Book Review: Eugen Ruge’s “Cabo de Gata”

GataYou may occasionally have the same idea as Eugen Ruge’s main character in his short German novel “Cabo de Gata”: opt out of your present life and start somewhere new. People usually have this urge, after life has dealt them a series of serious blows.

Eugen Ruge, who won the prestigeous Deutscher Buchpreis in 2011, has dedicated this book. “Für M. Diese Geschichte habe ich erfunden, um zu erzählen, wie es war”. The story found the writer to be told what it really was like. Which made me wonder: who was M and is the story autobiographical?

The last sentence in the book reads “Aufgeschrieben zwischen November 2011 und August 2012”. But this only tells us it was written between November 2011 and August 2012. It remains one of Cabo di Gata’s mysteries: is the story fictional, or partly autobiographical? Regardless: this slender novel is pretty impressive.

Mine had an excerpt from a review by Sandra Kegel in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “… wie unafgeregt, ja fast heiter Ruge vom Scheitern erzählt. …” on its back. The story is indeed told in a very tense manner, without frills. It ends with a description of a dying fish and how witnessing this death causes Peter Handke to catch a bus and pick up his life.

But before Peter Handke boards this bus, the reader meets him in this novel’s first part called: “Die Kündigung”. Peter is still in Berlin, drinking coffee at a local café and something triggers him to chuck everything in: a “Kündigung”.

The book has two timelines. Events are described by a Peter who’s somewhere in the future who retells events “as they were”. He’s going over his memories and feelings and events, from the moment he decides to quit Berlin.

He sells stuff. He chucks things out. He buys a few things for a journey. He stores a few precious belongings in the cellar of his father’s small house. By then, it’s clear that Peter is upset, unhappy, angry, shattered. His mother died – a while ago. His relationship broke down – a while ago. But where Peter’s father and Peter’s ex are starting new relationships, Peter has no one and nothing left.

On New Year’s Day, he leaves for Spain. He’s looking forward to a warm winter, but the Spain he finds does not live up to expectations. An out-of-date travel-guide brings him to Andalusia, where he ends up in the small fishing village Cabo de Gata.

Part two is called “Der Krebs”. Peter rents a room at a small café – for the night. The village resembles a ghost town, occupied by dogs during the day and cats during the night. He has only one book with him: “Colossos” by Miller; a book he does not like much. Moreover, the night turns out to be extremely cold.

The next morning, Peter goes for a walk along the beach searching for shells. On his way back, he discovers one of the shells was occupied by a now dead crab. As Peter’s astrological sign is also the crab, he decides to stay in the village.

Slowly the sun “warms” him, he establishes a routine, picks up writing, establishes some kind of nodding relationship with a few villagers.

Towards the end of this part, a tourist arrives. This tourist turns out to be an Englishman who has also chucked in his previous life. He now travels through Spain on a motorbike. He wants to visit the nearby nature reserve. Together, the men find the village’s flamingo colony. Afterwards, the Englishman moves on.

In part three “Die Katze” or “The cat”, Peter lists the mysteries in the village. The mysteries are linked to bits and pieces of civilization left behind in the village. These range from a tower to a locked suitcase. It’s clear Peter becomes more interested in his surroundings, though the mysteries will not be solved.

Another tourist arrives. This time an American, who later mysteriously disappears during a night out on the beach. Did he leave? Was he murdered? Did he drown?

Peter starts taking care of one of the village’s stray cats. He has become part of village life and though an outsider, is now able to have short Spanish conversations with a few inhabitants. Peter starts to relate to life again.

When the cat disappears, Peter is unable to find it again. Letting go is difficult, but then he goes off to Almeria, stays the night there, and decides to walk back along the beach. At Cabo de Gata, the fishing boats have pulled in. Peter watches the catch being sold and decides it’s time to leave.

This synopsis makes the story sound simple, but it’s beautifully told and described. It shows how someone who opts out of life, spends months picking up the pieces at a small village till he is able to face things again. The healing process is written with the minimum of details, stark yet very moving, impressive and powerful.

“Cabo de Gata”, Eugen Ruge, 203 pp, Rowohlt Verlag, 2013.
The complete German review of “Cabo de Gata” by Sandra Kegel in the FAZ.
Interested in visiting Cabo de Cata: tourist info on Cabo de Gata, Analusia

Meet the author: Peter Stamm and “Nacht ist der Tag”

If you follow my blog, you know I read Peter Stamm’s “Nacht ist der Tag”. It’s English version was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It did not win, but reaped quite a few other prizes. Recently, I attended an evening, where the author was interviewed about this and earlier works.

As the author would sign after the evening, most members of the public had “Nacht ist der Tag” with them. Some German-speaking fans actually had all his books with them. I was there to learn more about his latest novel, as I had not been that impressed by it.

The interview started with citations from several reviews of “Nacht ist der Tag” and Peter Stamm’s earlier publications. One on “Nacht ist der Tag”, or “All Days are Night“, was from The New York Times. Like Mr Stamm, I disagreed with most citations, including the NYT one.

Moreover, after hearing Mr Stamm talk about themes and what he tried to do in his most recent novel, a few things I wrote about it need qualification. Guess there’s nothing like an author talking about his or her novel and reading from it.

One of many interesting things Mr Stamm mentioned was, that the Shakespeare quotation did not come first. The book “found” this quotation. So my presumption that the quotation inspired the book was wrong. Mr Stamm’s novels, short stories, and other writings are often inspired by Shakespeare, or the Bible but this time the book came first, quotation later.

As I presumed after reading its impressive first part, Mr Stamm talked with quite a few people who had gone through a similar experience as Gillian. It makes this first part very convincing.

He’s also interested in people, human behaviour, psychology, and especially human relationships. I think the focus on human relationships is really clearest in part three, when Gillian and Hubert meet again. There are also all the many relationships, functioning or not, between Gillian, her husband, Hubert, his partner, Gillian and her parents.

Mr Stamm also writes short-stories. So my remark, that the book seems like three different stories which accidentally end up in one novel, is somewhat right. During this interview, themes reoccurring in Mr Stamm’s short stories, theatre and radio plays, as well as other novels and this one, were discussed.

What is always interesting in these meet-the-author events, are questions by the public about writing. There was one person who asked how Mr Stamm wrote. It turns out Mr Stamm writes prequels. If they don’t work, he puts them aside – sometimes for years. This happened with a prequel of the Gillian story, which was rewritten and reworked years later. He admitted this is time-consuming, but it works for him. So if this is your way of writing: don’t be put off and save your prequels!

In the middle of mr Stamm reading the scene where Gillian and Hubert meet for the first time, the idea “naked soul” popped into my mind. This is a story about Gillian stripping bare for Hubert, who takes pictures of naked people; Gillian being stripped of her beauty and unable to return to her previous job; Gillian who finds herself, redefines herself, rebuilds her life. The open end is intentional.

At one point during the discussion between author and public, my neighbour raised her hand. The lady behind her, a friend or colleague, poked her and whispered “Don’t dare ask another question! I want a glass of wine!” When asked how long he would stay, the author also mentioned he’d sign books as long as there was wine.

Apparently, the Swiss embassy which hosted this event, serves excellent Swiss wines. The only thing I can tell you is, that the red was certainly impressive and heady. After one glass, I decided I really needed to walk home through the night.

“Nacht ist der Tag” by Peter Stamm, pp 252, S. Fisher, Frankfurt am Main, 2013
“All Days are Night”, its English translation, was published by Random House. It can be bought through Amazon.

Meet the authors: Literature about the Fall of the Berlin Wall

At this “meet the author” event (see previous “Steiners Geschichte” or “Il faut beaucoup“), three authors were interviewed about their books. These books concerned the fall of the Berlin Wall and DDR. They came from three different countries. This ensured three very interesting interviews, followed by a panel discussion, and made for a very  thought-provoking evening.

Journalist Sophie Derkzen who interviewed the three, had just flown in from the US. She mentioned there had been hardly any articles in newspapers related to the fall of the Wall. In this EU member state, all newspapers and opinion magazines had brought out special editions, described timelines of events, interviewed eye-witnesses, discussed its after-effects. I presume Russian tanks being able to occupy your country within twenty-four hours, kind of heightens interest in what goes on “next door”.

The first author interviewed, came from Potsdam. Dr Hans-Hermann discussed and read from his “Chronik des Mauerfalls”, which is already in its twelfth edition. The Wall ripped his family apart, with some members stuck in the DDR; others – including him – living in the West. It is difficult to fathom what this must have been like. His book chronicles the events of the “Wende“, the revolution which led to the fall of the DDR. He was able to talk to many former DDR and West German power-brokers, as well as ordinary people.

Just hearing him read an account of how hours before the collapse of the wall, it was decided DDR people were allowed “out” to the West, but would never be allowed back into the DDR by the Stazi – so would become stateless, homeless, refugees: it was both hilarious in its pettiness, as well as deeply shocking in its cruelty. Nobody living in the West, will ever be able to fully understand what life in the DDR was like.

The second book, “Menschen, Mauer, Mythen”, is one of a planned quartet of books covering the same period. It is written by Dr Ewald König and rectifies a few myths surrounding the events leading to the fall of the Wall. At the time, Dr König was a foreign correspondents allowed to work in the DDR and in Western Germany because his home-country Austria, was neutral. He was at the famous press conference. He mentioned the Leipzig and Dresden protests and events taking place outside Berlin.

The third author, Drs Hanco Jurgens, wrote a book focussing on the effects the disappearance of Wall and DDR had on the Netherlands. According to him, the “Wende” had a great impact on Dutch politics, attitudes, world view. The country is now far more US focussed than a quarter of a century ago.

The event was hosted by the German embassy, which welcomed everybody warmly. Staff ensured there was plenty to drink and served a yummy buffet during the break. Of course there were Kartoffelsalat, Frankfurter sausages, German bread and much more. Most guests could not resist having two helpings of Käsekuchen.

After the break, the panel discussion between all three authors and their audience followed – before a book-signing session. During the discussion, many suddenly realised how this fairly peaceful revolution could have ended quite differently. There was China with its Tiananmen Square and recently, the Arab Spring. As the authors mentioned: peaceful demonstrations do not guarantee a peaceful revolution.

While loitering through a quiet night, I wondered how things might have gone wrong. The fear of those weeks and the speed of events had been forgotten. Everybody had said that fortunately, Gorbachev had been there, not Putin & co. Internet, mobile phones, social media had not yet arrived. Twenty-five years later, circumstances, chronology, events had faded from memory. The first book to read clearly was “Chronik des Mauerfalls”, followed by “Menschen, Mayer, Mythen” and “Köhls Einheit ünter drei“.

Chronik des Mauerfalls” by Dr Hans-Hermann Hertle, Christoph Links Verlag, first published in 1996.
Menschen, Mauer, Mythen” Dr Ewald König, Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 2013.
Kohls Einheit unter drei”, Dr Ewald Köning, Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 2014.
“Na de val”, Drs Hanco Jurgens, 2014

Book review: Peter Stamm’s “Nacht ist der Tag”

No idea what’s wrong with bookshops these days. Not so long ago, they used to stock decent quantities of books in English, French, German, Spanish, and quite a few other languages.

Guess Amazon and similar webshops are to blame for this decline. Various bookshops stocking German novels, as well as bookshops dedicated to German literature, did not have the books I sought. Public libraries were no help either. It took a visit to a German library to find a copy of “Nacht ist der Tag” by Peter Stamm. The book, shortlisted for a Man Booker Prize, had been selected for a “meet the author” event.

The book’s title derives from a Shakespeare quotation. The English title of this novel is “All Days are Nights”. It’s main character is Gillian. During the first part of this novel, we have her point of view. She’s in hospital after a dreadful car accident. Her husband Matthias is dead.

This first part is a totally convincing description of how Gillian awakes, deals with her present situation, and her bruised and battered body. One cannot but help pondering, if Peter Stamm either went through a similar experience, or talked with people who dealt with a similar experience. There are the parents who are distant, helpless, cann’t cope. There is the coming to terms with operations and scars. There is the guilt and blame of the survivor. Gillian’s life before the accident, is told in flashbacks. This first part ends with Gillian back in her home.

The second part of the novel gives the point of view, history, experiences of Hubert. He ‘s an artist. He was working on an art project with Gillian, just before her accident. This change in point of view somewhat jars with the first part, which immersed the reader in Gillian’s story. Hubert is a less interesting character.

The biggest challenge to the reader is, however, the last part of this book. Not only point of view changes, but also place and time. It is a few years after the accident. Gillian calls herself Jill. She lives in her parents’ holiday-home and works in the local village.

Hubert and Gillian’s paths cross again. Predictably, they end up having an affair. But by the end of part three, it’s not clear if their relationship will work, or has foundered. Jill reverts to calling herself Gillian again. Regardless of what will happen, she knows she will live, she will cope. But the reader already knew this at the end of part one.

Somehow, the three parts of the book work like three short stories which accidentally ended up in one novel. The first part is the most impressive one. From then on, the book starts to disappoint. This did not bother critics and it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

However, my impression was, I had read better books on fictional characters coping with shattering life experiences or finding themselves again. This novel brought to mind “Bonjour Tristesse” by Françoise Sagan, or “Ordinary People” by Judith Guest – but these are far, far better reads.

“Nacht ist der Tag” by Peter Stamm, pp 252, S. Fisher, Frankfurt am Main, 2013 can be obtained through Amazon.
“Bonjour Tristesse” by Francoise Sagan is available through Amazon, as well as through Gibert-Joseph.
“Ordinary People” by Judith Guest is also available through Amazon

Book review: “Der Fall Collini” by Ferdinand von Schirach

This time, there was no “meet the author”. (See Steiners Geschichte and On faut aimer). Instead, this novel was a fortunate choice for a German readers’ group. It combines aspects of the court-case novel, thriller, as well as history and is thought-provoking. It is also available in English through f.i. Amazon as “The Collini Case”.

It opens with Collini pretending to be a journalist and being admitted into Hans Meyer’s Berlin apartment. Twenty minutes and four bullets later, Hans Meyer lies dead. Collini himself asks the receptionist to call the police, sits down, waits. What is the story behind this murder?

Collini’s defence lawyer is introduced in the next chapter. This seemingly simple case will be Caspar Leinen’s first. Caspar’s youth and difficult relationship with his father are described. While at boarding school, Caspar meets Philip. Soon the two boys spend most of their holidays at the sprawling villa and park of Philip’s family. Philip’s grandfather ultimately becomes a second father to Caspar. Caspar also falls in love with Philip’s elder sister, Johanna.

This may seem like too much background stuff to build up character, tension, suspense. However, at the end of the second chapter, it is clear that Collini shot Jean-Baptiste Meyer – or Hans Meyer. He was Johanna’s grandfather and Caspar’s “replacement father”.

How can Caspar defend him, asks Johanna quite rightly. Caspar tries to get out of it, but is slowly sucked into what proves to be anything but a simple murder. His father’s love for guns will give Caspar a first clue. When the court case starts, Caspar also realises: … “Jahrelang hatte er … versucht, den Strafprozess zu begreifen – aber erst heute, erst bei seinem eigenen Antrag, begriff er, dass es in Wirklichkeit um etwas ganz anderes ging: den geschundenen Menschen.” (p 132)

What he uncovers is a horrifying story. Though this is a novel and much in it may have come from the author’s imagination, the story is only too familiar. In the novel, the acts leading to the shooting of Hans Meyer occurred during the Second World War. But similar situations occurred in recent European, Asian, African conflicts as well as in Latin America. Similar scenes are undoubtedly taking place right now in other parts of the world. For all parties involved in a war, kill innocent civilians. And Hans Meyer caused the murder of innocent civilians. This in turn, caused his murder.

Are there no laws? Are there no legal systems, both national and international, which offered Collini redress? Provided he had the money, of course, one might think.

There are indeed laws, national and international ones. But what to do, if such laws state that the killing of innocent civilians is “allowed under extreme circumstances” (p 169)? What can one do, when international and national laws ensure, war criminals walk free (p. 179)?

The descriptions of the atrocities are nauseating. But even more nauseating is reading the last few chapters, where various laws actually condone such atrocities: … “Hier waren es nach der Akte nur erwachsene Männer. … Also auch das erlaubte das Völkerrecht?” “Ja.” … “Das dürfte nach den Grundsätzen des Völkerrechts ausreichen.” (p. 171).

Fabricio Collini does not say much, but one of the last things he tells Caspar is: “… Bei uns sagt man, dass die Toten keine Rache wollen, nur die Lebenden wollen sie. …”. Collini knows they will not win this case. Revenge is of no use to those who are dead. For those who become members of the group of “geschundenen Menschen” there is no justice, no redress, often not even acknowledgement.

This novel, based on world war two atrocities and their aftermath, but dealing with situations still happening in many corners of the world today, is quite rightly translated and available in over 30 languages.

“Der Fall Collini , Ferdinand von Schirach, 195 pp, Piper, München, 2011
“The Collini Case”, Ferdinand von Schirach, Michael Joseph, 2012 – also available as a Penguin Pocket (about 10 UK Pounds) and Audiobook.

 

Meet the author: “Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes”

As with the previous “meet the author” (see Steiners Geschichte): I have not read the book. As with the previous “meet the author”: I attended an interview with novelist Marie Darrieussecq. Unlike “Steiners Geschichte”, Marie Darrieussecq’s “Il Faut beaucoup aimer les homes” has been on the market since 2013. It was awarded the Prix Médicis in November 2013.Unlike with author Constantin Göttfert’s novels, I’ve read earlier novels by Marie Darrieussecq. Or rather: tried to, for her novels are occasionally very putdownable and sometimes no easy read.

Marie Darrieussecq was being interviewed about her latest novel, because a translation had become available. Personally, if at all possible – and certainly where Dutch translations are concerned – I prefer to read any book in its original language. At several occasions, I accidentally found out Dutch translations of great (modern) novels leave out pages, if not chapters of the original. So I now steer clear of Dutch translations. For who wants to watch half a Mona Lisa, a third of a Picasso, a quarter of a Damian Hirst, three-quarters of a Banksy, or of any great or interesting work of art? Perhaps I’m naïve in presuming English and other translators stick closer to a text. The good news is, that most of Marie Darrieussecq’s novels are available in English, though not yet this one.

As Marie Darrieussecq mentioned in this highly entertaining interview: the title of this novel is a citation. Marie Duras somewhere wrote « Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes. Beaucoup, beaucoup. Beaucoup les aimer pour les aimer. Sans cela ce n’est pas possible, on ne peut pas les supporter. » (One needs to love men greatly … otherwise they are insufferable.) This certainly had the majority of the audience in stitches. And one of the themes of this novel is indeed how much a woman loves a man – far more than he loves her – and how love influences her.

The heroine of this book is Solange, who’s also the heroine of “Clèves” (English title: “All the way”). As ms Darrieussecq mentioned: Solange is something of an alter-ego. Ms Darrieussecq invented this alter-ego by thinking: what would have happened to me, if I had not had the chance to receive the education I have received.

Solange is now older and an actress in Hollywood. For this novel, Ms Darrieussecq posed herself the question: “What if a white woman falls in love with a black man?” Are such relationships – she dislikes the term “mixed” as any relationship is mixed – still a problem today?

She presumed racism would be less of a problem these days, but told here audience that the same week she won the Médicis prize for this novel, France’s Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira had had to cope with shocking racism. It was one of the few serious moments during this lively, entertaining interview.

Unfortunately enough, Marie Darrieussecq only read once from her French novel. It would have been interesting to have heard her read paragraphs not only taking place in George Clooney’s Hollywood, but also in France and Africa, to illustrate how love affects Solange. For Solange follows her man to Africa, as he wants to film Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” there.

Of course one of the questions posed was: as the centre of the novel is Solange, why not keep out till the very last chapter, that her great love is black? But ms Darrieussecq told the interviewer and audience, that she did start out with this idea, but was unable to write the novel. So she had to rewrite. It are answers such as this one, which make a “meet the author” event so very interesting.

Will this novel be a good read? Based on this interview, it will be and will even be at times very hilarious. However, as ms Darrieusecq warned her audience: her readers seem either to love her books, or hate them.

Yet: if I compare what Marie Darrieusecq told her audience about her novel to what earlier the same week, Constantin Göttfert told his audience about “Steiners Geschichte”, I’m quite sure the latter is the better and more impressive book – for both male and female readers.

On faut beaucoup aimer les hommes“, Marie Darrieusecq, POL., 2013
Clèves” or “All the way”, Marie Darrieusecq, English version 2013

Youtube: author interviewed about “On faut beaucoup aimer les homes”, 2013
Youtube: author interviewed at the University of Arizona, 2012

Meet the author: “Steiners Geschichte” by Constantin Göttfert

Just to square it with you: this review is not strictly a review. I own up: I haven’t read the book – yet. At least, this makes me more honest than a great many literary critics who review for national papers and magazines – without actually reading the reviewed book. On the other hand: I met the author.

Earlier this week, I went to a book presentation and “meet the author event” at an Austrian embassy. There, author Constantin Göttfert was interviewed about and read from his latest novel. This German novel, “Steiners Geschichte” (Steiner’s story), was published about three months ago. As far as I know, it is not yet available in English. If that’s no problem for you: buy the German version asap!

The story opens with a young couple who are expecting a baby. Her grandfather, Steiner, has recently died. The relationship between the young man, who tells most of the story, and Steiner’s granddaughter is also not going well.

These circumstances trigger a fascination with the family’s history, roots, secrets, traumas. Steiner’s family to be more precise. Both young people want to understand, to find out, what caused Steiner to become Steiner; what caused his family to become so dysfunctional. So one of the novel’s themes is how family traumas influence generations, till a generation comes along and tries to end their effects.

What makes the discovery tour extra fascinating and traumatic is, that this family’s history is linked to and influenced by world events and world history. Their effects upon this family were crushing. For Steiner and his family belong to German people who settled in the middle of Europe well before and during the Habsburg Empire. They belong to the people who now call themselves Karpaten Deutscher. (See: Carpatian Germans.)

Like many Eastern Europeans, this people had to flee their country during the aftermath of WWII. Nationalism, communism, the cold war, ensured that Steiner’s family was unable to return to its roots, its home, its country.

Like other past and present refugees, Steiner and his family had to rebuild their lives in a country where they were less than welcome – and where they actually didn’t want to be. So a few other themes are what exactly is nationality, family, home, identity. What is the role of language, traditions, customs.

Of course, these and other themes were discussed during the interview with the author and after each excerpt he read from this novel. It was fascinating to witness the interviewer having problems with certain characters or scenes, which the author – who has Carpatien German ties – of course had not.

Perhaps even more fascinating were reactions from the audience. There were people present, whose families were also traumatized by WWII and its aftermath, as well as expats. Quite a few had no problem with the descriptions of the fictional Steiner family and its weird behaviour caused by traumas.

At the end of this novel, there is some kind of liberation or redemption. But it does not have a traditional happy end. This is perhaps more realistic in a novel which deals with truly difficult themes and historic traumas.

Despite the lack of a traditional happy end, this multi-layer novel, which can be read in so many ways and offers so much to think about, is an extremely good read. Even the few excerpts read by its author, managed to whet my appetite to read it asap. The few in the audience who had read it, unanimously said it was un-put-down-able. So if you can’t read German, it is to be hoped an English translation will become available fast.

Interested in hearing the author read from “Steiners Geschichte”: Steiners Geschichte
Interested in an extensive review in German from Die Presse: Steiners Geschichte

“Steiners Geschichte”, Constantin Göttfert, C.H. Beck, pp 480, about 20 Euro, published 2014. German version and German E-book version available through Amazon.