Friday 28 September 2018

Maxim Biller: Sechs Koffer

Maxim Biller, eh? He comes across as a bit of a one, a bit of a man-about-my-part-of-town. I don't watch TV shows about literature because I prefer my viewing less stodgy, except I did occasionally watch Maxim Biller ripping other people's books to pieces on that show he was on, before he left to concentrate on his writing. He's been annoying the German literary establishment for so long that he's become very good at doing so in an entertaining way. I'm glad he went back to writing, though. My feeling is that he writes two kinds of books: serious literary tomes that don't interest me as much, and short, playful fillers that turn out excellent. Sechs Koffer falls into category two, as did Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz.

The novel is shortlisted for the German Book Prize, and is my favourite of the titles I've read so far. Ostensibly, it's a story about the Biller family, which is a fascinating subject in itself, as evidenced by Elena Lappin's memoir What Language Do I Dream In? Lappin's brother Biller, however, takes a  more mercurial approach. His six chapters are presumably the six suitcases of the title, in some way I can't quite work out. Perhaps they each contain a suitcase; certainly there's a lot of migration involved. They are set in different times and places where family members live: Prague, Zurich, Hamburg, with a storyline spanning from the 1950s to the present day. Our narrator, let's call him Maxim Biller, has been trying for decades to find out a family secret. His grandfather was hanged by the Soviets for black-marketeering – and someone must have betrayed him. Each of the chapters adopts a different character's point of view.

The nuclear family starts off in Prague, though the mother Rada has moved there from Moscow, where she met the father Sjoma, a translator (heart emoji). Uncle Dima is married to Natalia – an attractive filmmaker generally considered a bad egg – and is put in prison for trying to escape to the West. There are two more brothers, Lev and Vladimir, in West Berlin and Brazil, who send occasional luxury goods. And there is Jelena, Maxim's sister, and Maxim, who grows up mainly in Hamburg. We meet the family on the eve of Dima's release, as seen by his brother and his sister-in-law respectively, then when Maxim visits Dima in Zurich ten years later, then in a letter from Natalia, sent from miserable Montreal to her ex-lover, Sjoma. The last two chapters are told from the perspectives of a grudge-bearing Lev, at the time of Dima's funeral, and a present-day Jelena. It's important, and is stressed, that the family is Jewish; although there is very little religion involved, communist Europe is not a safe place for them.

Imagine a game of Cluedo with six unreliable narrators. Biller has a lot of fun with us, sowing seeds of suspicion and then unearthing them again, varying tiny details – was the fridge red or blue, was it the lead piping or the candlestick? All the time, though, giving us a fascinating portrait of a Jewish family spread around the world. I've read it twice now and of course I'm none the wiser, but I do respect the author's writing skills all the more. There is the humour of the voice – today's "Maxim Biller" telling us about how his parents or sister or uncles saw events at various times. There's the quiet, affectionate humour of the characters themselves, the father not going into the kitchen because he knows he'll shout at his kids, the sister looking through photos of her own grown-up children and thinking about what to cook for Shabbat if her daughter comes to visit – "with her goy or without him, that was up to her". And in the longest section, the one in which a young Maxim plays the starring role – can this be a coincidence? – there's a great comic-relief character, the kind of teenage wannabe lothario who makes me grind my teeth in vicarious embarrassment.

And then there's the excellent writing, the well-crafted sentences, the melancholy descriptions: of rainy Hamburg, shabby 1970s Zurich, the alluring smell of a brand new Skoda in 1965. There are the literary references that are never quite transparent. The novel works partly because of its mischievous plot and partly because Biller is simply very good at writing. I recommend it.