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

Christian Kracht ‘Imperium’

Presently Engelhardt speaks of the coconut which of course neither the peasant nor his wife nor the farm girl has ever tasted or seen he tells of the idea of encircling the globe with coconut colonies, CF4DE67A-7F4D-4566-A1C9-508BC485934Arising from his seat his almost pathological shyness vanishes when he champions his cause as an orator before sympathetic ears speaking of the sacred duty of one day paying hommage to the sun, naked in the temple of palms, only here, and he gestures around himself with outstretched arms it will not work.
Unfortunately, too long the inhospitable winter, too narrow the minds of the philistins, too loud the machines of the factories, Engelhardt climbs from the bench onto the table and down again exclaiming his credo that only those lands in eternal sunlight will survive and in them only those people who allow the salutary and beneficent rays of the day star to caress skin and head unfettered by clothing. These brothers and sisters here have made a promising start he says but they really must now sell their farm and follow him, leaving Bavaria as Moses left Egypt of old and booking passage on a ship to the Equator.

Welcome to Imperium, read for German lit month VIII
and my unusually long opening quote, but this book in its careful writing doesn’t lend itself to short quotes, more careful build ups than clever phrases. The story is set in the period at the first years of the twentieth century and concerns Engelhardt, a very intense young man and the realisation of his dream to live from the culture of the coconut whilst going naked in a tropical paradise. Here, in the quote where he has been welcomed on a naturalist farm in Bavaria he preaches about his vision and his first step, setting up in the South Sea colonies in German New Guinea. Engelhardt makes the long journey out to Herberstshöhe, the capital of Neupommern, meeting many larger than life characters on the way and, trusting those looking to help him has most of his savings stolen. When he arrives the local Consul arranges with Emma Forsayth known as the queen Emma to sell him an inhabited island, Kabacon, for his planned plantation for which he puts his entire future harvest in hock for many years to come, the following quote describes his arrival on his island and of course the book’s style:

He fell to his knees in the sand so overcome was he, and to the black men in the boat and the few natives who had found their way to the beach with a certain phlegmatic curiosity, one of them even wore a bone fragment in his lower lip as though he were parodying himself or his race, it looked as if a pious man of god were praying there before them. It might remind us civilised peoples of a depiction of the landing of the conquistador Hernan Cortez on the virginal shore of San Juan de Ulua perhaps painted by turns if this were even possible by El Greco and Gaugin each of whom by an expressive jagged stroke of the brush once more conferred upon the kneeling conqueror Engelhardt the ascetic features of Jesus Christ, thus the seizure of the island of Cabacon by our friend looked quite different depending of the viewpoint from which one observed the scenario and who one actually was.

As time over on, Engelhardt, accepted as an eccentric by the natives, who incidentally have no idea that their island has been sold and would not understand the concept, and living off of a diet made up exclusively of coconuts becomes slowly weaker and weaker as malnutrition sets in. Over time he has occasional visitors, one of which a popular musician Max Lützow who, by his stories sent back to Germany, attracts to him a cult following of young Germans with no money that decide to come and join him on his island and live as him exclusively from coconuts, they reach Herberstshöhe but not Kabacon, leading to a shanty town building up of penniless young Germans sick from tropical diseases on the outskirts of Herbertshöhe, a situation completely unacceptable for the imperial government leading to attempts by the Consul to have Engelhardt assassinated.

Kracht brings us a well constructed novel based on a true story, Engelhardt did exist, and a time in history where earnest people lived out their destinies before the outbreak of the world wars.

First Published in German as “Imperium” in 2012 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch.
Translated into English by Daniel Bowles and published in 2015 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

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
-It’s true Amir says, she even has a ring, a real engagement ring that he gave her
-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

Angelika Klüssendorf ‘Das Mädchen’

-young as I was, I hated the circumstances of my life. I hated the carrying of bundles of washing. I hated the turning of the mangle, and most of all I hated the close compression of a life that threw us all upon one another by day and night, img_0943and made us bite and snarl, and gave no one the chance to be alone.

I read this book in French titled ‘ La fille sans nom’ for German lit month VI, the subject is twofold, treating firstly the incredible energy of the protagonist, the young girl, to escape from her abusive mother and secondly bursting the myth of a caring socialist state in the former DDR, where there was no place for the problem child she was to become. The book begins by describing her abusive home life where her mother takes up with various men, including her father, the only continual thread is the drunkeness and sadism of her mother towards her and her younger brother, reminding me of a book cover by Reiser:

-Her mother gives her money and sends her to Jahn’s. The bistro owner carries the bag full of beer for her all the way to the door…Her father is thirsty, very thirsty. He quickly drinks all of the beer. That evening she is back and forth to Jahn’s several times, the bistro shuts well after midnight.***

Her mother beats her and her younger brother often, even playing games they can’t win to decide if they should be beaten,img_0942 and she learns to understand when the mother will lose control and understand that there is nothing they can do to avoid her punishments, the regularity of these is part of their life, for them it is normal. Is it any wonder that her favourite book at this time is The Count of Monte-Cristo:

-But that day her mother’s anger is concentrated entirely on her daughter. After receiving her beating, Alex has the task of taking her to the cellar. When he has double locked the door she can breath and takes in the familiar smell of coal dust and damp walls……She moves around the cellar, reads the inscriptions she has carved on the walls but can no longer remember what they mean.***

Firstly the state social services are sent by a teacher but notice nothing untoward; they had given notice of their visit. Then after several attempts to run away from home, where she is picked up by the police and taken back again, finally she is taken to the Hans and Sophie  Scholl hostel where the overtly socialist government propaganda is so at odds with her reality:

-The stairs leading up to the upper floors have a small landing where a glass fronted display panel can be found in which are hung the Ten Moral Commandments of Socialism. The second commandment says: “you should love your fatherland and be ready at all times to fully engage yourself to defend the power of the workers and the peasants.” How could she love a whole country, she asks herself, when she can’t even love her family?***

Klüssendorf presents us with the brutality and lack of care in the state system, amongst other things her name is placed on the list of “negative” children. Here too her treatment by adults is random, giving her no idea of justice, still not fourteen years old, she then runs away again to go back and see her brothers but is caught once more by the police and locked up over Christmas in a barred cell.

The girl reads and reads, and one day she discovers a book where she feels at once understood for the first time in her life, “My Son, My Son” by Howard Spring from which is taken the initial quote in this post. Then in her last year before leaving the hostel she begins duplicating her mother’s treatment of her on a younger girl:

-Poupi Never defends herself, she just crystal in silence when she has to hold out the two pillows one right and one left at waist height and woe betide her if the pillows lower. In which case she beats her or Poupi picks up some other punishment***

A successful picture of an abused youth in a DDR with no human place for social problems, but the sheer energy to survive shines through.

First Published in German as “Das Mädchen” by Kiepenheuer und Witsch Verlag in 2011
Translated into French by François et Régine Mathieu as ‘La fille sans nom’ and published by Presses de la Cité in 2015
*** my translation