Friday 30 January 2009

Chez Max

Fans of unusual crime fiction have something to look forward to in March - the English translation of Jakob Arjouni's Chez Max (in the capable hands of Anthea Bell).

I very much enjoyed the book when I read it about two years ago. It is set in a dark society where cigarettes and illegal immigrants are dangerous contraband. According to Arjouni, it was inspired by America's reaction to 9/11, and that certainly shows. Great characters, especially the protagonist - a real nasty piece of work.

If you're part of the easyjetset, you may have read a nice little interview with the author in November's in-flight mag. If you're not, you can still read it here.

No Exit Press has published several of his previous books in English, and you can read two extracts translated by Anthea Bell on Words Without Borders.

Thursday 29 January 2009


Do I have to spell it out any more than the title? This is a review of Daniel Kehlmann’s new novel. It sold 160,000 copies in its first week in the shops. It made the evening news. There’s a poster for it hanging in the window of the scientific bookshop down the road from me. There is no escaping Ruhm.

My impression at the launch was that it’s a very clever book. And on reading it, I can certainly confirm that. It’s made up of nine interlocking stories revolving around three famous people – the writer Leo Richter, the actor Ralf Tanner and the Spanish-speaking writer Miguel Auristos Blancos, modelled on a certain bestselling Latin American author, as Kehlmann was happy to reveal at the reading. Between them are ordinary people whose lives become entangled with theirs in one way or another.

It’s not a revolutionary idea. Ali Smith’s Hotel World, for example, does a similar thing – as does the film The Edge of Heaven, to give a German example. And I’m sure the better-read can list all manner of other examples. But Kehlmann has done it rather entertainingly. Some of the links are fairly tenuous – Leo Richter watches Ralf Tanner getting slapped in public on YouTube, for example – but they do always raise a smile.

The book’s strength though, as those who know Measuring the World will guess, is in its characters. All treated with a healthy lack of respect, the author seems to like some of them more than others. There’s the calmly eloquent retired teacher who turns out to be a character in a Leo Richter story and tries to persuade the writer not to make her die in a Swiss euthanasia clinic. There’s the despairing doctor who goes on a tour of Latin America as Richter’s lover, forever fearful that he’ll steal the details of her life for his writing. Or Ralf Tanner, who ends up opting out of his life of luxury in favour of a job as his own lookalike – only he’s not very good at it.

And then there’s Leo Richter. Is he? Isn’t he? He’s certainly a very famous writer who gets invited to all sorts of dull readings and events. He is asked the same questions with alarming regularity:

“Why do they always ask that?” Leo whispered in the car. “Where I get my ideas? What kind of question is that, what am I supposed to say?”
“What do you answer?”
“I say I get all my ideas in the bathtub. They like that.”

He’s a fussy eater, a nervous flyer, a spoilt brat looking for material in everything he does. And then he takes it and manipulates his characters’ lives against their will. Not a very flattering self-portrait, to whatever extent it is one.

One theme running through the book other than fame is modern communications technology. Internet forums, mobile phones, YouTube, emails, HSDPA cards – this all appears self-consciously far removed from the nineteenth-century setting of Kehlmann’s last novel. Ultimately, though, all the trappings of modern life let down the characters, getting them stranded in the wrong places and the wrong lives. For one unfortunate soul (wrongly described in many reviews and on the book jacket as a blogger), posting insulting comments on web forums becomes an obsession and he is unable to cope with real life.

This story, incidentally, is the only one of any great stylistic interest, with the first-person narrator addressing his audience in his very own parlance culled from the net – a great challenge for a translator, as his language is dripping with embarrassing Anglicisms. Otherwise though, Kehlmann’s linguistic style, although varying slightly with each story, is fairly standard stuff. In fact it reminded me ever so slightly of Ingo Schulze’s Handy (Cell Phone), another collection of often interwoven short stories looking at the influence of mobile communication on our lives.

Ruhm is an entertaining read, and its attraction does indeed lie in its structure. It’s the kind of book one ought to read twice. But there was one thing that put me off reading it that second time. Kehlmann deliberately juxtaposes his famous, creative characters with good old salt-of-the-earth ordinary folk. Mountain guides in the Andes, market traders in Turkmenistan and a surprising number of men in technical jobs. It’s these technicians who disturbed me the most. The author sets them up as a kind of anti-artists, the opposite to writers, actors and painters. It's them of course behind all this awful technology in our lives, and it's their fault that it goes wrong. They lead dull, frustrating lives in loveless marriages or living with mum. They read Auristos Blancos’ claptrap, longing for a bit of excitement through an affair or an assumed identity. And they ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”

And although the writers, above all Leo Richter, don’t come off particularly well either, they are still portrayed as a class apart from – above – the rest of us mere mortals. Fame, Kehlmann seems to be telling us, may be less attractive than it appears, but those who have it deserve it.

Wednesday 28 January 2009

On Translating Zaimoglu

Kristin Dickinson, Robin Ellis and Priscilla D. Layne have a fascinating long article in Transit, the UC Berkeley journal of travel, migration and multiculturalism in the German-speaking world. The three authors were the winners of last year's Susan Sontag Translation Prize for their rendering of Feridun Zaimoglu's Koppstoff (I wrote about it here). Their article talks about the process and problems of translating it, with two sample sections also available online.

They take a very academic approach to the subject and to the translation itself - not surprising given the context of the article. And while I do have certain issues with translation studies as an academic discipline - particularly that it doesn't take the material conditions of working translators into sufficient account - I do appreciate the fact that it exists, and that people like Dickinson, Ellis and Layne are putting the theories to the test in practical translation projects.

They look at things like the different readerships for the two versions and the authenticity of the text itself. Interestingly, they talk about the idea of substituting Ebonics for Zaimoglu's artificial Turkish-inflected German - very sensibly rejecting it out of hand, something any working translator would give them a hearty pat on the back for. The notion of uprooting the original sociolect, dialect, ideolect or whatever it may be and replanting it in, say, Bradford just because there is a substantial migrant population there too, is rather on the ridiculous side. Strangely, though, it has worked in the past for theatrical translations, where a translator can re-locate the entire plot of Kleist's Cracked Pot to Skipton in 1810. And my favourite exception to this otherwise hard and fast rule is the German version of My Fair Lady, in which Eliza drawls her way through the action in finest Berlinerisch.

I think the authors have done a good job of their translation, by the way, and tackled a lot of challenges along the way. One thing I find very interesting is that they seem to have had no contact with the author himself. Perhaps that's part of the approach they've taken, just working everything out their own way for their own very different audience. But I personally find a basic minimum of discussion with the author very productive for my translations, and a great source of feedback from someone intimately familiar with the original.

I wonder when we'll be able to read the entire book of "interviews" with Turkish-German women in English - and how it will go down?

Friday 23 January 2009

Clemens Meyer's Online Fight Club

The FAZ blogs, otherwise a bit on the dull side, have livened up a bit since Clemens Meyer started contributing. He certainly seems to be as preoccupied with boozing and fighting - and writing and art - as his books would suggest. So we get a little summary of all the other writers he wanted to punch when drunk as a student, a near punch-up at the Christmas funfair, a spot of rioting on New Year's Eve - and at least the promise of a series of literary boxing matches, starting with Daniel Kehlmann vs. Jörg Fauser.

All garnished with opinionated book tips, references to his difficult film script, and asides slagging off writers and critics. More fun than Rainald Goetz, guaranteed.

Berlin Stories

That NPR thing I was looking forward to has launched, unbeknownst to me. That'll teach me not to listen to the radio...

But you can listen to various Berlin Stories on the nice website, with a couple of extra features. Lots of Americans talking about what they like or don't like or find just plain bizarre about Berlin. And they promise a few Germans talking about the states in the future too... Plus you can send them your own Berlin Story if you're that way inclined.

Berlin Publishing: Arrivals and Departures

Speculation is rife over the future location of the Suhrkamp publishing house. Now one German paper has claimed negotiations are underway for a move from Frankfurt to Berlin, while the managing director is keeping pretty schtumm, neither confirming nor denying anything.

They already have a terribly tasteful "representation" in Berlin's Fasanenstraße, which I visited last year. And as the Süddeutsche Zeitung suggests, relocation against the wishes of 80% of the staff would be a great way to cut human resources costs. Plus Berlin, only rescued by the scruff of its neck from the mires of post-industrialisation by the government's relocation a few years ago, would have a bit of high culture to show for itself.

But the real news for me is that Galiani Berlin now has an office - although apparently not a website. A new imprint under the aegis of Kiepenheuer & Witsch and run by the inimitable Wolfgang Hörner, its motto is "Interested in everything and never boring". Sounds good, eh? I stumbled across the new premises at the very top of Friedrichstraße on my way to the baker's one morning. Not that I usually scrutinise doorbell panels at 8 am you understand, but there was a large yellow sign on the door instructing the man from Deutsche Telekom where to ring. The first actual books will be published this coming autumn.

Hörner left Eichborn Berlin with its excellent contemporary German authors along with Esther Kormann to set up the new house, and has been replaced by Laurenz Bollinger. Sadly, Bollinger will be based in - you guessed it - Frankfurt.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

German Crime Writing Prize

They announced the winners of the German Crime Writing Prize the other day. In the German category, the winners are:

1. Linus Reichlin, Die Sehnsucht der Atome (allegedly the spring's most original crime novel in German)
2. Bernhard Jaumann, Die Augen der Medusa (the third in a series)
3. Heinrich Steinfest, Mariaschwarz (which Denis Scheck also recommended at the Helen & Kurt Wolff Symposium in the USA)

And the international winners are:

1. Richard Stark, Ask the Parrot
2. Jerome Charyn, Citizen Sidel
3. Deon Meyer, Onsigbaar/Blood Safari.

The winners don't get anything at all and there is no awards ceremony. But the people who choose the top crime novels are a very impressive collection of critics and booksellers, so I assume one can trust their judgement to some extent.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Hype, Hubris? Fame

Speaking of hype, last night saw the "premiere" of Daniel Kehlmann's new book, Ruhm (Fame). And your roving reporter teetered down the road to the Berliner Ensemble theatre to enjoy the spectacle.

And she wasn't the only one - the place was packed to the gills, with yours truly eye to eye with the putti and chandeliers up in the gods. Every single one of the 738 seats was occupied, and the audience was very mixed - fur coats rubbing shoulders with practical rain jackets in the cloakrooms. For some reason, people seemed rather aggressive. I was twice accused of being in the wrong seat, although I was perfectly entitled to be sitting in row 6, seat 6 of the upper circle (left).

Perhaps it was the flush of anticipation getting them all het up. Cameras were flashing, TV crews got under people's feet, the bar was jammed up with liggers, the mirrors in the ladies were crowded with lipsticking lovelies - in short, the atmosphere was tense. This was an Event with a capital E, people were there to see and be seen.

The show itself was almost subdued in comparison. No special effects, no music, no smoke and mirrors. The stage was set with three chairs and three tables, and Kehlmann was introduced by literary editor Sebastian Kleinschmidt – whose wife shares a passion for parrots with young Daniel, we learned. The man himself walked on to frenzied applause in a very nice suit (as far as I could make out), accompanied by the actor Ulrich Matthes, the narrator of the German Measuring the World audiobook. Matthes launched straight into the first story of the evening, which Kehlmann has referred to as his favourite of the nine making up the novel. Kehlmann himself read the second story, switching back to Matthes for a short portion of a third piece. There followed a fairly brief and painless interview with the gushing Kleinschmidt. Exeunt omnes.

My impression: it's good. It's clever, it's entertaining, it's humorous but not light-hearted. It seems to display the same healthy lack of respect for his characters as his other books - but at the same time a great deal of affection. And above all it has little in common with Measuring the World, being very much of today. Perhaps not world-moving stuff, but perhaps the genius, as Kleinschmidt fawned, lies in the book's structure - which we didn't find out much about, by the very nature of the event. The stories are interlinked in some way, dealing with writing, with fame and with death. The evening certainly whet my appetite for the book, and I will review it in the near future. Translation rights seem to have been sold for nine languages so far, but I expect that number will go up, considering Measuring the World made it into forty. And I have no doubt that we'll see an English translation at some point.

What I find most interesting is the huge publicity machinery behind the book. OK, it's cute to hold a huge flashy premiere for a book called Fame, in Berlin of all places. But it's not just that. Kehlmann is such a star, apparently, that the book's release merited an item on the evening news. And Spiegel magazine "leaked" a very positive review before the jealously guarded deadline - now that's a coincidence. Other reviews have been up and down, but I'm not sure whether that might be a gut reaction to all the hoo-ha. Let's hope pride doesn't come before a fall, as Kehlmann does come across as a genuinely likable normal guy, a writer's writer and a reader's writer.

Sunday 18 January 2009

Schmitz = Koch?

The buzz about the film of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader is fascinating - it's not been released in Germany yet, but my mum informs me the translator's name (Carol Brown Janeway) is bigger in the titles than the author's.

And now the Germanists are getting a bit of limelight too. Or one, at least. As most of the British press announced today with a flourish, Bill Niven, professor of contemporary German history at Nottingham Trent University, has revealed his suspicions about the model for Winslet's character Hanna Schmitz. His theory is that Schlink modelled his former concentration camp guard on Ilse Koch, the "bitch of Buchenwald".

The links are fairly tenuous, and I doubt the author will react. Ruth Klüger writes in her autobiography Still Alive - a Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, reflecting on how we look at the Holocaust now and the role of women under Hitler, specifically as concentration camp staff:

And what about Ilse Koch, the wife of a Buchenwald thug, and her famous lamp shades of human skin? It seems that we always pull the same names out of the hat when it comes to women, while the names of the men who committed atrocities are legion. (...) this is no attempt to exonerate the women who committed crimes, but how are we ever going to understand what happens when a civilization comes apart at its seams, as it did in Germany, if we fail to see the most glaring distinctions, such as the gender gap?

The area of female concentration camp guards is rather under-researched, it would seem, so it's not as if there was a great deal of choice when it comes to possible high-profile models. It's interesting, though, that this story broke in Britain rather than Germany. Perhaps it reflects the British obsession with celebrity - the idea that there must be a real person behind every piece of literature is even more headline-grabbing if that person is someone we've heard of. And imagine if that person was a famous Nazi sadist with her own snazzy alliterative nickname? Oh, the ecstasy.

Saturday 17 January 2009

Charlotte Roche in the Guardian

Decca Aitkenhead interviews La Roche in today's Guardian. In case you'd forgotten, Charlotte Roche is the British-German TV presenter who wrote last year's runaway bestseller Wetlands, a cross between pornography, proctology and preaching. The piece is well worth reading, and Aitkenhead seems very taken by the book as well as her interview partner. She writes:

Wetlands publishes in the UK next month, and Roche looks forward to seeing how it will be received by a public who have not heard of her. "In Germany the critics can say, 'It's a famous woman talking about vaginas - of course it's going to sell.'"

We shall see.

Thursday 15 January 2009

Text and the City

London's Goethe Institut has uploaded a magnificent and truly wonderful project: Text and the City. It is a collection of English translations that present German cities - from old favourites such as Thomas Mann, Alfred Döblin and Heinrich Böll, but also a good few contemporary writers like Sibylle Berg, Sarah Khan and - I have to point out - Clemens Meyer on Leipzig.

Take a good hour or two to scout around for a whistle-stop literary tour of Germany. Just don't click on the map as it'll take you back to the German site.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

God – Not a German Book Lover?

The Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger reports that the local Generalvikar (a top church bod whose title I will not attempt to translate) has put a stop to a series of literary readings held in St. Agnes Church, Cologne, over the past seven years.

Dominik Schwaderlapp (excellent name, shame about the opinions) argued in the parish newspaper that the church is the "innermost, most intimate area of Catholic faith," not created for "discussion events, poetry readings and concerts" but for "personal prayer, church services and particularly Eucharistic mass." Although dialogue with culture is "necessary and enriching" in his opinion, he maintained that "the church is a sacred place with a special purpose", and not the right place for such a dialogue.

The readings have featured numerous high-profile authors over the years, including Navid Kermani, Ulla Hahn and Katharina Hacker.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

Durs Grünbein on the Palace of the Republic

The poet Durs Grünbein has penned his own epitaph to East Berlin's former people's palace, the Palast der Republik - the parliament building complete with bowling alley, theatre and restaurants. Published in the right-of-centre Berlin daily Die Welt, it's a (mostly) rhyming ode to the hypocrisy of the GDR's apparatchiks embodied in architecture. You can almost hear Grünbein rubbing his hands in glee that the building is no more.

No doubt it will prompt some debate. What Wikipedia refers to as "some minor resentment felt by some East Germans" over the palace's demolition is still boiling over, even though the process is all but complete (you can watch the progress here). What seems to have got many people's goats is that they're planning to replace it with a reconstruction of the former Hohenzollern palace - although the inside will be a shopping mall rather than a royal residence. The NY Times ran a rather opinionated piece on the issue recently that had Americans here in Berlin spitting bile (although mainly over the author's rejection of the closure of the inner-city airport at Tempelhof).

Die Welt, as anyone who knows the paper will imagine, is firmly on the side of the demolition men - meaning that Grünbein is making no bones about his own stance on this surprisingly controversial topic by publishing his poem right there.

Monday 12 January 2009

Zwischen zwei Träumen

Take a pinch of Clockwork Orange. Add a large portion of Carroll, Coleridge and Blake and a couple of thrillers, preferably the kind where innocent people are hounded by gangsters. Top it all off with a whiff of Life on Mars, a healthy dose of cynicism and a wooly hat full of reggae. Light the blue touch paper and stand well back!

You are now entering Selim Özdogan's new novel Zwischen zwei Träumen. And it's a very odd place. Alongside Giwi Margwelaschwili's Officer Pembry, this is probably the oddest book I've read in a long time. The plot is set in a deliberately generic dystopian world, now or the day after tomorrow, in which the latest hedonistic hobby is "dream drops" - consuming other people's dreams in the form of eye drops. No prospects? No mates? Nothing better to do? Why not try a nice flying dream, or one with a beautiful bright light at the end, or an erotic dream to get you in the mood for a meaningless shag with the supermarket cashier upstairs? And while your old friends get their lives together and make it big, you end up a sad addict, sleeping on the sofa of an acquaintance you met in a dream bar and losing even your dead-end job. You - that's Nesta, the bumbling hero of Zwischen zwei Träumen (Between Two Dreams).

Part one is fascinating, a parable perhaps for our consumer culture, in which we don't bother to experience the world at first hand, instead immersing ourselves in other people's dreams-turned-product: films, TV, computer games and, yes, books. And it's very enjoyable, very much along the lines of Özdogan's earlier writing (with the exception of Die Tochter des Schmieds) - a young man's life and loves dissected, capturing the essence – the self-doubt, the occasional hopelessness and the moments of joy and excitement, albeit drug and dream-induced. This is more than cheap fantasy literature.

In part two, though, everything shifts seriously out of joint. The door of perception in the basement laundry opens and Nesta and his amnesiac flatmate walk into a dream world, in an attempt to rescue his friend Tedeisha. It's, um, psychedelic, man, including the requisite toadstools, bong-smoking rastafarian prophet and omniscient Native American granny. But strangely, I didn't want to put it down. Because despite what you may expect, the plot is strong enough to take even the world's greatest anti-esoteric cynic coasting through the dream world and out on the other side - to part three.

Rescued from her dream-induced coma, Tedeisha finally gets it together with Nesta. The final part continues their love story but adopts the form of a thriller - just in case you were finding the book too easy to pigeonhole so far. The dream drops are banned and Tedeisha lands herself and Nesta in trouble with the police and a crazed dream baron, while we follow her attempts to rescue them by digging their hole deeper and deeper. True to form, Özdogan's characteristic melancholy knocks off the rose-tinted spectacles - no happy ending with butterflies fluttering above country meadows here.

I have to warn you though: Zwischen zwei Träumen should come with a health warning – it's addictive stuff. I spent a day and a half neglecting my offspring, trapped in my own dream world and telling myself I could stop whenever I wanted. Özdogan's dystopia is populated by bizarre characters: washed-up rock stars, blind yogis, enigmatic tattoo artists and a man who never sleeps. It comes with its own soundtrack, the sound of mint, dub and funk and ska, dropping tracks and dropping pills - but it's a world without live music, where the best tunes come out of dreams and computers. And those who know Özdogan's writing will recognise his cynical voice throughout, philosophising on the nature of love, loneliness, friendship and life itself.

Incidentally, the author answers the obvious question - what is this guy on? - in his regular Zeit column. Or as much as he's ever going to anyway.

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Quotidian Poetry

No matter how long I live here, there are still things that strike me as odd about life in Berlin. One of them is the role of poetry in everyday life.

I don't mean subsidised campaigns like Poetry on the Underground, although these do exist. What I mean is poems that crop up in everyday life. The first recent example was my daughter's school Christmas do. Instead of all that tear-jerking/vomit-inducing* nativity stuff, most of the classes recited poems. Either all together in a big shouty chant, or one line per kid. It certainly had the advantage of being mercifully short. Traditionally, in fact, children are encouraged to recite poems here in exchange for presents. For several years, a friend had a job as Santa, biking round to people's houses on Christmas Eve in a red suit and listening to breathless poetry recitals from terrified minors.

Not much after the Christmas concert, a sign was hung up in our corridor. The company that cleans the stairs once a week cordially wished all us residents a peaceful Christmas, accompanied by a poem. I forget what it was now. And that called to mind the little ceremony, which I sadly missed, when a new roof was put on our building. The boss of the roofers apparently hoisted a heathen-like garland onto the roof and recited a poem, which tradition demanded he wrote himself especially for the occasion. I don't know whether he actually did, or just dipped into a handy compendium of Poetry for Roofers. The poem itself has been lost.

*Delete as appropriate.

Monday 5 January 2009

Biller Bitches on Bernhard

The FAZ features a great vitriolic piece by Maxim Biller on Thomas Bernhard, and why Biller thinks he was a bigoted, Catholic, maudlin, cowardly arsehole. The proof, Biller says, is in his posthumous book Meine Preise, in which he catalogues all the literary awards he won and explains what was shite about them all. But he accepted them anyway, for various reasons which Biller finds hypocritical and arbitrary. Bizarrely enough, Biller loves the book; maybe because it confirms all his dislikes.

Biller writes:

I think the mendacious hero of our mendacious chattering classes was never as honest in any of his books as in Meine Preise. But that's always part and parcel if you want to be a great writer. At last, he stopped hiding behind his almost columnist-like, unliterary, unjustifiable hate for others and behind his all-darkening, redundant abrading style that hypnotises and lulls the readers to sleep until they don't even know what they're reading, apart from that they're reading, and that's something German speaking and german not-thinking semi-thinkers always love doing: pretending – pretending to love literature, pretending to want to understand what they read, pretending they want to make the world more beautiful, truer, better. This lie has always been the basis of the whole anti-enlightenment Hölderlin, Thomas Mann and Rainald Goetz conspiracy, and I'll give anyone who can prove the opposite the Ilf and Petrov Prize and ten rubles.

You can get Biller's short stories, Love Today, in English translation by Anthea Bell. The reception has been, well, mixed.

Sunday 4 January 2009

Die Tochter des Schmieds

It’s a tough task to write up a favourite book. There are so many reasons to love it, and they’re so hard to put into words. With Selim Özdogan’s Die Tochter des Schmieds, it’s partly just the fact that reading the novel simply makes me feel warm inside, despite the sometimes less than cosy subject matter. Which sounds a bit lame, doesn’t it?

The storyline itself is not the book’s dynamo. It’s a growing-up tale of Timur the blacksmith and his daughter Gül, who is later to leave Anatolia for Germany. But what we read about is her childhood in the 1940s and 50s, playing with her sisters and helping around the house, almost a Turkish equivalent to Laura Ingalls Wilder – with a pinch of Cinderella thrown in. Because Gül’s adoring and adored mother Fatma dies, and Timur takes a new wife. The family’s fortunes take a turn for the worse, and Gül decides to leave school fairly young so that her younger sisters can go on with their education. She shoulders a good part of the housework, is apprenticed to a dressmaker and then agrees to an arranged marriage with Fuat, her stepmother’s brother. The couple have two daughters and get jobs as migrant workers in Germany, and the book closes as Gül boards a train for foreign lands in Istanbul.

So far, so ordinary. But it’s the telling that makes the book. A series of anecdotes is strung together in chronological order, punctuated by occasional insights into Gül’s future life in Germany. Narrated mainly in the present tense, the stories it tells seem very immediate and above all very affectionate. At times, life seems so bleak for Gül – slaving away for her stepmother or settling into dull married life disrupted only by Fuat’s national service – yet there are always small moments of happiness, as if remembered from that future in Germany that is our present. Reading scraps of newspaper lining in a cupboard, skipping on the street, playing a trick on her grandmother, meeting old friends.

Probably the most heartening thing about the book is the relationship between Gül and her father. Timur is a very affectionate man, who loves his first wife and his daughters, especially Gül. Although his second wife Arzu gives him the son he wished for, Gül has a special place in his heart. She visits him at work every lunchtime, scratching his calves and running little errands for him. And when she gets married, he visits her at her in-laws’ home every morning, talking about their everyday lives, the weather, their family. Although the book is not a tearjerker, the moment Gül says goodbye to Timur before leaving for Germany is truly moving.

What seems effortless narration is, I suspect, an illusion. The novel follows a conscious agenda, one that the author Selim Özdogan has proclaimed in the past – although never drawing up an exhaustive manifesto of his standpoint, so much of what follows is conjecture.

Looking more closely at Die Tochter des Schmieds, it turns out to be the backstory of an under-represented section of German society – the young women who came here in the 1960s and 70s as migrant workers. While a number of male authors were involved in the “Gastarbeiterliteratur” movement, few of these women have told their stories. Feridun Zaimoglu champions these women as equivalents to the Trümmerfrauen who built up Germany brick by brick after World War II – while in Leyla (published after Die Tochter des Schmieds) painting a more sensationalist picture of a young Turkish woman’s life – marred by a violent father and emphasising certain aspects such as religion.

Özdogan, on the other hand, opts for a less dramatic course of events. Gül is almost a prototype of a modest, self-sacrificing young woman. She is obedient and unassuming, never asking for anything outright and forgoing a teenage romance because it would not be acceptable. Yet her sisters break with traditional gender expectations to some extent, smoking, playing volleyball, becoming teachers and choosing their own husbands. The author, however, does not condemn the old institution of arranged marriages – he is interested in telling a story, not judging it. Similarly, although religion is very present in the characters’ language, there are few scenes in which they actually pray, and not a single one ever attends a mosque. Arguably, Turkey may have been a less religious place fifty years ago, but I think this omission is probably deliberate – Islam is a factor but not the dominant one, in contrast to many modern interpretations of the country. Özdogan is at great pains to avoid clichéd orientalism throughout, even in his language.

And to my mind it is Özdogan who has created the seminal narration of the pre-migration experience for the younger generations of Germany’s Turkish community. The fact that he tells such an ordinary tale in such loving colours makes it something very special – and I know that many Turkish-Germans have read it as their own mothers’, aunts’ and grandmothers’ story.

All this may sound very much like niche literature – great for people whose parents or grandparents went through the same thing, but not terribly interesting for anyone else. But that’s not what Die Tochter des Schmieds is – far from it. Much of the story could take place anywhere, from Yorkshire to Bergisch Gladbach. The characters fall in love with the cinema, lust after Cadillacs, win victories over dominant mother-in-laws, get caught up in fights, win the lottery but can’t claim the prize, discover reading as a wonderful escape from real life, and generally live life. What Selim Özdogan does is treat every character as an individual, just as we would like to be treated ourselves – not as representatives of any particular culture or tradition or nationality, not looking for pity or acceptance, perhaps only understanding. And perhaps it’s that which makes reading the book such a joy.

You can read a sample in English here. I hope you like it as much as I do. German film buffs may be familiar with the title already, as the director Fatih Akin is as big a fan as I am and gave the book a cameo role in The Edge of Heaven – in a mock-up of a Turkish translation, even having a couple of pages translated in case the camera picked them up. The whole novel was later translated into Turkish and published in Turkey, and the German paperback looks suspiciously similar to the film version’s imagined Turkish cover.

Saturday 3 January 2009

Those Sub-Editors Again

As a reader kindly pointed out, I was getting a bee in my bonnet over Ingo Schulze's tortoise for no good reason - the word turtle used in the TLS article linked below is merely an Americanism, not a genuine mistake. The Germans have one generic term for all chelonians - Schildkröte - whereas usage of turtle and tortoise varies between English-speaking countries, as this handy Wikipedia table illustrates.

So it was the Times sub-editors who slipped up again, as it would have been their job to notice that it's almost impossible to transport a water turtle in a Wartburg - although it's rather fun to imagine someone trying. Tom of the Common Reader blog has a great video up on his site, envisaging the meeting after Giles Coren's now notorious letter in response to the Times removing an indefinite article from one of his restaurant reviews. And it ties in with my piece on subtitles... Try not to listen to the German if you do speak the language though, as it distracts from the matter at hand.

Friday 2 January 2009

2009 Kicks Off in 2008

Just in the nick of time, the TLS pipped the post and got in a pre-anniversary-of-the-fall-of-the-wall piece by Jane Yager asking What was the GDR? - with brief reviews of Tellkamp's long Der Turm, Marcel Beyer's dull as dishwater Kaltenburg, Ingo Schulze's charming Adam und Eva - and, er, Lukas Bärfuss' Hundert Tage (my review is here), which isn't about the former East Germany in any way whatsoever, but is well worth reading.

An interesting article, quirkily written if low on insights for anyone who follows German literature in general, but I presume that doesn't apply to all that many Times readers. The turtle Yager refers to in Adam und Eva, by the way, is a tortoise. Just so you don't imagine Adam sitting next to a sloshing aquarium on the passenger seat of his Wartburg all the way to Hungary and back.