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!

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.

7 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today’s entry is from Katy Derbyshire, translator from German and curator of Love German Books. And the book she loves is Visitation.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German
Country: Germany
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 150

Why It Should Win: Susan Bernofsky; in a sense, the main character is a house; Susan Bernofsky; the translation of the title (Heimsuchung).

Visitation, quite plainly, should win the BTBA because it’s a babe of a book, written by a thinking reader’s babe of an author and put into English by thinking reader’s babe of a translator. I’m allowed to say that; I’m a woman.

That may not be enough for you—although lord knows it should be, because it’s not just that men get much more review coverage, it also just happens to be more often men who win these literary and translation prizes, so my facetious argument is actually striking a blow for feminism. But in the interest of fairness, I shall provide a few more details.

Jenny Erpenbeck is an opera director who writes stunning novels. You might want to read that sentence twice because it’s so awesome. She once pretended to be 17 and went back to high school to research a book. Her mother was a highly respected translator from Arabic. And I’ve met her and she’s gorgeous.

Susan Bernofsky is a translator, scholar, writer and blogger. She teaches translation and creative writing and has written a biography of Robert Walser, who she also happens to translate. She’s co-curating the Festival Neues Literatur in NYC as we speak. And I’ve met her and she’s gorgeous. I was totally intimidated at first but then realized she’s not only one of the most impressive translator babes ever (and believe me, there’s a lot of tough competition on that front), she’s also actually really nice.

Just a quick recap here: we have two women both utterly devoted to and excellent at what they do. If that’s not worth a prize I don’t know what is. But you may be one of those people who thinks it’s books and not people that deserve prizes. In that case, you’ll want to know something about the book these two über-babes have been generous enough to give us, I suppose.

It’s a structure you may be familiar with: the house as the element uniting a series of narratives, as in Alaa-al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, Elif Shafak’s Flea Palace, and Nicole Krauss’s latest. Only Erpenbeck takes a very thorough chronological approach, going right back to the formation of the land itself, the previous owners of the plot, the house’s architect, and so on to its demolition some time after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Because the house is not far outside of Berlin, and so a witness to all that twentieth-century German history.

What I particularly adore about the novel is that it doesn’t focus solely on the Nazi era. But that’s a personal thing; I can only assume everyone else in the English-speaking world is utterly fascinated by Nazis, judging by the number of books dealing with them, either written in English or translated. So don’t worry, there are some Nazis and some murdered Jews and some collaborators in amongst all the other beautifully sketched characters. And to get to Susan Bernofsky’s excellent work, each section is written in a different style, gorgeously rendered in English as in German.

In other words, this is a novel with brains, brawn and beauty—it’s basically a babe of a book. If the BTBA were Miss World, Visitation would win the swimsuit competition and then turn down the main prize because she had to work on actually forging world peace once she’d completed her Ph.D.

8 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Love German Books is rocking my world today . . . In addition to the German Book Prize roundup we wrote about earlier, Katy also has an interview with Susan Bernofsky about her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, a novel that sounds really curious . . . Here’s the description from the New Directions website:

A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who over the decades seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.

Katy’s interview is really interesting (in part because she’s a translator and asks good questions, in part because Susan is great at giving interviews), such as this story about translating Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words:

Jenny is wonderful to work with. She’s very generous about answering questions and giving feedback when I’m not sure how to handle one of her many untranslatables – for example in The Book of Words I wound up having to make up a whole little passage about lilies and lilies-of-the-valley to replace her play on Näglein (little nails) in the dialect sense of Nelken (carnations), and it was very helpful to be able to talk it through with her.

Actually we had a little incident in that same book – she didn’t think to tell me that she had cobbled together an entire word-collage page based on her own translations of lines from American pop songs circa 1978 – thank goodness I noticed one of them, and then my editor Declan Spring noticed a lot more, and then Jenny sent me a list of all the songs she’d used. It would have been nuts if all those titles had wound up as back-translations from her (sometimes rather idiosyncratic) German renderings. But now she’s taken to compiling, for each book, a list of all the questions her translators ask her – then she sends the list around to the other translators, just as a FYI. Now that’s an exemplary author.

And for those interested in Susan’s upcoming projects:

KD: Do you follow contemporary German writing? Is there a writer or a book you’d love to translate but haven’t yet had the chance?

SB: Yes, I do, in part by reading your blog! And there are a lot of really interesting writers who haven’t been translated yet. Right now I’m rooting for Wolfgang Herrndorf (I love his stories in Jenseits des Van Allen-Gürtels). And I really wanted to translate Gerhard Falkner’s short novel Bruno, but I couldn’t find a publisher who wanted to commit to the project.

KD: What are you working on right now?

I’ve been translating a beautiful book of poems by Uljana Wolf, Falsche Freunde/False Friends (they’re prose poems that play with letters of the alphabet). We just found out that Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn is going to publish it, which is wonderful news. Next after that will be a 19th century horror story for New York Review Books: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf. I can’t wait! It’s one of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read, and also one of the most beautiful.

Finally, for those of you in the Rochester area, Susan is going to be here on September 23rd to talk with Barbara Epler, the publisher of New Directions. They’ll be primarily talking about Robert Walser, though I’m sure the conversation will spill over into other translations, including the Erpenbeck books Susan’s done for ND.

8 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Love German Books, the wonderful Katy Derbyshire has a fun and informative overview of all the titles on this year’s German Book Prize longlist. As with years past (this is the third year that Katy’s written this sort of overview) she noticed some common themes among the books:

Teenage girls seemed to crop up rather frequently, which I love because there’s nothing sexier to read about than teenage girls. I do wonder if it’s a reaction to Helene Hegemann’s success though. The other common thread is setting things abroad, preferably in Eastern Europe or Paris as opposed to the USA, which was all the rage last year. Or if it’s not set abroad, an oppressive village setting is a bit of a classic in contemporary German writing. Also, about half the book covers feature some variant of trains, planes and automobiles – it would seem the German readership longs to get away from it all.

As a result, each of the write-ups has a note about where the book is set, and “Teenage Girl Factor” . . . Check out the link above to read about all the titles, but here are the ones that piqued my interest based on her write-ups:

Alina Bronsky, Die schärfsten Gerichte der tatarischen Küche

This is billed as “a delightfully spicy novel for women – emotionally charged, sensual, shocking and exotic – the story of the most passionate and astute grandmother of all time.” Which majorly pisses me off I’m afraid; because what do men get to read then – tales of golfing grandfathers?

Anyway, as with her first novel Broken Glass Park, Alina Bronsky just writes so entertainingly and convincingly that I can’t help jettisoning all my prejudices and simply enjoying the prose. This time it’s a quirky grandmother trying to abort her ugly daughter’s immaculately conceived foetus. Which is a hell of a lot funnier than it sounds. Very possibly a German version of that Ukrainian tractors book – fun, light post-Soviet reading matter with strong characters. Rights have already been sold to Europa Editions, so look out for an American version, probably translated by Tim Mohr. I know I’ll be reading it.

Jan Faktor, Georgs Sorgen um die Vergangenheit oder Im Reich des heiligen Hodensack-Bimbams von Prag

Jan Faktor is utterly cool – I’ve seen him live a couple of times and always gone home happy. According to the blurb, this is a book about a boy growing up in Prague: “Caught between war-traumatised aunts, a tyrannical uncle and a dazzlingly beautiful mother, all Georg wants is to escape to a new future.”

The extract is great stuff, detailing Georg’s concerns with his genitals and his obsession with his past. The language is delightful and intricate and witty but I suspect, from the extract, the length of the book – about 600 pages – and what I’ve heard him read, that it’s probably very, very rambling. The novel was also shortlisted for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in the spring and is on the longlist for oddest title. Too long for my weak wrists though, I’m afraid.

Michael Kleeberg, Das amerikanische Hospital

A Frenchwoman makes friends with an American soldier recovering from the Gulf War in the Parisian hospital of the title. I like the little I’ve read of Michael Kleeberg’s writing in the past – he seems to be uninterested in trendy subjects and chooses “real stuff” to write about. The publishers say: “Michael Kleeberg skilfully and movingly interweaves contemporary history and private lives, the mental horrors of war and the physical horrors of an unfulfilled wish for children with the dense atmosphere of Paris.”

The extract is like a puzzle, and possibly the novel as a whole unfolds this way, which is always fun. The soldier describes the Middle East in a beautiful, unrealistic, imagery-laden monologue, which gets very disturbing. My notes: Woah. Seems very good. I’ll read it if it makes the shortlist.

Thomas Lehr, September

Two female protagonists, one an American who dies on 9/11, the other an Iraqi who dies in a bombing three years later. Lehr’s previous novel, 42, was shortlisted for the German Book Prize in 2005 and is a bizarre scenario in which time stands still for everyone but a small group of people. The publishers say: “In densely poetic language, September tells a story about Islam, about oil, terror and war and about two women who stand for the victims of this conflict.”

And people, it’s fantastic stuff! Even the pattern the words make on the page is beautiful. Lehr avoids the traps of Orientalism, sketching a Middle East rife with sin and sensuality, myth and bathos. Contrasted with Long Island, other private calamities. My notes are strewn with “OMG”s. Odd words, odd sentences, odd punctuation. I think he makes the two women sisters. Mentally. I think they watch each other and tell the other’s story. But maybe they don’t. I really need to read this book.

Andreas Maier, Das Zimmer

A grown-up narrator recounts his childhood memories of his rather eccentric uncle. Maier’s second novel Klausen is out now in translation by Kenneth J. Northcott. I once saw Maier in the flesh and he had an unappealing Al Qaeda-style ginger beard. But don’t let that put you off. The publishers say: “Das Zimmer is both a portrait from memory and a novel, perhaps the beginning of a great family saga, a reflection on time and civilisation, on human dignity and how to maintain it.”

The language in the extract is a delight, smattered with great words that jump out at you. And it’s full of intelligent ideas and strange characters, primarily of course that uncle. It certainly made me want more – a real contender, at least for my reading pile.

Andreas Schäfer, Wir vier

A family shaken to its foundations by the murder of a son. The publishers say: “Us four lucidly, sovereignly and movingly tells the story of a trauma and its consequences. The reader cannot get away from it.”

And yes, the extract is great stuff. Infused with threat and oppressive atmosphere from beginning to end, everyday life lived with an appalling memory at the back of everybody’s mind. Traces of violence popping up everywhere, and a strong-minded mother holding it all together, just about. Deceptively simple narration, so much going on below the surface. I liked it a lot, I’ll read it if it makes the shortlist.

Thanks for this overview, Katy, and we’ll be posting more about the award as soon as the shortlist is announced. (And yes, still pulling for Maier. . . . Klausen is a damn amazing accomplishment, and this new book sounds fascinating.)

8 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

Thanks to Ed Park (who wrote the amazing Personal Days, which everyone who has ever worked should definitely read) for bringing this to my attention—a novel which you can start on either end and which seemingly ends with a confrontation between the two main characters that happens literally at the middle of the book!

According to the brief description with this video, Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas is being translated into English . . . More on that when I feel like disclosing more. (A publisher has to keep some secrets, right? Otherwise he’s just a blogger.)

Katy Derbyshire — who runs the wonderful love german books — wrote about this a while back in relation to a reading she attended (and as Katy pointed out to me, you should check the comments—there’s a cute fight between the author and his wife):

Then came Benjamin Stein. I haven’t read his new novel, Die Leinwand, but I’m going to have to now. It’s printed so that you can start reading at either end, with the two strands meeting in the middle where you then have to flip the book over and start again. Loosely based around the case of Binjamin Wilkomirksi, the novel looks at that old evergreen, the nature of memory, from a slightly different standpoint – how memories and truths can be manipulated and faked. Stein read well, a pitch-perfect chapter about books and libraries and ownership and lies, featuring a down-to-earth wife who made me wonder all over again about fact and fiction. And then he surprised me by giving a slide show. He’d been on a research trip to Israel, where the book is partly set, in search of a mikveh where his two (!) showdowns take place. Germans aren’t generally all that au fait with orthodox Judaism – and nor am I – so it was an unexpected lesson and gave us a great sense of Stein’s love for his subject matter. The serious reader was suddenly transformed into a smiling enthusiast, showing us the people and places that inspired him.

Oh, and sorry Germany. I thought for sure you would dismantle Spain the way you did Argentina, England, et and cetera. But no! Thrilling! And uh, go Spain? (I’ve been rooting for WC teams based on which cities I love the most. Amsterdam vs. Barcelona is a tough, tough call. I do love the color orange . . . And Catalan literature . . .)

15 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, all this week The Guardian will be running original short stories from a host of Eastern European writers. Up first is East German writer Clemens Meyer with Of Dogs and Horses, a short story from Die Nacht, Die Lichter (published by S. Fisher in German, but is still awaiting an English publisher).

The story itself is well done—especially the dark twist at the end . . . And Katy Derbyshire (of Love German Books) did an excellent job translating this.

Back during this year’s PEN World Voice Festival, I was a last minute moderator substitute for Zaia Alexander and interviewed Clemens Meyer. As part of the discussion, we each read a bit from this particular story. He read the opening in German, and then I read the ending in English—even the racetrack bits in my best horse announcer voices . . . Anyone who was there knows how dismal that was. Clemens, on the other hand, was bad-ass—possibly from his years of attending the races. In fact, he bought the very cool glasses he was wearing after a good day at the track . . .

Richard Lea sent me the complete list of authors/stories that will appear this week, and it’s pretty impressive. I’ll post about each one as it goes live, and although these two things aren’t exactly related, this Guardian project is a great complement to The Wall in My Head, the Words Without Borders anthology of fiction, essays, and images we’re publishing on November 9th to mark the same anniversary. More on that next week . . .

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