09/05/2007

Books this Season: Fiction

Spring 2007

Here we introduce the most talked about books of the 2007 spring season. The German newspapers have long and (for some) tedious names, so we use abbreviations. Here is a key to them.

Fiction / Nonfiction

German storytellers made a strong showing this spring, right across the age spectrum. And foreign books in translation tell of violence in holiday camps in Sweden, refugee smugglers in Piedmont and down-and-out writers in the streets of Sofia.


German literature

Werner Bräunig's "Rummelplatz" (fairground) is a book with a destiny, albeit a tragic one. Until now Bräunig's novel dealing with conditions in the East German bismuth mines has only been published in excerpts. It was finished in 1965, but the GDR censorship authorities prevented its publication. Thirty years after the author's premature death, a complete version has now come out for the first time, and was immediately nominated for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair. For the SZ, Werner Bräunig was as good an author as Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass, and would have been just as successful had he not been muzzled by the authorities. The FAZ is thrilled by the author's "Rabelaisian word cascades." Only the FR expresses the criticism that despite the fact that it was banned, the novel is surprising true to the party line.

The papers are amazed at everything Antje Ravic Strubel has accomplished with her new novel "Kältere Schichten der Luft" (colder layers of air). Calling the book complex would be an outrageous understatement. While for some it is a love story, crime novel and society novel rolled into one, for others it is a trans-gender romance and coming-out novel peopled by fairies and the dead. The story revolves around a woman of 30ish who, while at a summer camp in Sweden, falls in love with another woman. Although not entirely comfortable with the subject matter, the FAZ praises the novel as a "linguistic tour de force" whose prose takes readers into an abyss of unease. The NZZ sees in this "small, muscle-bound novel" an attempt to create a new literary language for lesbians. While parts are a little too striking for the taz and the SZ, the papers make no bones about their admiration for the author, an anomaly in the new generation of German authors.

Until now Silke Scheuermann has been known primarily as a poet. Now her debut novel "Die Stunde zwischen Hund und Wolf " (the hour between wolf and dog), reveals her eminent talents as a novelist. The story tells of two sisters bound together in a love-hate relationship, and how after the sisters meet by chance, the narrator slowly starts to fall in love with her sister's boyfriend. The book, which can also be read as a portrait of the novelist's generation, put Scheuermann at the forefront of young German novelists, and garnered much praise. The taz is very taken by the author's "poetic images," while the FAZ is astonished at her highly aesthetic portrayal of drunkenness. Die Zeit speaks for most critics in praising Scheuermann's "cool observation." (Read our review of the novel here.)

Although this book is called "Hamburger Hochbahn," (Hamburg elevated train) large parts of it take place in St. Louis. The protagonist, Thomas Schwarz, winds up in the American city when his girlfriend is awarded a university scholarship there. Author Ulf Erdmann Ziegler is a widely-respected cultural journalist. "Hamburger Hochbahn," his first novel, gives a portrait of his generation and a description of mid-life crisis, telling in passing a partial history of the Federal Republic of Germany in flashbacks. The taz admires the author's stylistic perfection and unparalleled originality, all of which make an "unforgettable impression." The NZZ call's Erdmann Ziegler's debut novel "ravishing", while the FR praises the author's "cautious irony."

For decades Peter Kurzeck has been publishing book after book which have gone largely unnoticed by wider audiences. For the critics a serious oversight. "Oktober und wer wir selbst sind" (October and who we ourselves are) is the fourth of seven autobiographical titles: "October again. You step out of the house. It's morning, early morning. The streets are wet. You step out of the house and have to stop, everything smells of autumn." The FR sees Kurzeck's attempt at "putting the whole world into poetry" as unique. The FAZ, no less enthusiastic, compares the author with Marcel Proust, Thomas Bernhard and Robert Walser.

After the major successes of "Simple Storys" and "Neue Leben," Ingo Schulze now presents a new volume of stories. The critics are either enthralled or angered, delighted or at a loss as to what to make of "Handy" (here our full review). It's New Years' Eve, 1999, millennium night in Berlin. Frank Reichert, a young East German entrepreneur who's made it big in the West, goes to a millennium party and meets Julia, his long lost love who he hasn't seen since they broke up just before the fall of the Wall. Die Zeit admires Schulze's "stroke of literary genius" in raising the incidental to an aesthetic principle, and discovers some of the most beautiful love stories possible in today's world. The FAZ praises Schulze's light, "refined" description of our daily search for happiness. The only sour note comes from the NZZ, which finds that the stories just ramble on and on.

The latest books by Günter Grass and Martin Walser have received wide attention, if not unanimous praise. Both writers resort to poetry to express their smaller and larger peeves. Most critics loved Martin Walser's "Das geschundene Tier" (the oppressed animal). 39 often very un-ballad-like ballads about daily life with pain, and having to put up with stupidity and emptiness, lies and hatred, incomprehension, enmity and the struggle with pride, darkness and shame. Die Zeit has high words of praise for Walser's "small, intimate lightning bolts." Günter Grass, by contrast, has done himself no favour with his slim volume "Dummer August," in which he bristles with indignation at press reactions to his admission that he served in the Waffen SS (more on the reactions here). His "snivelling self-righteousness," as the FAZ puts it, found little understanding among critics.


International literature

Per Petterson's novel "Im Kielwasser" (in the wake) was a big hit in Germany. Critics praised the book for demonstrating how a small, dreary, partly autobiographical story can become great literature. The narrator, 43 year old writer Arvid, first loses his parents and two siblings in a car accident, then is abandoned by his wife and children. "Relentlessly disturbing" is how the taz describes this story of despair. The NZZ praises Petterson for steering clear of sentimental moods, while Die Zeit is sure we'll hear more from this author.

Davide Longo, born in 1971, is widely touted as the new hope for Italian literature. His novel "Der Steingänger" (the stone path wanderer) takes place in the mountains of Piedmont. Without being a detective novel as such, the book flirts with crime fiction, centring around the death of a refugee smuggler. Critics praise the book's precise ability to capture and describe the region's landscape and inhabitants. The FAZ is thrilled at Longo's "talent for not telling," while the taz admires the author's "coarse-grained" language. The SZ, for its part, is reminded of the great Cesare Pavese.

The novel "Verfall" (destruction) by Bulgarian writer Vladimir Zarev was only reviewed by the FAZ. This review is very pointed, however, calling the book the Bulgarian "Wenderoman", or novel about the fall of the communist system, the likes of which still hasn't appeared in German, the paper writes. The book deals with the battle between capital and wits. After the end of the communist era, the protagonist, writer Martin Strminski, is left with nothing but booze, his disgust and the free food at events organised by the Goethe Institute. The FAZ praises Zarev's "evil wit, epic breath" and keen sense of observation.

A big splash was also made by "Chilenische Nachtstück" by Roberto Bolano, who died in 2003. Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a famous Chilean literary critic and mediocre poet and priest, looks back on his life on one feverish night, remembering among other things how he read the Greek classics during the Allende government and then taught Pinochet and his cronies about Marxism after the putsch. The NZZ and Die Zeit admire the cleverness and humour in Bolano's tales of poetry and frivolity in the times of the dictatorship. By contrast, Belgian author Jean-Philippe Toussaint's "Fliehen" (fleeing), which tells of the narrator's experiences in China and on an island in the French Mediterranean, got hot and cold responses from the critics. The NZZ is enraptured by so much "charm, melancholy and beauty," and can't decide if the novel is a miracle or a masterpiece. The taz, for its part, is less enthusiastic: "Toussaint has lost his touch."

Two novels recently published in German deal with how young men are initiated into Islamic terrorism - from entirely different perspectives. London-based writer Mohsin Hamid, born in 1971 in Pakistan and educated at Princeton and Harvard, tells in "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" of a successful Pakistani student who is propelled into an identity crisis by a love affair. Die Zeit praises Hamid for attaining "utmost realism" while avoiding sounding like the lead article in a newspaper. Alaa al-Aswani's "The Yacoubian Building," was a bestseller in Egypt. The story deals with the residents of an old Art-Deco building in Cairo: corruption, Islamism, torture, homosexuality – it's all there in the Yacoubian Building. The poor stew on the roof, while the rich live amid period furniture. And in between are 1001 stories of humiliation and deception. Although the taz finds the group of characters around young Taha, who becomes a fundamentalist, reminiscent of German soap operas, it is still thoroughly entertained.


Crime novels

After her tenth novel, French writer Fred Vargas shows no sign of letting up. The trained archeologist's most recent book, published in German as "Die dritte Jungfrau" (the third virgin), met with widespread enthusiasm. Commissioner Adamsberg has purched a small house in Paris. But it's haunted by the ghost of a nun who murdered several women in the 18th century, says a neighbour. The commissioner is more worried by his own investigations into a chilling multiple homicide. The book was highly praised in the major newspapers, rare for a detective novel. The NZZ extols Vargas' "deep sympathy for the rough edges" of her characters, who the taz finds "highly believable."

The author's life story is thrilling enough: Massimo Carlotto belonged to the terrorist group Lotta Continua, and spent many years in jail after being falsely convicted of murder. "Arrivederci amore, ciao" tells of a terrorist who flees to Central America, where he lives in a camp with ex-terrorists. The FAZ finds the protagonist Giorgio Pellegrini "totally soulless," but cannot escape the story's "baneful attraction." The taz is impressed, among other things, by Carlotto's "frugal, fetching language." The only objection comes from Thomas Wörtche. Where others see first-rate crime writing, the doyen of German crime writers sees nothing but "painfully sallow big-man machismo."


Fiction / Nonfiction

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