Wednesday, 28 May 2008

My White Nights

I finished Lena Gorelik's debut novel Meine weißen Nächte a few dark nights ago, and I've been finding it difficult to categorise the book. Which is probably a good thing.

First of all, it's a light and enjoyable read, with obvious autobiographical aspects. The narrator, like the author, came to Germany from Russia as a Jewish refugee in 1992. The book is made up of mostly humorous episodes outlining her life in Saint Petersburg - queuing, Perestroika and disappointment - Munich - very settled with a German boyfriend but constantly on the phone to her overprotective mother - and an asylum-seekers' home in South Germany, which are quite upsetting in part. It is all kept together rather expertly by a narrative thread on a will-she-won't-she affair with her ex.

The language is straight-forward enough, with the book really coming alive through the characters - notably the narrator's mother and brother, her Russian Casanova and her reliable German boyfriend - and their experiences. The perspective changes, of course, as the narrator grows up. Her childhood in Saint Petersburg seems to be one of discomfort, shortages and then inequality, punctuated by idyllic holidays. Small episodes illustrate the greater picture - how the children can't have caviar rolls with a slice of tomato at the theatre, as they're only for the dollar-customers, how the family decorates the living room with the faded wallpaper they are assigned after a two-year wait, how she is finally given a Barbie. But she's too young to experience genuine discrimination, and her voice always has a note of humour in it.

Then the asylum-seekers' home, poignant moments of misunderstanding and poverty; their first bottled water, getting ripped off by a dentist, making friends at school. And these sections are the parts I liked best. Obviously I've never lived in an asylum-seekers' home but I was in East Berlin student accommodation specially for foreigners (post-89). There, too, word about the Germans and how to deal with the system spread by word of mouth - you should probably avoid football hooligans, you can buy couscous in West Berlin, Kurzzug isn't a destination at all when it appears on the train announcement sign, and there's a cheap disco opposite Friedrichstraße station.

What stops the book from becoming melancholy is the episodes set in the present. The narrator tells us about her lovably irritating family, her mother who brings three weeks' worth of food whenever she visits, her grandmother whose conversations revolve around how beautiful she was in her youth, her brother with a new craze every six months. She might be living a normal German life, if it weren't for the Russian-Jewish family that reminds her of who she is with overly regular phone calls. It's all really very funny. I can't help feeling she could have explored her divided identity in a little more detail, but perhaps she was striving for the kind of subtlety that leaves you to do the thinking for yourself.

I'd say Lena Gorelik is a cross between Vladimir Kaminer and Sasa Stanisic. Genuinely funny but not at the cost of the plot, and with a lot to say about Jewish-Russian life in Germany. Her second novel, Hochzeit in Jerusalem, was longlisted for the German Book Prize last year.

She hasn't been published in English yet - but the good news is, she's the German writer-in-residence at this year's BCLT international literary translation summer school, in Norwich this July. In its ninth year, this summer school is an absolutely life-changing experience for translators. A week of translation workshops with an author and an experienced literary translator (in this case, Shaun Whiteside) - accompanied by seminars, readings and presentations. Unfortunately it's rather expensive, but there are bursaries available and it's actually worth every penny, especially the food. I'm a bit gutted because I can't go, but am consoling myself with the fact that I put on about a stone last time I was there. You can still sign up, and I wholeheartedly recommend that you do.

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