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Book 65: Romania (German) – Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet = I would rather not have met myself today (translated as:) The Appointment (Herta MÜLLER)

I have been summoned. Thursday, ten on the dot.
I get summoned more and more often: Tuesday, ten on the dot, Saturday, ten on the dot, Wednesday or Monday. As if years were a week, it already surprises me, that after the late summer it is so soon winter.

[my translation]

On my big trip around almost all the countries in Eastern Europe a few years ago, one of the several in which I embarrassed booksellers by asking for something by a native that I could read for this project, one of the difficult ones was, surprisingly, Romania. No one could come up with anything in English for me. Finally in the rather charming Saxon town of Sibiu in Transylvania (I fell in love with its lidded dormer windows in the rooftops, like crocodiles peering out of a river), a German bookshop was able to come to my rescue. I thought this was an appropriate choice because a) Herta Müller wrote it in German, b) she is Romania’s only Nobel Prizewinner, c) there are actually a lot of German speakers in Romania, and d) my Romanian is rather limited. (And, e) my ancestors on the German side were also Müllers).
The original German title caused a lot of cogitation on my part, hopefully I’ve managed to twist it into equally convoluted English! The English translator avoided the issue, coming out with The Appointment, which is has the advantage of being snappy, and factually what it’s about, but loses all the unfortunate, sinister trepidation of the original. Perhaps The Summons would have been a better short title so that it didn’t sound like a mere doctor’s appointment.
The novel is set during Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, during a single day, as the young woman narrator travels interminably on the tram (which is allowed to not follow a timetable, unlike her! and seems as lost as the Communist system itself) to an interrogation by the Securitate (secret police). She has a premonition that this time may be different – she’s packed a toothbrush. She originally got into trouble for the ‘crime’ of sewing ‘Marry me!’ labels onto men’s suits being exported to Italy, as a stratagem to escape from her country.
The terrifying sense of foreboding is overpowering. The ugliness of a society where everyone is watched and dissected by not only a secret police but also by one’s neighbours is really terrifying.

 

MÜLLER, Herta (1953 – ), Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Frankfurt/M., Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011, ISBN 978-3-596-18822-2
Translated into English as The Appointment.

 

 

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Book 16: Germany (German) – Der Zauberberg = The Magic Mountain (Thomas MANN)

A simple young man travelled at the height of summer from Hamburg, his home town, to Davos-Platz in the Grisons. He went for a visit of three weeks.

[My translation]

So starts a laboured journey up into the Alps and down into the depths of the human condition. The Magic Mountain is a sort of utopia (or dystopia, since everyone there is sick!) set in a sanatorium in Switzerland. These Olympian heights give Mann (with his suitably encompassing surname) the chance to philosophise on many aspects of life and death. It’s like an Alpine Hotel California, or some weird religious cult (whose god is hypochondria), with the difference that here intellectual inquiry is fostered rather than quashed. Perhaps it’s closer to Hilton’s Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, at least it’s up in the mountains! It is a dense novel of ideas and seems to cover all the big questions like life, love, time and death. Nowadays it seems like no one likes to think about death and sickness, but they are inevitable facets of human existence and ignoring them won’t make them go away.

This is another fairly long work which took ages for me to get through. The long convoluted sentences made it somewhat difficult for me to read in German.

 

An easier read from Germany is Siddhartha (Hermann HESSE), one of my very favourite books. In a parallel with The Life of Brian and Jesus, at first it seems that Siddhartha is going to be the Buddha, until you find that the latter is another character in the novel. Its majestic prose is to die for.

 

Mann, Thomas (1875 – 1955), Der Zauberberg, Fischer Taschenbuch, 2008, ISBN 9783596901241

Book 17: East Germany (’German Democratic Republic’) (German): Nachdenken über Christa T. = The Quest for Christa T. (Christa WOLF)

 

Occasionally I’ll throw in a bonus book for a place you won’t find on the current list of lands in the United Nations. Some of these will be ghost nations, like the late and mostly unlamented East Germany. The title should properly be translated as Reflections on Christa T.

The German word ‘nachdenken’ literally means to think about (or after). And it is the word which opens the book in German.

“To reflect, to think – about her. Of the attempt to be oneself. That is what is found in her diaries, which are left to us, on the loose pages of the manuscripts which have been discovered, between the lines of the letters I am acquainted with. They have taught me that I must forget my memory of her, Christa T. The colouring of memory misleads you.

So do we have to give her up for lost?” (My translation)

Christa T., the subject of this loving portrait, is an extraordinary, ordinary young woman who dies at 35 of leukaemia (heartbreakingly, she is only too aware that she will be one of the last to die of this disease). The narrator first introduces her when a self-sufficient girl appears at her school. She comes to admire her.

In retrospect, the punctuated coming-and-going relationship could be seen as symbolic of the relationship between the Germanies.

The narrator turns Dostoyevsky on his head: “I see now that unhappiness makes people alike, but happiness doesn’t, it makes them individuals”. (123)

She spends her last years planning and building a wonderful little hilltop, lakeside house, but barely gets to live in it. It seems to stand as a symbol of her promising, unfulfilled life.

I couldn’t help feeling that the narrator knows too much about her subject, more than any other human being could possibly know about someone’s inside, even than a spouse or family member. Perhaps a better vehicle for this (almost) omniscience would have been a third person viewpoint. It feels like a biography of a famous writer but with a great deal of speculation. Nevertheless, this is a great book and a fantastic psychological portrait of a candle in the wind.

 

Wolf, Christa (1929 – 2011), Nachdenken über Christa T., Suhrkamp, 2007, ISBN 9783518459133