Daniel Kehlmann ‘Tyll‘

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.

1. “Tyll”: In order of reading book number 1.

I don’t normally follow this prize in detail but I end up reading some of the shortlisted books, since, due to the confinement, the award has been delayed and I’m into my third book of the six, I thought here goes
In order to follow this event, hopefully I’ll manage to write articles on all six of the short listed books and propose my winner before the official announcement.

Visit the official site for more details: Booker International Prize 2020


Tyll Ulenspiegel… sang a mocking ballad about the poor, stupid Winter King, the Elector Palatine, who had thought he could defeat the Kaiser and accept Prague’s crown from the Protestants, yet his kingship had melted away even before the snow. He sang about the Kaiser too, who was always cold from praying, the little man trembling before the Swedes in the imperial palace in Vienna, and then he sang about the King of Sweden, the Lion of Midnight, strong as a bear, but of what use had it been to him against the bullets in Lützen that took his life like that of any mere soldier, and out was your light, and gone the little royal soul, gone the lion! Tyll Ulenspiegel laughed, and we laughed too, because you couldn’t resist him and because it did us good to remember that these great men were dead and we were still alive, and then he sang about the King of Spain with his bulging lower lip, who believed he ruled the world even though he was broke as a chicken.


Daniel Kehlmann’s latest novel places the legend of Tyll in the Europe’s thirty years war where some estimates suggest up to fifty percent of the population of Germany succumbed to war and it’s byproducts famine and disease. The book is organised into separate stories involving the jester Tyll and the events of this complex war of the early seventeenth century. As the book begins, near the end of the war, Tyll arrives in a village of about one hundred people, so far spared by the war and amongst juggling, theatre and tightrope walking he tells the story of the war so far as in the opening quote in a language that would be easily understood by the people at the time and is at the same time a prologue to the book we are about to discover.

We move back to Tyll’s youth and one of the events this war for control of Europe between the Habsburgs, catholics and the Lutherians and Calvinists becomes known for. A previous peace treaty had set that if the ruler of one of the areas in the contested parts of Germany should be of a religion, or convert then everyone under his rule should be of the same religion. Thus when two Jesuits arrived in their village at the behest of the ruler, Kehlmann uses the individual story as an illustration of the global situation as Tyll’s father is tried for witchcraft, with the full use of torture and the Jesuit’s reasoned explanation for their “fair” trial.

Tyll lives through a number of events, becoming the Jester to the Calvinist Winter King, Frederick V, whose reclamation of the kingdom of Bohemia was the event which started the war and who had been deposed after one winter. Frederick was married to Elizabeth Stuart and it is through her, years later that we visit the peace conference, a surreal process where none of the key protagonists were allowed to be present and their negotiators had little or no power to come to agreements.

On the road with Tyll we see the brutality and filth of this war with camps of one hundred thousand soldiers but no latrines, of the intervention of the king of Sweden on the Protestant side and eventually the intervention in the war of France, against the Habsburgs, and thus on the Protestant side.

If you know nothing of this period of history, and here I hold my hand up, this is a fascinating way of discovering it

First Published in German as “Tyll” in 2017 by Rowohlt. Translated into English by Ross Benjamin and published in 2020 as Tyll by Pantheon. Translated into French by Juliette Aubert and published in 2020 as “Le Roman de Tyll Ulespiègle” by Actes Sud

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.

Volker Kutscher ‘Goldstein’


“Abraham Goldstein was right about one thing, Berlin was a crazy city and it’s getting crazier and crazier”


It’s 1931 and an American Jewish hitman arrives in Berlin, Goldstein, who has never once been convicted for a serious crime. Gereon Rath is asked to let Goldstein know the police have theirs eyes on him with orders not to let him out of his sight. So begins Goldstein, Kutscher’s third book in the Geron Rath series read for German lit month

The series has moved on in time, to 1931 and the banking crisis as Gereon wants to pay Charlie, Charlotte Ritter, his on – off girlfriend’s rent, he learns that the government had been forced to guarantee all deposits at the Danatbank and that all banks will not be opening for several days.


Even so, all bank counters would remain closed for the next few days. Arrogant bastards Rath thought. He didn’t have much time for the financial industry, which he had never understood anyway. He knew even less about the financial crisis which now seemed to have pulled the banks into its maelstrom. Only two years ago, any number of shares on the New York stock exchange had fallen through the floor and speculators had jumped out of the windows of the city’s skyscrapers. Why enterprises that had nothing to do with New York should be affected, honest German companies for example, even public servants such as himself, who had seen their salaries cut was a mystery to him.


What would a police thriller be without bodies piling up, here key figures from two major Berlin gangs, “Ringvereins”, the Berolina lead by Rath’s contact Johann Marlow and their competitors, the Nordpiraten, dissapear and are later found dead. As Marlow tells Rath, it may not be the Nordpiraten behind the killing of their number two but as people think it is, Marlow cannot be seen to be weak and must act.

There are Brown shirts, and throughout the book their anti-semitism and violence, at first shown to be cowardly by an intervention by Goldstein, becomes more and more asphyxiating as the book progresses. At one point their protestations against hunger seem real enough until Rath sees they are being moved and lead along, in the background, as a military unit. Doubtlessly hunger is a pressure on the people.

Back to the beginning, Goldstein gives Rath the slip with the help of a girl from room service who Rath later traces back to his days in vice. Goldstein is then linked to the killing of a Brown shirt and soon a city wide manhunt is underway.

A second story runs in parallel to this, concerning Charlotte Ritter who as a student prosecutor is involved in a case of the murder of a young department store thief by a policeman, who stamps on his hands as he hangs from a window ledge

Police politics force “Charlie” not to speak of this to Gereon, straining their relationship, and of course the cases are linked.

As a final stone in the Weimar wall, as the political unrest begins to seize the city, Gereon seeks out a club where people want to drink and have fun to forget what is happening.

A tidy police thriller, with the recurring characters shown against the historical background of the end of the Weimar Republic, the escape of key felons ensure the continuity of the series.

First Published in German as “Goldstein” in 2010 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH.
Translated into English by Niall Sellar and published as “Goldstein” in 2018 by Sandstone Press

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

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

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