Lukas Bärfuß “One Hundred Days”


They weren’t just shoemakers, farmers, doctors, drivers, sons, mothers, daughters, or whatever. First and foremost, you were either one of the Longs or one of the Shorts. Expats avoided these local terms–they were forbidden words, associated with calamity, with murder, expulsion, revolution, and war. And we never asked anyone their affiliation, as we called it, because we didn’t know what exactly these groups were, whether they were tribes, ethnicities, or castes. But Short or Long, they all spoke the same language and we didn’t have a foolproof way of telling them apart.


I’ve chosen Lucas Bärfuß, the 2019 winner of the Georg Büchner for my last book to be read for this year’s German lit month. With this his 2008 book about a young Swiss aid worker caught up in the Rwandan Genocide, David an idealistic young man, who four years previously has gone to Rwanda, The Switzerland of Africa, “not just because of the mountains and the cows, but also because of the discipline that ruled every aspect of daily life”, as part of The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The intersection between David’s personal life, as he falls for an open, free young Rwandan, Agathe, who causes him to stay behind in hiding in his villa for one hundred days after the last Europeans leave the country and the Rwandan genocide.

As the opening quote leads us to believe, the Europeans in general but the Swiss agency in particular, who had been present since the independance in the 60’s, had no real window to or comprehension of the complex ethnic situation in this up to then well run country. Bärfuß, through David, tells us of the pressures on the country, first economic, as the Americans ended the international export agreement on coffee, the almost single export matter of Rwanda, putting a sharp slide on the price of coffee, then population, as there was no longer enough land to support an agricultural based society:


The country was overpopulated and the situation in Butare province was especially dire. For every dead person there were three newborns, more mouths that had to be fed somehow. If the country’s population continued to grow at the same rate, it would double in fifteen years. Already the demand for land could not be met. The hills were cultivated all the way to their summits. Even the dead were begrudged their graves. Since no one wanted the land to lie fallow, goats were allowed to graze in the graveyard. After ten years the graves were dug up….


Having told us of the pressures he then tells us of the two other necessary ingredients, firstly political historical, of the changes in the country when the Belgians took over the colony from the Germans at the end of the Great War and the subsequent decline of Kigali the erstwhile capital and the Belgian’s working with the longs, of many of the longs their being forced to flee to Uganda at the independance of Rwanda and of the instability caused by their being expelled from Uganda:


But then the monster rose again and repressed history rose again in the guise of the expelled Longs, returning home from their Ugandan exile, and because the Shorts had never allowed them to cross the border freely, the Longs sent their sons armed with rifles.


And secondly, organisational, as David explains that the relative stability of Rwanda up until this point can be linked to its organisation, where everyone knows his place in society, as in his own country Switzerland, but that here in Rwanda everything is controlled centrally, a prerequisite he surmises for a genocide:


Like all of Rwanda’s 840 mayors, he had been personally appointed to his office by the President. In theory, the local council held authority, but since most of the councilors had only gone to primary school, the mayor led the council like a bull with a nose ring. Each community was divided into ten sections, and these in turn were divided up into cells. The cells were not just administrative units, but were divisions of the political party. There were no independent structures and even the lowest-level leaders were controlled by the administration in Kigali. Each citizen knew his place and his superiors and followed orders that came directly from the capital.


As David lays out this backdrop he tells us his personal story, of his slowly losing his idealism in favour of the realism needed for his mission, epitomised by a story he tells of letting his house keeper, a long, grow vegetables in his garden which helped to support her family of eight only to find that that the agencies project for a much needed orphanage was turned down because of this and that he then ripped out the garden. David tells us of how the people in Rwanda changed through the story of his girlfriend, Agathe, a short and how she changes from a proud and independant woman to a rabble rouser and of his own confusion in his relationship with her, leading to his staying behind when the other Europeans fled in the hope of seeing her again even though he knew of her actions.

David tries to analyse the work carried out by his agency, for instance when they arranged for the radio broadcasters to be trained into making their programs more interesting:


They had learned the lesson. The broadcasts were entertaining. They played music, performed short sketches in which two shrewd farmers discussed the stupidity of the inkotanyi, as they called the members of the rebel army. Fine, it wasn’t our intention to teach the génocidaires how to do their work, and it was certainly not our fault if they used the radio as a murder weapon, but somehow I could never shake the feeling that I was observing one of the agency’s more successful projects.


Finally he tells us of the West’s missreading of the situation through the voice if Missland, an old hand aid worker who had long since come to terms with the situation:


This country’s history is one giant lie, Missland had said, and he made fun of the experts whose report demanded that the President take measures against the death squads. The man from whom they demand action is himself commanding the death squads..


This is a powerful story that I would recommend to anyone, my first encounter with Bärfuß’s work but certainly not my last.

First Published in German as “Hundert Tage” in 2008 by Wallstein.
Translated into English by Tess Lewis and published as “One Hundred Days” in 2013 by Granta Books

Sten Nadolny ‘The Discovery of Slowness’


“John’s eyes and ears,” Dr. Orme wrote to the captain, “retain every impression for a peculiarly long time. His apparent slowness of mind and his inertia are nothing but the result of exaggerated care taken by his brain in contemplating every kind of detail. His enormous patience…”


This book by Sten Nadolny published in 1983 about the polar explorer John Franklin, read for German lit month follows Franklin throughout his life from a young schoolboy to his death and studies how a particularly slow child could slowly develop and in adulthood turn this diadvantage to his favour. He is at first taken for and treated as an imbecile, the first person to see anything else in him is his teacher Dr. Orme who tries to explain his condition to a ships captain as John’s dream is to go to sea, illustrated in the opening quote.

The writing follows John’s developing thought process and is initially quite disjointed, becoming more and more clear as John slowly builds his theories regarding slowness, and its role compared to fastness. John lives through extraordinary times, taking part as a young midshipsman in the battle of Trafalgar realising that his inability to act quickly could be a dissadvantage in a wartime situation as a midshipsman but countering this by an ability to learn vast quantities of information about boats and by showing great braveness. Following this battle he obtains the opportunity to sail on a scientific voyage of discovery in the south seas which circumnavigated Tasmania. This voyage was of huge importance for him as he very slowly managed to persuade the crew of his capability, terminating in the sinking of the ship off of the coast of Australia and the stranding of the crew on a narrow and shallow sandbank where two events were to shape his future. Firstly the captain, rather than rushing took the time to get exacy bearings of the sandbank before rowing the more than 100 miles to the main land and coming back with help, thus a man in responsibility should not act precipitously and a captain should always bring back his crew. Secondly whilst the others were hurrying around the sandbank he thought carefully and after a day decided to put their food safely high above the sea, this was swiftly followed by a storm which wasshed away everything except the food which permitted them to hold out until rescued.

On the trip back to Europe with a boat with a number of others from the East Indies company and after an act of bravour by the captain when faced with an overwhelming force of French men of war John’s reputation now went before him as the captain proclaimed:


“Scrutinize three times; act once. Young people don’t always grasp this. Being slow and faultless is better than being quick and final. Isn’t that so, Mr. Franklin?”


But it was the North West Passage that was to make his fame, where he was chosen as captain and set off believing that after the ice there was open sea at the north pole, they were totally unprepared for the trip and as illustrated when they began to get caught in the ice:


Above 81 degrees latitude the ice floes turned into platforms, and those into islands. At one point, under the most favorable transverse wind, the Trent simply stood still and didn’t budge. “Why don’t we go on?” Reid called from below, and a few minutes later the second mate, Kirby, came on deck: “Why aren’t we moving?”


Once again Franklin’s slowness comes to their rescue as all around is panic and he appears to do nothing until his observstion saves them:


The critical moment had arrived; even Beechey became nervous: with their slow captain the whole ship would be wrecked. But why did Franklin stay so calm? What did he actually believe? Why did he stare at the shore; what did he look for with his telescope? “There!” John shouted. “We’ve got to get there, Mr. Beechey!” What did he mean? Into the pack ice? Voluntarily?


This experience caused him to think that command required two people, a first officer to handle the quick work and a captain to reflect completely and to act slowly.

So, onto the voyage that would make his legend, “The man Who ate his shoes”. He was to lead a land expedition to find the North West Passage, for this his nature and his intuition were to prove useful in his first meeting with the indians necessary to help him fulfill his mission, amongst the whites they recognised him at once as the leader:


John saw the Indians approach across the lake in a long line of canoes. Behind him, a tent had been erected at the fort. The flag was waving, and next to him the uniformed officers and Hepburn were lined up in formation. Upon John’s command they had put on their decorations. He wore none himself. His instinct for dignity told him that as the highest chief, he should be able to do without them. Akaitcho climbed out of the first canoe and strode slowly up to the Englishmen without looking right or left, so that John had to take him most seriously. This was no man who would let his warriors fall upon Eskimos and chop off their hands and feet. Whoever walked this way kept his word. In contrast to his warriors, the chief wore no feather headdress; he was dressed in mocassins, long blue trousers, and a wide shirt with crossed shoulder straps hanging loose over his trousers, belt, and powder horn; a beaver cloak hung from his shoulders to the ground.


Few of the original group made it back alive, those that did owed it in part to the decisions of their captain, in part due to a solid young sailor who went on ahead to fetch help and in part to the impression that Franklin had made on the indian chief, causing him at great risk to his life to come to resue them. This event, back in England, was perceived as a fiasco until John, slowly wrote a book about the trip, omitting nothing including that he had eaten the leather of his shoes in hunger. Thus book became a best seller and redeemed him to the public, strenghthening his belief in slowness.

Then came his later life, his knighthood, his years as governor general of Tasmania, a mostly penal colony and his final fatal mission to the North West Passage. Throughout all of this, the people that came to know him were fiercely loyal to him as he was to them.

First Published in German as “Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit” in 1983 by Piper.
Translated into English by Ralph Freedman and published as “The Discovery of Slowness” in 1987 by Viking Penguin

Britta Böhler “The Decision”


Yes, Heinrich was often right. His “subject” still exists today. The eternal petty bourgeois mindset, kneeling to those above you, tramping on those beneath you. “Everyone should have someone above himself he is afraid of and someone below that is afraid of him.”***


This book by Britta Böhler, read for German lit month in French, concerns three days in 1936 between when the nobel prize winning author of The Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann had handed in a letter to be published stating clealy his opinions as a critical opponent of Nazi Germany and his agreement for it to be published. It examines what may have been going through his mind, the greatest German writer of his time , who abhorred the Nazi regime but who would have to sacrifice his German readership, the only ones he really wrote for.

At the end of February 1933. Thomas Mann, his wife Katia and his daughter Medi leave Germany for a three week holiday in the Swiss mountains, he couldn’t know that this trip was one way and that he was leaving Germany:


During this time in his fatherland the world collapsed. You leave in all innocence on holiday and, before you know it, you no longer have a fatherland. And that at dizzying speed.
The fire in the Reichstag, the dissolution of Parliament, Hindenburg speech. The first proclamation of the state of emergency, a decree to protect the people and the state, what could that mean, I ask you?….And the there were the March elections, and he regained hope. Hitler had got it wrong, the majority of Germans hadn’t voted for him. But soon, it appeared that it changed nothing. New emergency decrees followed, the Reichstag had been completely neutralised. In November there would be new elections, and Hitler celebrated his defeat as a victory.***


Thomas Mann is described as a patriarch who lives for writing and is unfit for anything else in real life, from the outset the Nazis attack him in the press and as he stays longer than he is supposed to in Switzerland, they confiscate is house in Munich. He examines his relationship with his brother, the writer Heinrich Mann, he describes as a lover of wine and women, thinking back to a recent visit he had payed him in the south of France. Heinrich was impulsive and decisive, when in the first world war Thomas had taken two years to write on the nobility of war, missing the change in heart of the people and being published late in the war, Heinrich had written aboutreplacing the regime by a republic. Thomas was also frustrated by his son, Klaus who he compares to Heinrich, Klaus who for his first issue of “Die Sammlung”, an antifascist review, in 1933 had published A scathing article by his uncle Heinrich.

As Thomas dithers during these three days, he is under pressure from his daughter Erika who cannot understand his not clearly coming out against Germany. As he tells Katia at the end of the three days:


“The letter will be published tomorrow”, he says.
“it’s really what you want?”
He folds his napkin, empties his glass. How can he explain to her that he has made the decision to lose his fatherland? Or more precisely that he is losing nothing, that they can’t take Germany from him?
He rises and kisses Katia on the cheek.
“Germany is to be found where I am”, he says, and heads for the phone.***


A rich journey into the past where, against his inner convictions, Thomas Mann decides that literature cannot live in isolation from politics.

First Published in German as “Der Brief des Zauberers” in 2014 by Aufbau.
Translated into French by Corinna Gepner and published as “La décision” in 2014 by Sock
Translated into English by Jeannette K. Ringold and published as “The Decision” in 2015 by Haus
*** My translation

Martin Suter ‘A Perfect Friend’


“The scents of Jasmin, rose, lily of the valley, ylang-ylang, amber and vanilla penetrated the darkness. The left half of his lips felt something soft. A mouth? Fabio jerked his eyes open.img_0029Before him, so close that he couldn’t focus on it was a woman’s face.
“Norina?”
The face pulled back. Now he could make it out.
High cheekbones, big blue eyes, a small mouth with full lips, short blond hair. Mid twenties.
“Hello Fabio”, she said smiling. Bravely, it seemed to Fabio.
“Hello”, said Fabio. He had never seen the woman before.***


In this book, read for German Literature month, Fabio wakes from a coma with post traumatic memory loss, as the doctor tells him, six days after incurring a severe head injury for which he has no memory. Things begin to get complicated when a woman he doesn’t know comes to visit him, as illustrated in the opening quote. He quickly comes to the realisation that he can no longer remember fifty days of his life, and in these fifty days he slowly comes to understand that his life has been turned upside down, he has left his job and his girl friend, Norina, and taken up with a new set of friends, as he confesses to his memory specialist:


“Have you already once had a case like me?”…
“All cases are different.”….
“but not so completely. Before, I’d written about people like Fredi Keller. And then I’m going all over these bling-bling clubs in the city with him. I live with a lady who is fully engaged in the struggle against exploitation of women in the sex business. And then I become a regular in a strip club. I make fun out of the lying press releases that arrive at my desk everyday. And then I get involved with one of these women that writes them. I’ve become the exact opposite of myself.***


Fabio is visited by his closest friend Lucas, whom he remembers and who works at the same newspaper as Fabio, Lucas, by ommission, neither tells Fabio that he had left his job at the newspaper before his accident nor that he had left his girlfriend Norina, he also omits to tell him that he himself is now living with Norina. Fabio leaves the hospital with his new girl friend Marlen, is a stranger to him, and who also doesn’t tell him he has lost his job. So after his first visit to his memory specialist who tells him he should slowly begin to live his life in a settled manner in order to regain his missing memory, he goes in to work where he find someone else installed at his workplace. He then learns of the last subjects he had been working on, that he had published an article about the suicide of a researcher who had thrown himself in front of a train. Fabio also learns from his bosses secretary that he had been working on a secret story and that in the time span lost from his memory he had changed entirely from the Fabio he had been to this new Fabio. On a personal basis, Fabio cannot understand why Norina will not answer his calls, until he sees Lucas entering her appartment.

The scene is now set as Fabio tries to retrace the secret story he had been working on, discovering that someone had deleted his electronic data and his backups, and that that person could only be Lucas.

The intrigue he is chasing is linked to the date the book was published, Prions and Suter’s home country, choclate from Switzerland and of course corruption. Could somebody change so entirely in such a short time? What was Lucas’ role in this story? Is Fabio the person he remembers himself to be or the person preople think he has become? Who is the person he will be from now on? For this and many other questions watch the film in French or read the book in German or French, No English translation available.

First Published in German as “Der Perfekter Freund” by Diogenes Verlag in 2002
Translated into French by Olivier Mannoni and published as “L’Ami Parfait” in 2003 by Seuil.
Film in French directed by Antoine de Caunes and released in 2006
*** my translation

The quotes as read in German before translation

In die Dunkleheit Drang der Duft von Jasmin, Rose, Maiglöckchen, Ylang-Ylang, Amber und Vanille. Die linke Hälfte seiner Lippen spürte etwas Weiches. Einen Mund? Fabio schlug die Augen auf. Vor ihm, so dicht, daß er es nicht fokussieren konnte, war das Gesicht einer Frau.
“Norina?”
Das Gesicht wich zurück. Jetzt konnte er es erkennen.
Hohe Backenknochen, große blaue Augen, kleiner Mund mit vollen Lippen, blondes kurzes Haar. Mitte Zwanzig.
“Hallo Fabio”, sagt sie und lächelt. Tapfer, wie es Fabio schien.
“Hallo”, sagt Fabio. Er hatte die Frau noch nie gesehen.

Hatten Sie schon einmal einen Fall wie mich?…
“Alle Fälle sind verschieden.”…..
“Aber nicht so radikal. Gegen Leute wie Fredi Keller Habe Ich früher geschrieben. Und dann ziehe ich mit ihm durch die Schickimicki-Lokale der Stadt. Ich lebe mit einer Frau zusammen, die sich gegen die Ausbeutung de Frauen durch das Sexgewerbe engagiert. Und dann werde ich zum Stammgast in einem Striplokal. Ich mache mich Lustig über dir verlogenen Presseinformationen, die auf meinem Schreibtisch landen. Und dann lasse ich mich mit einer dieser Tanten ein, die sie schreiben. Ich habe mich ins pure Gegenteil meiner selbst verwandelt.”

Rasha Khayat ‘We’ve Long been Elsewhere’


And they’ve always told us, that everything is fine like this, that we have the best of both worlds, that there are only advantages, since we know two different cultures. img_0013But most of the other people you meet always want you to choose a side, they never tell you that they’re just looking to confirm what they already know. Nobody ever tells you that this divide has no end, will never heal over and that you don’t rightly belong anywhere.


In this book,chosen for the Roman De Rochefort prize and read for German Literature month, Basil the son of a Saudi Arabian doctor and German wife comes back to his apartment in Saint Pauli to discover that the sister, Layla, that he is so close to has left Germany without warning to go back to live in Saudi Arabia where they had last lived as young children. When the book begins Basil is preparing to fly to Jedda for his sister’s wedding, passing by his mother, Barbara’s apartment, on the way to the airport. She thinks that this is one of Layla’s stubborn decisions and refuses to attend whilst Basil is really only going because it’s his duty. Everything seems clear.

As Basil arrives in Jedda we slowly get to know his and Layla’s large and noisy Saudi family, with each part of it living on a different floor of their large apartment block and things seem to become more negative as Basil meets Layla’s soon to be, and arranged, husband who seems only interested in his phone. But as the book moves on we get the feeling of the genuine sense of togetherness and love holding his uncles’s family together. We find out of their family tragedy, the death of Basil’s father of a sudden heart attack soon after moving back to Germany with his family after the children had begun their schooling in Jedda. Their then staying, naturally, with Barbara. Basil even agrees to go to the mosque when his cousin Omar explains to him that his devout uncle, Khaled, feels responsible for the whole family since his brothers death and assuring that they will all be reunited in the next world.

One evening after the others have gone to bed Layla tells him of her feelings, illustrated in the opening quote. Which also helps the reader to look at this tale of two cities with a little more distance. Then onto the stag night, out in the desert, smoking shishas and shooting at tin cans which Basil can’t come to terms with.

Soon after comes the day of the wedding, full of action but at the same time so strange to a western mind:


soon the other women head for the beauty parlour, and, as Omar explained , my only responsibilities for the day were to pose for the photos and then to lead the bride into the room. The party will then, as with everything else in this country, will be celebrated separately, the women in one place and the men in another.


“at sometime we drove to Omar’s” I said and the thought of it made me smile. “And played with a PlayStation. At three o’clock I was in bed and slept like a log. Imagine I should tell anyone that weddings here are celebrated playing video games!”


By the end of this story, Rasha Khayat has shared some of the nuances and contradictions of this country with the reader.

First Published in German as “Weil wir längst woanders sind” in 2016 by Dumont Buchverlag
Translated into French by Isabelle Liber and published as “Notre ailleurs” in 2019 by Actes Sud
*** my translation

The quotes as read in German before translation

Und dass sie uns immer erzählt haben, das sei alles ganz toll so, dass wir das Beste aus beiden Welten bekommen, dass wir nur Vorteile hätten, weil wir zwei so verschiedene Kulturen kennen. Aber dass die meisten anderen, die man trifft, immer wollen, dass man sich für eine Seite entscheidet, dass sie immer nur suchen, was ihnen bekannt vorkommt, das haben sie uns nie gesagt. Dass dieser Graben nie endet, sich nie schließen wird und dass man nie irgendwo richtig hingehört. So was sagt dir niemand.«

die anderen Frauen sind bald zum Beauty-Salon aufgebrochen, und, wie Omar mir erklärt, besteht meine einzige Aufgabe heute darin, später für die Fotos zu posieren und danach die Braut in den Saal zu führen. Gefeiert wird getrennt, wie immer hier im Land, Frauen für sich und Männer für sich. »Vierhundert Frauen«, sagt Omar. »Mütter, Schwiegermütter, Cousinen, Tanten, Angeheiratete, Freundinnen. Mach dich auf was gefasst.«

»Wir sind irgendwann zu Omar gefahren«, sage ich und muss bei dem Gedanken daran grinsen. »Haben PlayStation gespielt. Um drei war ich dann im Bett und habe geschlafen wie ein Stein. Wenn ich das jemandem erzähle, dass hier mit Videospielen Hochzeit gefeiert wird!«

The quotes as read in French

“Et qu’ils veuillent toujours nous faire croire que tout était si formidable, que nous avions le meilleur de deux mondes, qu’il n’y avait que des avantages à connaître comme nous deux cultures si différentes. Mais jamais ils ne nous ont dit que la plupart des gens qu’on rencontre veulent toujours qu’on fasse le choix d’un parti, qu’ils ne cherchent toujours que ce qui leur semble familier. Que ce fossé n’avait pas de fond, qu’il ne se refermerait jamais et qu’on n’était jamais nulle part chez soi. Personne ne te l’apprend, ça.”

Layla et les autres femmes sont parties pour l’institut de beauté et, comme me l’explique Omar, ma seule tâche aujourd’hui consistera à poser tout à l’heure sur les photos, puis à conduire la mariée jusque dans la salle de réception. Comme toujours ici, les festivités se déroulent séparément, les femmes d’un côté, les hommes de l’autre. “Quatre cents femmes”, dit Omar. “Mères, belle-mères, cousines, tantes, pièces rapportées, amies. Tu ne vas pas en croire tes yeux.”

“On a fini la soirée chez Omar, dis-je, incapable de retenir un sourire. On a joué à la PlayStation. À 3 heures, j’étais au lit et j’ai dormi comme un bébé. Tu imagines, si je raconte à quelqu’un qu’ici on célèbre les mariages en jouant à des jeux vidéo!”

Olga Grjasnowa ‘ City of Jasmine’


Hammoudi is welcomed by his own rowdy group, although he had actually intended to take a taxi straight to his hotel. He’d like a little peace and quiet–two nights of sleeping alone, far away from Claire and from his family waiting for him in Deir ez-Zor. A brief time out, just for himself. That’s why he didn’t tell his friends in Damascus his arrival time. They interpreted his silence as forgetfulness and simply looked up the landing time online. Now they wrap him in hugs and kiss him on the cheeks. Hammoudi is loaded into a car, complete with his heavy case full of gifts.


Grajasnowa’s study of the slow almost imperceptible slide of normal society into chaos and beyond begins with the temporary return of Hammoudi to Syria as illustrated in the opening quote. After studying in Paris and being accepted in a prestigious Hospital as a plastic surgeon, Hammoudi need only reurn home to renew his passport, a formality, to take up the position and to live with his Jewish girlfriend, herself a surgeon in Paris. Onc home the complications begin:


‘You can have your passport back but you’re not allowed to leave the country.’ ‘Pardon?’ Hammoudi responds. ‘The Security Service has some concerns about letting you leave the country again. Please contact the relevant authority.’ ‘But the Syrian embassy assured me I could just get my passport renewed. It wasn’t a big deal, they told me.’ ‘Where was that?’ ‘In Paris.’ ‘Then go and see my colleagues in Paris.’ ‘But I’d have to leave the country first!’ ‘I’m not going to get into a discussion.’ His face devoid of expression, the civil servant flips open the next file.


We follow Hammoudi’s life as he slowly realises he won’t be leaving in the near future and in order to obtain an equivalency document to practice in Syria he must sit an exam, at the first sitting he answers all of the questions and fails, at the second sitting he pays the expected bribe and steadfastly refuses to answer a single question and of course passes.

In parallel we follow the story of Amal, the daughter of a rich father who makes money working for the Assad regime, amid a general but timid uprising of the people to obtain basic rites. No one in Syria is dupe, they all know of the brutality of the Assad regime:


Amal got a degree in English literature but books weren’t enough for her, so one day she auditioned for the prestigious Institute of Dramatic Arts. All that seems long ago now. Fear has settled in like a parasite building a nest inside her ribs. Amal knows exactly what might happen to her but she doesn’t know when or whether it will come about, and it’s this uncertainty that makes her tremble. Too many people around her have been arrested or tortured or have simply disappeared, which amounts to the same thing.


The situation in Syria slowly deteriorates, as the Regime has a file on everybody, with absolutely anybody being a potential informant, Amal is arrested once for being present at a demonstration where Grajasnowa describes the arrest and detention process of a totalitarian state; as her father tells her, he can bribe her captors to get her release but there are so many different organisations capable of arresting her that he would have to know that she had been arrested and then know who held her in order to pay.

Amal leaves Syria for Jordan whilst Hammoudi’s town of Deir ez-Zor finds itself a rebel centre. As the regime then tries to bomb the town and its people off of the map, Hammoudi, at great risk to his life, runs an underground surgery where he saves some lives but loses many. As Daesh first appear then absorb mant of the warring factions, Hammoudi who has repeatedly, under pressure, operated on and saved leaders of the oposition finds himself a target of Daesh and flees at the last minute with help from the retreating forces and decides to try to find his way to Europe.

The story then moves on to the tragedy of immigration as he must first cross over into Europe and then move within Europe, he reflects on the situation he discovers in the camps:


Illegal immigration is strictly regulated at the camp but not by the European governments, there’s a hierarchy of refugees. Syrians usually arrive in whole families and in boats that are slightly better and not quite as overcrowded they’re from the former middle class and they have small financial reserves that have enabled them to get to Europe. Pakistanis and Afghans cross the Mediterranean in extremely unseaworthy boats, in some cases so tightly packed that they don’t even have space to sit. The Afghans are also the most prepared for the journey, their rucksacks are very well packed and they often have instant access to dry shoes and socks. Syrians though often don’t have a plan, they don’t know what’s happening to them. The preparedness of its emigrants is still the best indicator of the state of a society. At the bottom of the hierarchy are the people from central and Northern Africa.


As the final tragedy approaches we learn from Hammoudi how much he has been marked by his experience as when interrogated by the Europeans to decide on his status, he is able to quote the exact number of lives he was unable to save.

This story successfully transmits the idea of inevitability, if you live there , no matter who you are, there is no way out. As Amal finally realises, all those years of studying and working to become someone have been lost forever.

First Published in German as “Gott ist nicht Schuchtern” in 2017 by Aufbau Verlag.
Translated into English as City of Jasmine by Katy Derbyshire and published in 2019 by Oneword Publications.

Robert Menasse ‘The Capital’


For any member of the Commission hoping to promote a project, to realise that nobody takes an interest in it is a great relief.***


This is a satire about Europe and the European ideal seen through the eyes of multiple characters, each with their own responsibility within the Europe they live in and its almost planned stagnation. This book looks at the two contradictory forces playing with the destiny of the continent, on one hand a supranational European organisation lead by the Commission and set up after the results of the unbridled nationalism of the early twentieth century had gone to the extremes of the extermination camps and with the main objective which could be summed up as “never again”. On the other hand the representatives of the nation states who want to protect their individual states from a supranational ideal and are themselves at present undergoing the pressure and changes brought about by populism and nationalism within their own countries.

There is the ambitious Fenia Xenopoulou, a Cypriote but with a Greek passport as Cyprus was not a member of Europe until after she had arrived, trained in economics but who has been promoted to a role in Culture:


Greece eventually gets “Culture”….with its never ending financial and budgetary crisis, Greece had hit rock bottom and thus was defenseless and had no other choice but to accept what was given to them: the department everybody looked down on. It wasn’t a mission it was a punishment: when you dont know how to handle money, it’s best not to have any, and so that’s how you wind up with a department that has no budget.***


Xeno, as she is known needs a success to get her career back on track. When in answer to a call for a project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the commission one of her team comes up with the idea of putting Auschwitz at the centre of the celebrations, “never again”, why populism and nationalism should never again be allowed to gain foothold, Menasse’s satire on the inner workings of the the Commission and how to kill a project is sumptuous. Xeno is outplayed by the chief of cabinet of the president of the Commission, Romolo Strozzi, a former Olympic fencing medalist, who gives her project the go ahead:


She had a strange feeling. she suppressed it. What was troubling her were the last few sentences Strozzi spoke at the end about planning the next stage: Oh yes, Ill take care of how we’ll include the member states in the project.
The member states? you mean the Council? Xeno replied. Why? I thought we’d agreed, the project is the Commissions responsibility.
Yes that’s clear. But it was the member states that created the Commission.
Yes of course.
It was at that moment exactly that Xeno wasn’t agile enough. that “yes of course” cut an opening in her defense.***


Strozzi is then able behind the scenes to use the member states against the Commission to kill the project. Menasse gives us his view of the sterility of advisory groups who are experts in the status quo and a case study of Europe being unable to negotiate a contract to sell pork offals to China with then, Germany first, and the other nations each negotiating their own contracts with China but from positions of weakness as no individual country is able to satisfy the full demand.

In these few lines I’ve simplified a rich and thought provoking book.

First Published in German as “Die Hauptstadt” in 2017 by Suhrkamp
Translated into French as “La Capitale” by Olivier Mannoni and published in 2019 by Verdier
Translated into English by Jamie Bullock and to be published in 2019 by Maclehose Press.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Pour tout membre de la commission désireux de faire avancer un projet, constater que personne ne s’intéressait été un grand soulagement

“La “culture” revint finalement à la Grèce….avec son interminable crise financière et budgétaire, la Grèce avait déjà touché le fond, elle était donc sans défense et n’avait d’autre choix que de prendre ce qu’on lui donnait: le service que tout le monde dédaignait. Ce n’était pas un mission, c’était un punition: quand on ne sait pas se débrouiller avec l’argent, mieux ne pas en avoir entre les mains, et c’est comme cela qu’on se retrouve avec le département dépourvu de budget”

Elle a eu un drôle de sensation. Elle la refoula. Ce qu’elle repoussa, c’étaient les deux ou trois phrases que Strozzi avait prononcées à la fin, à propos de la suite de la planification: Ah oui je m’occuperai de la manière dont nous intégrerons les états membres dans le projet. Les états membres? Le Conseil donc? avait répondu Xénon. Pour quoi faire? Nous étions d’accord , le projet est l’affaire de la commission.
Oui c’est claire. Mais ce sont les états membres qui ont fondé la commission.
Bien sûr.
C’est précisément à ce moment là que Xeno avait manqué d’agilité. Ce “bien sur” creuset une ouverture définitive dans sa défense.