Each year we send a ship to Africa—sparing neither lives nor money—to seek answers to the questions: Who are you? What are your laws? What language do you speak? They, however, never send a ship to us
Herrndorf’s “Sand”, read for German Lit month VIII is about as disjointed a novel as you are ever likely to meet. The main protagonist wakes up, a few chapters in, on the first floor of a grange and doesnt know who he is, well nor do we. Herrndorf introduces a large number of characters into this book with some wonderfull descriptions such as for this American secret service agent:
There are not many people who can be described in a single sentence. Normally one needs several, and even for ordinary people an entire novel is not enough. Helen Gliese, who was leaning on the rail of the MS Kungsholm in white shorts, a white blouse, a white sunhat and giant sunglasses, chewing gum with a half open mouth, looking at the swarm of people on the nearing shore, could be described in two words: pretty and stupid. With these two words one could send a stranger to the port and be sure that he would pick up the correct person among hundreds of travelers.
At the beginning of the book There is a Swedish character called Lundgren who has a meeting set up in the desert with someone he doesn’t know. Lundgren has been around and has a low view of Arabs which Herrndorf puts across with thick sticky paint strokes such as here when as he rents a room for a week his landlady wants to make money:
The old woman was unimpressed. In the kitchen she offered Lundgren food, he declined gratefully. She pulled a bottle of home-distilled schnapps from beneath her apron, he contended not to drink alcohol on religious grounds. She proceeded to offer him coffee, a pure coffee, a rental car, a prostitute, and her ten year old granddaughter. A small girl, guaranteed not over ten!.
We know we are in north western Africa at the start of the seventies but not much else. Herrndorf punctuates his short chapters by a myriad of quotes some of them quite humorous but I gave up pretty quickly trying to find the link between the quotes and the story, quotes such as the opening quote where I felt a little like Herodotus trying to grasp the book chapter after chapter but the book didn’t send me any ships. As Lundgren finds out something about C3 hitting upon oil and then dissapearing from the story, our main protagonist wakes up in a grange with a sore head having lost his memory and escapes from three Arabs dressed in white Djellabas whom he hears talking about Cetrois and is picked up on the desert road by Helen Gliese who plays the unconcerned tourist rather well and since he doesn’t know his name she calls him Carl. Somebody knows something and the different people in the story after either money or secrets are peruaded that the somebody is Carl and that he knows but won’t tell. So as Carl hunts down his identity they hunt down what he won’t tell them. Got it?
An interesting story but it gets no clearer right up to the end. As the Daily Telegraph says “A masterpiece culminating in one of the greatest twists I’ve ever read” well I’ve now read the ending a number of times and the twist is as difficult to find as Carl’s memory. I would give this one a miss.
First Published in German as “Sand” in 2011 by Rowohlt.
Translated into English by Tim Mohr and published in 2017 by Pushkin Press