Monday, 22 September 2014

Franz Friedrich: Die Meisen von Uusimaa singen nicht mehr

Another impressive first novel, this time with a complex structure. And more birds. Are birds as important in other literatures? I can think of four recent or forthcoming German books off the top of my head in which birds are essential to the plot. In this case, it’s the grey-headed chickadee, which debut author Franz Friedrich transfers to a Finnish island (a place I don't think exists in our world). The Uusimaa chickadees no longer sing, you see. And the authorities are concerned this means something has gone wrong, so they evacuate the island and turn it over to ornithologists. At which point a German filmmaker goes to visit in 1997 and makes a nature documentary. We also see a bumbling younger German man, a film student who accidentally destroys the last copy of that film and then leaves a future “Core Europe” in 2017 to travel to Uusimaa himself, and an American academic escaped to Berlin from the hell that is a bankrupt USA. In 2007.

The action skips to and fro like the documentary itself, which is screened, if you like, in the first chapter. Chronological order is for dullards. But we gradually get a patchy impression of what happens in the three characters’ lives and in the world around them. There’s a sense of threat that perhaps looms larger because we don’t quite know how to understand Franz Friedrich’s fictional world; a heavy police presence, accidents, freak weather conditions, strikes and riots, things going missing from archives, people who don’t quite get along. And there’s a lot of exquisite description. At times that slows the novel’s momentum, but I assume that’s deliberate. Taken together, all this does mean you have to concentrate quite hard.

Perhaps because I read it during the Scottish independence referendum campaign, one of the aspects that stood out most to me was the way Friedrich plays with politics and nationality. In the novel’s world, Berlin is expelling foreigners from poorer nations in 2007. That’s nothing new, but the scene in which a bureaucrat tells the American Monika that she’s going to be deported is all the more chilling because we don’t expect the USA to be one of those undesirable countries of origin:
The situation in your country’s bad, I know that, I can even understand you. Do you think I’d want to live in any other country than this one? But the boss is on my back, there are statistics. If I don’t tot up a certain number of returns I’ll lose my job. I have a son, my husband’s severely disabled due to an accident, and I’m supposed to put my existence on the line because your homeland lived above its means for decades?

Later in the book’s chronology, the Germans are the ones in a bad place by dint of their passports, because “Core Europe” has introduced something akin to a basic subsistence payment for all its citizens, who are then free to work voluntarily rather than for wages. And there are other utopias: a summer spent in a hut in a forest, an island that rises from the ocean, stories from the early days of the Soviet Union. But all of them are tainted in some way. Either they’re unsustainable over the winter or they require evacuating or heavy policing; “Core Europe” works because it keeps others out, as far as I understand.

Obliquely, then, Franz Friedrich tells tales that do come together at the last moment. We know from an early point that those birds will start singing again, and he leaves us with at least a moment of hope. I’m very impressed by this novel, which is experimental in all the ways I consider right, but also eminently readable and thought-provoking. And the judges at the Jürgen Ponto Foundation were also impressed, awarding him their €15,000 prize for debut novels.

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