Wednesday 27 February 2013

Inger-Maria Mahlke: Rechnung offen

 Rechnung offen is Inger-Maria Mahlke’s second novel, and an extract from the book won her the Ernst-Willner-Preis at Klagenfurt. I liked the extract and - spoiler alert! - I enjoyed the rest of it too.
The book centres on an apartment building in Berlin-Neukölln, the up-and-coming neighbourhood of the moment. The narration alternates between characters living in the flats and their family members. Analyst Claas owns the building but moves into a vacant apartment when his marriage collapses – he is a shopping addict and has spent all his money on porcelain. His wife Teresa’s long-term lover has rejected her on retirement and she throws Claas out of their comfortable family home. Their daughter Ebba now lives above him but rarely leaves the flat, apart from to blackmail the African dealers crowded into the ground-floor apartment into giving her skunk. Her parents are blissfully unaware that she’s stopped going to her training scheme.
Elsa has lived in the building since the war, the last of the old tenants. Gradually losing her grip on reality, she is paid regular visits by Nicolai, who claims to be her grandson. Except she never had a child, at least officially. Nicolai, meanwhile, gets a girl of his own into trouble, a Mexican waitress-cum-artist working on a series of photos of her own menstrual blood. And then there’s Lucas, a compulsively neat boy whose only pleasure is video games. We never learn his mother’s name but we do find out that she quits her job in a bakery to work as a dominatrix.
As the temperatures fall towards Christmas, all the stories spiral towards disaster. One of the dealers has a road accident but can’t go to hospital, not having official papers. Ebba pretends to have passed her exams, Elsa waits and waits for Nicolai to come, the teacups gathering dust on the table and her memories with them, while he has family issues to deal with. Lucas’s mother loses her new job – her regular client loses interest – and walks out on her son, who has to cope on his own. And Claas starts hassling his tenants to get rid of them and charge more rent in this suddenly popular area – and gets obsessed with the ground-floor flat, which is sublet and has no heating.
A fire, a corpse, a flight, an ambulance, a policewoman and a stepfather change matters substantially for all concerned – along with Claas’ insurance policy on the building. In a strange way, Mahlke gives us closure for most of her characters, but the novel’s ending is more cynical than happy. In a good way, obviously.

The sections dealing with Lucas’ mother are particularly striking. Written in the second person, they were oddly affecting. I felt automatically closer to the character, which was disturbing as her life is plainly depressing and hopeless. We follow her nervous start as a dominatrix and her desperation when her new-found false confidence comes to an end. The story doesn't close well for her, and I shared that shock through Mahlke’s unusual narration, while another part of me felt self-righteous satisfaction at the character getting her just desserts. Mahlke’s prose varies its focus, moving comfortably between close-ups of doughnuts on a plate and global issues.

This is quite an unusual novel, I felt. In her debut Silberfischchen, Inger-Maria Mahlke looked at two underdogs thrown together when an old man lets an illegal Polish woman stay on his sofa. Here, Mahlke has again focused on the darker side of life and the kind of characters fiction writers often ignore: the working poor, illegal immigrants, penniless artists, old women and losers in general. Even those who are financially more comfortable – Nicolai, Claas, Ebba – have manoeuvred themselves into desperate situations. So while the structure is reminiscent of other novels revolving around buildings (Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, Alaa-al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, Nicole Krauss’ Great House...), I found it darker and more interesting.

Rechnung offen has a finger on the pulse of the unebbing debates on gentrification in Berlin (and elsewhere). The backdrop to the stories is the changes in the neighbourhood, new shops and bars opening up, new people moving in. Through the landlord’s perspective, we see how and why rents are raised, and we see how that affects the tenants too. We learn Elsa’s story of surviving the end of the war as a teenage orphan, meeting the presumably lesbian Erika and working in a silk flowers company from 1945 until it goes bankrupt under pressure from Asian manufacturing. The illegal immigrants also place the novel in a global context, while Ebba, Nicolai and his girlfriend embody the more fortunate of Neukölln’s recent arrivals. 

Well worth reading for fans of Berlin literature and underbelly books. 

Note: This is a slightly altered version of a report for New Books in German.

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