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

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Daniel Speck ‘Bella Germania’


She should never have brought the two men together, she thought. Not in her presence.img_0884They didn’t belong in the same dimension . You should never mix truth and fantasy otherwise you lose your bearings. You no longer know what is real and what isn’t.***


Daniel Speck’s tale of three generations of an Italian family torn between Italy and Germany begins with the third generation, Julia a fashion designer from Munich whose mother, Tanja, is an alternative culture woman from the late seventies, with a life style diametrically opposed to fashion design, and whose Italian father, Vincenzo, has been dead since she was a young child. Julia is a talented designer who has never really broken through and just as she has her chance in a show in Milan, an elderly man, Vincent, meets her back Stage and tells her he is her grandfather.

We follow this story as Julia learns that her mother lied to her and that her father is still alive. The story takes us back through her family’s past, we learn of her grandmother, Giulietta, working in an Italian car factory which made the Isetta and of Vincent being sent to Milan by BMW to bring back an agreement to manufacture the car in what was still post war Germany:


–The Isetta sales in Italy were slow –it was a practical car, but not pretty. And whilst for the Germans, nothing can be good that’s not practical, for the Italians nothing can be good that’s not beautiful.***


Giulietta was however engaged to Enzo and when Vincenzo goes back to Munich wanting to take Giulietta with him, was she pregnant by Vincent or by Enzo? Throughout her story Giulietta keeps the two men in different worlds, inverted compared to the Isetta, Enzo practical, down to earth and Vincent for fantasy, love. In these hard times for women workers, Giulietta makes her own clothes and dreams of opening a shop.

In this story which oscillates between Munich and Italy, Daniel Speck tells us of the complicated relationship between Germany and its first post war immigrants, the Italians, the very first Gastarbeiters in Germany  who came to work, to save and to return to Italy but who had next to no rights in Germany, but who would, as with the following waves of Gastarbeiters, help shape today’s Germany. For instance today’s Munich counts more than 700 pizzerias, up from 0 in the middle fifties. Speck illustrates this period through the story firstly of Giulietta’s twin brother, Giovanni one of the original Gastarbeiters and then of Giulietta who follows him to Munich and of her son, Vincenzo, Julia’s father.

Having lived in both Germany and Italy I enjoyed this well researched book, read for German lit month, which had just enough history and just enough intrigue to take me through this 640 paged door wedge of a book in German. I liked the symmetry of Julia and Giulietta both in name and character and in the choice of the names of Vincent, Enzo and Vincenzo for Giulietta’s lover, her husband and her son and that up until the end, the story still bounces back and forth between Munich and Italy.

First published in German as ‘Bella Germania’ by Fischer Verlag in 2016
*** My translation

Sherko Fatah ‘Un Voleur de Bagdad’

—The Versailles treaty, that shameful text, the Grand Mufti said one day to those around him, made Germany into a pariah. It’s because of that they have taken the side of the Arabs, the eternal pariahs. IMG_1077May God stop them from losing this war, because then we would lose Palestine to the Jews.***

Sherko Fatah brings us the story of Anouar, a boy from the streets of Bagdad who is swept up in the movements of his epoch, initially moving towards an involvement in an anti-Semitic movement in which he does not really believe. Fatah First paints us a story of prewar Bagdad, Of the growing tensions Anouar slowly discovers between the people and their British rulers and, through an involvement with the Black shirts, the growing hatred towards the Jews living in Bagdad:

—The Black shirts were grouped in front of the building waiting for Fadil’s orders. When I joined them I was accepted as a comrade, and was asked to carry one of the large paint containers…i thus learnt  that the operation we were about to begin was of great importance for the fatherland, that it was aimed at the internal enemy who in association with the British was about to bring down the country’s  rightful gouvernement….Fadil regrouped us around him.
—we will mark all of the shops owned by Jews. You know which ones are concerned. If you have any doubts ask me. Lets go!***

Anouar finds himself, through his links with the Black shirts, a factotum of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who is in political exile in Bagdad and is part of the team of people who accompany him to Berlin in 1941 when after a failed insurrection Bagdad is brought under control by the British:

He wanted to be an Arab partner alongside the Germans and not the lackey without hope that the French see in every Arab, nor the easily manipulated imbecile that the English took him for.***

Anouar describes their time in Berlin where their rallying to Hitler is used as propaganda, here in this second part of the story he is brought into contact with the day to day anti Semitic behaviour and expectations around him and where they spend most of their time just waiting as the war goes from euphoria to despair as illustrated  in the opening quote.

The book then moves into the third and little known phase, where towards the end of the war Anouar is enrolled into the Muslim Legion of the Waffen SS, sent to fight on the eastern front where, during the retreat without hope from the Russian army, the Legion is used for the most dangerous work in the suppression of the Warsaw uprising as the Russian Army halt their advance to allow the SS the time to finish the job.

This book throws open a new window on the events of the twentieth century, seen from an unusual perspective including the tensions in the Middle East at the time. This was a thoughtful read.

First Published in German as “Ein weisses Land” in 2011 by Luchterhand Literatur Verlag.
Translated into French by Olivier Mannoni as ‘Un Voleur de Bagdad’ and published by Métailié in 2014
*** My translation

Sebastian Fitzek ‘Amok’

-Salty, the barrel of the gun in her mouth tasted surprisingly salty strange she thought, until now she would never have dreamed of putting her duty weapon in her mouth, img_0965not even as a joke…this should have been the last day of her life.

For German lit month VI, I chose to read two different books with the same title, here Fitzek’s Amok and in a separate post, Zweig’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.

-A deliberate seemingly unprovoked episode of homicidal or incredibly destructive behaviour towards others where the act of violence in question endangers injures or even kills a number of people

As the story opens Jan May, a psychiatrist, is at home when he receives a call from his partner Leonie who was, as he lovingly described her to others, quiet and secretive. Less well meaning people would have called her cagey or even just weird:

-yes I’ve been crying but that’s not important, just listen to me now please
-has something happened
-yes but don’t believe them
-What?
-Don’t believe what they tell you ok no matter what it is you have to……

At that moment the door bell rings:

-Please excuse me for disturbing you are you Jan May?
-yes
-I’m very sorry but are you aquatinted with Leoni Gregor?
-yes
-I came as quickly as possible so that you don’t have to hear about it in the evening news.
-Hear about what?
-Your partner, well she had a serious car accident about an hour ago
-What is this supposed to be some sort of joke she’s on the phone to me right now…
-I’m very very sorry… I regret to inform you that your partner, Leoni Gregor came off the road in her vehicle an hour ago on her way to see you, she crashed into a traffic light and a house wall, we don’t know the specific details yet but it seems that the car immediately caught fire. I’m sorry but there was nothing the doctors could do she died at the scene.

Six months later the psychiatrist, Yann May, decided he must find Leoni, with no thought for his own life. At gun point he takes over a trashy radio station in Berlin, 101.5, which emits:

-An asinine mix of bad music, lame gags and irrelevant news

And which runs a competition called cash call he takes a number of hostages and, changing the rules, he will phone someone at random every hour whilst on air and if they don’t answer with the correct phrase:

-I listen to 101.5 now set a hostage free

He will kill a hostage.

In an echo to Zweig’s Amok the police negotiator Ira Samin is a psychiatrist who will try to get Yann to tell his story during the negotiation but in a twist, as she is asked to drag out the negotiations, the hostage taker slowly gets her to tell her own story  over the radio for millions to hear where we learn why, as illustrated in the opening quote, she wanted to take her own life that very morning.

Gangs, witness protection,  suicides, betrayals, sadistic murders, government involvement, all of this and more are presented to is in this effective thriller taken here on a well dramatised audiobook.

First Published in German as “Amokspiel” in 2007 by Droemer Knaur
Adapted into English by Johannes Steiner as ‘Amok’ and published by Audible in 2015

Thomas Glavinic ‘The Camera Killer’

-We pricked up our ears when a German commercial station broadcast some dramatic news, it had obtained a leaked copy of the film that the criminal had made of his victims. img_0962After much internal discussion the editorial board had decided to televise excepts from them at some still to be determined time but in the very near future in order to give the world a graphic description of the enormity of the crime in question.

In this book by Thomas Glavinic read for the German lit month VI, and more specifically for, Lizzy’s crime week, a heinous crime is committed at the beginning of the book, followed by a layered study of a group of friends and their reaction to this crime, where two young boys are enticed to jump to their death from trees by a sadistic kidnapper who films the whole event on videotape which is later discovered and there follows a debate as to whether this should be shown on television.

In this book, there are a number of particularities,  firstly we discover the murders of the two young boys through the reaction of a group of friends, the narrator, the narrator’s partner, and their friends Eva and Heinrich and in particular through the compulsive  interest of Heinrich.

-The silence that followed this account was broken by Heinrich’s injunction to watch the special broadcast, Eva refused and remained in the kitchen, the rest of us seated ourselves on a sofa and in an armchair in the living room…….the presenter gave a brief summary of what had happened, largely repeating what Heinrich had already told us, he added that the crime had invoked an incredible response as viewers would shortly be able to see for themselves.

The second particularity is in the language used by the narrator, it is precise and, using a wording of a previous era, maybe even precious, the translator has produced a formidable piece of work in rendering this,  I’ll give here one example:

-Eva immediately betook herself to the bathroom. My partner and Heinrich pushed their way into the living room where they jocularly contested a comfortable seat on the sofa, Heinrich argued that it was his regular place, my partner countered that she was a guest and that her wishes must be duly respected, she wanted to lie down for a brief rest being afflicted with the fatigue which regularly beset her after an ample meal

Where we see the use of words such as betook, jocularly contested, countered, duly, afflicted, beset and ample. This I think, works to make the style impersonal or detached.

The third particularities are the layers, epitomised when a German commercial television channel decides to broadcast the video, we find ourselves analysing the reactions of the group of friends, whose reactions are themselves related by the narrator, the group of friends  are questioning the motives for the television station to broadcast the video which itself shows the murderer manipulating the children that he persuades to jump to their death from high trees in order, in part, to spare their parents from the torture promised by this camera killer.

Austria itself and its reactions to events comes in for a certain amount of ironical criticism, either through Heinrich and his hate for the church and of the pope, the earthly representative of a mythical being, or for instance the friend’s relative view of their country and why a murder should be of importance there:

-My partner objected to that…. injuring robbing and murdering other people was commonplace in the United States so those whose actions transgressed the socially accepted bounds of brutality could not expect to attract much attention there. In a civilised central European country by contrast, any murder was of importance and one such as had occurred in West Styria was correspondingly sensational.

All of the mechanisms in the narrative have their importance in the denouement of the mystery as we are lead down a path by the author so as to be better surprised at the end. I will read more Glavinic.

First Published in German as “Der Kameramörder” by Volk une Welt in 2001
Translated into English by John Brownjohn as ‘The Camera Killer’ and published by Amazon publishing in 2012

Stefanie De Velasco ‘Tiger Milk’

-When I go to jamilla’s I always cross the playground, the playground’s pretty big and right in the middle of it is a huge sandbox. img_0953Somebody drew an invisible line through the middle of the playground and the German and the Russian kids never go on the slide, and the Arab and the Bosnian kids never go on the swings. Back when Jamila and I skated around the playground there wasn’t yet an invisible line

This is a hot hot summer in Berlin, Nini and Jameelah, two fourteen year old girls prepare for the summer holiday break as Stephanie de Velasco presents to us here, in a refreshingly realistic style this coming of age tale, her first book, Tiger Milk, read for German lit month VI.

Nini and Jameelah live in apartments in the same housing complex in today’s multiracial Berlin, there are Muslim, Christian, and Orthodox children but going beyond this simple divide Jameela comes from Iraq, and there are kids from Bosnia and Serbia and they are all thrown together with their emotional ‘baggage’, scarred by the different war zones they have left behind them.

At fourteen Nini and Jameelah experiment with alcohol, their own cocktail called ‘Tiger Milk’, a mixture of milk, brandy and passion-fruit juice, they steal from shops and toy with prostitution. The story’s narrator is Nini (as in Stephanie?), whose home life is pretty much a wreck:

-Mama lays on the sofa basically all of the time, most of the time her eyes are closed, but when I come home she sometimes opens them and asks where were you. When she opens her eyes she always looks horribly tired like she’s just arrived from some far away place and then she’s flopped down in our living room here by blind luck, I don’t think she’s really looking for an answer to her question, me on the other hand I’d love to know where she was, where she always goes behind her shuttered eyelids all those hours she spends alone on the sofa. Mama’s sofa is like a remote island she lives on and even though that island is in the middle of our sitting room, a thick haze obscures it from view. You can’t dock on mama’s island.

The opening quote to this post tells us that the tensions in the housing complex in which they live haven’t always been there even during Nini’s short life. Amid the girls’ realisation that at fourteen life is changing around them, two major dramas occur, the first concerns their Bosnian school friend and neighbour, Amir and his family:

-Last night, said Amir After I had already fallen asleep, Jasna and Tariq had a fight, it woke me up, she told him that she wanted to marry Dragan
-Bullshit!
-It’s true Amir says, she even has a ring, a real engagement ring that he gave her
-Really?
-Really, the fight was so horrible that Tariq locked her in the living room, but this morning she was gone she’d broken the front door and gone to Dragan’s place.

This drama unfolds further leading towards a dramatic end, and in parallel, and unimaginably to Nini, her friend Jameela, who had come to Germany at a very young age with her mother, a nurse, after losing both her father and brother to events in Iraq is notified of a possible deportation order. She learns some of the hard truths of adult life, relentless enactment of laws by cold unfeeling burocracies. Jameelah’s mother had gone back to Iraq to attend her sister’s funeral, but if she could go back for this…….

The fresh youth’s telling of this story as, amidst all that happens around her she lets her worries and her doubts about her own life shine through, makes it particularly fascinating:

-Having kids sounds so strange, like some exotic country, Guatemala……and then suddenly I’m shitting myself with fear the way I’m standing on the stump pegs behind Nicco shitting myself about the idea of having kids and being lonely and getting old and dying young.

Stage versions of Tiger Milk have been produced in a number of German theatres.

First Published in German as “Tigermilch” by Kiepenheuer & Witsch in 2013
Translated into English by Tim Mohr as ‘Tiger Milk’ and published by Head of Zeus in 2014

Peter Stephan Jungk ‘The Snowflake Constant’

-I wanted to create order. I thought I could find some constant values. Over the course of fifteen winters, I have caught immaculate snowflake hexagons and put them in a polyvinyl ethylene solution and…..took pictures of them…..And then I counted for ninety six seconds that,img_0941 according to Tigor’s constant, yes gentlemen, to my constant, needed to elapse before an identical hexagon would appear  on an area of maximally ten square centimetres……But what happened? I was forced to see that what will prevail is chaos. Isomorphism, yes, constants, no. Fractal geometry, yes, Euclidian geometry, no

Peter Stéphan Jungk’s Snowflake Constant, read for German lit month VI, présents two sides to an age old philosophical contrast between determinism and free will, here represented on a first level as the contrast between Tigor’s work to date on his Constant which we learn initially is a representation of Euclidian geometry as opposed to Chaos theory. As the book opens Tigor arrives back in Trieste in a sorry state, we learn that he had uncharacteristically fled from a conference in Trieste his home town when he realised that his life’s work on this constant was wasted and he had taken off into an ancient forest to try to live from the fruits of the forest, a re-birth of sorts, and nearly starving to death in a short time period.

On a second level we learn that throughout his life his decisions had been those of others, he had only taken up the work on his constant because asked to take over his professor’s work, his life had been determined, and his flight to the forest was his first act of free will. A chance meeting with a taxi driver named Khoy later in the book who had during the years of terror in Cambodia actually survived a number of years in a forest, tells us how poor was his first attempt at free will. Tigor then in attempting to make decions for  himself repeatedly oscillates between the two positions.

After living and working in the Odeon theatre in Paris, of his own choice, and as he is to leave for Moscow, he changes his flight plans at the last minute and then is witness to a street accident. In his thoughts he is then drawn, once again, back to a deterministic view of events:

-He felt in some way responsible, that he had started the chain of events that had culminated in the accident. If he had been on the Moscow plane that morning, as had been his original intention, then Tigor believed everything subsequently would have transpired differently. Every individual was like a thread in the complicated weave of reality…….As he saw it, the consequences of the mild displacement he had caused had gone out, like echo waves to the periphery, and then bounced back to their starting point. The motorcyclist, if Tigor had indeed left as planned, would have reached the Place Claudel a split second sooner or later.

He leaves Paris when, after a dream, the doctor Chabanian persuades him that this dream was of Yerevan and that he therefore must visit it, where then he, an atheist, becomes linked with a group of creationists, the ultimate determinists, whose arguments explain the ridiculousness of evolution:

-so the little fish noticed, according to you believers in evolution, that there wasn’t all that much interesting food for him in the water. He spent the next two to four million years converting his fins into little feet. Then, because he wanted to eat still more, and also be better protected, he needed wings to get up into the treetops. So what did he do? He waited another five million years for his little feet to turn into fluffy colourful feathers. And a few million years later the wings had turned into a giraffe.

Tigor’s ultimate voyage, sent by the creationist Armenians in Yerevan, is to the deserted Mount Ararat, holy but inaccessible for the Armenians in neighbouring Turkey, to search for the remains of Noah’s Ark only to find that Mount Ararat is not deserted, quite the contrary there are large numbers of tourists who climb this mountain.

This is a rich novel which would yield more on re-reading.

First Published in German as “Tigor” by Fischer Verlag in 1991
Translated into English by Michael Hofmann as ‘The Snowflake Constant’ and published by Faber & Faber in 2002