‘Katzen haben sieben Leben’ (‘Cats have Seven Lives’) & ‘Schmutzige Nacht’ (‘Dirty Night’) by Jenny Erpenbeck (Review)

img_5539The trouble with a vehicle like the German Literature Month bus, with its ability to transport us through both time and space, is that if you’re not careful, there’s no knowing where you might end up.  On today’s journey, having bid a fond farewell to young Törleß over in Eastern Europe, we seem to have slipped into the cracks of time and space, finding ourselves in a bizarre realm devoid of context, surrounded by dialogue and a few, scattered instructions.  That’s right, we’ve ended up in a strange twilight world – welcome to the Drama Zone…

Regular readers will have seen a lot of German writer Jenny Erpenbeck’s books reviewed here over the past few years, but with a very little of her prose work left, I thought it was time for something a little different.  Today’s choice is a collection of two play scripts, showing a new side of the writer’s imagination, even if there are some connections with her early prose in the way the reader (or spectator) must work hard to follow the thread of the story.

This is particularly true for the second piece in the book, Schmutzige Nacht (Dirty Night).  Barely twenty pages in length, the play examines an alleged rape, after a middle-aged man invites a sixteen-year-old girl to his seafront mansion – yet the story is nowhere near as simple as this makes it sound.  The action is divided into three strands: in the first, Patty (the alleged victim) chats about the date with her friend, Anne; the second takes place at Kennedy’s house; the final part is a courtroom scene with the three characters mentioned above being interviewed by the respective lawyers.  Oh, and the three levels are intertwined…

This confusion of actions represents the difficulty in establishing the truth of what actually happened, and the writer doesn’t help matters by adding a Greek chorus of sorts commenting on events.  It’s very clever, with repeated lines (such as the prosecutor’s continual cry of “Ich beantrage die Höchststrafe” – “I demand the maximum penalty”) taking on slightly different connotations when repeated in another context.  Moira, the prosecutor, speaks for all of us when she says:

MOIRA LACHESIS: Das ist die Wahrheit und nichts als die Wahrheit, nur eben nicht die ganze Wahrheit.

‘Schmutzige Nacht’, p.82 (Verlag der Autoren, 2011)

MOIRA LACHESIS: That is the truth and nothing but the truth, just not the whole truth. *** (my translation)

This is particularly apt when it comes to Anne’s behaviour and statements.  Despite appearing for her friend in court, she seems less than convinced of Kennedy’s guilt – otherwise, why did she spend some time on the beach with him herself…

Where Schmutzige Nacht hints at a lack of solidarity between its female protagonists, the main offering here, Katzen haben sieben Leben (Cats Have Seven Lives), takes this idea as its main theme.  The play consists of twelve short scenes, each featuring two women denoted as A and B, in different roles (e.g. mother and daughter, best friends, actress and admirer, employer and cleaner).  Each piece consists of a conversation, often spread over a long timespan, before ending with a departure of sorts, be it a parting, a betrayal or a death.

From the beginning, the scenes are hard and cruel, full of bitterness and rejection.  The first one has a mother spouting vitriol in the direction of her daughter, from the cradle to (her own) grave.  Her favourite taunt is:

A: Weißt du, was die Mama jetzt macht?
B: Schüttelt den Kopf.
A: Die Mama geht jetzt raus, mit diesem Strick, und hängt sich auf.
Verläßt mit dem Strick in der Hand den Raum.
‘Katzen haben sieben Leben’, p.13

A: Do you know what Mummy’s going to do now?
B: Shakes her head.
A: Mummy’s going to go outside, with this noose, and hang herself.
Leaves the room with the noose in her hand. ***

An empty threat, of course, but the ending uses this refrain cleverly, twisting the mother’s words back against her.

While many of the scenes involve just the two women, there are some where a man is present (albeit silently), and he is usually the catalyst for the breakdown in the women’s relationship.  In one piece, B takes up with A’s former lover, gradually demanding more and more from her friend as the relationship progresses.  In another, B comforts A, who is in bed in the terminal stages of cancer, but slips out of the room at regular intervals to embrace A’s husband.  Then there’s a scene in which two female lovers gradually change roles, with A’s initial seduction developing into B’s jealous rage, and betrayal…

As clever and varied as the scenes are, it could easily get a little repetitive, so Erpenbeck is probably wise to glm2016interrupt each piece with an interlude.  However, I’m not sure I would have come up with the way she does it – thirteen short pieces entitled Wüste (‘desert’ or ‘wasteland’), in which the voices of A and B descend from the sky in a chorus similar to that used in Schmutzige Nacht:

Stimmen von A + B als eine Stimme von oben.

Was glaubst du wer ich bin
Du bist ein Dreck
Wo gehst du hin
Ich wasche mich von dir
In einem neuen Leben
Du kannst dich selbst von dir
Nicht waschen als wärst du eine Schande
Ich bin du
Und wenn du meine Haut wärst
Ich reiß dich ab
Hast du vergessen
Dass wir eins sind

‘Katzen haben sieben Leben’, p.41

The voices of A + B as one voice from above.

What do you think I am
You’re a shit
Where are you going
I’m washing myself off you
Into a new life
You can’t wash yourself from yourself
As if you were a disgrace
I am you
And if you were my skin
I’d tear you off
Have you forgotten
That we are one
Yes ***

At times, it’s hard to see what these intervals are all about, but you begin to suspect that they’re commenting on the scenes they follow (or precede).  With the roles, and the voices, played by the same two actresses, who can swap between the two roles, Erpenbeck seems to be suggesting that these stories of friendship and betrayal are as old as time and will be repeated for as long as humans are around…

It’s all a little minimalist for my liking, and I doubt it’ll make a theatre convert of me, but I did enjoy this look at the writer’s ideas from a slightly different angle, and Katzen haben sieben Leben is particularly thought-provoking in parts.  However, I think I’ll stick to prose for my next Erpenbeck read, and for my next post.  Of course, that’s if the bus manages to find its way back into the real world – turn left at the wasteland, perhaps?

5 thoughts on “‘Katzen haben sieben Leben’ (‘Cats have Seven Lives’) & ‘Schmutzige Nacht’ (‘Dirty Night’) by Jenny Erpenbeck (Review)

  1. Hmm… the ‘lack of solidarity between its female protagonists’ intrigues me but the brevity and structure make me feel I’ll feel more frustrated than enlightened… each of the premises sound like I’d rather have them explored more fully than what seems to be on offer. Great frank review Tony.


    1. Grant – I’m pretty sure Susan Bernofsky will be at work on ‘Gehen, ging, gegangen’ at some point (I believe she was busy with the Yoko Tawada polar bear book, which stopped her from getting on with the Erpenbeck). Not sure this will be seeing the light of the English-language day any time soon, though 😉


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