Although Peirene Press is a champion of literature from all over Europe, their list has a strongly Teutonic slant, and that will continue next year with the publication of German writer Birgit Vanderbeke’s Das Muschelessen (The Mussel Feast). Knowing a while back that a Vanderbeke was on the way (but not knowing which one!), I plumped instead for an intriguingly-titled novella, one which takes the reader on a fascinating journey of discovery. Good job we’ve got the bus then 🙂
Ich sehe was, was du nicht siehst (I See Something You Don’t – or, less literally, I Spy With My Little Eye) begins in post-reunification Berlin, a city where a woman with a young son has recently taken up residence in an attempt to make a change to her life. Finding that a small alteration is not enough, she decides on a slightly more dramatic gesture – one which sees her buy a place in the south of France, to which she soon moves, along with her son and various other domestic animals 😉
Initially, she treats life like an extended break, taking advantage of the long school holidays to explore life in a new setting (with a son who is only too eager to spend his days messing around in woods and rivers). If she wanted a change, then her new home is everything she was looking for. It is a foreign land, with unfamiliar weather, confusing wind patterns and frankly frightening bush-fires. And as for the people… well, let’s just say that they do things a little differently here.
While Ich sehe was… sounds like a typical fish-out-of-water, sea-change kind of story, it’s actually a lot more. The beautiful painting on the cover of my cover (by Van Gogh) gives you a hint of the kind of story it is. Vanderbeke avoids a straight-forward, realist (dare I say it, German…) description of her character’s experiences, opting instead for a more hazy, flowing narrative which skirts around the need for excessive description.
Our unnamed friend, despite her initial problems, is very happy in her new life – you suspect that one of the reasons she decided to move in the first place is that she didn’t fit into her home society. Vanderbeke’s Germany is one of grey skies, low-grade paranoia, a fear of leaving keys in locks and a need to have a constant supply of egg cartons on hand for primary school art projects.
Luckily, life is a lot less stressful in France. As she makes her way to a local festival with her son, they spot something interesting in the road:
“Vor der Stadt stand ein Schild, auf dem stand >>Straße gesperrt, Stadt feiert<<. Ich übersetze es dem Kind, und wir fanden, alle Verbotsschilder müßten ein bißchen so sein wie dieses…"
p.60 (Fischer Verlag, 2009)
“On the edge of town, there was a sign which said “Street blocked, Town celebrates”. I translated it for the child, and we decided that all warning signs should be a little like this one…”
While the chaos of the festival (with bulls making an unexpected entrance) is a little unnerving, the pace of life gradually starts to make sense. Where initially the local custom of deliberating over every food purchase seems a little silly (each potato being inspected minutely before being placed in the basket), our friend soon starts to pay more attention to her own groceries – and is helped by the local shopkeepers too, who begin to see her as more of a local than a tourist.
She soon discovers that many other things are different here, and one of those is the fact that in this small community (and in the country as a whole…) everybody does everything at the same time. This applies to shopping, social gatherings and – most importantly – the annual return to school, when the whole of France goes shopping for new clothes and stationery. It’s a small, but happy, coincidence that Emma posted on this very phenomenon while I was in the middle of this book…
As much as we learn about the French though, ritual mocking of Teutonic efficiency is never far from the surface. Visitors to our hero’s new house are concerned only with how it can be improved (and how much it would bring in each week when properly run as a guest house), and a French girl from the local school asks:
“…Madame, ist es wahr, daß man bei Ihnen bestraft wird, wenn man einen Joghurtbecher auswirft, ohne ihn vorher auszuwaschen.” p.71
“… Madame, is it true that you are punished in your country if you throw away a yoghurt tub without washing it first.”
It’s a comment which brings back some rather disturbing memories from my own time in Germany…
Ich sehe was… is an excellent book, a novella which can be devoured in a couple of sittings, but one which contains more than you would think. Like the picture which adorns the cover, it requires us to adjust the way we see things, to open our eyes to new experiences and see them in (literally) a different light. Vanderbeke’s style is pivotal to this – her sentences are lengthy but light, caught between narrative and dialogue, giving the story an airy, at times slightly unreal, feel.
I can see why Peirene wanted Vanderbeke as their next writer. Her style will fit in perfectly with some of the other offerings, and if Das Muschelessen is anything like this one, it will continue their run of great choices. I’ll certainly be trying it (in the original, of course!) – I just hope that the poor old Germans don’t come off quite as badly next time…