Juli Zeh ‘Unterleuten’

“The land rent for ten wind turbines is fifty thousand euros a year. You work it out for a hundred turbines. Just to see what sort of a retirement that pays.”….
“Gombrowski’s going to wind up Ökologica. He doesn’t need it any more. Finished, over.”
The effect was immediate. Kron cut short all muttering with a movement of his hand.
“Think a bit. Ökologica hasn’t been profitable in a long time. Why is Gombrowski so set on the wind park? To pay himself a tidy pension.”
This time he let them mutter. Except for Ulrich, they all had family that worked at Ökologica: daughters, nephews, sons and sons in law; Björn’s grand-daughter had just begun an apprenticeship in agronomy. In Unterleuten to lose your job was the equivalent of a professional death sentence.***

Juli Zeh takes the time to set the scene in this delicious rural thriller, where the events that take place are blurred by the form, they are seen from the viewpoints of each of the many protagonists living in the village of Unterleuten in Brandebourg about fifty kilometres from Berlin, there are no truths only different perspectives. There are the new arrivals, moving in from the city and the villagers who have lived the tumultuous times of the twentieth century, the disenfranchisement of the land owners, the collectivisation of the land followed by targets set in Berlin that didn’t take account of the seasons and the capability of the land, the flight of villagers to the West, The Stasi’s spying of the people, the wall falling and coming to terms with Capitalism. The villagers all know each other or are related and old contentions run deep. Each of the protagonists, as the events unfold, is persuaded to be acting justly as the village’s fine balance is knocked out of equilibrium.

There is the mayor, Arne Seidel, who best represents the arbitrariness of the past fifty years, once the vet trained in The DDR, but whose training was no longer recognised after re-unification. Arne is then left a broken man when his beloved wife dies of a short illness only to discover that she had been a Stasi informer, writing page after page about him every week, before he is then coaxed by Rudolph Gombrowski into becoming Mayor.

There are the two long term enemies, Kron, a one time convinced communist who regrets the passing of the DDR and the privatisation of the collective farm, and whose wife ran away to the West years during the Cold War leaving him with a young daughter to bring up. There is Gombrowski the man who had taken the collective farm in hand after unification and created a private company, guaranteeing employment for a large part of the the local population but making himself rich at the same time. We soon learn that problems are handled locally without outside interference, police or lawyers as opposed to the West, Gombrowski and Kron had opposed each other as Gombrowski tried to take over the collective farm and had a meeting in the forest during a storm from which one person died and Kron suffered broken legs as Gombrowski was then able to take over the farm. But what really happened that day? Whose interest is it to leave a doubt?

For many years Seidel and Gombrowski have acted in tandem, both believing this is the best for the community with the excesses from Gombrowski’s company Ökologica GmbH, more or less subsidising the village.

Then there are the newcomers, of which two stand out, the highly manipulative, stop at nothing Linda Franzen, who wants to set up a ranch for sick horses but needs money and land, and there is “The Bird Protector”, Gerhard Fließ, who wants to restrict any human activity that will threaten the presence of the Ruffs that feed in the region during their annual migration, Gerhard uses his power to prevent Linda from building an enclosure for the horses. Neither of which understand the old antagonisms present in the community.

To this state of affairs, set in 2010, Juli Zeh throws in a private company, Vento Direct with a project to install a wind turbines park in the local countryside, where no single land owner has quite a large enough patch of land without the small patch which Linda Franzen discovers she owns….
This was a magnificent read which I highly recommend.

First Published in German as “Unterleuten” in 2016 by Random House GmbH.
Translated into French by Rose Labourie and published as “Brandebourg ” in 2017 by Actes Sud
*** My translation

The quote as read in French

“Le fermage pour Dix éoliennes, c’est cinquante Mille euros par an. Á vous de faire le calcul pour cent éoliennes. Histoires de voir quelle retraite ça donne.”….
“Gombrowski va fermer l’Ökologica. Il n’en a plus besoin. Fini, terminé.”
L’effet fut immédiat. Kron coupa court aux murmures qui s’élevaient d’un geste de la main.
“Réfléchisez un peu. Ça fait longtemps que l’Ökologica n’est plus rentable. Pourquoi est-ce que Gombrowski tient tellement au parc éolien? Pour se faire une jolie pension de retraite.”
Cette fois, il les laissa murmurer. Á part Ulrich, ils avaient tous de la famille qui travaillait á l’Ökologica: fille, neveu, fils et gendre; la petite fille de Björn venait de commencer un apprentissage d’agronomie. Á Unterleuten, perdre son travaille était l’équivalent d’un arrêt de mort professionnel.

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.

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

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 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

Martin Suter ‘The Chef’

-The world outside was looking pretty ugly. The day of reckoning had finally come for the financial markets, who had been dealing for years in fool’s gold. Unsinkable banks were now sending out SOS calls as they listed heavily. Every day, more and more sectors of the economy were getting sucked into the vortex of the financial crisis……img_0964
And, as if it could survive this imminent hurricane by retreating under its diving bell, the small Alpine country started to shut itself off again. It had barely opened up.

This is the first book I have read by the Swiss author Martin Suter, read here for the German lit month VI, the way he manages here to blend the local, personal story of the Sri Lankan chef living in exile in Switzerland, with the global situation in 2008 to 2009, using the former to illustrate the latter is to me more reminiscent of world literature, often written in English, than of my experience to date of the currents I have discovered from German language writers, hardly surprising then that it is marketed as an international best seller.

The local story is that of Maravan, a Sri Lankan exile and exceptionally good cook trying to survive in Switzerland where his status does not let him work as a chef. The global story is that of the Sri Lankan civil war which coming to its climax can find no place in the press due to world events that year, centred mostly around the world financial meltdown illustrated in my opening quote.

As Maravan and his business partner, Andrea, set up and run a two person catering services with their successful concept of’Love meals’ at private residences, based on Maravan’s mastering of Ayurvedic (aphrodisiac) cuisine, Maravan, against his will, gets sucked via blackmail, in order to prevent his nephew still in Sri Lanka from becoming a boy soldier, into financing the LTTE the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in their civil war with Sri Lanka. He is however unable to stop the inevitable and after his nephew’s death learns that one of ‘Love meals’ customers, Dalman was a middle man in bending Swiss law to allow arms to be sold to both sides in the Sri Lankan civil war.

-So it was true, Dalman was involved with people supplying arms to the army and the Liberation Tigers, why would he have anything to do with them if he was not caught up in their deals. Sambalar was right, the money he was sending his family may have been coming from the profits made by someone helping one of Maravan’s compatriots to kill each other and the money he sent to the LTTE possibly came from the LTTE who in turn were getting it from people like Maravan.

So, provided with an opportunity to eliminate Dalman, a small fish, but as is pointed out, their small fish, what should the peace minded Maravan do? Well if you want to know you will have to read the book!

First Published in German as “Der Koch” by Diogenes Verlag in 2010
Translated into English by Jamie Bulloch as ‘The Chef’ and published by Atlantic Books in 2013

Stefan Zweig ‘Amok’

-Psychological enigmas exert a kind of chilling influence over me;  I seek with all my heart to understand the relationship between different things, img_0948 and the presence alone of intriguing individuals can unleash in me a desire to understand almost as vital as the passionate desire to possess a woman.***

For German lit month VI, I chose to read two different books with the same title, here Zweig’s Amok and in a separate post, Fitzek’s Amok, both authors treat the title of their book, Zweig explaining the meaning of the word to people maybe unfamiliar with it and Fitzek more precisely giving a recognised definition.

Zweig’s story takes place on an ocean liner with the narrator making the trip back from Calcutta, unable to sleep at night because of the poor cabin he had been able to obtain at the last minute. As he wanders the decks at night he meets a mysterious passenger and the narrator, as the opening quote leads us to understand is curious, and eventually persuades the stranger to relate his story. The stranger begins by explaining to him the concept of Amok:

-Do You know what Amok is?
-Amok?….I think I remember……it’s a kind of intoxication amongst the Malaysians
-Its more than intoxication, it’s madness, a sort of human rage, an inexplicable attack of murderous monomania.***

The stranger explains that eight years previously he had had to leave Germany in shame after  stealing money for a woman and ended up as a doctor in the Malaysian countryside, living alone where he was surviving better than others:

-A European, in a manner of speaking torn apart, when coming from a large city,  arriving in one of those cursed outposts deep in the swamps; sooner or later, they each receive the fatal blow: some drink, others smoke opium others only think of striking out and become brutes.***

The stranger was approaching separation when one day a very proud and haughty white lady drives up close to his house and after making oblique references to her condition, she explains that she is consulting him exactly for the reason that he lives far from the European community and she offers him a considerable sum if he would “care” for her and then leave the country forthwith making contact with anyone. He then understands that he would be required to carry out an “intervention” to restore her to her previous state before her husband, who has been away, gets back on Friday:

-It wasn’t the first time women had asked me to carry out such a service; but they were of a different countenance: they were filled with shame or begged they cried or prayed. But here was one…yes, with an iron, virile resolve…From the first second I had felt that this woman was stronger than I….that she could impose her will as she wanted…but…but…there was also something bad in me…I was like a man who competes, who is annoyed, because..as I’ve already said…from the first moment, yes, even before I saw her, I had felt this woman to be an enemy***

 When at first he refuses she leaves at once, refusing ever to see him again, realising his sudden feelings for her and the error he has made he forgets everything, who and where he is, who and where she is and bent on just one thing, rejoining her, he runs Amok. The story is a tragic one, right up to the very last misfortune, travelling back to Europe on the boat full of guilt with, unintentionally, her husband and her body, bringing us back to the mystery of the opening lines of the book:

-IN MARCH 1912 A STRANGE ACCIDENT occurred in Naples harbour during the unloading of a large ocean-going liner which was reported at length by the newspapers, although in extremely fanciful terms. Although I was a passenger on the Oceania, I did not myself witness this strange incident—

First Published in German as “Der Amokläufer” in the Neue Freie Presse in 1922
Translated into English by Anthea Bell as ‘Amok’ and published by Pushkin press in 2007
Read in French hence *** my translation