Lucy Popescu

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Posts Tagged ‘Jamie Bulloch’

Book Review – ONE CLEAR ICE-COLD JANUARY MORNING AT THE BEGINNING OF THE 21ST CENTUR

Posted by lucypopescu on May 12, 2018

One morning, at the turn of the millennium, a wolf crosses the border between Poland and Germany and disappears into a forest. The following month, 80 kilometres from Berlin, a fuel tanker jack-knives and explodes causing a long tailback. The rescue attempts are hampered by snow. Stuck in his car, Tomasz, a Polish builder, is surprised to see a wolf standing at the edge of the motorway which he manages to photograph before it vanishes. Tomasz is returning to his partner, Agnieszka, a cleaner based in Berlin. Like so many migrant workers, they toil all the time, surviving ‘on crisps and coke and biscuits and tea and beer, because they didn’t like the food in Germany and because they had no time to cook.’

Roland Schimmelpfennig’s impressive debut novel is peopled by a diverse array of characters whose paths meet, overlap and diverge. Elisabeth, a teenager, tired of her mother’s beatings, decides to run away with her best friend Micha.

‘Let’s get away from here, she said to her boyfriend.

The two of them were wearing heavy leather jackets, combat boots, chains, earrings, but they had soft faces and light bodies.

Where do you want to go? He said.

Berlin, she said.’

They head into the forest where a man sits in a hide with his gun and waits for the wolf to appear. Micha’s father, a depressed alcoholic, decides to give chase and bring the teenagers home but he is worried that he won’t remain sober and will lose himself: ‘With drinkers there were no mistakes. With drinkers you could merely shift time, every one of them caved in again sooner or later.’ Elisabeth’s disappointed mother, a frustrated artist, reluctantly travels to Berlin and ends up confronting her past, the choices she made and the husband who left her. After falling pregnant her career had abruptly ended. ‘She couldn’t understand why interest in her work had waned. Then she began to blame it on her husband’s success. She accused him of doing nothing for her.’

The wolf links the lives of these disparate individuals. No wolf has been seen in the region since 1843 and as it approaches Berlin, panic sets in. Tomasz’s photograph of the wolf is reproduced worldwide. Charly, who owns a kiosk with Jacky, becomes obsessed with tracking down the predator. Meanwhile, minor characters step in and out of the story. A woman burns her mother’s diaries on a Berlin balcony; Elisabeth’s father, a famous sculptor, constructs a vast skeleton of a whale in his studio; Semra, a newspaper intern, Berlin-born with a Turkish background, seizes the opportunity to cover the story by claiming to know about wolves. Schimmelpfennig’s characters are, for the most part, disconnected from their surroundings and from one other, disillusioned and lonely.

Schimmelpfennig is best known as a playwright. This is clear in the construction and narrative pace of his novel, deftly translated by Jamie Bulloch. Interior monologues abound and the hopes and fears of his characters are revealed in simple, concise language:

Tomasz worked that morning as if it was any other. He didn’t say much, but he talked a great deal inside his head. He talked to his mother and Agnieszka’s mother and Agnieszka’s brother and Agnieszka.

He tried to remain calm, but couldn’t manage it.

He realised he wouldn’t be able to make it through the next days alone. He wouldn’t cope with being alone. He felt scared.’

The prose often reads like a series of stage directions: ‘The bus driver had stopped, and when he didn’t see the girl and the boy he waited for a moment, at just after half past six in the morning at the only bus stop in the village. He waited longer than he ought to … Later that morning he’d called the boy’s mother and asked her whether everything was alright, that’s what you do in the country.’

However, some of the theatrical elements weaken the plot. While a large cast is exhilarating to see on stage, a heavily peopled novella can feel like too many character sketches. The absence of names – “the boy’s father” and “the girl’s mother” – serves to distance the reader and makes it harder for us to feel empathy. Initially, the numerous subplots dilute tension and Schimmelpfennig has a tendency to tell, rather than show, what his characters are feeling. Our interest is pulled in too many directions, our loyalties are divided and consequently we don’t know who to really root for.

Gradually, though, Schimmelpfennig ratchets up the tension for his lead characters. During one of Tomasz’s absences in Poland, Agnieszka begins an affair with Andi, a man she meets in a Berlin club, and weeks later realises she is pregnant. Elisabeth risks being exploited by a mysterious Chilean bar owner who might be Romanian. The boy’s father is increasingly alienated, but knows if he gives in to alcohol, it may be his last drink: ‘The last thing he wanted was to go home, but where should he go? He’d lost the trail. He had no goal. He was cold. He sat on a bench on the station concourse. He felt as if people were staring at him, but maybe he was just imagining it. He could hear the drunken chatter of the men and women in the pub, but he couldn’t understand what they were saying.’

Meanwhile the threat of the wolf’s arrival in Berlin hangs over them all and there is a dreamlike quality to the random encounters. The woman burning her mother’s diaries offers Elisabeth and Micha a room for the night. The boy’s father spends a Schnapps-soaked night with his older brother, refuelling at Charly’s kiosk. The final word and sighting of the wolf is given to a linesman on the S-Bahn, a friend of Micha’s who we don’t actually meet until the closing chapter. Berlin may be considered one of the best cities in the world to live today, but Schimmelpfennig’s memorable tale of urban dislocation reveals a darker side.

Originally published by Riveting Reviews, eurolitnetwork.com

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Book Review- The Mussel Feast

Posted by lucypopescu on February 14, 2013

the mussel feastPeirene publish distinctive European literary fiction in translation, by authors who are award-winners or best-sellers in their countries of origin. Birgit Vanderbeke is no exception. Her debut novel The Mussel Feast, originally published in 1990, won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and is on the school curriculum in Germany. She wrote it just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, so it is the perfect opening title in Peirene’s “Revolutionary Moments” series.

The Mussel Feast is narrated by a nameless teenage girl. Together with her mother and younger brother, she awaits the return of her father. Her mother has prepared a huge pot of mussels because they are her husband’s favourite meal. The narrator ponders the cruelty involved in boiling the mussels alive and how they make a peculiar sound as they cook “which made me feel creepy … and the hair on my arms stood on end”.

What makes our flesh creep as we too anticipate the father’s return is the gradual realisation that he is a serial abuser. The daughter’s narrative appears chaotic and unreliable, but she is actually restrained in her revelations. At first there are only hints of the man’s controlling nature: he likes to eat at 6pm on the dot; on Sundays he always listens to Verdi; and “there was always a certain tension” when waiting for him.

There are various references to the family’s exodus from East to West Germany, and some amusing anecdotes that illustrate the father’s newly acquired snobbery and pettiness. Coming from an impoverished background, he is obsessed with status. Despising “the smell of poor people”, he likes to splash out on sharp suits, drives a fast car, and tips generously. However, he derides his wife, who worries about getting into debt and buys only bargain clothes for herself and her children.

Then the daughter’s observations become more chilling. Her wry comment “he could be extremely sensitive and unpleasant” proves something of an understatement. She makes the point that it is often a “random event” that provides the catalyst for radical change, and it is the father’s break from routine, his absence, that allows them to question his peculiar notions of what makes “a proper family”.

There is a political edge to Vanderbeke’s provocative examination of patriarchal violence, and part of the power of this darkly comic tale is how well it succeeds as an allegory for political tyranny. The father’s tactics for exerting control in the familial home are similar to those an authoritarian regime exercises to keep the people cowed. His frequent interrogations and brutal punishments have instilled fear and paranoia. The family are provided for, but denied the opportunity to make their own choices; and creativity is suppressed: the daughter’s daily piano practice is restricted to an hour and her mother’s violin lies broken in a wardrobe because the father deems music “pure excess”.

When the mother finally takes a stand, her act of feminist self-assertion is as revolutionary as Nora’s slamming of the door in Ibsen’s 1879 play The Doll’s House. It makes you wonder, how far have we really come? Given the current obsession with traditional family values, Jamie Bulloch’s flawless translation is timely. The Mussel Feast will make uncomfortable reading for those who aspire to the ideal of the perfect nuclear family.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday

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Book review – The Taste of Apple Seeds

Posted by lucypopescu on January 30, 2013

the taste of appleseedsAt the heart of Katharina Hagena’s accomplished debut novel, seamlessly translated by Jamie Bulloch, is a house full of memories. Iris, in her twenties, has inherited the property from her grandmother and must decide whether to keep it. After the funeral, she spends a few days there to help make up her mind, but finds herself assailed by memories of her grandparents, their three daughters, and her 15-year-old cousin Rosmarie who died after falling through the conservatory roof.

The house, its garden and orchard are described in loving detail by Iris as she ponders the nature of memory. And through her scattered recollections we learn about three generations of her family.

Apples are a recurrent motif – the taste of different varieties, the bitter-sweetness of the seed, and their smell, which pervades the house in autumn. Iris’s grandmother, Bertha, loses her mind after falling from an apple tree, and an old tree bursts into bloom after lovers enjoy a night of passion under its branches.

Some of the most touching passages are those describing Bertha as she loses her grip on reality. Hagena is eloquent on the devastating effects of dementia, for both the sufferer and the relatives who have to witness the disintegration and provide care. She also offers some brilliant observations on familial rivalries, the trading of loyalties and destructive adolescent jealousy.

Hagena paints a vivid portrait of rural life in northern Germany. The languid pace, starlit nights and captivating natural beauty are contrasted with the negative aspects of country living – the endless gossip and the villagers’ long memories. Iris is shocked when someone paints “Nazi” on their chicken-house. Her grandfather had served as a Nazi but refused to talk about his experiences. Consequently, Iris has never truly considered his past: “not only was forgetting a form of remembering, but remembering was a form of forgetting, too”.

Although Hagena skilfully arouses our curiosity and takes time to reveal the family’s various secrets, some expectations might be disappointed. A plot strand involving an elderly villager and his love for Iris’s grandmother peters out. For the most part, however, Hagena weaves an enticing tale from the experiences of an ordinary German family, their memories, and the different ways they deal with personal tragedy.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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