Saturday 28 February 2009


New Yorker! Get thee to the Krautgarden loft (and the Austrian Cultural Forum)! For literary delights await you.

For the fourth consecutive year, the good people of New York and Leipzig can indulge their reading palates with a selection of the finest young writers from Germany, Austria and the USA, courtesy of the very busy and hard-working Krautgardeners. The fun starts in NY on 4 March, followed by Leipzig on the 13th and 14th. I'll report back on that part at least, although a quick trip to Lower East Side is beyond my means.

Names on the programme include - take a deep breath -
Steven Bloom, T. C. Boyle, Michael Connelly, Adam Davies, Junot Diaz, John Griesemer, Christian Hawkey, Aleksandar Hemon, Christopher Kloeble, Thomas Klupp, Benjamin Lebert, Tao Lin, A. Wallis Lloyd, Ralph Martin, Robert Meeropol, Ruth Nestvold, Thomas Pletzinger, Steffen Popp, Verena Roßbacher, Daniela Seel, Clemens Setz, Anya Ulinich, Willy Vlautin, Tod Wodicka, Uljana Wolf, Anna Winger and Ron Winkler.

Incidentally, the ACF's magazine Transforum (great name, huh?) includes wee features on Verena Rossbacher and Clemens Setz. And you can find pieces in English by Thomas Pletzinger and Anna Winger if you scout about a bit on the Berlin Stories website. Winger, Wodicka and Hawkey, by the way, are all at least part-time Berliners, part of the city's burgeoning English-language writing community.

Friday 27 February 2009

The Power of German Crime Fiction

The German and Italian papers have seized on a fascinating story. The German crime writer Veit Heinichen lives in Triest, Italy, where he also sets his Commisssario Laurenti detective novels. These are hugely popular in Germany, even being televised, and are also translated into Italian. His latest is just out, entitled Die Ruhe des Stärkeren. I only know this one (as I've seen it on TV), but they seem to be all about murder and corruption and involvement with eastern European gangsters. And they're generally very well received, with Heinichen considered a great intellectual and clever writer.

But that's not what the press is excited about. At some point last week, Heinichen published an open letter in his local left-leaning paper, Il Piccolo. My Italian isn't good enough to find said letter online, but apparently it exposes an unknown serial letter-writer who is attempting to ruin the author's reputation. Over 100 anonymous letters to various people in Triest and elsewhere accuse Heinichen of child abuse, and of political corruption back in Germany. The police have cleared him of all suspicion but have not been able to find the letter-writer over the past year.

Heinichen himself suspects he has angered the nationalist right-wing in Triest, as some of his books explore actual unsolved cases and he has openly supported the city's former liberal government. He is also a vocal contributor to local debates, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Must be a rather strange feeling - a threat but at the same time confirmation that you're at least doing something right. And what a coincidence that the author revealed the case just days after his book came out.

Thursday 26 February 2009

Night Work and Gramophone Vie for Prize

The 16-strong longlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize includes two German titles:

Thomas Glavinic's Night Work and Sasa Stanisic's How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. You can read my review of the latter here, and I'll be reading Night Work very soon, as it's been recommended to me a number of times.

My fingers are crossed, as the prize seems to offer a big sales boost in the UK. The shortlist is announced on 1 April, and the winning writer and translator share 1o,ooo pounds (for what that's worth nowadays) plus a big bottle of bubbly.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Schlink Interview

Bernhard The Reader Schlink gave a fairly interesting interview to the FAZ the other day. No mention of that whole Ilse Koch kerfuffle, by the way. One of the points he does address is misinterpretations of the novel. Schlink comments:

There have been a whole list of crass misinterpretations. As if I thought because Hanna Schmitz is illiterate she isn't guilty. As if I thought you are a moral person as long as you're educated. As if I thought that by learning to read, Hanna Schmitz had understood her guilt and cleared her character. The interesting thing is, these aren't readers' but critics' misinterpretations.

Which I find a little facile - because how on earth does the man know how all his millions of readers understood the book? Not to forget that the author wrote the damn thing and might perhaps have left scope for these interpretations. The interviewer, Andreas Kilb, points out that many of these criticisms came from the USA:

Cynthia Ozick argued that every book about the Holocaust was inescapably a kind of symbolic discourse and every person in it a representative of their nation. Thus Hanna Schmitz can't help standing for all Germans.

Presumably Cynthia Ozick didn't know that part of general knowledge about the Third Reich here is that academics were over-proportionately represented in the mobile killing squads and that Hanna therefore can't be a typical perpetrator. Perhaps she would judge differently now than twelve years ago, when we had far less literature, far fewer films about the Third Reich. In the meantime it goes without saying that the image of the Third Reich is made up of many mosaic pieces. Not every piece has to offer the whole picture.

Well, he's right about the literature on the Third Reich. A colleague commented to me that Schlink's book acted as a kind of watershed, introducing a new approach towards writing about the Holocaust that Böll and Grass would never have taken. And in fact, German-language literature is richer for that. The example that immediately springs to mind is Kevin Vennemann's dense and complex Close to Jedenew, in which a German author reckons with Polish complicity with the Nazis, surely inconceivable twenty years ago. Or to name a title to be published in English in June, Julia Franck's Mittagsfrau (The Blind Side of the Heart), which looks at the devastating decision taken by a Jewish woman living under a false identity to abandon her child at the end of the war, a rather complex moral issue. And for that at least I am grateful to Schlink.

At least now Kate Winslet has her Oscar we may have a little peace on the whole Reader front though.

Friday 20 February 2009

A Suitcase Full of Mann

Berlin's Akademie der Künste is currently exhibiting facsimiles of Heinrich Mann's correspondence. Nut just any old correspondence, mind, but letters found in a suitcase in Prague. Mann's daughter Leonie had left it with friends when she fled the city in 1968 - and then seems to have forgotten about it. The case contained 16 letters from Heinrich Mann, 91 letters to him and various other personal documents. 48 of the letters were written by the French Germanist Félix Bertaux from 1922 to 1928.

The case was found and handed over nearly five years ago, but the Czech government considered it had a claim to the documents and has only now released them for use. Now researchers are hoping to find forgotten suitcases from Heinrich Mann's hurried escape from Berlin in 1933 - so if you live in Uhlandstraße you might want to check in the cellar. Michael Lentz' novel Pazifik Exil, incidentally, describes a later stage of Mann's journey from France to the USA - most amusingly - as well as the lives of Franz Werfel, Thomas Mann, Arnold Schönberg and Leon Feuchtwanger in their, um, Pacific exile. But Lentz doesn't seem to know where that other elusive suitcase went either.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Digital Bohemia Goes China

An informer sent me a book. He said he thought I’d like it - it’s travel writing by a guy who makes his way across China on his own. Which rather confused me. Why on earth would I enjoy reading travel writing by a guy making his way across China on his own? This is not a genre with which I’m familiar, I have to admit.

The book, Allein unter 1,3 Milliarden, is by Christian Y. Schmidt – now there’s a man who’s changed his name since the advent of the search engine. That raised my hackles slightly more, as the author is described as Senior Consultant for the Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur (“Operation Enduring Freelance”). This is, I gather, a loose affiliation of creative types for whom the term “digital bohemia” seems to have been invented. They write, they edit, they blog, they organise parties and events, they market things, they produce things, they think deep thoughts about the most humane way for us to work, they feature in Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Diesseits des Van Allen Gürtels, they know all the right hands to shake and are generally hip and groovy people. In short, I’m deeply envious. Another key player, Kathrin Passig, took the Klagenfurt literary competition by storm in 2006 with a short story precisely tailored to the event, Sie befinden sich hier (You Are Here, trans. Lucy Powell). It was her first piece of fiction – and her last, as far as I’m aware. You can read an extract from a non-fiction book by Passig and Sascha Lobo, How to Get Things Done without a Spark of Self-Discipline – a translation that actually demanded a fair amount of self-discipline, to be brutally honest.

So there were a number of hurdles for the book to overcome. But the informer in question is usually pretty reliable, so I gave it a reluctant try.

You know what comes next, right? Yeah yeah, I genuinely enjoyed the damn thing, no matter how much I wanted to hate it. Schmidt starts out as an ex-pat in Peking, married to a Chinese woman and speaking very little Chinese. Plagued by self-loathing and boredom, he decides to set out on his own along the country’s longest road from Shanghai to Kathmandu. By bus. Part of the plan is for Schmidt, a former Maoist from Bielefeld (Germany’s second most boring placeTM), to assimilate along the way, learning the language and actually becoming Chinese. On the road he battles with torrential rain, explores and rejects Buddhism in a single day, hears a million hellos, meets polite punks and bare-chested “Xitele” fans and faces hallucinations and near death by yak.

The author hits just the right note between banal blogger-style commentary and traditional travel writing. He frequently refers back to previous European travellers in China, from Marco Polo to Edmund Hillary. OK, the descriptive passages of landscapes viewed out of bus windows are nothing to write home about. But the character sketches are worth their weight in gold. And maybe it’s just me, but his self-deprecating humour really makes the book. Like when he is appalled to run into a group of German pensioners in the wilds of Tibet, as they spoil the exclusivity of his adventure. Or when he chuckles over the fake US press reviews on a condom packet, explaining: “as semi-barbarians, we (Caucasians) enjoy an excellent reputation in the sexual sector.”

Part of the appeal is the sheer bizarre nature of the author’s quest and the oddities he comes across. But there is more to the book than funny re-hashes of Engrish signs and tales of curious characters (although they’re in there too). Schmidt may be a traveller who doesn’t really speak Chinese but he’s spent some time living in China and Singapore, he’s done his research and he knows his stuff – better in fact than his guide in Tibet. With a certain ironic distance to his former political allegiances, he frequently seeks out traces of the Long March, Chairman Mao and sites of historical events and achievements. And often enough they’re impossible to find between tower blocks and shopping malls, especially if you don’t speak the language. What I found absolutely delightful was the irreverence with which he treats the Dalai Lama, otherwise so unquestioningly idolised by aging pop stars and politicians alike. Daoism is much more his cup of lapsang souchong, with handy hints picked at random from the Dao De Jing guiding his path in indecisive moments.

All this with a reflected, thoughtful and undeniably witty modus operandum:

Through the haze, a shrivelled skeleton staggers towards me. It must be the mummy. In fact, it’s only an incredibly skinny old beggar… So I give him something, partly because I’m already ashamed that I will later use the poor guy in this book for a cheap effect.

My informer was troubled by Schmidt’s uncritical attitude to the ruling party in China. And in fact, the author does seem to have become over-assimilated by the end of the book. Like many an enthusiastic settler, he whitewashes negative aspects of the country’s politics. The trip took place in 2007 during the run-up to the Olympics, and Schmidt faced numerous bureaucratic hurdles while travelling through Tibet. Foreigners need permits to enter Tibet and to leave Lhasa, access to Mount Everest is blocked off for several days – and why? According to the author, because a group of US students unfurled a “Free Tibet” banner at the foot of the mountain. Admittedly perhaps not the most effective form of protest, but Schmidt blames the students for stirring up trouble rather than the Chinese government for overreacting. Alright, the guy wants to carry on living with his wife in Peking, but there are ways and means of expressing criticism that might not get you expelled.

At the end of the day, though, Alone Among 1.3 Billion is about the people rather than the country – the Chinese and Christian Y. Schmidt. And as such, it's well worth reading.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Berlin Publishing: habemus accessūs electronicos

I am informed by email - where on earth did they get my address? - that Galiani Berlin now has its own website. Don't they look nice? I'm looking forward to great things from these professional publishing people with a real instinct for great fiction - and will check them out at the Leipzig Book Fair.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Bye Bye Burkhart Kroeber - Hello Stefan Weidner

For the past two years, the August Wilhelm von Schlegel Guest Chair of the Poetics of Translation has been a fixture at the Freie Universität Berlin. Right, I hear you say, how terribly fascinating. No, wait, this is a great thing. Every year, a highly experienced literary translator spends the winter semester at the university, studying and teaching translation as a literary genre. That means they have time to take a break from the daily grind and reflect on their own work and that of others before them. The first man to fill the chair was the Shakespeare translator Frank Günther, who gave a hugely entertaining inaugural lecture in which he held an imaginary dialogue with the patron of the professorship, Schlegel himself.

This year's chair was Burkhart Kroeber, the German voice of Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino and many others. His closing lecture last night showed how very differently he approached the task to his predecessor. In effect, the event was an open workshop, with the faux-modest title "What is really difficult about translating?". Kroeber provided handouts with samples of tricky bits in his publications and took us through them with literal translations as an aid, followed by questions and comments from the floor.

The framework of the event was the issue of foreignising and domesticating, as kindly introduced to the world by Schleiermacher. You guessed it, it was very much a translators' event - and there was a full show of Berlin's finest in the audience, who provided plenty of feedback. Kroeber himself was very impressive. Although the nature of the post rather encourages the holder to feel he has arrived at the pinnacle of his career with only a medal to top it, Kroeber was actually quite willing to admit in several cases that, yes, one could have solved that one better, but never mind.

What makes me so enthusiastic about this new institution is the fact that it brings practitioners and theory together. While working literary translators are quick to complain that translation theory ignores our working conditions - myself included - we're often rather less keen to make a move towards the theorists ourselves. There seems to be a heartfelt distrust towards theory - you wouldn't have a professor of cycling, so why translation theory? is the rather self-effacing question. But this chair frees a professional translator from the burden of actually making a living for a few months and tasks them with sitting down and thinking about what they do and how they do it - and then imparting their knowledge to students.

Kroeber's main theory-related point last night was that every translation contains foreignising and domesticating elements. Every translator makes thousands of individual choices during any piece of work, and these can turn out either way. So while he chose to maintain a particular rhythm at one point in Der Name der Rose at the cost of "natural-sounding German", at another point in Das Foucaultsche Pendel he domesticated a description of a Bavarian beer cellar, adding rather more detail than Eco had provided. He found a rather delightful metaphor for the whole phenomenon in fact, comparing foreignising and domesticating to major and minor in music. A good composition, he maintained, combines them both.

And now to today's exclusive scoop: the next Guest Chair for the Poetics of Translation will be the really rather good Arabic translator and writer Stefan Weidner. Long may he reign.

Austro-Hungarian Reading List

Conversational Reading lists 38 suggestions for fin-de-siecle Austro-Hungarian reading matter - for those who like that kind of thing.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Shampoo #35

For all those German poetry lovers out there, San Francisco's Shampoo poetry mag/site is previewing a special issue, guest edited by Ron Winkler and Christian Lux. Poets include Thien Tran, Norbert Lange and Uljana Wolf.

Friday 6 February 2009

Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair - Nominations

Germany's biggest literary award of the spring season has announced its nominees for fiction, non-fiction and translation.

The fiction nominations are:

Wilhelm Genazino: Das Glück in glücksfernen Zeiten (Carl Hanser Verlag)

Reinhard Jirgl: Die Stille (Carl Hanser Verlag)

Daniel Kehlmann: Ruhm. Ein Roman in neun Geschichten (Rowohlt Verlag)

Sibylle Lewitscharoff: Apostoloff (Suhrkamp Verlag)

Andreas Maier: Sanssouci (Suhrkamp Verlag)

Julia Schoch: Mit der Geschwindigkeit des Sommers (Piper Verlag)

You can read extracts from the novels on the website of the award, and there are some rather nice audiofiles at Literaturport.

Three of the titles (Jirgl, Schoch, Lewitscharoff) aren't available in bookshops yet, but will be when they announce the winners on 12 March. Which makes the voting at Zeit Online a little unfair.

I'll do my best to report on the ceremony. And the programme for my favourite book fair will be announced in six days' time. I'm counting down the hours.

That Kehlmann Again

The Literary Saloon provides a handy English summary of a legal dispute over Spiegel magazine's pre-embargo review of Kehlmann's Ruhm. It seems nobody is willing to say how the publishers worded it, but they tried to threaten reviewers with a huge fine if they brought out reviews of the book before the date they set. And now Rowohlt have decided they have to save face by taking legal action.

As if that weren't enough, plans have been announced to make a film adaptation of Kehlmann's novel Me and Kaminski. The Observer review behind this link is titled "Funny prose, in German. Yes, really!" Yes, really. Shooting will start in autumn, with that cute little Daniel Brühl playing the lead. The director will be Wolfgang Becker, who made Goodbye Lenin and the even lovelier Das Leben ist eine Baustelle, a classic Berlin film if ever there was one.

Thursday 5 February 2009

Träumer des Absoluten

English-speaking readers may well be aware of Germany’s history of home-grown terrorism in the form of the Baader-Meinhof Group (RAF), especially with the Oscar nomination for Uli Edel’s film on the subject. The movie is based on Stefan Aust’s 1985 book on the RAF, The Baader-Meinhof Complex, which has just been published for the first time in English (trans. Anthea Bell). Don’t worry, it’s been revised a few times since its first publication.

A phenomenon fewer people are familiar with is the political legacy of the RAF in West Germany. Michael Wildenhain’s latest novel Träumer des Absoluten looks at the generation on the radical left that came after Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin and co. – and much more besides.

The title, Dreamers of the Absolute, is taken from Enzensberger, who took it from Marx, describing anarchists in Tsarist Russia. And Wildenhain portrays his love triangle of characters as radical dreamers – until two of them perhaps wake up, and one of them takes a very different path.

The novel is set in West Berlin, where Jochen, Tariq and Judith go to primary school together. They are outsiders to a point, the only children who don’t take part in Christian Religious Education: Jochen’s parents are trade unionists, Tariq’s left-wing mother is the widow of a Lebanese man, and Judith’s mother is a Jehovah’s Witness converted from Judaism. But at the same time, Tariq is a figure of admiration, an excellent gymnast and a daring rebel – everything the narrator Jochen longs to be.

With interruptions, we follow the threesome through school, Judith developing her musical talent, Tariq being made the democratically elected German equivalent of head boy, Jochen developing a passion for mathematics, which he shares with his friend. Tariq is always the more radical, finding ways to triumph over authoritarian teachers and becoming more and more popular, while Jochen watches from the sidelines with envy. And of course, it’s Tariq who gets the girl – for the time being.

After school, things change. It’s 1981, and West Berlin is caught up in a wave of squattings. Wildenhain is often hailed as a kind of literary voice of the squatters’ generation, and this section of the novel probably works the best, clearly based on his own experiences. Opening with a magnificent three-quarter-page sentence describing the people and setting of the movement, it is a melancholy look back at a time that the narrator, and probably the author, experienced as a thrilling period, when anything was possible in a microcosm outside of society, and hopes were high. Freed for a while from Tariq’s overbearing presence, Jochen finally finds his own ideas, living in the first squats, attending meetings, shoplifting for food, fixing up basic plumbing and electricity, smashing shop windows, dealing with the eccentric and the downright disturbed and ending up in street fights. Tellingly, the section is entitled “Hope”.

But while there are people who still romanticise the squatters’ movement, Wildenhain isn’t one of them. The narrator takes a scathing and very adult look back at certain aspects – especially the fetish for violence among the activists and its consequences. And while we get the impression that Jochen isn’t afraid to hit back when necessary, Tariq and Judith go very much further along the path of militant politics. Eventually, an emotionally exhausted Jochen moves out of his squat, concentrating on his maths degree – as a former teacher reminds him, a revolution simply isn’t on the cards.

After 1989, he runs into Tariq and Judith again – and Judith eventually moves in with him, obviously scarred by something she can’t talk about. They have two children, get married, lead a bourgeois life – still in loose contact with Tariq, who sets up his own karate schools, ever a success at whatever he does. Until Jochen finds out by chance that Tariq and Judith are still sleeping together. This section is about a two-fold betrayal though – because the police arrest Tariq for involvement in a terrorist organisation. And Tariq turns supergrass.

In the preface and the final section, we find out that Tariq has converted to Islam, and is at least linked to jihadist attacks in Europe. Wildenhain describes this as the novel’s “vanishing point”. And in fact he makes no more than a cursory attempt to explain the character’s motivations. Scattered at odd, rather disturbing points in the novel are three key scenes, jolting us out of the past into the present day. The narrator describes experiences in cities with a significant Islamic population – London and Istanbul – in which he feels threatened by young, presumably Muslim men. And while he is ashamed of his feelings – and the perceived threat is relativised – that fear is very real.

The novel is inspired by two genuine cases. In 1997, a two-man organisation of “weekend terrorists” by the name of AIZ (anti-imperialist cell) was arrested. Both defendants, ethnic Germans, converted to Islam while under trial, with the explanation that they had discovered the “keenness and beauty” of Islam as a “revolutionary weapon”. And in 2000, Tarek Mousli testified for the prosecution in a case against the RZ (revolutionary cells), in return for a new identity. Mousli really is described as a person who was good at everything, a compelling man and role model for many. What he didn’t do was convert to Islam.

To my mind, Wildenhain has done something rather unsettling by rolling these two cases into one. His young Tariq, on the verge of noble savage status, is a disturbed but highly intelligent child. He has a tick and kills small animals (also later on). The narrator compares his physical beauty to Jean Genet’s description of children who survived the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, placing him in a victim context that doesn’t actually apply. And while the only ascriptions of Arab ethnicity come from others, he tells Jochen that his father was killed “by the Jews”. As he grows up and becomes politicised, Wildenhain has him stay on a kibbutz and identify with Judith’s Jewish background. But when Jochen runs into Tariq at the AIZ trial, it is the latter who recalls Sabra and Shatila and points out for the first time that he’s not German, and not a Christian. The author doesn’t provide easy explanations.

Why does Wildenhain make his character turn to jihad? Is it because of the real Tarek’s fourth dan black belt? The author describes how the young man, otherwise the archetypal rebel, submits to the demeaning authority of his karate master, almost like submitting to a divine force. Is it because of the implicitly assumed risk that left-wing terrorists entered into when planting explosives? Any attack could have meant their own death, implying a fanaticism similar to that of Islamist suicide bombers. Wildenhain explores this idea very briefly when a demonstrator is killed, referring to sacrifices made for a common goal – somewhere Jochen is not prepared to go. Or is it simply because the character is Lebanese – surely a pretty crass attribution based solely on ethnic criteria?

What the novel does extremely well is conjure up the atmosphere of West Berlin over the years. The phlegmatic narrator’s wry self-examination extends to his contemporaries; he is a man looking back at more naïve days that he doesn’t regret. The descriptions of school politics in the 1970s and squatting and radicalisation in the 1980s are a joy to read. There are dozens of well fleshed-out minor characters whose development we also follow, their paths ending in prison or established politics, early graves or warmer climes. The story of the relationship between Jochen, Tariq and Judith works well too and makes for compelling reading with an erotic kick, driving the plot to a certain extent.

What the book doesn’t do well – and possibly doesn’t intend to do in the first place – is explain why someone would turn from left-wing terrorism to religiously motivated violence. I also found it sets up a scenario of threat that lumps Islam and jihadism together in a rather crude way – which surprised and disappointed me.