Martin Suter ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’

‘Dr. Fluri was no more under the illusion for this point than the other participants. img_1412-1His only thought was to save face, the same one Urs Blank would have happily slapped that same afternoon.***

Welcome back to the Swiss author, Martin Suter, once again read for German lit month VIII. Urs Blank is a successful corporate lawyer specialising in mergers and acquisitions, we discover him at the beginning as he prepares and helps to negotiate a deal that is a merger only in name, Dr. Fluri’s company is to be taken over. The narrator lets us know of Urs’ frustration at the pompous Dr. Fluri as illustrated in the opening quote. As then Urs is given the opportunity to ruin Fluri and takes it we understand that Urs has a surpressed “dark side”. We are not the only ones to see this, Pius Ott, A multimillionaire and hunter (he hunts both rare and dangerous wild animals including both a rare lynx early in the story and had at one time hunted and killed a man eating lion) who is the money behind the takeover of Fluri’s business, appreciates Urs’ killer instinct and thinks he recognises a kindred spirit. Ott is the character Urs could become, Ott was never interested in Fluri’s business, only in destroying the man which Urs did for him.

But Urs is dissatisfied with his well ordered life, lunch same time, same place each week with his friend, the psychiatrist, Alfred Wenger, his life without love with his companion, Evelyne Vogt and wants to change something, and so he does. What at first seems a banale middle-age crisis as Urs takes up with a young hippy girl, Lucille, swings out of control when she persuades him to come to the countryside with some friends and to try some psychedelic mushrooms. Urs has a severe reaction to the mushrooms which release his dark side, he no longer feels guilt which we discover as he kills Lucille’s cat with his bare hands and puts it in his briefcase or as he causes the death of a random impatient motorist who wants to overtake him:

‘The car behind was  bumper to bumper with his Jaguar, lights on full beam. Blank showed no reaction, coming out of the next curve the car set to overtake him…. it was a two seater sports car….it wasn’t a match for his twelve cylinders. The more the other accelerated, the more Blank accelerated….the lights of the car coming in the opposite direction shone on the sports car next to Blank….Blank accelerated. Behind him he heard the impact, like an explosion.
Then there was silence, he could only hear the hum of the air conditioning. Blank turned on the radio. A classical music channel, Haydn..***

After talking to his friend Wenger and thinking back to his experience with the mushrooms Blank realises that there was a mushroom different than the others in those he took, he then sets out to search for this mushroom. Blank retreats into the forest over several months, the only place he feels really safe, where he learns to live in total self sufficiency in the wild. An incident with Pius Ott, finishing with Blank punching him and walking away leads to the hunter detesting him, soon after, to escape from the police (there were other murders), Blank successfuly fakes his own suicide, living then entirely hidden in the forest. When Ott discovers that Blank is still alive and could thus be killed without being missed then the hunt begins between the hunter with no concience and the proficient forest dweller with no concience and builds up to the final crescendo.

This was really a fun book, a well written psycological thriller for which a 2016 film by Stephan Rick exists, a shame that it hasn’t been translated into English yet.

First Published in German as “Die Dunkle Seite des Mondes” in 2000 by Diogenes Verlag.
Translated into French by Olivier Mannoni and published in 2000 by Christian Bourgeois
***My translation


Simone Buchholz ‘Blue Night’

The main protagonist in this crime thriller read for German lit month VIII is the hamburg state prosecutor Chastity Riley, in this book which I too learnt afterwards was the sixth in a series, maybe why there were so many characters around her (well Simone Buchholtz had had five books to develop them), Chastity is a city girl, a Hamburg girl, what is she thinking of? Driving into the countryside. After she breaks down somewhere between“Mecklenberg and wherethehellever” we learn from her friend Faller“Why do you do these things Chastity? Just head off out of town? you need your concrete” I guess she really is a city girl.

Chastity has been relegated to witness protection for a sombre story including gunshot wounds to a criminals testicles and launching a corruption case against her bosses. As the story opens her next protection case is being prepared for her in the back streets of Hamburg:

“Then they whip the coshes out from under their jackets. Three jackets, three coshes. Left leg, right leg. Left arm, right arm. And six feet for twelve pairs of ribs. Your very own many-headed demon. Tailor-made to order. Then out come the pliers. Right index finger. A clean crack. But you’re left-handed; they don’t know everything.”

Well as I skipped through the opening chapter and the man being beat to a pulp was able to congratulate himself on his attackers not knowing everything (that he was right handed) I thought to myself : “well he’ll still be able to write” and then later in the book I felt like Marylyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot: Not very bright he needed his trigger finger for something other than writing

Chastity is a right and ready street girl, used to working the shadier areas of Hamburg and can hold her own in any drink and cigarette contest, after gaining her witness’ confidence, she gets out of Hamburg for the day, following a lead, I get to feeling that Leipzig really isn’t like Hamburg, that said I’ve never been to Leipzig, I like the nail scissors.

“Leipzig looks like any other medium sized German city, only a bit better, tidy in a Bavarian kind of way, pretty, old, picture book, listed buildings everywhere, we come to a tree lined square that looks like it was smartened up with nail scissors.”

As the story moves on we find ourselves in the drug business with two unlikely drugs in the same operation, Croc and Crystal meth, Unlikely I said:

“Croc, codeine tablets cooked up with Formic acid and match heads is meth’s cousin from hell, dead in six months… with meth you can hold it together for years, Croc kills quickly, it doesn’t quite fit the business model”

Throughout the story there are many references to Hamburg, as here for instance as the story draws to an end:

“Faller and me on the erholung promenade in St. Pauli we’re smoking and drinking coffee from paper cups the jetties are below us, a few ships, a few tourists, a lot of gold, no sun in the sky.”

She’s a Saint Pauli girl alright, wait for the football match, everybody standing, no one in the boxes.

First Published in German as “Blaue Nacht” in 2017 by Suhrkamp Verlag.
Translated into English by Rachel Ward and published in 2017 by Orenda Books

Readalong with Caroline: Blue Night – Simone Buchholz comment 5

Readalong with Caroline.

“Faller and me on the erholung promenade in St. Pauli we’re smoking and drinking coffee from paper cups the jetties are below us, a few ships, a few tourists, a lot of gold, no sun in the sky.”

She’s a Saint Pauli girl alright, wait for the football match, everybody standing, no one in the boxes.

Readalong with Caroline: Blue Night – Simone Buchholz comment 4

Readalong with Caroline.

As the story moves on and it starts to get nasty its back to business school:

“Croc, codeine tablets cooked up with Formic acid and match heads is meth’s cousin from hell, dead in six months… with meth you can hold it together for years, Croc kills quickly, it doesn’t quite fit the business model”

Wolfgang Herrndorf ‘Sand’

Each year we send a ship to Africa—sparing neither lives nor money—to seek answers to the questions: img_1394Who 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

Marc Elsberg ‘Zero’

‘Over thirty years ago, a computer manufacturer launched an ad campaign for its latest model featuring the slogan “On January 24th Apple will introduce Macintosh. 58418F37-2053-4C65-A6A4-DAAF3A399111And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” That’s the same computer manufacturer whose iPhones and iPads now log where we’re standing or walking at every instant. Whose apps search and pass on our address lists. Which bans apps from its App Store when they show, say or do something that Uncle Sam doesn’t like….’

Marc Elsberg’s world here in “Zero” read for German lit month VIII is so very close to ours, as the future technology giants embrace the available technology to offer us a better present, why give away your data to Google or Facebook when Freemee will pay you for it, all of it. Ok so you will have to wear a smart watch which in real time sends in your actual physical data, but with this and your profile which Freemee picks up from all of your online information, Freemee Act apps can tell you how to act to meet your goals and you may find that  Freemee can define your individual goals better than you because with the data and probability analysis they know you better than you know yourself. So this is the opening gambit as illustrated by the opening quote.

The story revolves around Cynthia Bonsant, a dinosour really, Cynthia is an investigative journalist in a world of instant news, anyone with a camera can be a journalist. One day Cyn is given a pair of on line video glasses to test by her newspaper, which hardly interests her but this is where the trouble begins, she lends the glasses to her daughter Vi who decides to test out the glasses with her friends, the glasses use facial recognition software and almost instantly in a crowd you can know everything about everyone:

The low afternoon sun picks out strands of hair, spectacles and earrings sparkle and cast sharp shadows over a sea of heads, these heads are streaming in all directions, slowly hastily with gritted teeth or relaxed expressions chatting laughing talking and phoning there are red and green squares around the faces of passers by bigger or smaller depending on how far away the person is, they move along with the people occasionally overlapping for a second whilst others vanish and new ones appear, a psychedelic pattern of abstract patterns, within seconds the red squares turn green.

As Vi and her friends each use the glasses, one of the boys sees a face that is almost instantly recognised as a violent criminal and begins to chase him, in spite of his friend’s warnings and those of Freemee through the glasses he continues his chase and is eventually shot dead. Six months before he had been a quiet young boy but since he had started using Freemee Act apps his whole character had changed, girls liked him, he had improved at school etc.

In parallel to this story, initially at first is the story of the internet activist Zero who warns against the power of the people hoarding personal data and who crosses paths with and helps Bonsant:

You’re paying the world’s data oligarchs to spy on you. That, right there, is consummate surveillance. Please let me give you money so you can locate me and use my data! They could sure teach international spy agencies a thing or two …’ Zero lowers his voice, his tone more biting. ‘Here they come with their Trojan horses, offering you search results, friends, maps, love, success, fitness tips, discounts on your shopping and who knows what else –but all the while, armed warriors sit lurking in their bellies, waiting for an opportunity to pounce! Their arrows strike you right in the heart and the head. They know more about you than any intelligence service. They know you better than you know yourself.

As the story progresses Bonsant discovers the insidiousness of the technology, even her daughters seeming rapid maturing and changing for “the better” is due to her use of Act apps. The on line video glasses rapidly ammass much more data more quickly. There is however a secret closely hidden by the head of Freemee, Vi’s friend is not the only youth to have taken inordinate risks and died. Bonsant circles around before finding the story and when eventually after chases and deaths Cyn brings the truth to light, the head of Freemee cynically plans the next phase.

Ok, he says to Joaquim and Henry as unobtrusively as possible the story’s out I see two alternatives: one, we undermine Bonsant’s and Bricle’s credibility and deny everything. We’ll need to undermine more than their credibility says Joaquin, people conform to Julius Caesar’s old adage, I love treason but hate a traitor, we must challenge their character and motives and their integrity, the same way the US administration and their allies did to Edward Snowden by attacking his motives, his escape to China, his asylum bid in Russia and a few tactless statements he made they got people to reassess his other actions as treason this played perfectly with many members of the public.

First Published in German as “Zero” in 2014 by Blanvalet Verlag.
Translated into English by Simon Pare and published in 2018 by Doubleday

Peter Stamm ‘The Mild indifference of the World’

The text on Magdalena and my life had lead nowhere. I had spoken to her about it adding that too few things happened in our existence to turn into literature.56B71533-481E-455B-8108-C3B64F7CC34C Why write all that I said, we are already living it. In truth I was afraid Magdalena would become foreign to me, that the fictional character could irrevocably replace the real character…..actually I didn’t like to see her on stage, maybe because I didn’t want to see that she could be completely different, that our love wasn’t the only possibility that she carried within her.***

As this book opens the narrator, an old man, is haunted by a young woman, Magdalena. In this mysterious book by Peter Stamm read for German lit month VIII the narrator begins by inviting an unknown young woman whose name is Magdalena but who is known as Lena to a rendezvous in a cemetery in Stockholm. As the story moves on he confesses to Lena that twenty years earlier he had separated from the one great love of his life, Magdalena, an actress, and of his insecurity over their relationship, of the differences between who she had been and how he had imagined her illustrated by the opening quote. He finally leaves her in order to better concentrate on his literature, then writing and having published the only book he ever wrote which concerns their lives and their separation.

But who is Lena, she is an actress too, she resembles Magdalena and has acted in the same play by Strindberg as had Magdalena. We learn that he had first come across her partner, Chris, a young writer that resembles himself whilst visiting his home town, Chris worked in the same hotel he had worked in, went to the same university and finally had a partner called Magdalena. The narrator, after following Chris over a period of time and then confessing to Lena, tries to alter their lives so that they remain together:

I didn’t cheat on Magdalena, I repeated. And what does that change? says Lena. I thought that if you and Chris were to meet here, everything could end differently this time, I said. He would realise things, you would talk, go back to the hotel, everything would end well. And he wouldn’t write the book says Lena. That’s what you were counting on isn’t it? Her voice was still exasperated. I think we can sort things out ourselves. Or do you believe that you can put your life in order by wrecking our’s?***

Lena asks him the key question, had leaving Magdalena made him happy. A short intense book, but the opening chapter tells of the tragedy, of the ever young woman visiting the man who doesn’t recognise himself trapped in his old body.

First Published in German as “Die sanfte Gleichgültigkeit der Welt” in 2018 by S. Fischer Verlag
Translated into French by Pierre Deshusses and published in 2018 by Christian Bourgois
*** My translation