Theresa Hannig ‘The Optimisers’

“You’re a Basileus, right?”
“Yes. I am Basileus B334 Eva. I am employed at present as a history teacher for this class.”861636CD-7AA4-4088-A10E-72F871312351
“Since when have children been taught by robots instead of real people?”
“At the moment it is only a test period. Children going through puberty are particularly exhausting for teachers. Many prefer to teach either younger or considerably older pupils.”***

Welcome to 2052 in the federal republic of Europe, consisting of the three richer countries Germany, Norway and Poland, to the ‘Optimal Well-being Economy. We see the story through the eyes of Samson Freitag (TGIF?), a Life Consultant, employed by the state, as the story begins Samson is married to Melanie and is fully convinced of the importance of his work to society. Samson is a meticulous worker seeking to help the people who choose to consult him (choice of course is not necessarily free), The first woman who consults him is Martina Fischer who as he later explains to Melanie:

“I had a relatively unhappy customer today”, said Samson finally. “She even wanted to seduce me so that I’d give her a better result.”
“Aha” said Melanie, taking a sip of wine.
“Of course I told her to stop that. At the end she needed to go into Contemplation. But she really wasn’t happy about it.”
“What’s there to laugh about?”
“Nothing at all. Absolutely nothing. Poor woman.”
“What do you mean poor woman?”
Well, because you shipped her off to Contemplation. Is there anything worse?”
“What do you mean worse? It’s the best place for her.”
“Yes. exactly. She’s good for nothing right?”
“The way you say it makes it sound terrible. I see it realistically. She is most useful for the state when she does nothing. Any robot can fulfill any task better than her.”
“And What happens when the day comes that a robot can do your job better than you?” She filled her empty glass.
“That’ll never happen.”***

What is then this Optimal well-being economy? Initially life seems not to be too far further forward than today, data collection is rife as it would seem to be today, this goes a little further than in The Circle, but with the means of the time. Do you remember what life was like before the Internet? Could you have imagined what it would bring? Could you imagine living without it today? Well here they have contact lenses feeding them information in real time about events or about the people around them and recording whatever they see. The same questions as today are more pointed, to what end is all of this information collected?

Samson, early in his career, had been consulted by the new up and coming politician Ercan Böser and had been in two minds about whether he should be an actor or a politician, as he re-visions the recording of their interview he realises Böser had been quoting from Georg Buchner’s “Death of Danton” and takes it in his mind to correct his initial erroneous assessment. From this moment on everything goes wrong for Samson, Martina Fischer commits suicide and his wife leaves him causing his number of “social points” to plummet, we realise that through the contact lenses everyone immediately is aware of the number of social points of the people they see, avoiding people with lower numbers. Samson’s account goes into free fall as he begins to understand for the first time that all may not be well in the Optimal well being economy.

This book then takes this, so far dystopian but possible, story to a new level as Samson gets delivered a Basileus robot, such as described in the opening quote, but with all of the thoughts and experiences of and looking exactly like the recently suicided Martina Fischer. Who is using all of this data and to what end? Well Samson ends up finding out in a way he was not expecting!

First published in German as ‘Die Optimierer’ by Bastei Lübbe AG  in 2017
*** My translation


Feridun Zaimoglu ‘Scum’

“All of a sudden another Albanian slashed my shoulder with a shank. I didn’t even notice. I was numbed from anger, from coke and from vodka. img_1206And then my boys waded in, and the fucking cops turned up with their lights flashing, running all over the shop now that there was nothing left to do. Even an ambulance rolled up, but I’m too proud to be carried off on a stretcher by the fucking vultures. Fuck me I’d just fought off four serious assholes, to have managed that and not to walk out on my own two legs, well what sort of a shitty end would that have been I ask you? Then the fucking girls arrived yakking on ‘oh Ertan, no kidding, you held your own!”***

In Feridun Zaimoglu’s ‘Scum’, not yet translated into English and read in French as ‘Racaille’ we hear the true story of Ertan Ongun, and I use the word hear with purpose as the book is based on interviews recorded on tape for Zaimoglu. Ertan Ongun in his own words is a ‘dago, a junky and a gangster’, born in Germany and living back and forth between Germany and Turkey. The story is told in Ertan’s language, the language of the streets, remarkably translated into French and good luck to a future English translator!

Ertan takes us through his life in Kiel, as he slides inevitably from delinquency through drug abuse to prison and then finally, here, hopelessness. For the most part as the opening quote illustrates in his circles you can’t survive without pride and the young Ertan has ‘cojones’ to spare, he and his friends hang out in a bar known as the “Flohmarkt” where most of the actions begin or the ideas are hatched, told in short, mostly 3 to 5 page chapters. We learn of the different groups around them, the Kurds, the Albanians and the Yougoslaves which he paints in a couple of sentences as for example here with the Yougoslaves:

“The bloke that ran the club ‘Eros’, was a Yougoslave. He was called Zlatko. He had a large Mercedes 500, a massive gold chain with a huge cross studded with big diamonds and all the rest.”***

I can almost see Zlatko. As the book advances, everyone around Ertan just sort of naturally winds up in prison or dead and Ertan slowly slides into drugs, doing everything but slowly being destroyed by ‘H’ at first he manages to get off of it on his trips to Turkey but he then quickly finds a source there too.

The book is full of bravado and humour, he tells us who he is with the gloves off, this isn’t an attempt to get us to like him and as Zaimoglu concludes:

“He delivers his message: we’re the dagos that you, the Germans, have systematically put forward as representing. Well now, here we are, in every way identical to the image you have created of us, to your fears.”***

Since this book, Zaimoglu has gone on to be a well known literary figure in Germany, a playwright and author amongst other things but as yet not translated into English.

First published in German as ‘Abschaum Die wahre Geschichte Von Ertan Ongun’ by Rotbuch/Sabine Groenewold Verlage in 1997
Translated into French by Florence Tenenbaum as “Racaille La véritable histoire d’Ertan Ongun” and published by Stock in 2004
*** My translation

Martin Suter ‘Allmen And The Dragonflies’

—Never before in his life had he known a woman throw herself at him with the hunger shown by the platinum blonde from the opera. 63ED61CD-00E9-4E8E-B710-CA2DF2B00E28On the back seat of the limousine, in full view through the chauffeur’s mirror, he had just been able to fight off Jojo’s attacks. But on arrival in the  entrance hall of the large lakeside villa, he let himself be pulled, without resisting, first up the  large staircase, then into the diva’s bedroom as if he had been a prey brought back by a lioness.***

Martin Suter’s Allmen and the dragonflies, read for German lit month, is the first book in a series concerning Allmen, a completely decadent Swiss gentleman, who has inherited wealth but, due to his lifestyle, is unable to hold onto it. Allmen owes everyone money but holds back enough to keep up appearances, for instance his opera-house membership from before he had delapidated his fortune gives him access to two cheaper tickets , one of which he sells on to a rich banker for profit and is the starting point for this book’s adventure.

The book gives us a short easy to read and slowly unravelled mystery in which Suter’s character descriptions stand out, such as the opening quote about Joëlle (Jojo), fourty something, Rohypnol taking woman who turns up at the opera with the rich banker’s ticket illustrated in the opening quote, or Carlos the resourceful Guatemalan gardener come man servant who has become indispensable to Johann Friedrich Von Allmen and who he adresses as Don John:

—The evening when he told Carlos that he would have to sell the villa, move to the gardener’s house and let him go, Carlos just  nodded his head and replied ‘very well Don John’ and went back to the house in question
But the next day, whilst Allmen was seated before his breakfast and Carlos was serving him coffee, he said in his usual stiff manner:
‘Una sugerencia nada más’***

Almenn then, who becomes involved in petty art thefts which he sells to his local fence, one evening at Jojo’s father’s villa on the lake, crosses the line from anonymous petty larson to more serious theft when he finds and steels an art nouveau glass with a dragonfly decoration, one of a set of five and sells it to his local fence for 20000 Swiss Francs. All seems well until he returns with Jojo for a second torrid night hoping to get the other four glasses and to his surprise discovers all five glasses in place once again.

Before the end of the book we discover, that the glasses are worth considerably more than the 20000 Swiss Francs, murder, insurance swindles, blackmail and more. Allmen with no small thanks to Carlos skates over the thin ice and of course comes out on top. Is he more of a gentleman thief or more on the side of the law? I guess only Simon Templar would know.

First published in German as ‘Allmen und die Libellen ‘ by Diogenes  in 2011
Translated into French by Olivier Mannoni as “Allmen et les Libellules” and published by Christian Bourgeois in 2011
*** My translation

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

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… 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

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

Sven Regener ‘Berlin Blues’

–Sleep isn’t as important as all that, physically speaking, but lack of it will drive you crazy in the end. That’s why it is difficult to tell the chicken from the egg. Did your friend flip because he hadn’t slept for so long, or did he go without sleep for so long because he’d flipped?46285D58-FF4E-48C0-AFDD-C66F2BB6FC55
–You tell me said Herr Lehmann
–A bit of both I’d say. That’s what we’ve got to find out, but it may also be a dully developed manic–depressive psychosis
–What would that mean? He asked.
–It takes time. In such cases I always recommend that patients be sent back home for therapy. The vast majority come from West Germany.

It’s 1989 in West Berlin, West Berlin is not West Germany and attracts youth from all over West Germany because, amongst  other things, if you lived in West Berlin you were exempt from the 18 month military service in place in West Germany. Frank, who has recently become known wittily by his friends as Herr Lehmann because he will be 30 years old on the 9th November, has been a barman since his arrival from Bremen 9 years earlier, and has no other ambition. His life mostly revolves around working, drinking with his best friend Karl and sleeping. Herr Lehmann is not the sort of person who asks himself questions and then one day when he goes to the Markthalle, where Karl works, for early lunch he meets the new woman chef, who shows her capability to equal him in meaningless disputes, and falls in love:

–Karl : What’ll you have then?
–Frank: Roast pork said Herr Lehmann who never had anything else at the Markthalle….if it’s ok for these imbéciles to breakfast till five in the afternoon, it must be ok to order roast pork at eleven in the morning.
–Katrin: If the world is teeming with assholes who breakfast till five in the afternoon she said why should we need any desperate characters who order roast pork at eleven in the morning?

Thirty has crept up on Frank without his suspecting it and his well oiled no questions asked routine is about to be dynamited, we follow him and his often drunk friends, who work the bars and live at night with no thoughts of the future, through their routines, people come and people go in and around their bars but there is always Frank’s friend Karl, a barman by night with dreams of becoming an artist. As Frank meets Katrin and finally finds some form of acceptance for his life from his parents, he doesn’t notice Karl’s strange behaviour as he slowly drifts towards a crises, illustrated in the opening quote, which then comes to a head as Katrin leaves him. He is then alone as he sets out to celebrate his 30th birthday on the fateful 9th November 1989.

A great book, read for German lit month, if you like your humour dry and  subject matter blue then this book is for you. Some of the incidents Regener describes should remind everyone of those heady days which were our 20’s, it did me!

First published in German as ‘Herr Lehmann’ by Eichborn in 2001
Translated into English by John Brownjohn as “Berlin Blues” and published by Secker & Warburg in 2003