I have been busy, and away, and the away part was at the Leipzig Book Fair, where the big fiction prize of the spring went to Saša Stanišić for his second novel, Vor dem Fest. And everyone was very pleased because it's a wonderful book made up of what feels like hundreds of stories about a village in rural East Germany on the eve of the local festival. And now I've just this minute finished reading it and am still away with the fairies – who don't come into it, although there are ghosts and angels and eloquent ferrymen and characters dead and alive and real and invented.
What is it about? It's about the people who live in the village, and all of them are odd but then aren't we all, and they narrate the story in a strange fourth-person voice that opens the novel with a "We are sad" and closes it with a puzzling "we bid twelve". They don't all live in the village at the same time because some of them are from the past and some of them just live in the past, and some of them speak in rhymes and some of them would kill for a cigarette. Some of them are good with their hands and some of them have talents that don't come in very handy but count for something nonetheless.
You might be familiar with Stanišić's debut How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, which was a big hit for good reason and was also ultimately about telling stories and about place. One of the most impressive things he wrote between then and now was a piece published at Words Without Borders, "Three Myths of Immigrant Writing", in which he explores expectations of writers who originally come from other countries or languages to the ones they write in. He explodes the following three myths: Firstly, that there is such a thing as an "immigrant literature" as a homogenous category. Secondly, that writing by immigrants is necessarily about the immigrant experience, intercultural phenonema, etc. And thirdly, that exophonic writers enrich their chosen literary language in a way that "native speaker" writers do not. Please read the whole article because all of his points are valid and worth taking note of. As far as I'm aware, people are beginning to do so – I'm seeing university courses on things like "Turkish-German narratives" rather than "literature by foreigners" and fewer panels on which writers are required to dissect the influence of their ethnic background on the language of their writing. Or maybe I've stopped paying attention.
Bizarrely, the arrival of these ideas in the mainstream was confirmed for me by the reaction to a recent article by Maxim Biller, himself born outside of Germany. Being thoroughly fed up of (male) writers slagging off other writers and telling them how to do a better job by writing more like they do themselves, I didn't actually read the article, but I understand the gist of it was that it was cowardly or sycophantic or in some way incorrect for an immigrant writer to write about a village in rural East Germany. Anyway, everyone else (including the Leipzig judges) leapt to Stanišić's defence and said hey, anyone can write about anything they bloody well like, mate, as long as it's good. And the judges at least seem to have taken care not to say that Stanišić enriches the German language with his adorable little outsider's linguistic quirks, bla bla bla. I haven't read any reviews though, so maybe lazy critics are still saying that but never mind. The point seems to have hit home to some extent. And I don't think he got the award for that reason either, but simply because Vor dem Fest is an excellent book.
I don't really want to tell you much more about the book because in a way I'd like to keep it to myself for a little while, all private inside me. But I will, because I think as many people should read it as possible. There's a village called Fürstenfelde, which is based on a number of villages with similar names where the writer spent some time researching the novel. It has a lake but the ferryman has died, and it has a village museum with an archivist who likes to watch Buffy, and a church with a born-again vicar and a new bell ringer. It has a bakery but no pub any more, so the men meet up to drink in a lock-up garage where they wash their own glasses. A lot of the people who live there are old and a few of them are young but they may not be staying. And Stanišić tells us what happens in the 24 hours or so prior to the village festival. He uses incidents from the present day but also intersplices individual characters' memories, historical documents of dubious provenance and local myths. Along the way all the elements get swirled around and tangled up.
I've seen Stanišić read from the novel a couple of times, and he always enchants his audience with the spiralling stories and their quiet humour. On one occasion before publication, the crowd laughed too much and he commented to his editor that he'd have to take that bit out. Now, Vor dem Fest is odd in the kind of way that is still making me smile as I write this, but friendly to all its characters. At the same time, that smile is a melancholy one because the village is probably going to die out. The book is also spattered with sentences that shine like aphorisms but may also be ironic: "For the strong, every place is home" – "Those who don't venture beyond reality will never conquer the truth" – "The GDR won't die while the last GDR hairdryer is still drying hair". Like in his debut, Stanišić plays around a little with kitsch but is never mean about it. I'm so glad he wrote this book.