Friday, 24 December 2010

Three Wise Women

The last three German books I read have a single tenuous link – they were all written by women. I wouldn’t like to say that means they’re all aimed at female readers, for various reasons. Firstly, I suspect very few writers worth their salt have a clear idea of their target readership, and these three women writers are all worth their salt in different ways. And secondly, I reject the idea that decent writing appeals more to women or men. OK, I know there are books out there clad in pink covers decorated with pictures of shoes, and I strongly suspect few men read them, just as few women probably read those books written by retired army captains with photos of helicopters on the front. But genuinely good writing, I like to think, appeals to readers regardless of gender. And here we have three prime examples.

I started with Mariana Leky’s Die Herrenausstatterin (The Gentleman's Outfitter) the most literary of the three titles. Four separate people had recommended it to me (two of each gender), but it took me a while to get to the book. Primarily because this has been a bumpy year for me personally, during which I feared for a time I would have to have an eye operation. The heroine of Leky’s novel is a translator who has an eye operation. She also loses her husband, first to another woman, and then he goes and dies. Whereupon she loses it entirely, only to find help from the kindly ghost of a former Latin teacher. And from a fireman with a passion for karate films.

A good few people have pronounced this their book of the year, including my friend and colleague Isabel Bogdan. And while there were books that impressed me more this year, I have to concur that Die Herrenausstatterin is a great read. A really great read, in fact. Leky combines offbeat humour with great depth of insight into a grieving woman’s mind. So you go from raising your eyebrows at the absurdity of it all to swallowing tears at the sadness. In one wonderful scene, Katja calls up Armin the fireman to help her watch from his extendable ladder while Herr Blank the ghost tries to talk to his widow, who can’t see or hear him and has a new lover anyway. Poignant and laugh-out-loud funny by turns, as they say.

I was slightly bothered by the rather crude division of brawn and brains between Armin and Blank (although I do realise it was deliberate), and I had an odd sense of déja lu about the ghost fading away gradually. What more than made up for that, however, was the comedy of an aging karate film star tracked down in Holland and my weeping buckets over the ending. And ladies, it’s the perfect read for getting over the end of a fling! Especially if you’ve recently thought you were going to have to have an eye operation. Serious publishing types – you can get funding for the translation via the German Book Office New York, as the book’s on their latest list of recommendations.

Next up was Hilal Sezgin’s Mihriban pfeift auf Gott (Mihriban Doesn't Give a Hoot about God). I sought out the novel because the writer was one of the few voices of sanity in this year’s appalling hysteria over Thilo Sarrazin’s appallingly racist book about how only dumb Muslim immigrants are having enough babies. Or something. To the country’s great shame, Deutschland schafft sich ab is this year’s best-selling non-fiction title in Germany. Hilal Sezgin is a Turkish German who raises sheep in the countryside and works as a journalist. This is her second novel, following a 19th-century crime story about a Jewish lawyer’s daughter back in 1999. She’s also put together a book I’m very much looking forward to next year, a collection of essays by different writers under the title Manifest der vielen, in answer to Sarrazin’s simplistic crap.

And again, Mihriban pfeift auf Gott might initially appear to be aimed at women. It’s very nearly chick-lit – only then again, it’s not. Because Sezgin is a writer with an agenda. And what I suspect she wanted to do here was write an accessible, entertaining novel about counter-terrorism and prejudices against Muslims in Germany. Which she’s done very well. Mihriban is a bit of a loser, a young Turkish-German woman who practically brought up her little brother Mesut and forgot to get a life of her own. When radical Islamists start a terror campaign in Germany, the strict Muslim Mesut falls under suspicion and Mihriban is drawn into the plot. And there’s romance in it too.

Sezgin touches on a whole load of subjects here – civil liberties, internet surveillance, freedom of religion, racism, love and baby blue trouser suits. Above all, her narrator is witty and down to earth, with her own philosophy in life. You don’t have to be a Muslim if you’re Turkish, is her message, but you can if you like and that shouldn’t land you on the terrorist suspect list. A tad too drawn-out and repetitive for my taste, the novel is nevertheless a fun read that will make you question your own prejudices, and probably change your email account password.

Book number three in the pile was Marlene Streeruwitz’s Das wird mir alles nicht passieren… Subtitled “How to stay a feminist”, it’s a collection of beginnings of stories. Men and women facing major decisions, all nicely structured to tie them together. Streeruwitz puts her characters in situations that show feminism’s influence over society – a house-husband longing for something a little more meaningful, a professor ousted by the young woman she once helped to build an academic career, a Kurdish woman wondering whether she can start a relationship with an American. And she continues their stories on the website – calling it a cross-media experiment.

Streeruwitz has a very characteristic style, which I admire. Slightly experimental language, but keeping it simple. The author questions how far feminism has come, what it has achieved and what it hasn’t. It hasn’t necessarily made us all happier all the time, she seems to be saying, but it has certainly given us a wider range of options. In this sense, the stories are fascinating, prompting all kinds of thoughts and ideas. Especially because of their open ends - almost like that awful essay you had to write at least once a year at school: “Imagine what happens next…” The website, however, I find disappointing. I simply don’t care enough about any of the characters to follow their progress on the site, perhaps because of the short form, perhaps because of their exemplary nature. So while the book and the site work as a feminist project, I personally feel they don’t work as stand-alone fiction. But perhaps that wasn’t the point.

Three very different books showing different women in different situations – all well worth reading.


David said...

Thanks for this. "Die Herrenausstatterin" goes onto my list for 2011.

Since you reference Austrian books, the NY Times Book Review featured two new translations of Thomas Bernhard - on the cover no less!

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