26 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is from P. T. Smith on Inka Parei’s What Darkness Was, from Seagull Books.

This book was another one several of our reviewers jumped at, and yet another strong and insanely fascinating sounding piece of German literature, and German literature in translation. That, and Inka Parei has a pretty rad sounding name, and some intriguing titles to boot (The Shadow-Boxing Woman, to name another).

Here’s some of Patrick’s review:

Of all the Holocaust novel genres, the most interesting is often the one that doesn’t describe clearly defined horrors, written with a clarity that brings the events into the present, whether written in present tense or not, but the one grasping at memories, personal or cultural, and even more so the ones of shadow memories, of the gaps that narrators have passed over or lost—_Sebald’s Austerlitz_ one of the definers of this sub-genre. Inka Parei’s What Darkness Was takes this forward, acknowledging that history has been made in Germany since the Holocaust, and that it too can be poorly understood and put into a larger continuum of culture, and lost or denied culture. Set in late 1977 in West Germany and within the addled, lost consciousness of an old man, What Darkness Was isn’t a novel of direct connections, of completeness, of action and reaction, or of explanations for the reader, but instead of gestures toward, of using abstraction, atmosphere to set the reader up to find how it comes together, and what it has to offer from the past and for the future. Its title, embedded in a passage midway through this slim novel, stands as an example, or even a definition of this . . .

At the opening, our old man protagonist is in complete darkness, even literally, but also in his place in life. His house is not his home: it is not one he built, bought, or aged in, but inherited, without being able to remember from whom. Disconnected from his present, “part of him was still living in Berlin;” yet not able to recall enough of his past to bring that to life either. As Parei builds the setting, there is slight humor in an old newspaper with a picture of Elvis that is not, though contemporary for the novel, a cultural calling from the past, refusing idealization by being not the hip-swinging Elvis, but the aged, fat, soon-to-die-on-a-toilet Elvis. Though humor is not a running current, a keenness of detail is, and Katy Derbyshire’s translation preserves the wonderful way that states of being and atmosphere intermingle and become the same . . .

For the rest of the review, go here.

26 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Of all the Holocaust novel genres, the most interesting is often the one that doesn’t describe clearly defined horrors, written with a clarity that brings the events into the present, whether written in present tense or not, but the one grasping at memories, personal or cultural, and even more so the ones of shadow memories, of the gaps that narrators have passed over or lost—_Sebald’s Austerlitz_ one of the definers of this sub-genre. Inka Parei’s What Darkness Was takes this forward, acknowledging that history has been made in Germany since the Holocaust, and that it too can be poorly understood and put into a larger continuum of culture, and lost or denied culture. Set in late 1977 in West Germany and within the addled, lost consciousness of an old man, What Darkness Was isn’t a novel of direct connections, of completeness, of action and reaction, or of explanations for the reader, but instead of gestures toward, of using abstraction, atmosphere to set the reader up to find how it comes together, and what it has to offer from the past and for the future. Its title, embedded in a passage midway through this slim novel, stands as an example, or even a definition of this. Until coming across it in the text, the title is vague, but beautiful, then:

The night seemed endless. The old man felt wide awake. He tried to understand what darkness was, how merciless and absolute it was—nothing could chase it away. You could only ever light up tiny parts of a darkness like that, every light source ridiculous in comparison to the sun. Lamps, even very strong ones, had a light that was limited, its end foreseeable with the naked eye.

This shedding of light onto little spots of darkness is the aim of the novel, even while aware of the impossibility of full light, even finding time to dwell in the dark and find beauty. It goes beyond aesthetics, ideas, or any cultural examination, and instead is the core of the novel; indeed it is the plot. This trick, turning usual extraneous-to-the-plot elements into plot, is exciting, original, and makes a compelling read (I planned to put the book down after sixty pages and go to bed, then promised I would stop at ninety, before finally just finishing it in one read). At the opening, our old man protagonist is in complete darkness, even literally, but also in his place in life. His house is not his home: it is not one he built, bought, or aged in, but inherited, without being able to remember from whom. Disconnected from his present, “part of him was still living in Berlin;” yet not able to recall enough of his past to bring that to life either.

As Parei builds the setting, there is slight humor in an old newspaper with a picture of Elvis that is not, though contemporary for the novel, a cultural calling from the past, refusing idealization by being not the hip-swinging Elvis, but the aged, fat, soon-to-die-on-a-toilet Elvis. Though humor is not a running current, a keenness of detail is, and Katy Derbyshire’s translation preserves the wonderful way that states of being and atmosphere intermingle and become the same: “Too little sleep was like a blanket that was too thin or too short, something you could not help tugging at, in a constantly restless and alert state” or the menace behind “the absence of sound in all the lifeless things that cities consist of, the silence of the mortar, the walls and rail, the aluminum casings, the silence of wood and hewn stones.” This world the old man is walking through, it can leave people behind, it can pass over accomplishment and sin—unless someone moves against the silence.

The old man is not obviously that someone. His time is spent in silence, watching his neighbors, half-heartedly contemplating his past while avoiding any participation in his present outside of the watching. His re-entry to both is sparked by the first watched neighbor he has contact with, known only as “the stranger.” The stranger, a recent arrival in the next-door apartment, becomes the central point for the old man’s thoughts, and the center of his actions, along with the actions of the others in the neighborhood. The old man is compelled to know the stranger, to find out more, yet also to keep him no more than a stranger; he is both scared for and scared of. Here is where I can struggle with giving too much away, ruining the few “events.” The blank slate that is the stranger allows him to exist with more than one identity, an identity from the Baader-Meinhof Germany of the novel’s present, given to him by threatening neighbors and by the old man himself, and the unnamed victims of Germany’s past—as “He’s one of them. I have to save him,” passes through the old man’s thoughts.

A struggle between the often separate realities of intellectual, rational understanding of experience, and of immediate physical experience is often played out at the same time as the past vs. present dynamic, one that dominates the old man in simple ways like a reflection on a childhood memory of spinning around and watching objects around dissolve, all while knowing that was only in his eyes and in paralyzing ways, describing the stranger’s eyes, “as though they affected his sight, but he knew that was an illusion. In reality it was him, looking at the stranger, who was distracted by eyes like that, plunged into confusion and overlooking other things.” It at times becomes a fight for sanity, a fight to be able to exist rationally, yet accept one’s experiences, and for the old man, experiences are not always something he wants to accept. He has a home that was gifted to him by an unknown man except for a last name, and all the men he remembers with the name have as guilty a past as he does, as German men of his age did.

Early on, the old man, seeing a scratch he made in paint as he unlocked a door is “unsettled. . . . that he could see across the layers of different coats of paint as if looking back across decades, down to the surface.” Looking at a simple scratch, at such a benign physical marker of the past is too much for him, and during this, the world around him is fogged and scattered, but as he watches more, hears more, tries to act and respond to current events, more and more memories come to him, and more clearly. The physicality of his present as he searches the basement, trying to find out what his neighbors are up to and how the stranger is involved, bring the clearest narrative of his past in the military, culminating in a cold reality that had been until now in that darkness.

This is not to say that What Darkness Was pulls itself into a formal, structured narrative. At the end we are not left with answers, and there is much in the novel that is as unclear to the old man as it is to us, though we are made to wonder if we haven’t lit our lamp bright enough, pushed it into the right corners, or maybe are simply a little too American and don’t know 1977 Germany well enough. Or must some things remain in the darkness and all we can do is bring out the most important things, and not, either intentionally or passively, keep the most dangerous things in the dark, for they will dim the present as well.

27 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei, translated by Katy Derbyshire

Language: German

Country: Germany
Publisher: Seagull Books

Why This Book Should Win: Seagull produces some damn beautiful books.

Today’s post is by Hilary Plum, an editor with Interlink Publishing and co-director of Clockroot Books. Her novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets is forthcoming from FC2.

Hell and Dunkel (in German: Light and Dark) are two squatters in Berlin, young or youngish women, the only remaining residents in their wing of a “formerly elegant Jewish apartment house.” At the opening of The Shadow-Boxing Woman, Hell’s monotonous daily life is disturbed: Dunkel has disappeared. Hell sets out on a search for her missing neighbor, not out of friendship—she and Dunkel rarely speak—or even any real sense of morality, but some other more visceral drive, one which leads her and the novel through a dark picaresque in ’90s, post-Wall Berlin. Her tone deceptively flat, Parei offers an unsettlingly intimate evocation of the city. In her portrayal Berlin is both sinisterly populated and desolate, everywhere its surfaces defaced and indistinguishable from the prevailing refuse and excrement, a place in a state of ruin and troubled growth, continual becoming and decay (as the Eastern philosophy the novel toys with might put it).

“I can’t imagine a greater contrast than between Dunkel’s apartment and mine. At least bearing in mind that the layouts are exactly the same, mirrored across the axis of the stairwell,” Hell tells us, and maybe you’re starting to sense what this uncanny, masterfully structured novel is up to. The Shadow-Boxing Woman is a political fable in contemporary motifs: never simple allegory, but through the story of these two women offering a profound commentary on existence in fractured and then reunited Berlin. Hell is joined on her search for Dunkel by Markus März, some kind of old consort of Dunkel’s, who has come from the suburbs in search of a father long lost to him in Germany’s division. März is a bank robber of sorts (the novel’s understatement and ambiguity make an “of sorts” always in order as one describes it), and his and Hell’s hunt for Dunkel echoes the forms of both a crime novel and a classic tale of the Wild West, two outlaws teamed up on a near-hopeless quest. Interspersed with this plotline is a series of scenes from Hell’s past, just as the Wall is coming down, when she suffered some monstrous incident of violence; in response she has turned to martial arts, as well as developing, it seems, the relentlessly precise awareness that pervades the novel, the extraordinary eye for detail that is both hypnotic and suffocating. Hell deploys her martial arts skills several times in the novel’s course, with a casual brutality befitting any cowboy; but in time specters will return to haunt her, and us.

Parei sets all this up playfully, with a wicked humor that will have you grinning at lines—which makes the poignant moments that radiate briefly from this dark landscape all the more moving. “We need a dream-world in order to discover the features of the real world we think we inhabit“ is the old line by Feyerabend that often returns to me, especially when confronting a dream world as deftly made as this one, feeling so real to the senses and suffused with a wisdom that can’t be easily distilled. The Shadow-Boxing Woman is marvelously made, strange and commanding, its deep political insight resonating perfectly from within the novel’s architecture. How nice to give such a subtly constructed work the grand applause of a big award—so give this novel the BTBA!

24 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The lovely and energetic Riky Stock just sent me a ton of information about this year’s Festival Neue Literatur, which will take place in NYC from February 10th-12th and is curated by the also lovely and energetic Susan Bernofsky.

Here’s all the info you need:

The Festival of New Literature (February 10-12, 2012) will take place for the third time at various locations throughout New York City. This year’s festival will feature American authors Chris Adrian and Francisco Goldman, alongside six featured German-language authors. Susan Bernofsky, curator of the 2012 Festival of New Literature, is delighted to have Adrian and Goldman take part: “We were very fortunate to be able to secure these two wonderful writers for our festival. They will enrich our panels by their participation, and I am very much looking forward to hearing them in conversation with our German writers, Larissa Boehning and Inka Parei, our Austrian authors Linda Stift and Erwin Uhrmann and with Monica Cantieni and Catalin Dorian Florescu from Switzerland.” In addition, celebrated author Daniel Kehlmann and literary critic Liesl Schillinger will moderate the panel discussions hosted at powerHouse SoHo, Brooklyn, and at McNally Jackson Books, SoHo, respectively.

Festival Neue Literatur is a joint project of the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Consulate General of Switzerland in New York, Deutsches Haus at NYU, Deutsches Haus at Columbia University, the German Book Office NY, the German Consulate General in New York, the Goethe-Institut New York and Pro Helvetia.
All of the following events will be in English and are free and open to the public:

How German Is It? Literary Voices from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. A Workshop in Collaboration with Columbia Students

February 10, 2012
1-5pm at Columbia University
Deutsches Haus, Columbia University
420 W. 116th St. (Between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive)

Six young novelists from Germany, Austria and Switzerland will present their latest work in a discussion with Columbia graduate students from the Department of Germanic Languages and the Writing Program.

Reinventing the Past: Chris Adrian, Catalin Dorian Florescu, Inka Parei and Linda Stift in conversation with Daniel Kehlmann

February 11, 2012
6pm at powerHouse Arena
37 Main Street, Brooklyn

Literature is often a delving into the past, made all but involuntary because the past has returned to haunt the present. Whether the history in question is familial, political or ancient, traces of old trauma can cast the present in a new light. This panel explores the different ways in which the past can be put to work in the name of storytelling.

Frühschoppen Literary Brunch

February 12, 2012
12pm at Deutsches Haus, NYU
42 Washington Mews

The six German-language authors of Festival Neue Literatur: Larissa Boehning, Monica Cantieni, Catalin Dorian Florescu, Inka Parei, Linda Stift and Erwin Uhrmann, give a sampling from their work, providing a taste of new writing from Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Enjoy traditional German fare. RSVP to: deutscheshaus.rsvp@nyu.edu.

Writing on the Margins: Literature between Cultures: Francisco Goldman, Monica Cantieni, Larissa Boehning and Erwin Uhrmann in conversation with Liesl Schillinger

February 12, 2012
6pm at McNally Jackson Books
52 Prince Street, SoHo

As in the United States, the literary scene in Europe is currently abuzz with hybridity and border crossings that explore the lives of characters who move between different cultural and ethnic worlds. There as here questions of power and authenticity are not far behind as these authors explore the sometimes explosive conditions that arise when cultures intersect and, yes, sometimes clash.

All the events are free, and all sound really interesting, so if you’re going to be in the area, you should definitely check these all out.

10 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Book Reviews section is a piece by Monica Carter on Inka Parei’s The Shadow-Boxing Woman, which is available from Seagull Books and translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire.

Monica Carter is a regular reviewer for Three Percent. She also runs Salonica World Lit and, as part of her participation in the Mark Program, has been blogging for PEN Center USA.

Katy Derbyshire runs the fantastic Love German Books blog and is becoming one of Seagull’s go-to translators. (She’s done a number of books, but I can’t find a list online. Perhaps because Katy’s too modest to post her accomplishments on her website . . .)

Seagull Books is mystifyingly awesome. They seemed to come from out of nowhere and are doing amazing work. They’ve published works by Max Frisch and Thomas Bernhard and Tzevtan Todorov and Imre Kertesz and Abdourahman Waberi and Ivan Vladisclavic. They run a publishing school in India. They are helping to get the incredible Cahiers Series distributed in the U.S. And their “catalog” is the most amazing printed object I own. I can’t reproduce the incredible quality of this online, but maybe these two mediocre pictures will give you a sense.



Here’s the opening of Monica’s review:

Fiction post-Berlin Wall (and I am referring to immediately post-Berlin Wall) is rarely told in the way that Inka Parei has done in The Shadow-Boxing Woman. The prose imitates the dark, crumbling and ravaged atmosphere of East Berlin as well as the psychological state of the narrator, aptly named Hell. Parei sets out to write a post-modern novel about a post-era Germany. The Shadow-Boxing Woman delves deep into the wreckage of East Berlin, both physically and emotionally, by examining the minutest of details, the myopia of Hell’s world, and how fearful she is of exploring the world that just opened around her.

With Parei’s frugal and brutal prose, the reader immediately sees the rotting, barren buildings and neighborhoods, the poverty of her life, and an overwhelming sense that Hell is a forgotten human being. The abandoned apartment building she lives in with one other neighbor is disgusting: “The paint is hideous. Emitting a matt sheen and almost impossible to remove it, it resembles the excrement the German Shepherds deposit on the pavements here, fed on rust-coloured lumps of pre-processed food.” The only person determined enough to stay here in this building is her neighbor, Dunkel. Dunkel and Hell don’t speak much to each other, but when Dunkel suddenly leaves, Hell feels unstable and desperate to find her.

This relationship sets up the crime novel dynamic, although it is conveyed so subtly the reader never feels as if they are a classic “crime novel.” It seems more of a awkward love story, which it is not.

Click here to read the entire review.

10 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Fiction post-Berlin Wall (and I am referring to immediately post-Berlin Wall) is rarely told in the way that Inka Parei has done in The Shadow-Boxing Woman. The prose imitates the dark, crumbling and ravaged atmosphere of East Berlin as well as the psychological state of the narrator, aptly named Hell. Parei sets out to write a post-modern novel about a post-era Germany. The Shadow-Boxing Woman delves deep into the wreckage of East Berlin, both physically and emotionally, by examining the minutest of details, the myopia of Hell’s world, and how fearful she is of exploring the world that just opened around her.

With Parei’s frugal and brutal prose, the reader immediately sees the rotting, barren buildings and neighborhoods, the poverty of her life, and an overwhelming sense that Hell is a forgotten human being. The abandoned apartment building she lives in with one other neighbor is disgusting: “The paint is hideous. Emitting a matt sheen and almost impossible to remove it, it resembles the excrement the German Shepherds deposit on the pavements here, fed on rust-coloured lumps of pre-processed food.” The only person determined enough to stay here in this building is her neighbor, Dunkel. Dunkel and Hell don’t speak much to each other, but when Dunkel suddenly leaves, Hell feels unstable and desperate to find her.

This relationship sets up the crime novel dynamic, although it is conveyed so subtly the reader never feels as if they are a classic “crime novel.” It seems more of a awkward love story, which it is not. Because Hell, whose name means light, and Dunkel, whose name means dark, appear tacitly bound together “because like her and me are ten a penny in this city.” Yet, throughout the novel, we don’t get much sense of why Hell feels they are so inextricably connected. Part of this is due to Parei’s avoidance of emotional introspection, but also a lack of detail about Hell’s life until that point, and what constitutes her life throughout the novel. We have a very vague of idea of how she has money to support herself, what her likes and dislikes are, and what her motivations are. Hell’s behavior is primal, almost dog-like; trying to find Dunkel is her only goal, as if Dunkel were her lost owner.

Then there’s Hell’s love of martial arts which allows her seriously injure people in a swift movement. We witness Hell’s sense of justice when she watches two thugs threaten the owner of the café she frequents:

I pull the knife out of the ham and hold it into the bain-marie. Then I bend over the blond man and open his windpipe, an inch-long incision just below his Adam’s apple. I turn to the landlord, still clutching his son in his arms. Behind his ear is the silver ballpoint pen. I pull it out, unscrew it, remove the cartridge and the rear part, dip the front end in hot water, bend back over the blond man and insert the point of the tube into the cut. Five seconds of fear he might die. Then at last a sucking and whistling, suck and more whistling. He’s breathing with the trembling of the tube that I’ve stuck into his throat.

For a young woman, this is an unusual show of bravery, skill and detachment. Not to mention, Hell smokes a pipe. These masculine qualities highlight Hell’s acute sense of survival amidst the decay of her surroundings as well as her own life. But, when Hell’s falls in love with a sympathetic bank robber who had a fling with Dunkel recently, it is difficult to understand why, except that it might keep her connected to Dunkel in some way.

In the end, Hell and Dunkel reunite, the two polar opposites, paralleling the reunification of Germany, to form a whole that that one half cannot exist without the other. Dunkel returns refreshed, happy and with new clothes, to rescue the fearful and downtrodden Hell. Equal parts mystery and love story, what thematically is the most prominent is that sense of rescue. All the characters in this novel either rescue or are seeking to be rescued so that someone else can do for them what they cannot. Each discovers a way to prevail against mauer im kopf (the wall in the head).

With the odd tenor of this novel, Katy Derbyshire does a valiant job in keeping with Parei’s impersonal tone and slight prose. Because the prose is so minimal, it is more important that the translator find the closest nuance and meaning. Derbyshire does this with unwavering loyalty to the Parei’s words and tone without losing any of the novel’s impact.

Overall, The Shadow-Boxing Woman is a striking novel with a post-modern approach to events in the past. In small, profound ways, Hell, Dunkel and even East Berlin rise from the ruins towards a better future. It is not sentimental, at times almost feeling apocalyptic, but it is homage to our ability to move forward with our scars of human destruction merely reminders of what we overcame.

....
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