From the Sea to the Night – but mainly in the Desert. Review of Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf

An edited version of this post was published under #RivetingReviews on the European Literature Network website, 12 April 2017

It was also reblogged by the Oxford German Network, 3 May 2017.

Sand

North Africa, 1972. A man with no memory wakes up in the desert with a massive hole in the head.  So far, so yawn: please, not another one of those lost memory characters stumbling around the plot trying to solve a mystery slash crime, been there, done that, keep your T-Shirt.  Not so fast!  Carl (named so after the label in his suit) is not your average unreliable narrator.  In fact, although we’re trapped inside his head most of the time, he’s not the narrator at all.  Somewhere, someone’s sitting at a desk writing all this down in the first person, someone who was there as a seven-year-old, dressed in ‘a T-shirt with Olympic rings and short lederhosen with red heart-shaped pockets‘.  Who’s he? Not sure – everyone in Sand is reliably unreliable, apart from the author, Wolfgang Herrndorf, who’s reliably, erm, dead.

After being diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour in 2010, Herrndorf churned out some literary gems – including international bestseller Tschick (English title: Why We Took the Car) and Sand – and then, in 2013, shot himself.  Perhaps fittingly, Sand is stuffed full of pain, gallows humour, false hopes, dead ends, absurd coincidences, misunderstandings, senseless chance events, torture, and death.  It’s set under a desert sun so merciless, that a mere glance at the cover triggers an inverse Pavlov’s dog reaction of dry mouth for the reader. Sounds offputtingly soul-crushing?  Not so!  What’s holding it all together, over 68 chapters and five books from the Sea to the Desert, the Mountains to the Oasis and on to the Night, is the search for meaning, never mind the answers, it’s the questions that matter.  Of those, there are many – and it makes for a hilarious, intriguing, heart-breaking, and ultimately gratifying read.

‘And now Lundgren had a problem. Lundgren was dead.’

A young simpleton murders four Hippies in a commune (it is the 70s…), a mediocre spy doesn’t survive a handover, a pair of bumbling policemen investigate – to not much avail, what else – a dangerously smart American beauty muscles in on the act, a fake psychiatrist tries to get to the bottom of Carl’s subconscious, a small-town crook and his henchmen get involved in the odd bit of kidnap, torture and blackmail, and the hunt is on for a man called Cetrois, who may or may not exist.  A mysterious centrifuge makes an appearance, or it might be an espresso machine, who knows.  More important seems to be a mine – this could mean a number of things, a bomb, a pit, a cartridge for a pen, … a cartridge for a pen?!

Yes – now let’s talk language, and translation.  The characters in Sand are supposed to be speaking French, and thanks to Pushkin Press and translator Tim Mohr, we can now read it in English.  Think ‘Allo ‘Allo.  Tim Mohr, writer, translator, former Berlin Club DJ, and lucky owner of the coolest mini-bio ever, constructs an achingly immediate desert world by locating the English prose somewhere between 70s nostalgia and the contemporary.  In German and French, ‘mine’ can mean the inside of a pen, and Carl’s knowledge of this means that he’s a step closer to solving the puzzle, but is it close enough to see it through?  You decide for yourself, but really, that’s not the point.  He tried, he really did.  And in the end, that’s what matters.

Sand

written by Wolfgang Herrndorf (Rowohlt Verlag, 2011)

translated from German by Tim Mohr

published by Pushkin Press (2017)

Click here for my 30 second video review of Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Tschick

The tentative German book prize 2015 connection

German Book Prize 2015: what have these two books got to do with it?!

So! The shortlist of the six novels in the running for the German Book Prize 2015 is out – winners will be announced on 12th October, can’t wait! Click here for a short description (in English) of each novel, the authors’ bios, and an audio-sample. Want to follow the prize and all its goings on in English? No worries, New Books In German (click on the words!), the prize’s English language media partner, has got it covered. Want to read about it in another language? The first website above can be changed to French, and the second to Spanish – the latter one even mentions Italian content but the link didn’t work for me. Still, quite the polyglot atmosphere! Sadly I haven’t read any of the shortlisted books, shame, but I just haven’t. Reading through the list though made me think of my encounters with the author of one of the shortlisted novels, well not with her directly, but with one of her previous books and with her portrayal in an interview-based article in the Guardian.

So this writer is on the shortlist then with her latest novel, Gehen Ging Gegangen/Go Went Gone, of course she is, seeing that in German book terms she’s – and I’m just stopping short of abusing the word ‘literally’ here – everywhere: Jenny Erpenbeck. Erpenbeck’s sixth novel Aller Tage Abend/The End of Days won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize earlier this year, and that’s just one of the many awards and accolades heaped upon her. If you’re interested in German contemporary writing, Erpenbeck is not a name you can easily avoid. My own ‘Erpenbeck experience’ hasn’t had the smoothest of starts ever since I meant to read Das alte Kind/The Old Child, her debut novel, but ended up mistakenly reading a book of the same title by Zoë Beck, I mean come on, same title, and, then, the author’s name, enough to get anyone confused. Beck, Schmeck, Erpenbeck. What didn’t help either was that Beck’s novel is truly, erm, awful, sorry, and I only finished it because of its twin location setting of Berlin and Scotland, which are both close to my heart. I know that’s not Erpenbeck’s fault, but somehow the momentum was lost.

This summer, when I read an interview with Jenny Erpenbeck in the Guardian, I was taken aback by two things she said. The first point is about growing up in the East and people’s attitude in the West:

“People don’t tend to believe me, but our default mode in the east was skepticism towards the government, especially among those who still believed that socialism deserved a better chance. When we read a newspaper, the first question was always “What does it really mean?” It gave us a much better training, alertness to manipulation. Sometimes I think that people in the west were much more streamlined, much more easily manipulated with their 100% faith in democracy while remaining largely unquestioning of the economic system”.

Wait a minute. Surely “what does it really mean” is everyone’s first question, not just if you grew up in East Germany? 100% faith in democracy? Unquestioning of the economic system? What is this? I don’t recognise it. Sounds like Erpenbeck herself was manipulated into subscribing to a simplistic view of each and every ‘Westbürger’ as an uncritical consumer of capitalism. Very odd indeed.

The second thing that strikes me as strange is the point she makes about the reception of her books in England (not the UK, mind, though it doesn’t look as though this is a deliberate distinction on her part, but rather a common European pars-pro-toto misconception):

“I sometimes get the impression that readers in England are more appreciative when you are brave enough to experiment with form. Not because that is more common here, but precisely because it is even less common than in Germany.”

Now apart from the fact that experimental writing is far from uncommon in ‘England’ – just look at contemporary writers Tom McCarthy, Stewart Home, Ben Brooks for starters. Also what puzzles me here is that no reference is made to Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. Atkinson uses the same conceit of a character living out several different lives within the course of the novel, and she does this, in my (not so?) humble opinion, better.  There’s also a strong German connection running through it right from the start; the novel opens with the main character, Ursula, shooting Hitler dead. Bang, take that. Then I dare you to read Life after Life and not fall in love with Teddy, yes I know he is a fictitious character but somehow the understated brilliance of Atkinson’s writing makes you forget that, and yes he did bomb my home town of Bochum with his Halifax, but hey, we’re all friends now. Not keeping your critical distance comes at your peril but works out completely fine until right at the end of the novel’s companion piece, A God in Ruins, which came as a complete shock to me – although I do like to flatter myself as not exactly an uncritical reader. Maybe I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t, just as I never saw it 20 years ago when reading Atkinson’s first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Afterwards it’s so obvious that it was always there, running through the novel like red thread, but a slim, thin, easily missed one. No wonder Atkinson states that A God in Ruins is about fiction itself – that makes complete sense, and although I felt heartbroken and not just a little duped when I got to the end, I have to agree and admire the intelligence and crafts(wo)manship that went into it.

I can’t say that I feel like that about Aller Tage Abend/The End of Days. Yes the style is seductive in its consistent curliness, which feels both old-fashioned and post-modern, and that’s not a bad thing at all. But altogether though I felt more annoyed than intrigued, especially when the number of a spider’s legs are referred to as six, not eight, call me petty, do, but I’ll still feel the same. And the repetitions, and the repetitions… not for me, no really, not for me, for what it counts, and it probably doesn’t, and that’s ok, and not a bad thing either.

Have you read any books with a German connection lately, tentative or otherwise?

Update: 

And the winner is (deep breath):

Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969/ The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic-Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969 by Frank Witzel. Ohne Witz.

Read more about the winning novel here. I’ve ordered my copy – have you?