Tuesday 22 April 2014

Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast

As you no doubt know, Birgit Vanderbeke’s novella The Mussel Feast is shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, in Jamie Bulloch’s translation. It was first published in German in 1990, and apparently can be read as an allegory for the collapse of the East German state. I know that because the text is standard reading at high-school level, so there is plenty of material available on it. Also, Lizzy’s Literary Life has interviews with the author, the translator and the publisher, Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press, which I found very interesting.

I read the book in a couple of hours, and you should set aside an afternoon to read it in one go – although not more, as it’s only 100 pages long. The reason being that the outstanding thing about the novella is the way it builds tension. We begin with an apparently nondescript family awaiting the father’s return home from a business trip. What makes them stand out is that they’re originally from East Germany and left for the West – presumably before the border was closed in Berlin, although this wasn’t quite clear to me. And the mother makes mussels because that’s what the father likes best, although at the beginning neither mother nor daughter “much care for them”.

But the father doesn’t turn up and his wife, son and daughter end up criticizing first the mussels, which they admit to finding disgusting as the evening proceeds, and then the authoritarian father. The details of his iron rule emerge in a long monologue narrated by the 18-year-old daughter, and the tense atmosphere as they get drunk waiting for his dreaded return is wonderfully rendered. I admired the way Bulloch kept the weighty feeling of Vanderbeke’s original long sentences, without keeping quite all the length – that’s a tricky thing to do. I think there are times when it’s important to keep German sentences at their death-defying lengths in translations, but here readability came first. That seems like a wise choice.

In the end we witness a turning point, the kind that makes you jump because the tension is so high. Vanderbeke won the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for the piece, her debut. What troubled me, however, was that I found the characters rather one-dimensional. Perhaps more nuanced characters would weigh down a short text unnecessarily – or perhaps the allegory is something that requires one-dimensional characters. If it worked for Brecht, maybe it works for Vanderbeke too. The allegorical reading is rather imposed upon us by the jacket copy:
'I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.' Birgit Vanderbeke
Sadly, I found the story – or perhaps the comparison – rather too simple and almost patronising in the light of all we know about the complexities of the East German revolution, almost twenty-five years on. I think I'd have enjoyed it more at face value.

I certainly don’t regret reading the book, though, and I wish the team behind it well for the big prize.


Linda said...

It sounds like a good book. Thank you so much for sharing. Greetings from Montreal, Canada.

EP said...

Looks interesting - and like a lot of work and discipline. More power to ya!