and Swiss readers who were really enthusiastic too.