Tomer Gardi: Broken German

Gardi, Tomer (2016), Broken German, Droschl
ISBN 978-3-85420-979-9

Gardi1This novel is German – its author is not. This helps, I think, explain why its author is one of the most vital German literary voices to emerge in 2016. Like Sharon Dodua Otoo, Gardi read a portion of his book at this year’s Bachmannpreis, and even more than Otoo, his reading caused the jury to debate questions of nationality and language. How German is it? What does it mean to write in German – what are the limits of nationalism when it comes to languages? Overall, Gardi’s text was one of the four or five best ones read at the competition, and so I was genuinely excited to read his novel, called Broken German – and I was not let down. Broken German is written in, indeed, broken German, and Tomer Gardi’s mastery of his invented idio/sociolect is profound and impressive. The writer that comes to mind most readily as a comparison is the Scottish master James Kelman. Like Kelman, Gardi is interested in the way language reflects on the personal, social and ethnic background of its speaker/writer. And like Kelman, Gardi eschews overly artificial literary games for the sake of literary one-upmanship. Despite all the metafictional comments scattered throughout this little novel, and the games with literary allusions, Gardi never loses sight of the inherent importance of using language in a social context. I suppose I must sound like a broken record at this point, but German literature has grown so dull in the last decade, repeating old patterns of self satisfied literary masturbation over and over that without the influx of immigrant literature, it would already have died a dull and boring death. Tomer Gardi and Sharon Otoo, neither of whom are German, are in the process of injecting this threadbare literature with a much-needed shot of urgency, awareness and stupendous literary skill. There is a joy in writing in this book, a sense of the worth of words, which almost made me applaud as I was reading its final sentences. Broken German is a deeply flawed, imperfect novel, and one of the best German novels of the past decade.

Tomer Gardi is an Israeli writer, usually writing in Hebrew. This is not, as far as I can tell, the beginning of a career of writing in German, and one supposes that part of this novel’s extraordinary power is derived from the author’s imperfect command of the language. To be clear: nobody really knows, as far as I can tell, how good Gardi’s German really is. When questioned, Gardi tends to tease his interlocutors, toying with them, giving us a performance that underlines how silly the question is, to begin with. Everything is inscribed into the book itself, which is never 100% serious about almost anything. There is a passage towards the end where Gardi gives his book to a friend who remarks that as Gardi’s German improves, the book suffers. I mentioned Kelman as a reference, but, really, I’ve never in my life read anything ressembling Broken German. Gardi’s novel is not written in a well-defined sociolect. There is no immigrant or deviant grammar underwriting it. No “Kanak Sprak,” to cite Feridun Zaimoglu’s famous book which invented a term for a turkish-German sociolect. The book is not written in Turkish (or Hebrew) German. It’s written in “broken German” – Gardi invents a language of mistakes. We are aware of two levels in his work: the spoken level, the broken language of immigrants, a mixture of deviations due to language of origin, and deviations aligning with certain sociolects common among German immigrants. What makes the novel such a success, however, is the second level: the writing. Intentional or not, the novel is wildly inconsistent when it comes to spelling German words. There is no consistent way mistakes are made, and any given word can be misspelled in a variety of ways throughout the book. What’s more, Gardi will sometimes misspell simple, short words, yet get more complicated grammatical and orthographic constructions perfectly right. The effect of this sort of randomness is an emphasis on the process of writing, highlighting the author’s social and political contexts even further.

poopGerman literature, with the advance of writers graduating from the MFA mills in Leipzig and Hildesheim, has increasingly moved away from acknowledging these contexts. Increasingly, German writers will produce literature as oblivious to contexts as some of the more laughable post-war writers did. Well-off, middle class writers creating a nationalist literature of Germans touring the world, uninterested in anything but navel-gazing. One of the most egregious examples is Fabian Hischmann’s debut novel. It was largely reviewed negatively in Germany, but it reached some shortlists and its author won multiple fellowships. It is impossible to overstate how bad Hischmann’s novel is. I’m singling it out here because, when it was published, it became a focal point for some frustration with MFA-style writing, exemplifying an écriture unconnected to experience for some critics. The book’s main flaws, however, are not unique to Hischmann or even to MFA writing. In it we find the sloppy prose that is a characteristic of a lot of contemporary writing, some of it award winning, and in it we also find the aforementioned insouciant treatment of countries other than German. Of course, this is not unique to Germany. There is plenty of French literature or American literature that treats foreign places with an unpleasantly ethnocentric condescension, but German literature has had a difficult to define quality about it that somehow made it worse. The best summary of this is a short essay by Rudolf Borchardt, an early 20th century conservative German writer, who published an anthology called “Der Deutsche in der Landschaft” and wrote an introduction wherein he claims that Germans have a particular knack for analyzing other countries, when, really, German literature, with a few notable exceptions, is full of strange phantasmagorias of the abroad. In Hischmann’s book, we are treated to an unpleasant trip to Greece, and an even stranger trip to the US, at the center of which is some odd fantasy of shooting up some drug dealers in New York with a gun purchased on the black market. The book is a mess, but the idea of Germans traveling to other countries to sort out the less rational, less intelligent, less literate citizens of those countries is incredibly consistent and common. Hischmann’s bad luck is that he’s a shit writer, but Bodo Kirchhoff, winner of this year’s German Book Prize, is a much better author and his awardwinning novel(la) is basically the same chauvinist fantasy.

This is the context in which Tomer Gardi’s book appears this year, exploding all these conventions and ideologies. There is no certainty here, and no concession to German expectations of order and hierarchy. It’s not clear what’s intentional and what isn’t, and this is written into the substance of the book itself. Tomer Gardi’s German turns on itself. He uses, like Jelinek, idioms and clichés in order to subvert the ideologies inscribed into German. He references Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz in a novel that has a lot in common with that masterpiece, which both undercuts the seriousness of his plot, and reinforces the sense of density, urgency and determination. Early on, Gardi states that language is the focal point of his novel (but by stating this, instead makes the discourse about language and novels the focal point, of course), and laments it. And indeed, 1200 words into this review I haven’t even mentioned the book’s plot, because the language’s power appears to overwhelm the plot. What a plot it is, though! It includes mistaken identities, buried knives, lies, dead bodies shoved into closets and the question of whether a Jewish visitor to the Jewish Museum automatically becomes an exhibit in said museum. It includes history, truth and memory, it includes butchers with their arms up to the ellbows in the blood of murdered Jews. It includes a disquisition on authorship that may or may not be related to works like Philip Roth’s knotty Counterlife or the more sombre Operation: Shylock. And as I write all this I worry about over-analyzing this book – it is, apart from being dense and brilliant, also just a ton of fun. I marked 2/3rds of its pages. It is endlessly quotable and readable and rereadable. So it is all that. But it is also important.

gardi 2In this age of Trump and Le Pen and the German AfD, immigration has become an object of suspicion, and language (or rather: the correct use of language) has become one of the battlegrounds of the immigration debate. The disorderly language of the book, the “broken German,” is an attempt, I think, to decline to perform otherness without also assimilating. When Gardi read his excerpt at the Bachmannpreis, the jury asked him: do you really speak German this badly? Is this language artificial or is this just how you speak? At issue was Gardi’s ability to write otherness, perform it, make it palatable, rather than just being other. Being other is no art, it is a deficiency in an age of chauvinism, racism and nationalism. Gardi declines an answer. He gums up the works. Being a Jew in today’s Germany is complicated. Gardi places his protagonist in the heart of the German memorializing complex, complicating the simple narratives. He declines to take part in the literary and political games. Broken German – that title sounds like a deficiency. Yet maybe in a time of resurgent racism in a country that committed two genocides in the 20th century, German needs some breaking. Tomer Gardi’s book is necessary. It is also very good.

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Line Hoven: Love Looks Away

Hoven, Line (2008), Liebe schaut weg, Reprodukt
ISBN 978-3-938511-66-4

[Translated into English as Love Looks Away (2014)
Blank Slate Books
ISBN: 978-1-906653-18-7]

Hoven1The great medievalist Jacques Le Goff, in discussing memory, posits that what we call memory is really an “intersection” of various practices and discourses. Orality, testimony, historiography, and the symbolic structures of what Pierre Nora called “lieux de mémoire” are all part of the process that Le Goff envisioned as being constitutive of ‘memory.’ Photographies have, from the beginning, been part of that process. In a Baudelaire poem, the act of photography is connected to more ancient liminal moments, particularly rites of death, and photos have been part of examinations of witnesses and testimonies throughout the next century, from American agrarian classics of photography to the complex way text and photography interact in WG Sebald’s novels. In the debut graphic novel Love Looks Away by the young artist Line Hoven, there is a complicated representation of truth, personal memory and, to the extent that any public examination of history contributes, of cultural memory, or rather, following Marianne Hirsch, “postmemory”.

_20160827_010057Line Hoven’s art, consisting of stark black-and-white scratchboard or scraperboard art, exquisitely blurs the lines between representations of narrative memory, and between ‘found objects’ like photographs and ticket stubs and other things. The drawing of photographs, thus introducing them into the visual grammar of the artist’s vision, is not part of a Gerhard Richter-like interrogation of representation. On the contrary. I think the book is incredibly disinterested in questions of representation qua representation. Line Hoven’s focus is, almost obsessively, on memory and how getting a family memory ‘right’ can have an impact both on personal as well as collective identities. Hayden White has drawn attention to the way “imagistic” historical representations are “a discourse in its own right” which tells us things “that can only be told by means of visual images.” Love Looks Away is, I think, attempting to do just that, provide a doubly refracted “historiophoty” and the result may be a short book, but reading and rereading it can take a while. It’s been translated into English, but I cannot ascertain the translator’s name. I strongly recommend you acquire and read this book. It is very good. I am personally greatly looking forward to whatever Hoven produces next, given how patient and mature and intelligent -not to mention gorgeous- this first offering is. This artist is going to high places. Get in on the ground floor. Read this book.

The English cover features different script from the German one; the result is so much more anodyne. An inexplicable decision. It makes me worry about the way the book's been translated.

The English cover features different script from the German one; the result is so much more anodyne. An inexplicable decision. It makes me worry about the way the book’s been translated.

So over the past years I’ve consistently reviewed comic books of all stripes. None of those books, however, were German even though Germany has a fairly vibrant comic scene, plus I’m German, so it would stand to reason they would turn up on my shelves at some point or another. The reason for this absence is that until this year I’ve just never read any. A big loss, as it turns out. Love Looks Away is, as you can probably tell from my very laudatory first paragraph, one of my favorite German comic books, a small, but carefully crafted, powerful graphic memoir. It’s been translated into English in 2014 and published by Blank Slate Books, a publisher who also translated other major German comic book creators like Uli Oesterle or Mawil. Love Looks Away is a book about Line Hoven’s family history, and unfolds, in spare imagery and well spaced episodes, a story that’s more than just one family’s tribulations during and after WWII. It actually ends up providing a convincing picture of a whole generation, despite the unique family circumstances. The story is rooted in Hoven’s grandparents who came of age during the 1940s, and I think this connection allows us to see in the work a kind of exploration of what Marianne Hirsch famously (and importantly) called “postmemory” – a memory of a generation that did not experience historical traumata, but creatively and imaginatively invests in a kind of cultural landscape, a memory created from testimony, but more importantly from objects like photographs, documents and the like. Hirsch’s theory, like many in the area of memory studies, was written to deal with the aftermath of the Shoah specifically, but “postmemory” can really apply to any retroactively created memory of events that are hard to explain or comprehend, usually traumatic. There are things that defy easy channels of recollection, and the process of “postmemory” is one that deals with that, I think, fairly well. I think Derrida referred to the material objects that precede us as the “déja là” – the already here. Hoven’s book starts with what’s already there and her art fills the gaps with a subtle, prodding imagination that stops short of filling in all the psychological questions. This is why I said that her book is primarily about memory: it is not about the “why” of history, personal or political. What it attempts to do is give an artfully heightened account of the things that happened, creating a memory in art.

_20160827_010112The gaps are nowhere as obvious as in one of the first sets of family pictures. Throughout the book, the painted copies of photographs are arranged on pages that look like photo albums, with hand written labels, and more. In one of the early “family album” pages, the amorous history of Hoven’s paternal grandparents is represented in four labeled and dated photographs. They met in a Hitler Youth summer camp. That specific photo however is missing, and whether the real photo is genuinely missing, the marked and labeled absence of that photo, shown as a blank space in a photo album, is symbolic of the difficulties of German cultural memory dealing with the more thorny aspects of the nation’s past. Even today, so many year’s later, the events of the time are papered over, guilt is deferred or projected elsewhere. Hoven does not condemn her grandfather, yet neither does she wash him clean of his past. Drawing a blank half page is an indictment of the shame in a suppressed memory. We owe to Martha Langford’s excellentr studies our understanding of how family albums work – as an ersatz oral tradition. Moreover, Hoven’s art in the narrative sections dealing with the past are careful, but sharp. In them, we see a dreaming boy walk proudly and smilingly in his Hitler Youth uniform, and we see a wedding picture where the now young man smiles in a uniform that should not give him reason to be joyful. In a later scene we see that uniformed portrait hanging in a family living room. Hoven’s work consists of scenes with little connecting tissue except for the drawn pages from a family album. It depends on her reader’s sense of history, on our sense of contexts and motivations. According to Martha Langford, reading family albums is an interpretative performance. We all, strangers or actual family, create narratives around the arranged photographs, as Langford found. If we understand this to be part of the underlying oral structure of photographs, then Hoven’s sparse illustrations, low as they are on explanation, have a very similar effect. We get more story than we would from photos, but the isolated effect is very similar.

DSC_2504This style of memory and writing is further emphasized by the book’s use of language. Hoven’s father, Reinhard is German, but her mother Charlotte is American, and the family history offers us both sets of grandparents – who do not, obviously speak German (in fact, Charlotte’s father has an almost pathological hatred of Germans, which is partly rooted in his inability to enlist in WWII due to health issues). Charlotte herself frequently speaks English in the book. Hoven does not translate or annotate any of the English dialog. The book is, in this sense, completely bilingual. Anything that was German when it happened, is rendered in German by Hoven, and everything that was English is rendered as English. This only further emphasizes the near-documentary narrative ethos of Hoven’s work of “postmemory.” The documentary effect does not, however, really extend to backgrounds. I mentioned Nora at the outset, but the book isn’t incredibly concerned with places of memory. I am not entirely sure how strong even the sense of place is? Much of the book is set in Bonn, the former capital of (West) Germany, and since I also live in Bonn, I recognize the vast majority of facades and buildings we see, but I am not sure that for someone who does not intimately know this cooky little West German city, the sense of place is particularly strong here. Hoven does not connect her visualization of memory, or postmemory, to commonly shared buildings. Evading obvious landmarks that are understood across a shared culture is done so thoroughly that it seems almost intentional. One of the “family album” pages shows a foto of family members standing in front of the Cologne Cathedral, which is one of Germany’s most famous buildings, yet the angle only includes part of the front door, as you would in a family picture. There is no wide pan to include the whole building and unless you have been there a few times and will recognize it even from this small snippet, the building will, at best, say “some big cathedral.” The exteriors of Bonn, similarly, are obvious to me (and extremely carefully and precisely rendered), but evade some of the most obvious landmarks.

_20160827_010125I mean, all of this seems hyperfocused. I have not really discussed the smaller stories here because there is so little narrative that I think you should let yourself be surprised by it. I assure you, you’ll like this book, if you like this kind of stuff at all. And I haven’t even mentioned the art at all. Like all the content aspects, the art also contributes to the book’s theme. The art consists of black and white scraperboard etchings (see wiki for details). The effect is really interesting. It creates an interesting dynamic that strongly interacts with the static structure of the book, the photographs and all that, and it also allows us to read the book in a certain German artistic continuum. There is a lot of historically and politically heightened art with similar effects – I mean, it strongly echoes some stark 20th century woodcuts, and in many pictures here I think has a conversation with German expressionist woodcuts (think Ernst Barlach). Another well known/excellent contemporary German cartoonist who employs this scratchboard technique (and hews closer to the German expressionist tradition) is Thomas Ott. Look, I know this review discusses memory studies a lot, and it seems as if I am less interested in the art, but everything I described hinges on Hoven’s art. Fundamentally, the biggest and most entrancing aspect of the book IS the art. Hoven has been working on that art in the years since the publication too, picking up awards, exhibitions and I will read whatever book comes next. It is also the art that sets her apart from many of her German peers. Much of German art is influenced by American underground comix, with some extremely notable and excellent exceptions (the unbelievable Peer Meter comes to mind, who also, incidentally, works on memory and history). Line Hoven is in the process of carving out a space of her own.

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Sharon Dodua Otoo: Synchronicity

Otoo, Sharon Dodua (2015), Synchronicity, Edition Assemblage
With Illustrations by Sita Ngoumou
ISBN 978-3-942885-95-9

Otoo, Sharon Dodua (2012), The Things I am Thinking While Smiling Politely, Edition Assemblage
ISBN 978-3-942885-22-5

otooIs this German literature? Sharon Otoo is not a German writer. She is, according to her page and the book cover, “a Black British mother, activist, author and editor;” and both books under review are written in English. There is a German version of both, published more or less simultaneously by the same publisher, who is headquartered in Münster, in North-Rhine Westphalia in West Germany, but they have both been translated by a person other than the author (Mirjam Nuenning). Otoo lives and works in Germany and is involved in German debates on racism and refugees. She moved to Germany in 2006 and immediately became involved in activism involving blackness in Germany. I recommend reading this interview. This year, she won the Bachmannpreis for a brilliant story, written in German, which was clearly, to pretty much any competent observer, the best text in the competition, despite some excellent work by the other competitors. The two novellas under review are a cultural hybrid, written in English by a writer with English education and sensibilities, but set in Germany and informed by the sharp observations and brilliant details of a critically observant person living in this country. German literature written by Germans of German descent is pretty dull these days, with a few notable exceptions. Too much of it has been nurtured in the two big MFA mills, too much of it is blind, privileged pap with nothing at stake. Otoo’s books are brilliantly aware of traditions and contexts, of how assumptions and narratives intersect. Synchronicity is a near-allegorical tale of migration, community and adulthood and extends the promise of Otoo’s debut. The Things I am Thinking While Smiling Politely, a book about heartbreak, racism and migration. Both books are written with a sharp stylistic economy that never lapses into flatness, a skill that is as rare as it is commendable. If German literature is to have an interesting future, then it is not young writers writing clever postmodern 1000 page books with nothing at stake or MFA mill products with their self-congratulatory emptiness. It is writers with a migratory background who inject fresh energy and purpose into a literature that has grown rather tired. Otoo does not identify as a German writer but it is German literature that most stands to profit from her growing body of work.

otoo doppelSynchronicity is a multi-layered, but straight-forward story of community and family. Everything else, all the magical realism, all the bells and whistles, are woven around this core. Blackness and migration is a tale of fighting to belong. In the much more knotty and fragmented Things I am Thinking…, the protagonist explains that, being “the only black girl in a London suburb” she “quickly leaned that trouble could be avoided if [she] acted white.” This thinking is continued and expanded upon in Synchronicity – while the first novella used the personal as a mirror and medium to reflect (and reflect upon) political aspects, combining heartbreak with thoughts of alienation, this second novella is more deliberate and careful in discussing migration by offering us a set of metaphors on the one hand, and tableau of characters who all relate to the protagonist along an axis of power and nationality. The more streamlined nature of the second book derives to a great part from the genesis of the book as a Christmas tale written in 24 daily installments and sent to friends and family. The idea of turning it into a book came later, which explains why the two novellas are so different in construction. Things I am Thinking… is written in fragments, with a narrator who keeps going back and forth in time, to reveal some things and hint at others. The chapters all start mid-sentence and each chapter is preceded by a “shrapnel,” an emotionally charged quote. The book only makes sense as a complete construction, there’s no way to write that kind of book by coming up with daily installments. And yet the linear nature of Synchronicity is also not a sign of Otoo’s development, because her Bachmannpreis-winning story is exceptionally well constructed, with cultural, historical and theoretical allusions coming together to create a story that is deceptively simple, a story that needed to be mapped out in advance. I suspect when we look at Otoo’s work in a few years, after she has written the novel that she’s writing now (and won the Chamisso-award that she’s practically a shoo-in for at this point) and edited some more books, that Synchronicity will stand out as a unique part of her oeuvre. An unusual work by a writer of uncommon talent.

glossaryIt is important to note what an incredible progress the author has made since her first novella, despite that book’s high quality. Things I am Thinking… is a dense realist book that is fairly low on allusion and high on clarity of observation. The prose is lean but effective throughout, sometimes leaning a bit towards the journalistic. The real achievement of the book, however, is not the writing or the observations, per se, it is the author’s skill of connecting various elements of her narrator’s life in meaningful but subtle ways. I am sure the author is aware of various aspects of political philosophy, from Foucault to Critical Race Studies, but she wears that knowledge lightly. This is the philosophical version of “show not tell.” The book’s story is about a Black woman who lives in Germany. She has broken up with her husband Till, who is also the father of her child. She has friends of various ethnicities and origins, among them refugees. She has increasingly become disillusioned with the reality of Germany, which is expressed particularly well in the narrator’s attitude towards her husband’s name

So it was a matter of great inspiration to me, meeting Till on my year abroad in Germany. Someone with a surname so unambiguously of the country he was born, raised and lived in that I thought: how sexy is that? And I knew I had to make it my own. This however didn’t stop other officially suited white ladies in cold offices from saying “Wie bitte?” and asking me to repeat myself – like they were disappointed because they had been expecting me to be called something resembling Umdibondingo or whatever. Several months after we were married, I discovered that “Peters” was also the surname of a German colonial aggressor and although I didn’t begin to hate it then, I stopped adorning myself with it.

Otoo pulls off a rare trick – her book is dense and cerebral, but it has a story to tell, as well as a narrative and political urgency. Everything in the book has a purpose and is connected to everything else, but it never feels like Otoo is simply having a postmodern game on. This is not the place to unravel all the book’s plotlines and trajectories, but suffice to say that she manages to see how the different ways power shapes and controls us intersect and collaborate. And her protagonist, who has learned to accommodate various demands of power, is now crashing against the walls of the well-built house of German racism and economics because her personal life implodes. The word “shrapnel” is well chosen for the quotes preceding the chapters because the impression I got reading the book was that heartbreak, a fundamental personal emotion, functions like a bomb that explodes in the middle of a lifetime of accomodation and struggle. The book itself, while not framed explicitly as a text written by the protagonist, feels like an attempt to assemble the shards of a life, where one betrayal has damaged personal, professional and social relationships.

otoo innen1The aspect of migration is not central to Things I am Thinking…. We learn that the protagonist is British, but migration is experienced more through the eyes of the refugees we encounter in the book like Kareem, of whom the author remarks that he “has this matter of fact, nothing-to-lose air about his person. Years of being an illegal immigrant in an unwelcoming country will do that to you, I guess.” Much of the alienation that we learn about is the kind that happens when you look foreign and live in a racist country:

Berlin is a place where anything goes, and you can wear whatever you like, but if you are a Black woman in the underground, be prepared to be looked up and down very very slowly. I cannot tell you how many times I have glanced down at myself in horror during such moments to check if my jeans were unzipped or if my dress was caught up in my underwear. White people look at me sometimes like I am their own private Völkerschau. Staring back doesn’t help. It counts as part of the entertainment. Entertainment.

We get hints sometimes as to how a hybrid identity can develop with migration, such as when the protagonist recounts the criticism her “auntie” leveled at her: “she was truly shocked when she first realized that I had not raised Beth to hand wash her own underwear every night.” The reason for “auntie”’s outrage is the question of identity: “just because she has a whitey father, doesn’t mean she’s not Ghanaian!” The protagonist is not so sanguine about these matters, more interested in negotiating a Black identity in Germany, dealing with the shifting fortunes of being married to someone named Peters, and with the difficulties of establishing trust and loyalties in this country when you’re viewed as foreign.

otoo innen 2Synchronicity, on the other hand, is primarily dedicated to these questions of heritage and migration. There are basically two stories, layered one above the other, in the book. One, the surface-level story, is the one of Charlie Mensah, known as “Cee,” who is a graphic designer who, one day, starts to “lose” her colors. This is meant quite literally. For a couple of days, she stops being able to see certain colors, with one color absconding per day. Blue, red, green, etc., until just gray remains. The beautiful illustrations by Sita Ngoumou provide a lovely background to this contrast. This is challenging to Cee, who is a freelance designer, with a big and well-paid project coming up, and who has suddenly lost the use of one of her most important faculties. Eventually, however, the colors return, one by one, albeit in a different form. This, so far, is the story as a realist narrative would describe it. There are smaller plotlines woven into it, such as Cee falling in love, and her conflicts with her client, but basically, this is it. The other story is the one concerning heritage and identity. This loss of colors is not some disability, not some virus or sickness, it is a process of maturation that happens to all the women in her family. The “different form” that colors are regained in is what the author calls “polysense,” a special form of synesthesia. And this is not all that is different about the women in Cee’s family. They are also all women who don’t reproduce sexually. They are parthogenic, which, as Cee explains, “means we have children alone – that our bodies are designed to become pregnant completely by themselves.” This is not some science fictional theory, although it echoes such science fictional worlds as the planet Whileaway in Joanna Russ’ feminist classic The Female Man. Otoo, beyond the term, never goes into details, because this strange genetic heritage serves primarily as a metaphor for migration and alienation. The people in Cee’s family live alone. They raise their daughters to be independent and then, once they are adult, they push them out of the house and then let them fend for themselves. The maturation process to polysense, and the insistence on independence makes it hard for these women to establish personal bonds; thus, Otoo found a metaphor to reify something that has been part of immigrant experience for a long time.

4EdA_Day-by-Day_CoverA better way, I suppose to frame it, is Axel Honneth’s innovative take on the subject of reification, where the process of recognizing the other is fundamental to the way our subjectivity is constructed and yet that recognition, which, as Butler writes, “is something achieved” that “emerge[s] first only after we wake from a more primary forgetfulness,” can be abandoned. The forgetting of recognition is, in Honneth’s reading, what. In classic terminology, we called reification. What does migration to to emotional recognition? How do we react when we migrate into places that see us as a constituting alterity, that use us to create their national and personal narratives. In Otoo’s slender and careful book, the answer, given for many generations of immigrants, is to retreat to a specific kind of subjectivity that rejects recognition. The parthogenetic reproduction is a perfect metaphor for that. But the tone of the book isn’t dark. Otoo, who works as an activist, imbues her novella with confidence in the future. Her migrants break free of this mold. Cee’s daughter refuses to accept the ways of her family and Cee herself sees changes in her and the world around her. She falls in love with a policeman who isn’t white, representing a fusion of her horizons with that of the country she migrated to. The most powerful description of the policeman is not the first time she sees him, it is a moment of recognition, which, for Honneth, is something that is part of maturation:

That policeman. I recognized him straight away this time because he had a particular kind of walk. Like he was happy to be walking at all. In fact, if I had to choose one word to describe his body language it would be: gratitude. That really fascinated me. I stared at him for quite some time as I walked towards him – he was in deep conversation with his white colleague. I could tell the colleague was white because his walk was altogether more sturdy and authoritarian. He placed his feet firmly onto the ground, each step conferring a heritage of legitimacy and ownership unto him.

The book is a Christmas story, which explains its optimism and lightness, but it also offers a literary third way between assimilation and rejection. Critical optimism, if you will. It is a unique quality that appears to be emerging in Otoo’s work. Things I am Thinking… is a much darker work, but the story that Otoo read at the Bachmannpreis walks the same line as Synchronicity does. I don’t think I’ve ever read quite the same kind of story in this country and I don’t think I have ever read a writer quite like Otoo.

tddl16-532x200At the Bachmannpreis (I had a short post on it last year here) the jury discussions of Otoo’s text and the one of Tomer Gardi, another exciting text read at the competition, as well as the contrast to the bland terrible awfulness of the texts read by Jan Snela, Julia Wolf, Isabelle Lehn or Astrid Sozio (who, slotted directly behind Otoo, read a spectacularly racist text) maybe shows where literature written and published in this country needs to turn. The comfortable and unnecessary tales of migrancy from a MFA-educated German mind do not add to the conversation and they do not produce good literature. That is a dead end, and nothing demonstrated that dead end as well as the comparison of the field with Sharon Otoo’s excellent text, and Otoo’s work in general.

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Brecht on Döblin

As a kind of followup post to this brief text (textlet?) I posted earlier, I wanted to share my translation of one of my favorite literary oddities. In 1941, at his 65th birthday party, Döblin told his guests of his recent conversion to Catholicism. Many famous writers, exiled like Döblin, attended the event. Bertold Brecht wrote a poem about what happened, called “Peinlicher Vorfall” – “Embarrassing Incident.” For those interested in it, here is the poem in my (awful) translation. I tried to make it scan a bit like the original but I’m not sure it worked. The long lines are there in the original, as well.

Bertold Brecht: Embarrassing Incident

When one of my most cherished deities celebrated his 10.000th birthday,
I came to honor him with all my friends and brightest students
And they danced and sung before him and recited verses.
The mood was emotional. The celebrations neared their end.
It was then that the celebrated deity stepped onto the artists’ stage
And declared with a booming voice
Right in front of my friends and students who were drenched in sweat
That he’d just had an epiphany and had henceforth
Become religious und he put on with unseemly haste
A moth-eaten priestling hat,
And then he kneeled lewdly and intoned,
Shamelessly, an impudent Church hymn, thus grievously insulting
The irreligious feelings of his audience, among whom were impressionable youths.

For the past three days
I have not dared to meet my friends and students
face to face, so great
was my shame.

DADÖBLIN

[Somebody asked me to write a quick ~2000 characters on Döblin and Dada and then they didn’t need it any more, so fwiw, here it is]

whatisdada

DADA visionary Tristan Tzara famously called upon writers to do a negative, a destructive work, and within early 20th century avantgarde writing, a surprising amount of left-leaning writers followed his calling. The situation is particularly interesting with regards to Alfred Döblin, whose career both preceded and followed what anglosaxons view as the typical modernist prose. Döblin contributed to various expressionist journals and developed a poetics of expression and erasure, of memory on the one hand and suspicions towards what Lyotard later called ‘grand narratives’. The main reason we understand Döblin’s work in a DADA context today is Walter Benjamin’s famous defense of Berlin Alexanderplatz, a novel which some critics viewed as a copy of preceding novels by Dos Passos and James Joyce. Benjamin reads Döblin’s early expressionism as influenced by and influential for DADA writing. The negative programme put forth by Tzara is one such example.

Whether it’s the dense collages of Berlin Alexanderplatz, created by literally cutting and pasting pieces of writing to create this untranslatable masterpiece, or the more fluent expressionalist epic Berge, Meere und Giganten, Döblin managed to bridge the gap between Marinetti’s nihilism, and the grand projects of fascist writers like Pound who “tried to write Paradise.” Döblin’s work that preceded WWII is interested in, and frequently electrified by questions of self and authorship. Döblin’s deep sense of tradition was a fractured, a doubtful sense of how modern narratives conspire to create individuals who are then stamped with the imprimatur of one of many grand narratives. It is Döblin’s compassionately negative work on tradition that shines most brightly among the writing of his contemporaries because he, a trained doctor and conscientious writer, managed a luminous exactness of political and personal expression.

Olga Grjasnowa: All Russians Love Birch Trees

Grjasnowa, Olga (2012), Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt, Hanser
ISBN 978-3-446-23854-1

[English translation: Grjasnowa, Olga (2014), All Russians Love Birch Trees, Other Press
Translated by Eva Bacon
ISBN 978-1-590-51584-6]

birch3In reading and reviewing books I have certain recurring interests, which may lead to similarities in my introductions to the books I’m discussing. So stop me if you’ve heard this before. But do read on. Because this writer and this book is definitely worth your attention. I have never had a great love for German postwar literature, with a few notable exceptions. I have found, consistently, that between 1945 and 1990. the best literary work in German came from Austria or the GDR, and it’s not particularly close, in my opinion. There is a third group that has produced exciting work for decades and that’s immigrant writers to Germany. Many of the standout immigrant writers are easy to look up if you are so inclined. They have received the Adelbert von Chamisso award, a prize in honor of the German writer who was born in France. The prize is awarded to the best immigrant writer producing their work in German (not necessarily exclusively). Since the GDR group of writers slowly dried or died out (again, with notable exceptions), there has been a bit of a hole to fill. Consistently, that hole has been filled with young immigrant writers. I do feel like many of the best ones do not choose to settle in Germany. In this review I discussed the mysterious attraction of Switzerland to young Romanian writers. Other writers settle in Austria. Still, a few settle in Germany, and of those, there are some truly admirable writers. Some are of Turkish origin, like the spellbinding novelist and playwright Emine Özdamar. A surprisingly large section of writers, however, sprang from the carcass of the former Soviet Union. Artur Becker is one of them. Katja Petrowskaja has won a few prizes last year. And then there’s Olga Grjasnowa. Younger than most of the writers I admire, my god, younger than me, she wrote a debut novel that is unfinished, jumbled, a novel that screams “debut” too often to count. But it’s also a magnificent novel. I I read it twice cover to cover just to really take it in. I have sometimes high expectations of novels dealing with certain topics, and for female Soviet Union emigrés writing about love and loss in Germany, the high water mark is the scintillating and frequently brutal work of Natascha Wodin, whose best novel has been translated into English many years ago and which you should pick up immediately. Olga Grjasnowa manages to write a book that is so deeply suffused with brilliance and talent, with emotion and thinking, with historical ambiguity and emotional clarity, that she promises to eventually be among our best writers. All Russians Love Birch Trees is already one of our best books. Write her name down. You’ll need to remember it.

birchIn just under 300 pages, All Russians Love Birch Trees offers us a story that is attempting a whole lot at once. She doesn’t have the density of writing that, for example, Grigorcea showed in her debut, and so much of it is slightly underdeveloped. Yet at the same time, Grjasnowa has an unteachable knack for understanding how many political, personal and historical issues are interconnected and she offers us these connections with clarity and purpose. It’s hard to describe what kind of book it is, if that requires us to summarize it in a single sentence. That’s due, in part, to the book’s frequent pivots. The book starts out as a story of personal grief in a German hospital and ends up in a field in Israel. Blood, suffering and confusion are the only connections. And we get there from here not with labored cuts and jumps (although these happen occasionally), but through a cohesive sense of how identity works for someone who has to constantly fight to maintain hers. Like Grjasnowa herself, her protagonist Mascha was born in Azerbaijan, fled during the upheavals in that country and settled in Germany. Like the author, Mascha is Jewish and ends up spending some time in Israel. Mascha’s full name is Maria Kogan. If that sounds like a simple name to you – it doesn’t feel that way to some of the German characters in the book, like a doctor early on who says “your last name is a bit complicated – may I call you Maria?”(note: I read the book in German, any quotes are rough translations, not quotes from Eva Bacon’s much more considered work). Grjasnowa herself, with a last name sporting many more syllables, must have had similar problems. That she chooses to have her two-syllable protagonist run into this problem very early points to an important discussion that will re-occur througout the book and that is maybe closest to what I was looking for in terms of what kind of book it is. It’s a book about translation and understanding, and how openness and willingness are important elements in the way to achieving them. On the one hand, you have the Germans who run on pure closed-minded condescension. There’s the doctor who refuses to understand that simple name. There’s a a professor at her university who loves his ideas of multiculturalism and poverty porn, and whose idea of support for someone who appears to be “foreign” is to be condescendingly generous to them. There is a lady from Germany in Israel who jumps at the opportunity to criticise Jews (“If you see the news, it’s quite natural to start hating the Jews”). In contrast to all them is Mascha, who speaks multiple languages and trains to become an interpreter.

birch1If these examples made it seem like the book can be a bit heavy handed, your eyes did not deceive you. Indeed, subtlety is not one of Grjasnowa’s strengths even though she does a great job at undercutting easy readings by interesting juxtapositions. Her main achievement is the way she wove personal and political story into the fabric of the same story. There is, I think, no doubt that the first half of the novel is significantly better than the second. And that’s because that half is not as plot focused. Before she knuckles down and really digs into Mascha’s present life and lets her plot run free, she spends half the book telling us who that woman is and what happened to her. We learn about her German boyfriend, Elias, and how his death devastates her. We learn about her childhood in Azerbaijan and the way it corroded her sense of family and safety and the trauma she suffered there and hid away for years. Grjasnowa makes us understand how cruelty, desire, lust and sadness can be sides of similar coins. There is a small episode early in the book, where she kills a rabbit in an attempt to improvise some pagan ritual to have her boyfriend survive a difficult operation. Before smashing that rabbit’s head with a stone, she speaks a Jewish prayer, asking God to exchange lives. When that fails, she takes things into her own hands. Throughout the book there’s a definite sense of history being both hard on individuals, and kind of malleable, depending on one’s action and view. Grjasnowa’s protagonist does her utmost to fight and battle loss. Her personal and family history is one of devastation and melancholy. Her parents, well educated and with good jobs in Azerbaijan have to settle for alienated (and alienating) poor existences in Germany. Mascha is a driven woman, and her achievements, by all accounts, are considerable, but she is consistently and tragically alienated from her surroundings herself. Trying to find a connection in sexual liaisons with men and women, trying to find accepting communities, all of these are doomed and complicated by Mascha’s thorny sense of pre-determined alienation. She pushes the world away from her at the same time as she longs to be embraced by it. And none of this is helped by the omnipresent bigotry of people around her.

Admittedly, Grjasnowa doesn’t always choose the best way to express these things. Believe it or not, at some point, Mascha looks her mother in the face and says “everything and everyone around me dies.” I am not a supporter of the “show not tell” school of thought, but some young novelists do need to do less telling, especially when the telling is as trite as that. Much less of a cliché is Grjasnowa’s treatment of Jewish issues. Having a Jew travel to Israel to connect to her heritage may seem like something we’ve already seen (too) many times, but Grjasnowa’s book is very explicitly a German novel written by someone from Germany in German. Grjasnowa uses contrasts judiciously, but she is particularly interesting when she shows how Jewishness triggers various German cultural mechanisms, including those of Muslims in Germany. She has ill-informed philosemites in the book who, at the drop of a hat, turn antisemites in later portions of the book, she shows how Germans are involved in Israel itself, and most of all, she shows how her own conflicted heritage leads her to challenge, change and adapt assumptions about herself and the communities she’s a part of. Much of this, while interesting, is not thoroughly worked through in her writing, much of it is more idea than finished literary product, and now and then, she settles for too simple phrases instead of working out her thinking more thoroughly. It is too rarely that we can see in her work, as Bishop said about Hopkins, “a mind thinking” – instead, we see the thoughts in the ideas and tableaux rather than in the actual writing.

514qGj9igGL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_At the same time, her writing is never actually bad, unlike some others, much more praised writers I could think of. It’s frequently inventive and always clean and well considered. Moreover, we are shown an awful lot and it should affect all but the most closed-minded of readers. In fact, the seared and searing emotional core or the book compared well to Natascha Wodin’s masterpiece Einmal Lebt’ Ich, translated into English by Ian Galbraith as Once I Lived, published by Serpent’s Tail and currently tragically out of print. Get yourself a used copy now. Seriously. Wodin’s short but powerful novel, the best book of her absolutely extraordinary literary achievement (I can see at least one more review on this coming up) is a searing hot story of a Soviet immigrant to Germany who struggles to find connection and support in this strange and condescendingly hostile country – all of which isn’t helped by her father’s alienation that has pushed an already cruel man to punish, police and violate his daughter. Published in 1989, this novel and novels like it are the wellspring from which mediocre books like Katerina Poladjan’s deplorable debut feed (I discussed it a bit here). But it has also fed and empowered writers like Grjasnowa, whose sense of sexuality and violence, of immigration and alienation, and especially of the way that being a woman puts you in even more difficult situations than you’d be as a first or second generation immigrant alone, I can’t help but feel to be in Wodin’s debt. That second point, of feminity and how it feeds into the general malaise is interesting. Another topic she brings up, and a topic that Wodin similarly connects (but in a different novel, the strange and melancholy Erfindung einer Liebe) is homosexuality. Grjasnowa is clear on the fact that being a woman, and being gay allows for power to be projected on you in additional ways. There’s a term invented by African American theorists that’s called intersectionality and it describes the way that people are often touched by different vectors of oppression and that this creates a more complex picture. Now, I don’t think Wodin, or Grjasnowa, really, would have all that much patience for this terminology, but both are insistent on looking at the way individuals move through society and note that the path for immigrants is a harder path, and that being a woman – or gay – makes the progress even more difficult.

birch2I will say that, in contrast to Wodin, Grjasnowa’s protagonist is nor mired in a slough of despond. Indeed, while she cannot quite muster Wodin’s formal or linguistic qualities, in some sense, despite the book’s ending, she offers a more confident path. There’s a purpose to Mascha’s sexual misadventures that seems like it would not have been possible to offer in a book published in the 1980s or before (although some female GDR writers would be an exception, possibly). Mascha declines to offer us the suffering and complaints we may have come to expect from a certain kind of narrative. Mascha looks at her losses and moves on, pushing on, trying to deal with an increasingly heavy psychological load, until her troubles finally just take over. Maybe this is Grjasnowa’s greatest achievement in her book: offering us a character that’s both suffused with literary tradition and bucking it at the same time to explore new territory. There’s a lot about this book that’s good and lovely and even sometimes great and I already own her sophomore novel even though I have not had an opportunity to look at it. Purpose, urgency and intelligence are lovely things in fiction and they cover up many flaws. All Russians Love Birch Trees has all three in spades and Olga Grjasnowa is one of the young German novelists I most readily admire. Get this book, but also, get Natascha Wodin’s novel (and maybe bully Serpent’s Tail or the NYRB imprint to get it back into print). That is all.

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Gila Lustiger: Die Schuld der Anderen

Lustiger, Gila (2015), Die Schuld der Anderen, Berlin-Verlag
ISBN 978-3-8270-12227-2

lustiger1Have you ever read a book and wished its author was a better prose writer? By which I don’t mean, have you ever read a bad book and wished you’d read a good one instead. No, have you ever read a book that was genuinely interesting and good in many ways, but hampered by mediocre prose and/or strange ideological biases? They turn up now and then in my reading, these books. I guess, Paul Auster is an example of that, Richard Powers is maybe another, in some of his books. I have, however, never encountered as tantalizing a case as Gila Lustiger’s new novel Die Schuld der Anderen. In almost 500 pages, she creates a rich panorama of modern France, tied into not one but two crime writing narratives that draw from different traditions. Jewishness, history, corruption, murder, sex trafficking and other themes are woven into a book that never feels overburdened by these heavy topics. It’s a difficult balancing act that she manages well. All of this comes on top of a deft job at turning a real life case of dozens of workers at a chemical plant who, in the course of their work, came down with kidney cancer, into a riveting narrative. The skill and research involved could have made for a very good book if it had not been for an unbelievably pedestrian prose and strange obsession with Islam. I liked the book so much that I kept hoping it was some kind of pastiche, I looked up sources that I assumed were referenced stylistically, but no such luck. The prose is derivative, but not artfully so. It’s flat and dour, dragging the story down with it. That said, I strongly recommend a translation. It’s not on the level of the books that I listed as “Translatables” elsewhere, but many of its faults should vanish in translation, if written by a translator with a nimble enough pen. The rest of it, the history and characters and the sense of a France with a complicated and dark past and an uncertain future, these elements would remain. It’s a hard book to review, because the prose was so unpleasant to read, but at the same time, the book’s other aspects were enough to keep me reading. With its writing, I can’t really recommend it, but I do think it would fare very well in translation.

lustiger4Die Schuld der Anderen, which can be translated as “The Guilt of Others”, is Gila Lustiger’s fifth novel. Lustiger is the daughter of the vastly more famous Jewish historian and entrepreneur Arno Lustiger, who was born in Poland in 1924 and was interned in multiple concentration camps during the Third Reich. After the war he settled in Germany where he became a founding member of the Jewish community in Frankfurt, as well as a prolific and outspoken scholar on the topics of Jewish history as well as Jewish resistance during the Third Reich. Gila Lustiger, his daughter, grew up in Frankfurt, then spent much of her early adulthood in Israel until she moved to Paris in the late 1980s where she’s still living. Her very first novel Die Bestandsaufnahme (1995) is an examination of Jewish lives during the Nazi era, in a way a direct continuation of her father’s intellectual project. It’s very unevenly written, but contains some striking observations and contextualizes the almost incomprehensible horror of the Jewish fate with all the skill of a well educated debut novelist. Contrary to what one would expect, there is more good writing in this early book than there is in Lustiger’s new novel. The cumulative effect of the lives unfolded in its pages is truly powerful. It’s also the only book of hers that has been translated into English (by Rebecca Morrison) as The Inventory. Her real breakthrough didn’t, however, come until her third novel, So Sind Wir (~That’s how we are), which was on the 2005 shortlist for the German Book Award, the most prestigious award for new novels. So Sind Wir is again a novel with very pronounced Jewish themes: this time, she takes a long look at her own family history, in particular her father’s life. It’s an interesting take on the family novel, playing with the idea of truth and fiction, victimhood and persecution, self and history. It’s not just a simple sentimental retelling of her father’s difficult life. Driven by a craving for normality, the book’s narrator makes it clear that she’s not angry at the Germany who murdered her family or looked away while others did it. Paradoxically, she expresses anger at the victims. She does not want to be the ‘daughter of a holocaust survivor’ and at the same time it’s impossible to ignore the culpability of the parents and grandparents of her fellow students. It’s only in the second half of the novel that she attempts a synthesis between those impulses.

lustiger5So Sind Wir is an interesting novel that keeps referencing the act of remembering, of creating and opposing common narratives around the Shoah. Objects like photographs are examined and contextualized. The book strongly reminded me of some later texts by this year’s Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano (cf. my review here) – interestingly, her new novel, set in France, made me think of Modiano once again, but this time of his debut masterpiece. As I pointed out in my review, much of the book’s impetus seems to be provided by the inextricable nature of French literature, history and culture, with French strains of Antisemitism and, indeed, with French Jews. In Die Schuld der Anderen, Gila Lustiger presents to us a protagonist who, in his personal heritage, combines this mixture: he is half Jewish and half gentile, and his non-Jewish family are industrialists whose power reaches deep into the highest strata of French and European politics. A character that serves as a metaphor: French Jewish history and French history proper are so closely intertwined as to make it impossible to separate them. In this, she anticipated the French prime minister Manuel Valls’ dictum that “la place des Francais juifs, c’est la France”, which he offered in reaction to Netanyahu’s suggestion that Jews should all emigrate to Israel. Lustiger, who in her earlier books had interrogated the place of Jewish communities in Germany and among Germans, is doing the same for France in Die Schuld der Anderen. But unlike those earlier books, she makes it part of the general background for a story that has nothing to do with Jewish history or identity. It is truly impressive to what extent she has managed to debate questions of Jewish identity as part of her work on the personal background of her characters. This explains why Die Schuld der Anderen is her longest novel to date: it’s more than just one novel. It’s three different ones, expertly merged into a single narrative. If only the writing itself was better.

lustiger3The novel’s main narrative takes a look at one of several French scandals centered around France’s chemical plants and workplace toxicity in general. Her protagonist, journalist Marc Rappaport, decides to investigate an old murder case that appears to be fairly clear cut. 30 years ago a young sex worker was murdered and now all of a sudden, evidence appears to surface that implicates a bank teller who could not seem less of a murderer if he tried. Rappaport immediately distrusts the case brought against this man and sets out to find the real killer. In the course of his investigation he dives deep into a France that appears to be rotten with sex trafficking, corruption and rape, and pretty much everyone in power is implicated in one way or another. This part of his investigation reminds the reader of the stark 1970s noir novels and films where the rot in society’s foundations ends up overwhelming even the most well meaning of investigators. The colors Lustiger uses are strong, almost garish. Many of the scenes involving this case leap right off the page, with characters that are very flat, but highly engaging. There is a feeling that for all the research Lustiger has done, not an overwhelming amount involved active sex workers. Many of the characters and scenes are reminiscent of similar characters or scenes we know from TV or movies. For a book that starts and ends with finding and punishing the murderer of a prostitute and discusses the terrible things that happen to sex workers, she is not greatly interested in their plight. That’s not, however, to the detriment of the novel. Lustiger spends less time fleshing out this case, so she depends on its characters being vivid and memorable. Working with grays would make it much harder to cram everything into the book she wanted to put in and still be clear and comprehensible. The other case, one that Rappaport uncovers while following up on that murder, is much less spectacular in the usual ways. It’s about workplace safety and kidney cancer contracted by dozens of factory workers. Rappaport discovers the scandalous practices of Nutrissor, a company providing nutrition enhancements like Vitamin A, in the process exposing its workers to carcinogenic substances. Rappaport, a sleuth who is part Maigret, part Philip Marlowe, manages to juggle both investigations, uncover sources and evidence, all the while filling us in on modern French history.

InventoryGila Lustiger did not pull her topic out of thin air – she references a problem that is very present in contemporary French discourse. Two excellent books have recently come out that take a long, hard look at French practices when it comes to poisoning its populace and workers. One of them, Les Empoisonneurs (2005) by Vincent Nouzille, takes a broader view and discusses the myriad of different ways that French policies put French citizens in danger. France ranks, according to Nouzille, near the bottom of European countries when it comes to protecting its citizens from various poisons. Nouzille, not adverse to polemic exaggeration, nevertheless has strong research backing up his strong claims. He predicts 40,000 deaths per year until 2025 that are directly traceable to neglectful policies. More specifically, in relation to Lustiger’s novel, he suggests that over 60% of French workers will have been exposed to asbestos at some point in their lives, compared to 25% of the general populace. Nouzille points out how fears of irradiation and general issues connected to nuclear power are discussed much more frequently than other poisons. And he (as does Lustiger) raises awareness of how normalized it has become to endanger your workers, if the economic gain appears to vindicate such policies. In this, he follows Bruni Mattéi’s landmark essay on the invention of professional risk. A book that’s more specifically interested in the fate of workers is Annie Thébaud-Mony’s cleverly titled Travailler Peut Nuire Gravement À Votre Santé (2007). Resembling a fictional article that’s discussed in Lustiger’s novel, at least in form, it looks at different fates and workers and at the way companies are mainly concerned with ways to hide what they are doing to workers. That hiding can come from reclassifying poisonous materials as safe, or, as in Die Schuld der Anderen, by making sure intermediary materials are not checked for toxicity at all, or even by contracting out all the truly hazardous work. A worker quoted in the book expresses the trust that many workers have in their company. It may not be their best friend but surely they won’t let us die here, right? Someone would have said something at some point, right? But company doctors are mostly concerned with getting you back to work, not getting you healthy. Nouzille and Thébaud-Mony both chart the loss of that trust in French politics to succeed in the basic job of not killing its own people in the workplace.

Gila Lustiger is not just broadly inspired by a series of events. In fact, she uses a very real case. The company she calls Nutrissor is called Adisseo in real life and it’s one of the three largest producers of animal food in the world. In 1981, Adisseo used something called Chloracetal C5 in order to produce Vitamin A for animal products. At least 10 workers contracted kidney cancer due to exposure to it. The first case was discovered in 1994, but the company had known since at least 1991. In 2007, the rarest of rare events happened: a French court declared Adisseo, one of France’s chemical titans, guilty of negligently causing the cancer of those 10 workers. It was spectacular due to how rarely these things happen, but it did not change France, or even Adisseo. That’s why Lustiger describes the actual case, but she chooses a different ending. Her France is a France of violence and power struggles. It’s a country where you don’t get redress in court, where you don’t really take recourse to the police or politics. The book, I will say this much without spoiling the ending, does not ‘end badly’, several problems get worked out. In the end, the reason Lustiger sidesteps the courts and police procedures can be found in the title of the novel.

lustiger2Die Schuld der Anderen is a novel about guilt. Everybody, it turns out, is complicit in how the system works, how it’s allowed to function. By pointing to other people’s guilt we are blinded to our own guilt, to our own contributions to the suffering of others. Lustiger makes this point astutely and repeatedly, and, despite herself, the point turns out to be bigger than the book, because it points at the novel itself as well. One interesting thing that keeps happening is that Rappaport listens to people talking around him and tells us about it. He overhears discussions and phone calls and the author rarely ties these observations into the larger plots of the book; it seems a minor detail, but it reflects something about the way the novel works. By inviting voices, history and facts into a book that also contains a sensational murder mystery and traces of conspiracy thrillers, Lustiger dissolves some of the borders between the book and the world, and some of its failings become functional as further examples of complicity. In the middle of the book there’s a two page rant about Islam. It has nothing to do with anything else, but as various interviews and articles show us, it’s a personal obsession of the author, who, in this way, becomes another example of righteousness blinded to its own complicity. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, between the book and the world, between the author’s examination of her characters and the way that examination turns a spotlight on the author herself, it makes it genuinely difficult to look at the book’s numerous flaws and not consider them somehow a functional part of the book. I’ve genuinely reread particularly badly written passages multiple times, trying to figure out whether they were intentional pastiches of genre writing in German or whether they just showed, as many other genre novels in this country do, the terrible influence of decades of bad genre translations from English and French. In the end it doesn’t matter. Bad writing is bad writing, but much of the book is compelling enough to recommend the book. Maybe not as a book to read, but definitely as a book to translate.

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