Tag Archives: Germany

The Mussel Feast (1990) – Birgit VANDERBEKE

I’ve taken the plunge this year and bough a subscription to Peirene Press‘ Turning Points series of contemporary European novellas. The blurb on the back of The Mussel Feast tells us that this is a “modern German classic,” one that has been taught in German schools for the last twenty years. With this in mind, one has to wonder why it has taken this long to get translated into English, and why it has fallen on a small boutique publisher to do so.

A family sits down to a normal family dinner, but there is someone missing. The father has not yet returned from work, which is strange, because he is always on time. As the evening grows long, and as signs of the father’s arrival become fainter and fainter, the daughter tells us about the world that this family inhabit. A world where nothing is quite what it seems, and where, just underneath the surface, something terrible is brewing.

There’s a lot to be said for the short novel. It can give the author a chance to explore more deeply a concept or scene that might otherwise simply have been part of a larger canvas in an epic novel. Vanderbeke clearly realises this, and uses The Mussel Feast to closely and forensically examine the life of one family. Though the entire book is set over no more than a few hours, by the end, a detailed portrait of a four-person family has emerged. And it is not a family that I have any desire to get to know any better, though, as a testament to Vanderbeke’s skill as a writer, there is nothing else that needs to be known. Everything you could want is contained somewhere in these 105 pages.

The titular mussels are a symbol of the marriage central to the novel. There’s no greater symbol of familial love and piety than the evening meal, where all members of the family sit down together as a unit and discuss their day. This night’s meal is a mussel stew, the dish that has come to symbolise the relationship between husband and wife. Though she may not like it much, they ate it early in their relationship, and it has become something they return to again and again.

What makes this night different is the fact that the father doesn’t turn up. Which, in many ways, makes the feast even more unbearable. He is always on time, always ready for the evening meal—and so when he doesn’t arrive right on schedule, in many ways, the tension becomes even more pronounced. What will he be like when he finally does turn up? What has caused his delay? No doubt, any change in the schedule will upset him.

The key to unlocking the novel is contained in the phrase I used earlier: “though she may not like it”. Slowly but surely, like an orange being unpeeled, the narrator drops hints about past family dinners, and past family events. As she does it, though, there’s a strange sense of unease about the whole thing, as though there is something that’s not quite right with the whole thing. And then the penny drops. This isn’t a story about a family dinner where the father doesn’t turn up—it’s a story about a drunk and angry father. And once that clicks in your mind, the whole thing takes on a rather uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia.

Though he never appears on the page, it’s easy to imagine a man like the father of the family. I suspect there’s some cultural context I’m missing here (my knowledge of late-1980s Germany Is pretty limited), but it’s easy to gloss over—this is not a unique phenomenon. The father is so caught up in having this perfect middle-class family, he is blind to the fact that he is the one that is preventing this from happening. Embarrassed by his own relatively poor upbringing, he is a part of the aspiring middle-class that tries to erase its own history with conspicuous consumption—he mocks his wife for being cheap and stingy, though by any stretch of the imagination, her frugality is simply a smart way to save a few marks here and there. It’s not just her taste in clothes he despises—the furniture in the house must be well-designed and expensive, just to prove to anyone who might visit that, yes, this family has money it can afford to spend on things like nice furniture.

Of course, once you realise that this man is not very nice, the question of physical violence crosses your mind. For a man this crazy and controlling, resorting to physical violence to ensure his photo-perfect family remains intact doesn’t seem that far-fetched. And, inevitably—depressingly—your thoughts turn out to be correct. Several incidents are mentioned, though never expanded on, but it’s the fleeting, lingering images that take a hold of your imagination, rendering further detail superfluous.

The narrator never names the characters, adding to the sense of beige that seems to permeate the novel. The language is simple without being simplistic, and in many ways, is almost stream of conscious: the paragraphs are pages and pages long, and we slip between past and present with great ease. This all adds to the stuffy, claustrophobic atmosphere that Vanderbeke draws so well.

They say good things come in small packages. If this is the standard of all Peirene books, I look forward to the other 2013 offerings. The Mussel Feast is a glorious book. Everything I could possibly want in a novel is somewhere in here: the language is taut, the symbolism is heavy, and there is nothing superfluous. It may have taken twenty years, but English-speaking readers can finally read a classic novel that lives up to its label.

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The Yellow Birds (2012) – Kevin POWERS

Releasing your war novel on 11 September is a risky business. If it’s really good, it will forever be remembered as a sneaky marketing tool to highlight the important message your novel has; if it’s really bad, it will forever be remembered as a sneaky marketing tool to highlight the cheap way people cash in on days like this to play on the public’s emotions. Fortunately, The Yellow Birds ticks so many boxes on my “good novel” list – less than 250 pages, fragmented narrative, gorgeous language, depressing content. It’s like this was written just for me.

Bartle and Murph were deployed to Iraq. But Murph never came back. Haunted by the promise he made to Murph’s mother before they left, Bartle cannot stop thinking about the friend left behind in a foreign land. As we flit between past, present and future, and the story of what really happened to Murph becomes clear, a devastating tale of men under pressure emerges. No one will ever be the same again.

The biography at the back on the book mentions two things that I can only imagine are the most influential parts of Powers’ life on this novel – his time in Iraq as a machine gunner, and his MFA in poetry.Obviously it’s not hard to see the influence the first had on this novel, but the main achievement of this novel, for me, though, is the language. The first paragraph is a beautifully haunting personification of the war itself, describing it as hungry. I could block-quote almost every paragraph in this novel, it is so gorgeously written. But what makes it even more amazing is one passage, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, in which the mask slips. I can’t decide if it’s the mask of the narrator, or of Powers himself, but the perfectly controlled, structured language of the rest of the novel falls away, and for a one-page stream-of-consciousness paragraph, expletives and dirty language, the likes of which have been, up until now, not used, are utilised to brutally attack the war machine. It’s a section that proves to me two things – one, Powers has clearly spent a lot of time crafting a poetic style, which is highly effective; and two, this is a story that is close to his heart.

There are three narratives running in parallel: the first, in 2004, while Bartle and Murph are in Iraq; the second, in 2003, while the two are still in training in America; and the third, in 2005, when John has returned to America after finishing his deployment. Each one shines light on a different stage of the cycle of a soldier’s life. We start with Bartle and Murph patrolling This changes as the two are shipped off to Al Tafar, Iraq (Powers was stationed in Tal Afar). In a foreign, hostile land the two are forced to become closer, relying on on another, as well as the rest of their platoon, to simply stay alive. It’s hard to decide whether or not these soldiers are nice people. Most of them are just people, with flaws just like the rest of us.

It’s not just the people Powers describes with vivid detail. The milieu of the Iraq war – the desolation of a desert landscape – the heat, the wind, the sand – as well as the relationship between the occupying forces and everyday Iraqis, are clearly drawn from personal experience. The first major character death is that of the Iraqi interpreter travelling with the platoon. This is not a surprise – we hear of Iraqis working with Americans being killed far too regularly. But Bartle and Murph are more concerned with being killed themselves – the death toll is rapidly reaching 1000, and they don’t want to be the 1000th American troop killed in Iraq. It becomes a powerful recurring motif throughout the novel, of the death count rising, catching up with soldiers still on the ground.

When Bartle returns to America, he moves back home to live with his mother. As with all returning soldier stories, he has trouble readjusting to a life of relative comfort. He becomes isolated and introverted, moving from his childhood bedroom to a shed in his backyard. This doesn’t last long, however, and he eventually moves out of home, opting to live in an abandoned factory just out of town. In what is probably the most horrific scene – and there are certainly no shortage of candidates here – Bartle finds himself awoken next to a river bed, having been dragged out of the river. It is never made explicit if he jumped or simply slipped, but the reaction of the police who save him is terrifying. Though they suspect a suicide attempt, once they discover Bartle is a former soldier, they just leave him alone. They don’t bother to give him a psych evaluation, because he is a solder, not in spite of it. It’s a damning indictment of how soldiers are treated when they return to modern America.

There is a sting in the tail. It is not until the final pages that we discover what it is that has killed Daniel Murphy. It is not a regular shoot-out, it is not friendly fire, and it is not an IED. Murph goes AWOL, forcing the rest of the platoon to search for him for several days. In the pre-deployment sequences, Murph seemed to be a little nervous, a little unsure, about the whole adventure, and the stresses of war have clearly affected him more than most. While their sergeant coped with it by being a dick, and Bartle seems to be able to bottle it up inside, something inside Murph snaps, and he runs away. Of course, Iraq is still a dangerous place, and so he ends up dead. It’s not a pretty sight, and really hammers home the message Powers is imparting here – war is hell.

From what I can only describe as one of the most arresting first lines I’ve read in ages (“The war tried to kill us in the spring”), to a final, surprisingly redemptive scene, The Yellow Birds marks Kevin Powers as a talent to watch. The collision of perfectly formed, poetic sentences with an horrific subject matter – and making this work – is a sure sign that Powers is a gifted writer. Let’s hope whatever he does next doesn’t disappoint.

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The Third Reich (2010) – Roberto BOLAÑO

The danger with previously unpublished works being published posthumously is that there may well have been a good reason they weren’t published while the author was alive. Because of the insane amount of hype surrounding the cult of Roberto Bolaño after his death, any chance of new writings was always going to be pounced upon by both his publishers and fans, no matter the quality of the work.

Udo Berger comes to a small Spanish town at which he holidayed with his family as a child, with his girlfriend, Inga, for a relaxing summer holiday, as well as to work on his strategy papers. Udo is a gamer, and plays, amongst other things, a war-game called The Third Reich – though Inga seems more concerned with her tan than any kind of game. When another German couple checks in, though, Udo’s plans for a relaxing holiday are turned upside down.

Originally written in 1989, The Third Reich languished in a drawer somewhere in Bolaño’s house until some diligent researcher found it, and eventually had it published. That context is important to remember when we look at the work, because the Second World War, the Cold War, and the tensions this placed on Europe cast a surprisingly large shadow over a book that is ostensibly about board games.

It’s funny to think that such a devastating historical event such as the Second World War in Europe is now used as a kind of background for people’s entertainment. And not funny ha ha. This thought is made even more uncomfortable here, with a young German man seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is playing with recent history that ravaged Europe, and that his status as a German – whether fair or not – will influence what people think of his playing these games, reliving history that many Germans want to forget. Those small glimpses we get into the lives of other gamers, too, brings into the fore a world and culture that seems to meet every expectation a non-gamer might have of the world. These men are slightly dysfunctional outsiders, who spend their time wrapped up in fanzines and conventions about their favourite board games – there seems to be no sense of connection to reality.

As the face of this subculture, Udo seems almost autistic in some of his obsessions, and complete inability to read certain social situations. His lust for Frau Else, the German owner of the hotel in which he is staying, born out of a childhood obsession, borders on the obsessive, and his quest to find her husband and tell him that his wife has cheated on him is bizarre. Maybe this is just Bolaño feeding in to the late 80s gamer stereotype of young, slightly chubby, socially awkward men escaping real life into the worlds of their “silly games.” Cartainly, when Udo is faced with real life danger from people like the Wolf and the Lamb, and El Quemado, he doesn’t seem to quie know what to do with them.

This undercurrent of violence that permeates the novel is never acted upon by Bolaño – most of it remains off stage, forcing the reader to decide what happened, if anything at all. Ironically, it is not the Wolf and the Lamb – the two thug characters most likely, it would seem, to attack someone – from where this sense of unease comes. It is Charly, half of the other German couple, that becomes the symbol of repressed German violence in the novel. Obviously we can only construct his identity from the clues Udo himself gives us in his diary, but he comes off as a deeply unpleasant young man, and though this may make me sound like a terrible person, his eventual fate is not unexpected or particularly heart wrenching.

In the end, Udo is forced to consider and remember the crimes that were committed in the name of the German Reich, and not in a pleasant way. I’m glad the denouement happened the way it did, because it ties the rest of the novel, which tended to be a little rambling and disjointed, together very nicely, both plot-wise and thematically. The two important revelations in the final chapters make sense in the context of what we’ve already been told, and it really brings into focus these questions of post-war  memory and reparations that have been bubbling under the surface for most of the novel. Bolaño’s answers are not pretty, particularly if you are German, but perhaps there’s some optimism to be had in finally having it all out in a big brawl, and them being able to move on? Maybe not.

The Third Reich is, ironically, a lot better than some of Bolaño’s other earlier works, like The Skating Rink. But it never reaches the dizzying heights of, say, The Savage Detectives, or (I can only assume) 2666. This is one of the few times Bolaño writes outside of South America, and it’s a nice change of scenery, with an important, if somewhat obfuscated, engagement of ideas at its centre.

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Half Blood Blues (2011) – Esi EDUGYAN

With the announcement of the 2011 Man Booker Prize looming, I’m still trying to work my way through the novels on the longlist that interest me. My sure-fire bet, The Stranger’s Child, didn’t even make the shortlist, which just goes to prove that the judges and I never see eye to eye. That’s fine – I’m not complaining – because even if I can never pick the winner, the longlisting of books I’ve never heard of before means I find new and exciting authors.

Sid Griffiths, Chip Jones, and Hiero Falk – three young black jazz musicians living in Berlin – have fled to Paris to escape the Third Reich, with the help of Delilah, a young American woman. As tends to be the case, however, her presence upsets the fine balance between the three young men, and when Hiero is disappeared from the streets one night, Sid realises he finally may have gone too far.

It is easy, I think, to forget that the Jews were not the only people hunted down and exterminated by the Nazi Party during their reign. Gypsies, disabled people, jazz musicians, gay people, black people – these groups were also rounded up and put into horrible concentration camps. Of course, the setting of the novel is not really the point – if you are looking for a deep and meaningful insight into what living black in Nazi Germany was like, this is not the place. Indeed, Sid and Chip are both American citizens, and Sid, able to pass as white, freely admits he and Chip have less trouble than Hiero, who is a half-black German citizen, a Mischling.

Betrayal and guilt are the overriding themes. Edugyan begins her story in 1939, and we are then yanked into 1992, where someone has invited Sid and Chip to talk about their memories of Hiero for a film. Sid has never mentioned what he did in Paris, and when accusations begin to fly at the screening of the documentary from Chip, he is at first angry, and feels betrayed. It is not until he confronts Chip about the ordeal, and agrees to journey to Poland to meet up with Hiero again for the first time in sixty years, that he begins to think that he shouldn’t be the one who feels upset about any kind of betrayal.

Betrayal is also at the heart of Sid’s relationship with Delilah. Her easy-breezy attitude to life, to music, and to her friendship with Louis Armstrong, has an instant affect on Sid, whose own insecurities about his musical abilities are a stumbling block to his initiating any kind of relationship. Eventually, though, he manages to overcome these, and the two sleep together. It soon becomes clear, though, that Hiero is also deeply enamoured with Delilah, and Sid’s already strong dislike of the kid grows and mutates into a kind of self-destructive jealously. Needless to say, this doesn’t go down very well with Delilah.

Sid is a deeply flawed, and therefore deeply believable, character. Never as good a musician as his two friends, he finds himself surrounded by people who mean well, but never give him the chance to fit into the jazz world. He knows his own limitations, too, and this influences his own growing resentment of  Hiero in particular, who is a kid wonder on the trumpet. Add to this the jealously he feels over Delilah’s actions towards Hiero, and Sid becomes almost unlikeable. And while he does become unlikeable, I also found him sympathetic, too. To a certain point, though. There are some things, particularly in Vichy France, that are unforgivable.

The closing scenes with Hiero and Sid ring true. Hiero, despite having lived through many, many horrors, still has a glimmer of the enthusiastic over-grown puppy feeling he had at the age of twenty. As Sid breaks the news to him, tells him that everything that happened is his fault, he simply cannot believe it. These two old men, separated for sixty years, nearing the end of their lives, have a very brief conversation about the past, and while Sid attempts to atone for his past sins, whether Hiero will let him is another matter.

Half Blood Blues uses its temporal and physical setting to great effect. By essentially locking her characters in an abandoned club for half the novel, Edugyan proves her worthiness to be on this year’s shortlist. This is a story about the relationships between men and women, about jazz, and about the decisions we make when under pressure, and the repercussions of these unwise decisions.

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Lights Out in Wonderland (2010) – DBC PIERRE

DBC Pierre’s other novels, Vernon God Little and Ludmilla’s Broken English, are pretty nuts. Though, when you consider Pierre’s pretty insane upbringing, perhaps one can begin to  understand why he writes fiction like this. I didn’t even know he’d released a third novel, but when I saw it on the shelves at work, looking for something different to read, I knew nothing could be as different as this.

After escaping rehab, Gabriel Brockwell decides he’s going to kill himself. With this in mind, he decides on a final party to celebrate the occasion – a last hurrah. He goes to Tokyo to rope in his childhood friends, Smuts, who is working in a high end fugu restaurant. His journey continues, and he finds himself in Berlin, where he grew up. But trying to find the best place to party is turning out to be a lot harder than he ever imagined.

The opening pages of Lights Out in Wonderland are some of the best I’ve ever read. What a wonderfully insane concept – I’ve decided I’m going to kill myself, so it doesn’t matter what I now do. To be able to release oneself from any kind of law or morality by deciding to kill yourself, it really allows you to take your characters into places other authors may not be brave enough to go. Unfortunately, though, I feel like Pierre didn’t take it to quite the level he could have. Writing about a character that, before this decision, was already pretty irresponsible and amoral kind of makes you wonder why he has suddenly decided this in the first place. Had Gabriel been a strait-laced business man or something, I think the fall could have been even more interesting.

The Tokyo sections are fine but, unlike those set in London and Berlin, don’t seem to evoke a great sense of place. Berlin, in particular, comes alive in this novel, and (I assume), it is clear that Pierre has spent some time there, working it all out in his head. I particularly love that he finds Berlin’s second, dilapidated airport, and turns it into a stage for most of the action. By moving us away from the centre of Berlin, which is well defined, Pierre is, like his characters, creating his own playground, where anything could happen. It’s not outside the realms of possibility, this nightclub of excess, but just on the outskirts of the city. Food for thought for his readers, no doubt.

There is a lot of anger in these pages, too. Pierre is clearly fed up with the materialistic, consumer culture that we have all been sucked into. But so are many other writers, so the question then becomes, does he say anything new about it? In some ways, yes, I think he does. I love the idea of a whole load of rich people wandering around the globe, trying to find the most outrageous party they can, and outdo each other with more absurd tales of exoticism. On a far smaller level, this is, I think, what a lot of us in the Western world – but to have people who own jets and companies doing this, you end up with feasts that have milk fed tiger as the main course. Completely ridiculous.

Gabriel’s thoughts about the state of the world are clearly an exaggerated version of what Pierre thinks, though in some places, they get a bit too ranty. His conversation with God (just roll with me here), though, puts a lot of things into perspective. Whether Pierre got this idea from Rowling, I have no idea, but there are definite parallels to be drawn. His decision, in the end, to not kill himself is, I think, a nice inversion of what we would all expect to happen. I like that he manages to find some kind of happiness, some kind of reason to live, by the end. I suppose, though, having lived through the hedonism of this novel, had Gabriel not been fully aware of the wonders of humanity, he’d be very blind indeed.

Ridiculous is the best word I can use to describe Lights Out in Wonderland. The heightened sense of reality, the exaggerated caricatures of people, and the sheer unbelievability of what happens are what make this book. Pierre has said this is the last in a loose trilogy (the other two being Vernon and Ludmilla) about contemporary consumer life and what not. If Lights Out is anything to go by, I think Pierre has faith in the modern world. Or maybe cautious optimism. At the least, he is willing to be like the rest of us, and revel in the spectacle that is modern humanity.

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The Land of Green Plums (1993) – Herta MÜLLER

If you win the Nobel Prize for Literature, you can expect sales to pick up a bit. That, and the rate of people translating you out of your native language. Hey, it works. That’s the only reason I was looking for Müller’s work. I don’t think even I, who has pretty pretentious taste, could claim I was looking for Romanian literature written in German about the Romanian dictatorship of the mid 20th century.

A group of students are struggling to live under the rule of a despotic dictatorship, where everyone around you is possibly a spy. As the days pass, these students must learn to deal with what is happening around them, with the possibility of young love, with the chance of being killed for thinking, and with the frightening reality of escaping such a rule.

There is a gratuitously large amount of fiction dealing with life under dictatorships – from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to Kadare’s The Palace of Dreams. So why is Müller’s work worthy of a Nobel Prize, when it could quite easily be argued that this genre has been done to death? And there are two reasons that I can see.

The first is the immediacy and simplicity of Müller’s language in telling the tale. There is a lot to be said for sparse language stylings – and that’s not just an excuse for bad writing. Müller’s language tends towards the simple, but not the simplistic, and this has probably a lot to do with her background in poetry. She does have a way with language, and that creates some beautiful imagery and character insights with language that no one could attack as being purple. In many ways, it is almost childish in its simplicity, but that is the beauty of Müller’s work – she does not have to rely on overwrought language in order to create a terrifying world.

Having said that, this creates something of a problem with the plot – which is certainly not non-existent, but rather, it becomes secondary to the small images Müller seems more concerned in creating. As I say, there is definitely a plot, but it is far more episodic in nature, and the things that Müller leaves unsaid are almost as important as the things she does say. Instead of overwriting the important set pieces, she prefers to simply write the other things – the tiny reactions to these big events, or the concurrent story of an unnamed Romanian family as we follow the lives of these students.

The second reason, then, for justification of Müller’s work? The bleakness and simplicity of language translates into her characters and situations. The people we follow here are young people, and the choice is not arbitrary. These university students – people, then, in the prime of youth; people we see as perhaps the most politically active and opinionated – have been completely silenced and neutered. And that’s what makes this novel so tragic. There are no big political statements, and I don’t think Müller is trying to overthrow any government with this work, but she is simply trying to show just how bleak this life is. For all of these people, death – and suicide in particular – seem to be everyday thoughts.   nothing redeeming here. And even the chance of escape does not offer immediate respite – trying to escape will more than likely get you killed anyway, so the whole thing is, arguably, pointless. You can either die here, or die trying to get out.

Along with the five students, the most prominent character is that of Captain Pjele, a sadistic and quite frankly creepy officer of the Communist Party, whose life mission, it seems, is to make these students’ lives miserable, a job he pulls off quite successfully. With a single man representing an entire oppressive regime, Müller is able to highlight the sheer ridiculousness of the situation – if this were one crazy man terrorising a small group, he could be stopped. But with the power of an entire nation behind him, he is able to carry out his petty and silly games without interference.

The Land of Green Plums is not immediately confronting or terrifying. Instead, Müller has created a work that, through its language and atmosphere (if a novel can have such a thing), paints a world that is grey. That’s the best way I can describe it. Grey. It’s blank, bleak, nothing. And that’s what terrifies me most when reading it – a world that is so nothing, people are driven to suicide just to escape.

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The Zookeeper’s War (2008) – Steven CONTE

Last review of the year, I’m afraid. I’m having the next week or so off – I may not even read anything! Actually, that’s a lie – I’m going to read all seven Harry books in one go. Stay tuned. Anyway, to finish the year, I figured this was as good a choice as any – I’ve been meaning to read it since Steven Conte came to work to ask if it was selling at all.

Australian woman Vera and her German husband, Axel, look after the Berlin Zoo. Unfortunately for them, it is the middle of World War 2, and Berlin is not a safe place – for human or animal. As the war progresses, and secrets emerge, questions of what it means to be faithful, safe, and human, arise. Along with their close friend, Flavia, they must deal with the changing world of Berlin, and the people fighting to control it.

This is a very, very strong debut novel. Conte’s style and pacing are self-assured and confident, and the language doesn’t feel clunky or forced. On the contrary, it is subtle and restrained, allowing other things to shine through. And the best thing that this novel does is give us a sense of place – as clichéd as it is to say, Berlin truly becomes a character in this novel. Conte is able to accurately and beautifully evoke a sense of a city under siege, a city for which time is running out, and there is a sense of quiet resignation to the novel, from both the city and the people that inhabit it. This is a city under attack, where politics and ideologies are everything – the inhabitants are not just under attack from the bombers overhead. People have turned against each other, political ideals have been suppressed, and if you have the urge to criticise the regime, it won’t end well. This, I think, is what makes Flavia so great – she’s kind of what we all imagine the 1920s and 30s in Europe to be, and she’s stuck in the middle of a fascist regime. Beautiful stuff.

While the sense of place and time is perfectly evoked, some of the characters are a bit flimsy. Especially Axel. Not that he’s two-dimensional or badly written, he’s just not there often enough for us to truly grasp who and what he is. Similarly, Vera’s other love interest, the Czech, is only present when he needs to be with Vera, and despite always saying the right things, he seems to come off a little shallow, and looking for only one thing.

Which brings me to the ending of the novel. I don’t think I’m spoiling history by saying that the Soviets come and invade East Germany? Good. Because sex plays a vitally important role in the closing chapters of the book. From the fear of the bomb comes the inevitable fear of the body. Suddenly, all the women are hiding from the Ivans, and the men are being chivalrous and hiding them in lofts. But at what price? Axel himself finds out, and the final scene leaves us with a disturbing image – Axel becomes a metaphor for the entire German nation, and it has been raped and pillaged by outsiders, something that it will never be able to forget, even though it will try again and again to block it out of its memory.

I’m still not sure why this book left me a bit cold in the end. Sure, it’s a great read, and very good, considering it is a debut, but there’s something missing. The ‘it’ factor, maybe. A bit of soul, perhaps. Maybe there can’t be, though. Wartime Berlin is so bleak and unforgiving, that maybe this novel could never have been anything else.

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The Tin Drum (1959) – Günter GRASS

I started reading this about two months ago. I think that’s a record. I have nearly stopped reading it about four times, I’ve read several other novels, and I’d given up reading for about a week, it was frustrating me so much. However, I have finally finished it. And I have found the energy within me to review it. Not that this is going to be all bad. I think. Also, I know I usually avoid telling you what happens in these, but some important plot points are mentioned here, simply ’cause I can’t talk about the book without them.

Oskar Matzerath is a dwarf. Which is fine, except that at the age of three, he decided to stop growing, and did so, placing him in his currents ituation. On the same day, though, his mother gave to him a cheap tin drum, which he picks up with enthusiasm, and never lets go. Through his twisted, and quite frankly, nasty eyes, we see the small city-state of Danzig succumb to World War 2, to the Germans, and to Europe. Eventually, Oskar moves into Nazi Germany, where he becomes famous for his drumming, only to discover that his past is catching up with him.

To be honest, the above synopsis is not totally accurate. Though, to try and give some sort of idea of the plot of this novel is too hard to do in five lines. Suffice to say, this novel meticulously details the first thirty years of Oskar’s life, and it is pretty complicated. From his questionable fathers (yep, there are two of them), to his mother, to his grandmother, to the history of his grandfather, to his career (he goes through more jobs than Homer Simpson), to his insane drumming, this book has something for everyone. But is it any good? Does it deserve to win the Nobel Prize for “frolicsome black fables [that] portray the forgotten face of history”?

For me, at least, the whole of the Second World War took a backseat to Oskar’s insane journey. Important events are referenced, and indeed, Oskar takes part in many of them, but somehow, you can kind of forget that the war is really going on. Instead, we get this recurring conflict between art and warfare – Oskar becomes the embodiment of art, and how it suffers and mutates during wartime. As a musician, Oskar meets artists, sculptors, even tombstone engravers, who all contribute to the art of the war. It is these people that we and Oskar are interested in, those who continue their art through the war.

By far the biggest part of this book, however, is the tin drum. As a child, Oskar is obsessive about his drum, going so far as to, despite being under attack from the army, placing the safety of his drum before the safety of his first father, who eventually dies at the expense of this cheap, disposable bit of tin. It is the drum that becomes the symbol of childhood, that becomes the thing that Oskar must learn to reject and move on from, before he can fully mature. It is not until the death of his second father, in his early twenties, that he is able to reject the drum, and move on. Again, though, he picks the drum up in later life, and once again, the lure of innocence and childhood proves too powerful, though not just for Oskar this time – for his followers and fans as well.

I suspect I could talk about this book for several more pages before I ran out of the most important things to say. I won’t though – I have learnt from Grass to stop while you’re ahead. I am going to ask myself a few questions before I end, though. Was it a stupidly long and difficult book to read? Did I enjoy it? Is it a work of genius, deserved of the Nobel Prize, contributing to the literature of the world? The answer to all three of those questions is a resounding yes.

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Time’s Arrow (1991) – Martin AMIS

Kingsley Amis once complained about his son’s writing style, saying it was “Breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, [and] drawing attention to himself.” This is most certainly the case with one of Martin Amis’ most famous novels, Time’s Arrow. In it, Amis uses a whole load of po-mo techniques to describe something that few authors (especially outside of Germany, or ones that aren’t Jewish) dare to write about – Nazi concentration camps in World War 2.

Time’s Arrow is the story of the life of one Doctor Tod T. Friendly, a doctor in America, who has just come back from the dead. Unusual, you may think, but here’s where the fun begins. The entire novel is told backwards – so while we learn about the life of Doctor Friendly, we learn about it from his death to his life. Narrated by an external force that has a connection with the Doctor (a soul? a spirit? a ghost?), we see him grow younger, make his way down the promotions ladder, make his patients sick, and journey across all of America, before finally escaping from Germany.

This hook – the backwards telling of the story – is not just some flashy way for Amis to make his novel stand out from all the others. It does actually serve a purpose. And a very grim one at that. One of the big themes of the book is Tod’s life as a doctor, and the work that they do for the public. When he works in a big American hospital, he tears people apart, and they leave the hospital worse than when the came in. When he works in Auschwitz, however, people leave better than they came in. In fact, Tod is bringing them back to life. This twisted logic actually makes a lot of scary sense when you are reading the novel, and it is terrifying. The backwardsness of the novel also allows Amis to reference unknown events that have had an effect on Tod without having to resort to awkward flashbacks – everything is coming, anyway. As you come crashing to the end of the novel, everything that has happened begins to make perfect sense, as finally discover everything about him.

The other important part of the novel is the narrator. While we never truly know what it is, his (or, I suppose, her) observations about Tod’s life are brilliant. It takes him a while to realise that he is experiencing Tod’s life backwards, but when he does, he takes great pleasure in it. The narrator is very Martin Amis – dry, cynical and sarcastic, and does not always like what Tod does. With the use of this extra level of storytelling, we never truly find out about Tod himself – how he feels about the things he has done, or whether he truly feels regret for all of his terrible crimes.

Martin Amis may not always be the most popular author in the world – recent comments by him about Islamic extremists would indicate that his is not popular right now – but he certainly shows how good he is here. Despite the possibility of flashiness and shallowness (as is often the case with many po-mo novels that are famous because they are different), Time’s Arrow is a book that deserves to be read simply because it is a great read.

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