Thursday 27 November 2008

Head to Head: Le Carré v. Fatah

The German papers are full of John Le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man (translated as Marionetten by Sabine Roth and Regina Rawlinson; in record time, I’d say). The unusual interest is understandable, as the book is set in Hamburg – and it’s about Islamist terrorists. Or rather it’s not, it’s about the spies who set out to catch them and the people who get caught up with them on their way.

I read it a while ago, almost in tandem with Sherko Fatah’s excellent Das dunkle Schiff. Much has been written about this great novel, even in English, and I don’t think its shortlisting for the German Book Prize was the only reason. See, for example, new books in german, the German Book Office and Litrix. Plus, as I’ve mentioned what feels like a million times, you can read an extract from the book on sign and sight (trans. Alexa Nieschlag). As you may well know, it was cruelly robbed of the big prize by Uwe Tellkamp’s doorstopper on bourgeois Dresden.

But that takes nothing away from this magnificent book. I won’t write about it in length here as so many have done so before me, but suffice to say I enjoyed it a great deal, as the adventure tale of a young man almost buffeted through life. Fatah describes the underbelly of life in Iraq and Berlin, painting a particularly oppressive picture of stowaways on a ship bound for Europe that reminded me of Traven. The book’s ultimate message – to me – was about the power of words and storytelling, from oral traditions to internet videos. In the end, its protagonist arrives in Berlin and unwittingly sows the seed of the jihad he was attempting to escape from.

John Le Carré’s Most Wanted Man, of course, is very different. Reading it, first of all, made me appreciate Sherko Fatah’s ambitious but sober prose all the more. But I gradually settled into that Le Carré frame of mind and began to enjoy it. OK, so you know from the beginning that the idealists are going to be disillusioned, just like in all his other books. But it’s the journey to that point that’s the interesting part.

It starts off with the very same constellation of characters that Das dunkle Schiff closes with: a confused young man from abroad (Fatah’s Iraqi tallies with Le Carré’s Russian/Chechnyan lad) making friends with a Turkish-German wannabe gangsta. From there, though, the two books’ paths separate and Le Carré does what he’s good at: a spy thriller with great characters and plenty of local colour. There’s the naïve and helpless Russian who becomes a honey trap by virtue of the zillions of dodgy roubles his errant father deposited in Europe, the attractive German idealist, the cynical German agent, the aging English gent who gets involved by accident, and a cast of espionage professionals from around the world in supporting roles. All with lots and lots of Hamburg in the background.

If I sound unimpressed that’s not the case – I think Le Carré does what he does very well indeed, and it was a great read and a great rail against common espionage practices. It’s unrealistic to compare the two books, but all’s fair in love and literature. And Das dunkle Schiff comes out on top for me – as an excellently written study of one tiny way in which militant Islamism finds its way from the Kurdish mountains to the streets of Berlin. Plus I was hugely impressed by the man himself at a reading, as you can read here.

No Zaimoglu Report

I interrupted my punishing schedule of reading books about Berlin (see below) for a spontaneous theatre trip last night. We wanted to see Feridun Zaimoglu and Günter Senkel's play Schattenstimmen at Ballhaus Naunynstraße. Only we weren't the only ones. After a briefly disturbing dogpoo incident and a lot of standing around in the street, it turned out there were no seats free. So nothing to report there then, apart from the fact that it's a very popular show. And the audience looked pretty damn cool.

The play premiered in Cologne this spring and has also been performed in a pared-down version in Kiel. Apparently, the authors were unhappy with the Cologne production and didn't turn up to the premiere. The critics have been pretty scathing, not just about the productions but also about the material itself: too vulgar, too clichéd, too one-track-minded. It's a piece of documentary theatre based, apparently, on interviews with nine illegal immigrants to Germany. The sans-papiers are dishwashers, dealers, rentboys and prostitutes; plus an ex-au pair-turned-party girl. Racism and homophobia are rife in the monologues, but the Cologne production at least was judged too pathetic. And there were voices who wanted a more "representative" choice of individuals. I have to say, the people I've known who weren't quite legal here over the years weren't prostitutes, dealers or rentboys - but maybe that's just the company I keep. But it all sounds like fairly typical Zaimoglu-Senkel fare - the more provocative the better, playing around with stereotypes and pigeonholes and with black men's masturbation providing a lyrical intermezzo.

We're going to Bist du schwul oder bist du Türke? next week instead, which translates roughly as "Are you a poofter or are you Turkish?" There is a slight chance I may feel out of place, if it has as narrow a target audience as the title would suggest.

Monday 24 November 2008

city-lit Berlin

I haven't been posting much have I? But there's a good reason, honest. It's Oxygen Books. It was all started off by a posting on the British Council's sadly rather abandoned Literary Translation website. What Oxygen do is make travel books about cities, calling the series city-lit - and featuring "the cream of fiction and non-fiction, literary and popular, contemporary and classic, including journalism and blogs, with a big emphasis on translated writing." And they're doing one about Berlin. And they want people to send them suggestions and translations.

So. You can imagine I've been wallowing in Berlin literature ever since I read that. And what fun it is too, indulging one of my favourite pleasures - not just German books but books set in Berlin. Two of my favourite things rolled into one. Maybe I can find a passage somewhere in a German book set in Berlin where people eat loads and loads of cake and wash it down with coke zero. I think I'd probably die on the spot.

If anyone has any tips of their own, do contact the people at Oxygen Books (see the second link above for details). They not only have very good taste, they're also very friendly. And just think of the fun we'll all have when the book comes out!

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Treffen Junger Autoren

I had a rather bizarre experience this past weekend - I gatecrashed (at least I think we were gatecrashing) on the Treffen Junger Autoren. This is a programme that's been running for the past 23 years - and was initiated in the GDR. Basically, kids send their texts in and a jury chooses the best and then invites them all to Berlin for a weekend of workshops and other such fun and games.

And part of those fun and games was a slam night last Saturday. My friend and I just ducked in and sat down (OK, she knew someone who was actually entitled to be there...) and enjoyed the evening. It was hosted by a former participant - the charming and ever-entertaining Kirsten Fuchs. And she'd invited all sorts of other people to read on stage, including some of the jury members, the guy who does the catering, an under-20s slam champion and the like. She'd also set up a complicated piece of judging machinery: the totally objective Applause-O-Peter(TM). This consisted of a geezer called Peter with a touch of the delirium tremens, who held his arm side-on against a huge sheet of paper marked with a kind of thermometer, gauging the intensity of the audience reaction from 5 to 12 points. Luckily, there were ten judges dotted around the audience too with numbers to hold up, Olympic figure skating-style.

The evening was a major eye-opener for me. I have in the past complained about publishers favouring very young authors merely for their sexiness level. Now I know there are even 11 and 12-year-olds out there who can hold their own with the big guns. Or at least will be able to do so very soon if they carry on the way they're going. Most of the participants were probably more like 15 to 18 though, and just as impressive. The writing ranged from comical to bizarre to melancholy to wildly rhythmic, with form occasionally taking precedence over content. But even then, the performances were great.

Probably the nicest thing about the evening was the atmosphere. It felt like a school trip, only without the cool kids. There seemed to be free food and drinks (Germany's alcohol laws are less restrictive than in many other places), and the boys at the back became more and more rowdy as the evening continued, with the occasional burp benignly ignored by all. As time passed and whistles were wetted, the Applause-O-Peter grew increasingly sensitive to clapping, so that after about halfway through everyone scored 12 points. Or maybe we really did just clap more. Whatever - it seemed like the young authors were having a very intensive weekend.

Who won? Er, it was one of the jury and another former youthful participant: Antje Strubel. But she was the best.

Monday 17 November 2008

No Man's Land #3 Online

How could I forget? There's a new issue of no man's land ("more than just an online literary magazine") online now. It's an all-poetry special featuring the likes of Bert Papenfuß, Monica Rinck and Daniela Seel - translated by Donal McLaughlin, Sarah Tolley, Kay McBurney, Rosemarie Waldrop, Cathy Hales, Nicholas Grindell and Ken Cockburn.

Plus contemplations by the editor, Isabel Cole, on dialect.

Swiss Book Prize Goes to Rolf Lappert

The new Swiss Book Prize, dreamt up as a marketing instrument for the book trade, has been awarded to the booksellers' favourite Rolf Lappert for Nach Hause schwimmen. The book was also shortlisted for the German Book Prize, so you can read an English extract (trans. Donal McLaughlin) on sign and sight.

As the Berner Zeitung reports, there were a number of similarities with the German Book Prize: one of the nominees, Adolf Muschg, pulled out at the last minute although his book wasn't a favourite with the jury, and the reluctant winner commented that literature is not a competitive sport.

The judges said of the winning title, now tipped to garner soaring sales figures, "It is a magical book with a long echo."

Friday 14 November 2008

Turn Again, Hasan Kazan: Café Cyprus

London is a man-eater of a city. She swallows people whole, chews up their wallets and spits out the bones. And she has pretty cosmopolitan taste – the Irish, Hungarians, Turks and Berliners have all fallen under her spell.

There would appear to be a whole genre of novel that I’ll call “Frankie goes to Haringey”, for want of a better title. Young person moves to London from abroad and has exciting but ultimately rather banal adventures. Think Joseph O’Connor’s Cowboys and Indians for a start, with punk shenanigans aplenty.

Moving further afield than Ireland, there is Ronald Reng’s enjoyable Mein Leben als Engländer, in which the German author tells the story of a Hungarian who moves to London and ends up hanging out with Australians in Acton and posing as a doctor. You can catch Reng reading in London this coming Thursday, by the way.

Then there’s the Turkish view, in Esmahan Aykol’s Goodbye Istanbul, which I’ve read (or started at least) in German translation. I found it incredibly depressing and had to put it down, as it tells the story of a young woman who leaves Istanbul for London, dreaming of streets paved with gold, and ends up in a dead-end job in Crouch End or some such place.

The latest potential Dick Whittington is Hasan Kazan, the hero of Yadé Kara’s Café Cyprus. Kara was widely feted for her debut novel, Selam Berlin, in which Hasan witnesses the whole shebang of German reunification from his unique (or fairly unique in German literature) perspective as a Turkish-German Berliner. Now, as you may have guessed, Hasan’s off to London.

Set in the early 90s, the book opens with twenty-something Hasan singing Eddy Grant’s Gimme Hope Joanna at Charing Cross, out of sheer joy at being in London. The implicit Apartheid reference fits rather nicely with the book’s theme of crossing of cultures and racism – and its optimistic tone. Hasan sings along with buskers, bristles at English girls with no tights, admires Brixton style, and works in a kebab van on the weekends, serving football fans (“Vikings”) who don’t appreciate the subtleties of Turkish cuisine.

He gets a couple of other jobs at a Turkish-Cypriot supermarket, the café of the title and on a stall at Portobello Market, and scrapes together enough money for an English course and a sublet council flat in Lewisham. And he makes friends – not just his old mate from Berlin Kültür Kazim and his wife Sukjeet, but Betty and Khan and Miss Liverpool, and the delightful Hannah. A romance blossoms and fades, Hasan turns from an observer to an insider, and we see London from the Turkish-German-Cypriot perspective. Not one you get every day, and very nicely done at times: “big red double-decker buses roared along the windy road, shining out like fresh red chilli... a piece of West Berlin.”

There are lots of entertaining comparisons of London, Berlin and Istanbul – BMWs are a luxury in London but every last chav drives one in Berlin, the streets of Istanbul and London are full of litter and loiterers. And Kara goes into a fair amount of detail on the regulars at Café Cyprus, their religious, political and philosophical conflicts. Hasan, coming from both Istanbul and Berlin, is the perfect mediator between the Greek and Turkish fractions, but fails to calm the café’s troubled waters.

The narrative style is fun; a mix of yoof-speak and contemplation peppered with italicised English and Turkish, often curses. Hasan slips into song, raps, addresses the audience and is generally a very likeable narrator. At times the tone doesn’t quite ring true, the voice of the forty-something female author slipping in here and there, but it never grates as I initially feared it would. And there are lots of laugh-out-loud moments.

The author’s main thematic focus is what she calls “the new Londoners” – for some reason, the interview I’ve linked to here is unexpectedly unavailable in English. I wonder if anything can be done about that? Asked why almost all the characters have that lovely German thing, a “background of migration”, what she says is:

No, they’re Londoners and they’re the new Londoners, they’re part of the city like everything else. There’s a new London now that has nothing to do with our clichés from Hitchcock films. If you get on the tube in London’s inner city, you’ll see half the world on the trains, and it’s so absolutely normal – you can only guess at people’s ethnic origins. They’re Londoners, they live their lives there, they work there, they read the paper, pay their taxes and bring their children up there. So what!?

It’s true – but it’s something I, as a Londoner, have always taken for granted, as Kara says. In fact I always felt slightly sheepish and dull at primary school, as the only kid in my class whose parents both came from down the road, rather than Jamaica or Kenya or India or Greece or Turkey or Holland or Ireland. But living in Berlin suddenly makes that seem rather exotic, and Hasan certainly revels in London’s ethnic diversity, as does the author. Some of the descriptions of black mammas, Indian girlies and Chinese chefs, related in Hasan’s over-eager vernacular, come across as slightly clichéd and embarrassing, not blasé enough for a long-term Londoner, but perhaps that’s all part of the fun.

Yet despite Hasan’s blue-eyed enthusiasm, Kara doesn’t turn a blind eye to British racism. Sukjeet, a British Asian from – you guessed it – Southall, is the book’s cynical voice of reason.

“Cosmopolitans with gold credit cards and homes in London, Madrid and New York and marriage problems. They’re the hip white Western cosmopolitans. And when these guys go into politics and do something for the 'ethnic minorities', like street parties with Caribbean or Arabic food in Brixton and Notting Hill, yeah, then they celebrate multiculturalism. But as soon as an Arab or a black person turns up on their doorstep or is even made their boss, oh yeah, then they suddenly remember controlled immigration, start insisting on assimilation, etc etc.”

By the end of the novel, Hasan’s eyes have been opened to “rip-off London” but he still loves the place and stays on. The last scene, almost inevitably, is set at the Notting Hill Carnival. It’s a Bildungsroman of sorts, punctuated by music and fashion and parties and love affairs. But it has a flaw that seems to be inherent in the entire going-to-London genre – the plot is too weak. Hasan’s adventures in love and employment just aren’t quite enough to keep the story ticking over, and it rather peters out at the end. As fascinating as her observations of London may be, I feel Yadé Kara would have done well to give her novel a stronger focus than her hero’s anecdotes. A modern Dick Whittington needs to either luck out or lose out big-time.

Of course London, being London, doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks of her, and so we’re unlikely to see any of these novels translated. Which is a great shame, because there’s a lot we could learn from them.

Aravind Adiga: Nie Wieder Deutschland

Julia Kospach of the Frankfurter Rundschau interviewed the Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga, asking whether he'd cancelled his readings in Europe because his novel had prompted so much criticism in India that he couldn't leave the country (perhaps revealing a rather interesting view of Indian literary culture). The answer (in my translation):

No, I'm leaving for Spain and Holland soon. I've only cancelled Germany and the other German-speaking countries. To be honest, I wasn't very keen to come to Germany in the first place. During my degree in England I travelled a lot and stayed in Germany as well. I had a lot of trouble all the time there because they thought I was an illegal immigrant. It was very unpleasant. At the time, I broke off my stay after three days and went back to England. I have no interest whatsoever in ever coming back to Germany or Austria. I think I won't ever do it. And apart from that I can't write while I'm travelling.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

John E. Woods Live

My informer has sent me a marvellous link to an event at the Goethe Institut in Chicago: An Evening of Literature by and about Arno Schmidt with his translator John Woods and publisher Bernd Rauschenbach. You can listen to an audio file, which I haven't done yet but will very soon, and I know for sure it will be very entertaining for all you German book lovers out there. I once experienced this double-act live and will never forget it...

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Berlin Publishing: One to Watch

Remember my unbridled enthusiasm over Eichborn Berlin? It seems to be experiencing some turbulent times. Head honcho Wolfgang Hörner is leaving (along with his co-editor Esther Kormann) to set up a new imprint under the roof of Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Galiani Berlin. Apparently, it'll publish contemporary German-language fiction (yay!), non-fiction and classics of world literature.

There's been some speculation over why Hörner is leaving the house he grew up in, but it seems he'll have a lot more freedom and control at Galiani. The taz has an interesting article on the whole affair. I'm certainly looking forward to it, as I almost feel Eichborn Berlin might have got stuck in its ways, spoilt by the success of the authors they discovered - not that they aren't excellent writers. Maybe Galiani will launch a few new voices, fitting in with the impeccable taste of Wolfgang Hörner. He'll certainly take with him his incredible enthusiasm for literature, if not necessarily all his protege authors. And let's hope they have as much success marketing their books to foreign publishers as Eichborn has had.

Plus, of course, I really hope Eichborn can find people to fit into Hörner and Kormann's shoes and continue their excellent programme.

Monday 10 November 2008

Keto von Waberer: Schwester

Do you know that feeling when a book feels like it’s been written exclusively for you? When it touches so many nerves you think someone has stolen your non-existent diary and fictionalised it?* And then as the book progresses, you realise that perhaps other people have just had similar experiences to you, and this is one of those realities, but with an alternate ending that you really hope you can avoid?

Keto von Waberer and I have few things in common, but those things we do share are really quite terrifying. I recently finished reading her clearly autobiographical book, Schwester. (I'm afraid there's nothing in English I can find on either the author or the book.) For those with absolutely no German who are thus unable to guess from the title, it’s the story of her difficult relationship with her sister. One blonde and asthmatic, the other a dark-haired survivor, the two girls are the best of friends and hate each other’s guts. They develop different strategies for claiming their unfair share of their parents’ love – sickness and coping. And those strategies become personality traits in the adult women, influencing the way their lives progress.

The book, published back in 2002, opens with a bang: “At the supermarket, by a shelf of washing powder, I start to cry and can’t stop.” The narrator is crying for her sister, who died two years ago. So we know how things will end, and it’s the power of this story’s searing honesty that keeps the momentum going up to the last chapter. Von Waberer writes as if her mental stability depended on it, in sober prose - autobiography as therapy.

There isn’t a plot as such, other than the two women’s lives as children, as adults, their relationships with their parents, partners, themselves, and each other. The only structure as the narration swings back and forth in time is the chronology of the narrator’s own life, marked by events such as going away to school, falling pregnant, starting a writing career, leaving her husband, the loss of her parents, and overcoming writer’s block. I didn’t feel the lack, partly because the book is relatively short at 168 pages.

There are things here we might not want to know in such detail – about ourselves or anyone else. How the narrator’s father wants to sleep with her, how she hates her sister’s unappealing body and hates herself for feeling that way. All the resentment, the worry as her sister sinks into illness and depression, the rare shared happy memories spoilt by cutting remarks or guilty conscience. And all told so openly that it feels like you’re the therapist listening to one woman’s painful story, with the benefit of hindsight – many chapters close with a phrase to the effect that “I know that now; I didn’t then.”

Yet although it’s so plainly and painfully autobiographical, the book doesn’t seem self-indulgent; the agony of a married mother falling in love with someone else, for example, is perfectly contained in a half-page chapter. I can’t say reading it was a pleasure, but it was certainly an experience that taught me a few things about myself as a sister, and I don’t regret it or feel I wasted my time on it. Keto von Waberer is probably a “woman’s writer”, and an excellent one at that. If you like books about testosterone-drenched action, it may not be your cup of tea. But I can certainly recommend this book to any women with sisters of their own. Or in fact to only daughters who feel hard done-by; after this, you won’t.

* Actually, a guy I used to know swore blind he’d lost his diary while staying in Vienna, and got really angry when he saw Before Sunrise.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Stanisic* - Wise Beyond his Publications

This month's Words Without Borders features a magnificent piece from Sasa Stanisic on myths of immigrant writing. Not unlike myself in my less erudite rant on the Chamisso Prize recently (which Stanisic received last time around), he criticises the expectation that writers from elsewhere should enrich their adopted language, more so than native-language authors. He also rails against the myths that there is a category by the name of "immigrant writing" at all, and that immigrant literature deals (or should deal) solely with the migrant experience.

Great reading matter, nicely packaged, and - in an ironic twist - rather well translated from the German by the author himself. I do find it slightly amusing, though, that an author who has written one (excellent) book can be so worldly-wise. But I suppose I haven't written any books at all and I still spout my opinions here on a near-daily basis. Still, it's a great feeling when you realise you're not the only person to hold a certain view.

If we must have a word for one category of "immigrant writing" at least, why not post-migrant literature? I'm rather inspired by the upcoming Dogland festival at and around Berlin's Ballhaus Naunynstraße, which features post-migrant theatre and the latest developments in dance, film, music and literature - including a new play by the ubiquitous Feridun Zaimoglu and Günter Senkel on sans-papiers. I know, I was trying not to mention him, but it's hard sometimes. Or an "evening of scenic songs" directed by Neco Celik (the very interesting interview behind this link goes some way to explaining what post-migrant might be in the German context). I can't spot any actual literature in the strictest sense on the programme as yet, but I live in hope.

*I do apologise for the lack of accents, etc. throughout this piece. It's been a long day, so you'll have to imagine them all for yourselves.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Translating Erotica - The Group Effort

Did I ever mention that wonderful institution, the no man's land literary translation lab? We meet up once a month to brew up our texts together, experimenting, inspecting and letting off steam upstairs in the lovely library at Max & Moritz in Berlin.

And this evening proved the true test for the lab - would anyone turn up, despite the large number of "fun" US-election-related events scheduled in competition around the city? Weeeeelll, a couple of people did, albeit no Americans. As a reward, we went through my erotica translation together.

Imagine a small room filled (OK, not actually filled on this occasion) with translators. We wear glasses. We like our food. Most of us are over 40 and have sensible haircuts (present company excepted). We lead the kind of lives no one's going to write a screenplay about. Then imagine said group sitting down with a couple of beers and discussing alternative verbs to "throb", whether the word "cock" jumps out at you more than "dick", whether the author's girlfriend being away in Bolivia for a year might have influenced his choice of vocabulary, how DH Lawrence would have put it, whether the subjunctive might be more suitable for the phrase "as if sex was a harmless pleasure". It was fun. And extremely productive. Now I'm feeling all loved-up out of the sheer joy of sharing a stimulating translation with like-minded individuals.

Incidentally, my phone conversations with the author proved less excruciating than anticipated. He was terribly blasé about it all, which made me feel rather like a giggling teenager, but at least we got through all my awkward questions. I blushed much less than I had initially expected. And I think the end result might be rather good, actually, thanks to the support of by fellow lab-rats.