Monday, 25 May 2015

Jacinta Nandi: Nichts gegen Blasen

Full disclosure: Jacinta Nandi is a friend of mine. We've been out drinking together several times, and the first time I recorded the occasion for posterity. At her book launch, which was fantastic, someone said she thought I might be in the book, one of the characters. I was pleased because I'm compiling a list of German books in which I make an appearance in some form or other, but in the end I didn't recognize myself in anyone. Except that I did recognize myself in almost everyone.

Nichts gegen Blasen is narrated by a woman called Jacinta. Jacinta comes from London and lives in Berlin and has a son and is involuntarily single. She cries a lot, especially since her boyfriend left her, and she tries very hard to find a new boyfriend. Also she has a day job and does reading gigs at night and she has a family back home who'd actually like her to come back but she can't because then her ex-husband wouldn't have access to their son. And she drinks wine out of the bottle, best of all in bed, and talks a lot to her friends.

Here are the things I recognized:
Getting pissed off by people asking why you came to Berlin. Actually I didn't even realize it pisses me off, I'm so used to it. It's up there with "Berlin must have changed a lot since you moved here" on the inane smalltalk scale, and I have a lazy standard answer to go with each question. In Nichts gegen Blasen, the narrator tries out various responses. All of them are very funny.
Having to deal with 21st-century sex after being in a relationship. I'm not complaining as such, but boy, have things changed.

Squaring the idea that we are in this world in order to make art and overcome racism and sexism with really, really wanting a conventional relationship. Doing humiliating things in an attempt to get a conventional relationship, like internet dating or, in the narrator's case, generously administering a lot of blow jobs under uncomfortable conditions and not getting a great deal back.
Squaring feminism with the thought that being thinner, fatter, younger, older, cleverer, stupider, would actually get you a boyfriend. Not actually squaring anything at all, and humour being the only way to deal with that.
Sitting around drinking and talking with girlfriends, or straight male friends, or gay male friends, and enjoying every minute of it because it's a really fun way to spend time, and not even necessarily expensive, and also one of the best ways to understand life as long as you realize that people don't always tell the truth to themselves or others.

The almost constant horribleness of having a close relative with a disability. The occasional horribleness of being a single parent and not having anyone to rescue you when you get locked in a strange backyard. The all-round oddness of British people never admitting they've become middle class. The way Germans refuse to utter the word "class". The itchy-scratchy curiosity about transgender people, even though it's rude to ask.

Jacinta Nandi has a great gift for comic timing and a unique way of making navel-gazing entertaining. There's a reason why the narrator has the same name as the author, and it's hard to tell what's fiction and what's confessional, but as long as you're not friends with the author that doesn't matter at all. The publishers call that "authentic". What I think it means is that we get the sad parts, the embarrassing parts, the funny parts, the memories, the dreams (revenge via handymen, Gerhard Schröder, wedding dresses, Tetris) and the politics all in one. The structure, too, leaps about, with nothing resembling conventional chronology; no doubt due to Nandi's night job reading short, rounded, funny texts. But the book does have cohesion, nonetheless, because it's about Jacinta's life.

I've recently read two German novels about mothers in conventional relationships who go round the bend. Kristine Bilkau's Die Glücklichen I found well-written but ultimately not nearly angry enough. A mother finds it hard to return to work as a musician, while her partner loses his job as a journalist, and it looks like they'll have to move out of the safe middle-class haven they've created for themselves. The book annoyed me in the end because it was about class and how tenuous our hold on social mobility is, but never quite dared to make that explicit, and had a horribly pat and conciliatory ending. And Anke Stelling's Bodentiefe Fenster seemed to do the opposite, at least naming social injustices around a mother scratching a living as a journalist and living in a cooperative housing project that fails to address those injustices, but projecting all the anger onto other parents. Of course, there's a great ease and relief to be had from criticizing other parents; I'm trying to give it up, though, because it feels lazy and untruthful, so a character in a novel who I saw as trying to be perfect in order to outperform those other parents – and who fails, inevitably – simply made me grind my teeth. Spying on these two fictional women's lives irritated me more than anything else. Which is wrong, I know.

In Nichts gegen Blasen, though, Nandi isn't interested in the (German) myth of the perfect mother. Her narrator's son is what stops her from killing herself and keeps her in Berlin; she neither goes entirely off the rails nor makes a full recovery. Nor is she interested in looking good as a parent or a person – Jacinta tells us all the excruciating things that go on in her life. She swears and gets her grammar wrong and draws comparisons to Kafka and Jane Austen; the style is all her own and makes for hugely enjoyable reading. The book's ending is nicely duplicitous, neither happy nor sad. Nandi gives us an entertaining and black yet – yes – heartening view of one particular single mother's life in Berlin. 

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