Peter Stamm ‘Seven Years’


—When she finally arrived we greeted each other as though we hadn’t seen each other for ages, we went for a walk in the snow 614205A4-BFD9-4959-A899-A3400720D22Fand talked everything over again we relished the reconciliation of the night by saying over and over what we’d done wrong and how we’d meant to do better in the future and what our life would be like and how much we loved each other, our words were conjurations as though everything would go the way we wanted it so long as we said it often enough.


Alex, the narrator is a shadow of a man, he exists, but has no real substance. Peter Stamm paints us a picture of the narrator, who through a series of discussions with his wife’s friend Antje tells us about their life over the last seven years and in so doing, through his accounts of the conversations with others and through their judgements, tells us about himself in this story read for German Lit Month,

Alex, an architect living in Munich is married to his business partner Sonia, who is beautiful, but whom in Alex’s honest narration he doesn’t love but wants to please. Alex lives throughout this whole time, on and off, an infatuation with a very catholic polish illegal immigrant, Ivona, to whom he doesn’t feel attracted, with whom he doesn’t really talk, but to whom he returns regularly, mostly just for sex but also to forget himself for a few hours.

Alex strings along both women over this time period, unable to make decisions about who if either of the women he wants in his life. The central element in the story occurs when his wife, Sonia, is unable to have a child and then Ivona falls pregnant. Alex persuades himself and Ivona, but without really persuading the reader that he is acting for both Ivona and the unborn child’s best interests taking the child off of her hands and explaining that it would be better if he and his wife bring up the child. What did Ivona really think of Alex who only rarely saw her afterwards? Her cousin tells us some years later:


‘Ivanna’s wasted her life on me’ I thought.
‘For the past fifteen years she’s been chasing the spectre of an impossible love.’
‘You mustn’t reproach yourself’ said Eva as though she’d read my mind.
‘It has nothing to do with you, in her own way Ivona is perfectly happy she has you, she’s been in love these fifteen years.’


As Alex’s life begins to fall to pieces later on through the pressure of work and alcohol and in a moment of symmetry in the story, Sonia’s parents explain to Alex how it would be better for him and the child, Sophie, if they were to take her of his hands.

The views of Alex by others is confirmed during one of the conversations with Antje during a moment of self doubt:


‘Maybe I really wasn’t good enough for Sonia’ I said.
‘It’s not your fault’ said Birgit
‘You’re not the only people in trouble’.
‘But for me Sonia would have had more of a career’ I said
‘She wanted to go abroad and work in a big architecture company’.
‘She knew what she was getting with you’ said Birgit.


Towards the end of the story in a rare moment of self appraisal Alex tells us:


‘The whole time I felt as though I was standing outside myself watching, disgusted by my own heartlessness.’


This was a chilling tale by its everyday easy conversational form, had it have been a confession there would have been some redemption. There really are people out there like Alex with no colour and no texture, beware.

First published in German as ‘Sieben Jahre’ by S. Fischer in 2009
Translated into English by Michael Hofmann as “Seven Years” and published by Granta Books in 2013

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Kiyoko Murata ‘Fille de Joie’


—A woman doesn’t just need to take care of her face, added Miss Shinonome. A hairy inside leg is not only ugly but it interferes in bed. Hair removal with tweezers.A93E07D3-B4E8-4DA0-B0FB-B3A3D7D6A116 If we use a razor, the stubble is uncomfortable for the customers, she explains, frowning, with a stifled cry as each hair is removed by Miss Murasaki wealding the tweezers with expertise, not pausing once.
—Watching them, Ichi is reminded of the adults repairing fishing nets***


Ichi from the southern fishing island of Satsuma is sold into prostitution for ten years by her parents at the age of 15, and if she works hard during this time she should be able to pay off her debt, if not, she will be sold on down the chain to lower and lower levels of pleasure houses. This book, ‘Girl of Joy’ follows Ichi and her friends through this first year as they are taken under the wing of an Oiran, a top level courtisan, in Ichi’s case Miss Shinonome from the opening quote, and as the full understanding of their new life comes upon them. All of Ichi’s hopes are then dashed following the visit of her father, one year later, to the owners of the pleasure house but who does not see her and contracts a further debt she must pay off:


—The end of the year was a difficult time for fishermen and peasants. They got by thanks to their daughters bodies….
—I even calculated how long it would take me to pay back my debt counting 5 yen’s per month…
she would need 8 years without spending any money….
—furthermore, even if I earn more, my father will come back.***


But a wind of change is blowing over Japan, a law had been passed some years earlier to free the girls from their debt, the reasoning was simple, when the girls became courtisans they were no longer human, but animals, as were cattle and horses, and who would ask cattle or horses to pay back a debt. But even this did not help as the owners of these pleasure houses, the police and local magistrates agreed not to apply it and went on as before.

We live the disgust of Ichi at the Salvation Army who were battling to free the girls based on the fact that they had chosen their fallen way of life.

A first in Japan then takes place, a strike in the shipyards of Nagasaki, the girls learn from this and post a list of demands before considering going back to work:


Reduction in the price of tobacco
The right to an evening meal even when they don’t have clients
Fish once every three days
An extra egg on days of many clients
Coal in winter even when we don’t have clients
A reduction in the price of clothes necessary for work
Fifteen days holidays after abortions
The right to say no to clients with syphilis.***


A historically interesting book about these times.

First published in Japanese
Translated into French by Sophie Refle as ‘Fille De Joie’ and published by Actes Sud in 2017
***My translation

Thomas Melle ‘3000€’


—On Facebook people just post stupid links, they’re supposed to be funny, but Denise just doesn’t get the humour, she thinks about closing her account but B1D32F65-1C09-484D-ACC2-E36CB140C044she knows she’s going to have to look through the thousands of options to find the corresponding function and then get to the end of a procedure where she’d have to answer absurd questions (Do you really? And why do you want to? And so and so will miss you a lot). For the time being she isn’t capable of typing it. Anyway, she doesn’t want to close her account. If the truth be told she keeps wanting to, but she’ll never do it.


This is the story, read for German Lit Month, of two people just trying to get by, Anton who first dropped out of law school and took a job as a taxi driver then went of the rails and spent a whole summer drunk and borrowing money, he’s a fragile person who slips back to alcohol under any pressure. His summer has left him with bank and credit card debt which, for the want of 3000€ will see him slowly sinking into the homeless ranks of people with no access to money. Denise a single mother with a special needs child works the till at a supermarket and like Anton under pressure hits the bottle on a evening, in her attempt to make ends meet she has acted in her first pornographic video, imagining that everyone that passes the till will recognise her and she has been waiting two months now to be paid her 3000€ for the video, feeling the wish to act, to get out of her situation for herself and her child and the immobility characteristic of too much pressure illustrated by the opening quote.

Thomas Melle perfectly captures that moment of fragility where Denise imagines herself looking back at her situation. We’ve all of course done this in our lives, hopefully not from such a difficult situation:


—She tells herself stories about herself, as in a television program switching backwards and onwards between the appalled tone of public service programs  and the flamboyant style of private channels. It’s a story where she herself five or ten years later talks about herself now.
—Yes she says to herself in her head looking at the camera.
—Today I find it difficult myself understanding why I was so depressed back then, at the end of the line…..in retrospect I have to say that my breakdown saved me….I won’t say that I’m happy, but I’m ok and that’s more than I could have hoped for.


Melle brings together these two characters who live at the fringes of society for a short while, but where Denise might just get through, her money eventually arrives, Anton walks away, not wanting to pull her down, as Denise surmises when he doesn’t get in touch:


—He’s just got himself in another situation with no way out, no longer has a cell phone, no credit, no internet access.


3000€, so little and over much at the same time, the price of marginality?

First published in German as ‘3000€’ by Rowohlt in 2014
Translated into French by Julia Sobottke as “3000€” and published by Éditions Métailié in 2017

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo ‘Règne Animal’


—When the husband falls ill for the first time, she hopes at first for a respite. But like those ephemeral insects whose sole aim from the moment of their metamorphosis is to 1411E409-F4C6-4E28-A543-05BA15AA58C7reproduce then to bury their eggs in fresh waters and wetlands, his desires increase in regularity and intensity, maybe he senses the seriousness of his illness and tries instinctively to perpetuate the flaws of his breed and his bloodline.***


Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animal Rule*** is a history of à French family farm in two parts, from the early 20th century through the First World War and the return of the soldiers and then picking up again in the 1980’s. The first part being a story of everyday violence, verbal, mental and physical in a subsistance farm near The French Pyrenees. Del Amo’s language is meant to dehumanise the characters, the woman in the first part is known only as the genitrix or later as the widow, we see her having several miscarriages alone in secret and feeding the foetuses to the pig before going to the chapel to pray for forgiveness. The man is the husband or the father. The farm animals as with the people exist to reproduce and to survive, see the opening quote.

Each year the farm has a pig which the young girl, Eléonore, takes daily into the woods to feed on roots and chestnuts and which is slaughtered in the autumn to allow them to live until the spring. Life and then death, by killing animals or when the people in their village die is such an obvious and regular part of life that at the outbreak of the First World War, all of the men were used to killing to live, the war they imagined would just be a continuity of this and on top of this they would be fed.

Life moves quickly in these rural societies and when the husband falls ill he fetches a nephew to do the work of the farm, the nephew is not accepted by the genetrix but when the husband dies her position threatens to change radically, afterall the farm now exists due to the work of the nephew and the daughter, and she didn’t ever have any feelings for her husband anyway:


—She had always been jealous of the severity of widows and mourning seems gentle to her, as is the frail demeanor she likes to show, hinting at a deeper pain that can’t be eased, an open wound which lifts and transcends her.  Also dressed so in black, she reflects, she will retain her authority over the child and the nephew on whom she is dependent following her husbands death.***


Eléonore marries her cousin, the nephew who comes back from the war scarred and psychologically damaged. The link between the two parts of the book is Eléonore and her son Henri, it is now the 1980’s and a key moment where the family falls apart completely. If you thought disfunctional families were limited to urban areas, welcome to this fucked up rural family. The subsistance farm has become a pig farm with hundreds of pigs reared in horrifying conditions, Henri has brought up his sons, Serge and Joël to have no feelings but contempt for the pigs with Henri, secretly dying of cancer and becoming obsessed with one of his pigs falling apart mentally, Serges thoughts express the families relationship with the pigs:


—Serge doesn’t answer. Henri doesn’t normally talk this kind of rubbish. An animal is an animal and a pig much less than an animal. It’s what his father has taught him and what the pig farm confirms every day. This pig that they look after, mark, wipe down and wank can look at them with the contempt of a lecherous and idle emperor, he’ll finish up in the slaughter house like all the other pigs just as soon as one of his blood line will have taken his place and his semen weakened.***


I’m not sure I still want to eat pork products after this story (ok, yes I do).

First published in French as ‘Règne Animal’ by Gallimard in 2016
***My translation

Jean Hegland ‘Into the Forest’


—There came a time when I yearned for the life contained in those swaying yellow school busses… it was not long after Eva discovered Ballet when I was so smarting from the hole her dancing had caused in my lifeCBC548E9-3BF3-418A-87D6-C2F0BF82EB0D and I think I tried to persuade my parents to let me go to school as a way of easing my loneliness. ‘We didn’t keep you out of school for all these years just to let you start now’ she said ‘junior high school is one of the most toxic experiences I can imagine’


Eva’s and her sister’s parents have escaped from society, living 30 to 40 miles from the nearest town in the forest, home schooling their two daughters who, having no friends of their own age are very close when they are young with this relationship becoming strained as they develop their different characters, the opening quote showing this separation and the background for the escape in the mother’s

But then all goes wrong in the outside world, maybe due to wars, maybe due to shortages and then to disease, the book doesn’t investigate the why’s. Quickly there is no outside world, and they can only survive if they become self-sufficient. They measure the time from the disruption by their mother’s illness and death, she died in hospital, soon after there were no hospitals.

The girls then live in a false sense of the world and fantasy continuity as their father tries to take care of everything, planting, harvesting and preserving in the clearing around their house to be ready for the winter as the girls continue to prepare for their planned futures back in civilisation in Harvard and Ballet school. And then their father dies, cutting his femoral artery whilst cutting wood The slow realisation that they need to act together to survive comes to them with the final realisation after readingthe tragic  story of a lone woman in the wilderness in the encyclopaedia:


—There will be no rescue! Ever since this began we’ve been waiting to be saved , waiting like stupid princesses for our rightful lives to be restored to us for we’ve only been fooling ourselves only playing out another fairy tale, our story can no more have a happy ending than the lone woman’s did, the lights will never again come on out here, the phone will never ring for us Eva and I will live like this until we die, hoarding and cringing and finally starving.


In this book nature is hostile, a thing to be afraid of, their moth.er had brought them up to be afraid of their surroundings, of the wild animals and for the unknown and maybe poisonous plants. Luckily thanks to books they learn not to tame nature but to live in harmony with it, even killing a wild boar for food when needed, this whole section lacks in reality, especially when read in parallel with Règne Animal, the subject of my next post.

The girls eventually free themselves from their house to live in a tree stump as they pass in the forest from escape to adventure.

The believability of the story aside, on the character side  this is an interesting Bildungsroman for Eva and her sister, the narrator.

First published in English as ‘Into The Forest ‘ by Calyx books in 1996
Translated into French by Josette Chicheportiche as “Dans La Forêt” and published by Gallmeister in 2017

Eric Faye ‘Eclipses Japonaises’


—During the first lessons, they wanted to hear her talk about her earliest childhood…they insisted on her teaching them nursery rhymes….in total 5D3DD7A7-8259-45DB-A603-3D2209016298seriousness they repeated the songs after her until they knew them by heart, they drank in her childhood. Had she stumbled into a lunatic asylum?…one day looking at their uniforms, Naoko thought that maybe she was teaching killers nursery rhymes***


Éric Faye brings us here in Japanese Disapearances*** A novel based on the true story of state kidnapping by North Korea of a number of Japanese citizens that went unknown for 25 years or more as in the 1970’s and early 80’s almost incredibly, small groups of North Koreans surprised isolated young Japanese near the coast, popped sacks over their heads and rushed them onto boats. Since nobody imagined this state of affairs, they were often assumed drowned or having run away from home and the isolated incidents were not connected.

Faye tells us the stories of some of these people with romanced names, here for instance Naoko Tanabe who was kidnapped when she was 13 years old in 1977 near her home in Niigata or of Setsuko Okada kidnapped at 20 in 1978 from the island of Sado. No clear reason for these kidnappings seem obvious, other than that they could. Through these two illustrations we quickly understand the situation of total hopelessness in which they find themselves, isolated from the population, living through the continual North Korean doctrination, mostly unaware of other cases of kidnapping, forced to change their names and to police everything they say with no hope of leaving, hence the quote from Dante’s Inferno at the beginning of the book:


—Abandon all hope you who enter here


We learn that Naoke, still at a young age is asked to teach North Korean military to act and to seem Japanese as in the opening quote, yes, it’s not a country where they could just go to Japan to learn this. One of Naoke’s  « students » who is captured alive after bombing à Korean Air flight killing all of the passengers and crew tells the investigators of Naoke, but this information is kept secret thus neither her family or other families suspect anything for two more decades.

The North Koreans did not just kidnap Japanese and some had fates similar to  Setsuko Okada, who was cook and then married to an American deserter, Jim Selkirk in the book, who disappeared from the DMZ between the two Koreas in 1966.

We learn of the unlikely way a journalist puts together the story and the civil pressures of the families of these victims on the Japanese government to negotiate with (and of course to pay) North Korea to recuperate some of these victims. And of course after so many decades some had died and some did not come back.

The interest lies in the truth behind the book.

First published in French as ‘Éclipses Japonaises’ by Éditions Du Seuil in 2016
***My translation

Zoran Drvenkar ‘You’


–In car number seventeen an old man is waiting for you. He’s belted in and sitting upright as if the journey is going to continue at any moment. There’s classical music on the radio. “I was waiting,” the old man said. You close the door behind you; the old man goes on talking. IMG_1297“I saw you. A truck went past. The headlights shone through the windows of the car in front of me. I saw you through the snow. And now you’re here. And I’m not scared.” “Thank you,” you tell him. The old man unbuckles his seat belt. He shuts his eyes and lets his head fall onto the steering wheel as if he wants to go to sleep. The back of his neck is exposed. You see a gold chain cutting through his tensed skin like a thin thread. You put your hands around the old man’s head. A jerk, a rough crack, a sigh escapes from the old man. You leave your hands on his head for a while, as if you could catch his fleeing thoughts. It’s a perfect moment of peace.


In this thriller by Drvenkar, read for German Lit Month, that mostly takes place between Berlin and Norway, two men operating in wholly separate spheres, and whose paths should never cross have their separate orbits pushed together by an onset of chaos and thus the man without a soul and the man without a heart embark on a long collision course.

The title of the book tells us something of the story, You. The narrator in turn addresses the different protagonists by the word you, ‘du‘ in German, the familiar form, allowing us the observer a certain proximity with them. The narrator is thus clearly observing the protagonists and we are observing the narrator. The book opens with one of the two colliding stories, that of the traveller as illustrated in the opening quote, clearly from the outset the man without a soul, and follows this serial killer in his sporadic killing sprees over a ten year period whilst also going back in time to tell us about the first time, how it started. He is a rumour and we as the reader are observers, we feel absolutely nothing for him but are not particularly drawn to his random victims either.

The second colliding story is that of the man without a heart, we follow im from his youth where he and his brother are brought up in a rigid military type survival regime by a psychopathic father during the week but who is absent a the then week-end. One Saturday by chance the elder son sees his father with his normal ‘other family’ and does the only logical thing, he kills him and moves to Berlin at sixteen years old, a survivor. Fast forward he is the feared logistical king of Berlin, bringing drugs, weapons or whatever is wanted to the city’s ‘wholesalers’, and is respected due to the regime of fear he installs, illustrated by the following quote:


–“I want her to suffer.” “I’ll see to it,” David replies. The answer comes too quickly. David wasn’t thinking, even though an order like that doesn’t call for much thinking. He reacted automatically. You hate that. Your men should think and not react. Both of you get up at the same time; you’re close to one another, so that you can smell his breath. “David, what did I just say?” “That she–that she should suffer?” You grab him between the legs. He tries to move away, thinks better of it and stands still. Only his torso bends slightly forward, that’s all that happens. You press hard. “What is that, David?” Sweat appears on his forehead; his answer is a gasp. “Suffering?” “No. This isn’t suffering, David. Suffering is when I pull your balls off and let you dive after them in the pool, that would be suffering. Now do you understand what I meant when I said she should suffer?” “I understand.”


And finally there is the grain of sand that interferes with the well oiled machinery, five young friends, all girls and ironically the same age as the man without a heart when he killed his own father, these girls, all different and with their own secrets find themselves with five kilos of heroin stolen unknowingly from this man and unknowingly trying to sell if back to his son.

There follows a chase/road trip where it is probably better for you health not to be a fringe character as the man without the heart and the man without a soul are brought into collision.

An excellent thriller, lots of well described characters, more or less believable, a pleasure to read, and of course, not Anglo-saxon and not Nordic, a very rewarding read.

First published in German as ‘Du’ by Ullstein verlag in 2010
Translated into English by Shaun Whiteside as “You” and published by Alfred A Knopf in 2014