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GoetheInstitute

14/05/2008

Books this Season: Fiction

Spring 2008

Here we introduce the most talked about books of the 2008 spring season. The German newspapers have long and (for some) tedious names, so we use abbreviations. Here is a key to them.

Fiction / Nonfiction

Young things


Can you be a thirty-something postmodernist and still live an interesting life? In his debut novel "Bestattung eines Hundes" (burial of a dog) Thomas Pletzinger describes one man's attempt to do just this. Ethnologist-cum-journalist Daniel Mandelkern allows himself to be dragged into a story which combines New York, Brazil, a deadly menage a trois and literary riffs on Uwe Johnson, Max Frisch, Clifford Geertz and Jacques Lacan. For Richard Kämmerlings who recently made an appeal in the FAZ for more reality-related literature, the result is a near-perfect example of "contemporary literature for the thinking man." The NZZ had its brains fried. Forty-something Germans have it easier, all they had to do was move from an asparagus field in the countryside to a walled Berlin, and the books would write themselves. Christiane Rösinger, front woman of the Berlin band Britta recounts in her book "Das Schöne Leben" (the good life) what it was like then and now. "Instead of entering a popular night club these days, she recommends hanging around outside it," notes the SZ, which is rather taken by the idea.

In her novel "Feuchtgebiete" (wetlands) former music TV presenter Charlotte Roche has no time for anything so harmless. "I use my smegma like other people use perfume. Dip my finger into my pussy, dab some of the goo behind my earlobes and rub it in. Works wonders even when just exchanging a peck on the cheek." Her idea of a good time is to rattle off a 220-page Amazon no.1 world bestseller full of drastically formulated fantasies of an 18-year-old girl about her nether regions, and elbow aside that old Jonathan Littel with his 1388 pages of drastically formulated SS fantasies. The Economist was bowled over: sex even sells in Germany! The critics button up their collars and inquire: does this novel form the basis of a female self-image which has quite naturally accommodated the difference between intimate reality and public performance. (Ingebourg Harms in Frankfurter am Sonntag) Rectum-fixated body parts prose. (Susanne Mayer in die Zeit)? Welcome masturbation pamphlet (Jenni Zylka in the taz)? Overflowing with zeitgeist? (Roger Willemsen on the book jacket) Auto-hagiography? (Patrick Bahners in the FAZ)? Protest at the Heidi Klum world (Lothar Müller in der SZ)? Leaps like a tiger, lands like a bedside rug. (Rainer Moritz in die Welt)? Phlegmatic self-satisfied taboo tearing (Stephan Maus in Stern)? Radical art work (Eckhard Fuhr in die Welt)? Over-exited comedy performance (Müller again)? Wishy-washy novel (Zylka again)? And the debate rages on in to-date 509 readers' reviews at Amazon and the blog Mädchenmannschaft.


Political novels

There was much talk this season of the return of the political novel. Here a few examples:

The only new German novel worth its salt for Peer Teuwsen in the Weltwoche is Michael Kumpfmüller's "Nachricht an alle" (message to you all) which compresses the terrorist and security threats of our time into a tale about a fictitious minister of the interior called Selden. For Teuwsen, Kumfpmüller hits a sore point with precision. "Selden is no more than someone who carries out orders, loses himself in details and has lost sight of what's going on. And the others for whom he, as representative, should do the best thing, feel nothing but a dull emptiness in reaction to what are actually excellent conditions." Martin Lüdke in the FR is not completely convinced. The plot is strong but the characters thin as paper. And this view is echoed in most of the reviews.

Critics enjoyed the disorienting effects of Sherko Fatah's "Das dunkle Schiff" (the dark ship). This novel tells the story of a reformed Iraqi Jihadist who flees to Germany, only to feel out of place in a second world. Wolfgang Schneider in the FAZ praises the "alienated look at the familiar." Both the FR and the SZ praise the caution with which Fatah builds up his narrative.

Lukas Bärfuss' novel "Hundert Tage" (hundred days) sees two characters fighting for their innocence amongst the chaos of the genocide in Rwanda. A Swiss development aid officer stays behind when the rest of his team leave the country, and spends one hundred days hiding in a house, looking back over the last four years of a love affair with a woman whom he finds again in a refugee camp. Die Zeit found the book superbly entertaining: "a daredevil war and sex romp," writes Verena Auffermann. The FR was slightly embarrassed by the alignment of sexuality and violence but applauds the attempt at taking on history.


Historical novels


More conspicuous still than the rise of the political is the rise of the historical novel. Many writers have cast their minds back to recent years:

But we shall not utter another word about Jonathan Littel here. Read our feature by Georg Klein and a selection of other reviews.

Until very recently, György Dragoman's "The White King" had received just one review in the papers we summarise, but it was so ecstatic that it begged inclusion: Andreas Breitenstein celebrates the precision, but also the grace with which the brutalities of the late socialist regime in Romania are described through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy. The FR was obviously shocked by the violence. The author, who once translated Beckett's "Watt" into Hungarian for fun, comes from a Hungarian minority in Transylvania but his book has attracted international interest.

Few novels have divided critical opinion more than Jenny Erpenbeck's "Heimsuchung" (visitation), which tells the story of a German house over several generations - through the Weimar Republic, the Nazi era, the GDR and German reunification. The "novel of the century", a "wonder" gushes Katharina Granzin in the taz. Martin Halter in the FAZ found the brief narration of this secular panorama overly sparse and squashed. Roman Bucheli in the NZZ praises its "enormous poetic power". In "Kaltenburg" Marcel Beyer tells the tale of two scientists whose destinies are bound up with the GDR in all its phases. Hubert Spiegel dedicates the front-page story of the FAZ literary supplement on the Leipzig Book Fair to the novel and its "masterful visualisation" of German history. Jens Bisky also has all his critical buttons pressed while immersed in this East German history, and found it a compelling read to boot.


Romantic novels

For the SZ, Hiromi Kawakami's tale "Der Himmel ist blau die Erde is weiß" (the sky is blue the earth is white - originally published as "Sensei no kaban in Japan" in 2000) is the "most beautiful and subtle love story of this literary spring" And the other papers were similarly enchanted, although it's difficult to pinpoint why exactly. Kawakami tells the tender and complicated beginnings of a love story between a woman in her thirties and her septuagenarian Japanese teacher. The couple meet in a bar, chat and eat. Then they utter sentences like "Would you enter a relationship with me with a love affair in mind?" But this does nothing to dull the FAZ's enthusiasm for the lightness and naturalness of this "straightforward love story". The taz felt itself being pulled, seduced even, into "stormy outbursts of emotion". And the NZZ was "moved to tears of joy" by the specialities served. "Gluttony as transcendence."

The critics could not reach an agreement on whether "Ein Liebender Mann" (a man in love) is Martin Walser's most beautiful novel ever or only one of them. But Walser's description of the love of the ageing Goethe for the young Ulrike von Levetzow was "so discreet, so tender!" (FR) - it impressed them all. The SZ found it even more inspired that Thomas Mann's "Lotte in Weimar". Feridun Zaimoglu's novel "Der Liebesbrand" (burning love) disarmed the critics entirely. Zaimoglu, who two years ago narrowly escaped a terrible bus accident, uses this as the starting point for his story about a young German-Turk called David, who is consumed by his love for the student Tryra and pursues her across half of Europe. Die Zeit is overjoyed to read a supremely "pre-modern, anti-realistic" and utterly un-psychological story. FR, SZ and taz admire the way Zaimoglu skilfully pulls out all the stops in a crescendo of romantic love.


Comics


From time to time the feuilletons become amiably disposed towards the comic book - it remains to be seen whether their heightened interest in the 'ninth art' lingers any longer than it did after the successes of Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi.

The season's favourite is Alison Bechdel's family story "Fun Home" which enjoys the rare privilege of being published by one of Germany's trendiest publishers, Kiepenheuer&Witsch. Time Magazine nominated this graphic novel as book of the year and now Germany is echoing the enthusiasm for this double coming-out of father and daughter. The taz finds both the language and the pictures "magnificent"; the SZ finds fault with the occasional "intellectual overload", but is amazed by the overall "emotional impact and complexity" of the work.

Jiro Taniguchi's book "Haruka Na Machi He" (Quartier Lointain) picked up the award at the Angouleme comic festival in 2003 for best scenario. His follow-up book "Die Sicht der Dinge" (the sight of things) which, the FR avers, is no less excellent, tells the story of a graphic designer who returns to his home town, after many years away, when his father dies. The family story opens out into society at large and yet the book remains "impeccably precise" and foregos all "lurid effects".

And the spring has brought forth two glorious reportage comics. The French cartoonist Guy Delisle spend two months working in the North Korean capital and then recorded his impressions of this alien world in "Pyongyang". The SZ testifies to the book's "brilliant draughtsmanship" which for that for all the monotony it documents, develops a "magical pull". "Der Fotograf" (the photographer) is a book of photographs taken in Afghanistan in 1968 by photo reporter Didier Lefevre combined with the sparsely coloured illustrations of Emmanuel Guibert and Frederic Lemercier. The result, according to the SZ, is an "album of poignant humanity".


Short stories


30 year-old East German Clemens Meyer has written a book of short stories "Die Nacht, die Lichter" (the night, the lights) which tell of alcoholics, fist fights, fork-lift truck drivers, drinking frenzies and stupors, social chill and human hardness. When he won the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair, true to underdog form, he poured beer all over himself to thunderous applause. And as befits a winner, his reviews were mixed. For the FAZ the collection is a "shining, powerful book" and Meyer, however deep he probes "life's injustices", has the huge heart of a boxer. The FR, taz and Zeit were equally enthusiastic. The NZZ on the other hand only rated the stories which weren't drenched in alcohol. And the SZ thought them little more than negative clichees. At Perlentaucher Sieglinde Geisel describes Meyer's success as symptomatic of a "hyperactive book business" which uses exotic authors to "celebrate its own bourgeois nature".

A chorus of approval went out to the artist Miranda July and her literary debut "No One Belongs Here More Than You". The taz was very taken with its cast of quirky characters who cling to their fantasies and illusions in a way that is at once depressing, cheerful and true to life. The NZZ mentions the word "miracle". Die Zeit is beside itself: lights this bright like this are rarely shone on the "dark chambers of feel-good bohemia".

Dejan Enev's "Zirkus Bulgaria" is a collection of absurd, painfully funny and deeply sad tales from the everyday madness of his home country. In fact they broke the stony heart of the FAZ in two. The NZZ relished Claire Castillon's "Giftspritzen" (lethal injections) which all deal with love-hate mother-daughter relationships and head for their "grim and unbelievable endings" with "merciless aridity".

Fiction / Nonfiction

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