Inka Parei: The Shadow-Boxing Woman

Parei, Inka (2011), The Shadow-Boxing Woman, Seagull Books
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
ISBN 9781906497958

Parei, Inka (2011), Die Schattenboxerin, Fischer
ISBN 3-596-14869-3

Last week, at a conference I spoke at, I spent two days with two roomfuls of translators and of people academically and privately interested in translation. It reminded me of the fact of how embattled a field the arena of literary translation is. Translators get paid terribly little, and they often get less respect. At the conference, half of them were German, and in Germany, at least we have an enormous amount of translations coming out each month. In the US, only three percent (an almost proverbial number, by now) of overall publications are translations. What’s worse, for every Every Man Dies Alone, i.e. translations that sell reasonably well, and are read and reviewed seemingly everywhere, there appear to be ten worthy novels that are translated only to vanish again into obscurity. Although it’s quite tragic when it happens to fantastic masterpieces like Beautiful Days by Franz Innerhofer, which was translated by Anselm Hollo and seems to have disappeared almost instantly. The same happened to Katharina Hacker’s The Have-Nots (see my review here), translated by Helen Atkins, which appears to be in print, yet has not been broadly reviewed, not has it sold particularly well, and this despite the fact that Hacker is indisputably one of the major German novelists. It’s tragic when it happens to the heavyweights, but it’s worse when it happens to a younger writer. Innerhofer is bound to be picked up again, if only by NYRB’s excellent imprint, Hacker might well win a major prize again. But yloung writers might fall into a hole and never crawl out. So let’s hope Inka Parei’s debut novel The Shadow-Boxing Woman, originally published in 2000, does well. The translation has been undertaken by Katy Derbyshire, translator and blogger at Love German Books, and it was published by the University of Chicago Press this February and Seagull Press this May. The Shadow-Boxing Woman, called Die Schattenboxerin in German, is an excellent debut. It may suffer from small flaws typical of debuts, but overall, it’s a marvelously executed novel about a young woman in 1990s Berlin, who is trying to get her bearings in a disintegrating, malevolent city. The book tells a harsh story, yet it is never downright depressing, a balance which is due to Parei’s clever structure and to the distinctive voice of her wary protagonist, the Shadow-Boxing Woman of the title. In its imagery and use of the cityscape, the book draws on a tradition that includes Alfred Döblin’s Berlin novels and Gottfried Benn’s early poetry. It is firmly placed in a thorough sense of history as it’s ingrained in the everyday lives of Berlin’s inhabitants. It also draws on the rhythms and anxieties of crime writing, producing a novel that is suspenseful, dark, funny and bleakly elegant. If you can get your hands on this book, read it. Parei, who’s currently writing her third novel, is surely one of the better writers of her generation. A German critic called this book a “promise” and what a beautiful promise it is. It is also a damn good novel, and thanks to Katy Derbyshire, you can all read it now. So please do. You will find one of the better books published this past decade, a book that won’t leave you cold. Here is the amazon link.

Initially, the book appears to be a mystery with noir stylings. Hell, as the the book’s protagonist is called, notices that her neighbor has gone missing, and takes it upon herself to investigate. Before the book is over, we’ll have found out that it is in fact, a mystery, and that, in fact, a crime has occurred, but the crime and the victim are different ones than we thought. With a wondrous sleight of hand, Parei manages to tell a story that is both tightly knit, and mysteriously loose and baggy. At exactly the right points in the story she manages to hold on to details and events so much that we feel the gray soil and the gray bricks of Berlin and the gray breath of her characters as we ourselves had found ourself stranded in the same dirty streets and among the same hard-up characters. At other points, she steps away from events, not attempting to explain, to fill us in or her heroine. I think that it’s this rhythm of clarity and nightmarish obscurity that makes the whole novel work, because this rhythm is tied directly to the disorderly mind of Hell. Small objects cause Hell to remember episodes from her past, with a sharp, hurtful clarity that is not the clarity of Proust’s mémoire involontaire, but the clarity and sharpness of trauma. The change between present-day reality and past memories can be disorienting at first, because the whole novel is narrated in the present tense, no matter what period of Hell’s life the episodes are set in. The more we read on, the more we notice that the memories, like the present-day events, follow one particular story, but the two stories are differently structured. The present-day story starts to develop according to the genre rules of mystery. We learn that someone has vanished, and then we start accumulating clues. We find a mysterious stranger in the missing person’s apartment, and he tags along in our attempt to make sense of it all. It is not until late in the story that it all unravels, as first improbable things happen and events as diverse as a mysterious fire and a bank robbery start cluttering a heretofore clear and clean storyline. The story starts to go completely off the rails as the past, remembered in short intense flashes, starts to bleed into the present.

The remembered story works exactly the opposite way. The first few times the past intrudes on the present-day story, we are slightly confused, because the past events do not fit precisely; they are small shards of a larger mosaic, although they are largely arranged in chronological order. While the present-day story works its way towards a climax, the cataclysmic events in the past, the ones that traumatized the hell out of Hell, they come pretty early in the sequence of memories. Her memories, arranged chronologically, are nevertheless broken into small bits, and the most destructive, central event is the most horribly broken part. Something has been broken, and in a way, these memories are like an attempt to mend that which has been so thoughtlessly, so awfully carelessly destroyed, but like a beautiful vase that has been thrown from a high place, there are still bits and pieces missing, no matter how much care you invest towards making the vase whole again. And there is another thing we notice. The more we read on, the clearer we see that her whole life after what happened in the past is an attempt to deal with that past, or at least all of her current life that we are told about. After all, we can’t forget that it’s the narrator framing the story, telling us of both past and present events and creating a narrative link between them. And as the book draws to a close, both story lines run into one another and we see how skilfully we were led there. The Shadow-Boxing Woman is a small book, both in terms of size and in terms of scope, but at the end, after the climax, after the whole novel’s structure has collapsed, the book suddenly opens up as its heroine takes a deep breath, allowing us to breathe, as well. Paradoxically, in the one moment when darkness literally and figuratively enters the frame again, the novel feels most replete with light and relief. If I seemed to repeat myself these past few lines, it’s because the book is very adept at using its structure to be both very exact and very imprecise. The moment, where the book’s events make the most sense, the moment where we see how everything, past and present, fits, is also the moment when we most realize how unreliable the narrator is, when we see to what extent this book is a literary artifact, a literary creation. This is something that both the constant use of the present tense, as well as the naturalistic-seeming descriptions of the environment have suggested to us.

The novel is full of an obvious and a less obvious symbolism. The obvious symbolism is so direct and upfront that it paradoxically does not detract from the naturalistic impression. In fact, this obvious brand of symbolism, which Parei seems to have an attachment to, is probably the novel’s biggest flaw, and it is one we are apprised of early on. I’ll be honest, I almost stopped reading the book, because I was slightly annoyed by it, as by the book’s other flaw, Parei’s handling of the present tense, but I am glad I didn’t, and I suggest you persevere, as well, should you feel a slight irritation at the way the novel is written or at the book’s intense use of a set of very transparent-seeming symbols and allegorical scenes. It is part of the book’s excellency that, upon finishing it, we are considerably less sure we can see through the novel’s oh so obvious signifying. This begins with naming things. The book’s protagonist is called, as I said, “Hell”, which is German for “light” and her neighbor, the one who goes missing, is called “Dunkel”, i.e. ‘dark’. Mind you, the allocation of properties to symbolically named person is not straightforward, in fact, Parei is rather clever in her use of two sets of morals, one complex and intractable, the other strong and more or less Manichean. Impressive, too, is how insistently everything in Parei’s book is rooted in the embodied reality of Berlin and her protagonist. We are not asked to believe in or subscribe to something based on abstract ideas. Parei grounds everything in a set of experiences, some of them incredibly painful. On the other hand, the web of symbolic references is undeniable. As I said in my first paragraph, there is a strong tradition in Berlin for this kind of writing. The novel’s closest literary relatives are the 19th century plays by Gerhart Hauptmann and the 20th century novels by Alfred Döblin. Hauptmann’s relationship to this book is largely established through his plays Vor Sonnenaufgang (1889) and Die Ratten (1911) dark, naturalistic portraits of a society both coming together, growing into a new century, a new millennium, into modernity, and at the same time, these part portraits of society falling apart at the hands of its greedy, poor, desperate individuals. There are few manifestations of literary realism as densely accomplished as these plays by Gerhart Hauptmann, a towering writer who is surely among the most deserving winners in the 111 year history of the Nobel prize.

In German literature, it’s mainly Hauptmann who has taught us how menacing and desolate Berlin can be, and how the city can visit horrors on its inhabitants wholly absentmindedly. Within his best plays, there is no moral instance, no salvation, no hope. Things just happen, people are just allowed to be themselves, as we look on in helpless terror. Döblin added something else. Coming from the tradition of modernist surrealism, his most famous novel Berlin Alexanderplatz shows us a human being falling through the gaps, seemingly abandoned by the Moloch Berlin like Hauptmann’s unbearable pitiful protagonists, but the book is at the same time a whirlwind of insanity, of strange events, prayers and otherworldly experiences. Döblin’s mistreated protagonist Franz Biberkopf is briefly saved by his fellow human beings again and again, but tragedy (and his own odd head) keeps dragging him into the maelstrom of life, murdering him on the spokes of modernity. I am very insistent on the debts owed to these writers and books, but the similarities are not as obvious as all that. The texture of the atmosphere, the apartment building and the way Parei paints her characters, all this is highly reminiscent of Hauptmann-style naturalism, and on the other hand, the stranger, less straightforwardly realistic moments that veer off into trauma and an odd kind of distortion, these reminded me personally of Döblin. All of this is held together by the place, dirty, scruffy, lovable, horrendous Berlin. Parei has set her novel in a decaying Berlin, a Berlin falling apart. If you look at the cover of the German edition, you can see the facade of a house that looks empty and abandoned, windows smashed, walls crumbling. Mysterious Hell takes it upon herself to live, well, almost squat in such a house, creating a no-man’s land of sorts for herself, as the other tenants do. Far from the bourgeois chic that Auster evokes in a similar scenario in his most recent novel, in Parei’s book the decrepitude of the house, the outsider status of the squatters in the house and the helpless souls of its inhabitants complement one another. If I have to repeat myself, I’ll do so gladly. This is an absolutely stunning and original book, well made, well crafted, well imagined. And the book is so much better than I have made it sound, additionally to all the things I mentioned, the book is set in the period directly after the wall came down, and one could write at least as long an essay as this review about the historical dimensions and intricacies of this fantastic novel. There’s just not enough time and space.

Finally, a few words on the translation. As I read German books in German, I am not usually able to comment on the translation. In this case, I am, because seagull books published an excerpt from the book on its site. I was very nervous reading the translation, because Parei’s style, however simple it appears to be, can’t be easy to translate. Parei opts for a simple syntax, and simple descriptions, and yet every other sentence contains an interesting word or turn of phrase. It’s a constantly intriguing delight to read this book, without ever becoming challenging. It’s both absorbing, and drafted with a calculating pen. From the excerpt, the translation manages to recreate the a very similar impression, while managing to sound more elegant and readable than Parei, who seems awkward sometimes. The present tense is not always easy to maintain in a novel, and Parei sometimes struggles a bit. From what I’ve seen of the translation, this cannot be said for Katy Derbyshire’s excellent translation. I’m intrigued to find out how she solved the Hell/Dunkel names thing, though. Readers, buy this book, and then run and tell me.

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