The Man Booker International Prize 2015

In preparation for the announcement of this year’s Man Booker International Prize on Tuesday 19 May, the British Library hosted a panel discussion with five of the finalists, chaired by the Guardian Book Editor Claire Armistead.The event was organised into readings from the finalists’ works in English as well as short interviews with Claire Armistead.

Whilst it was fascinating to hear the authors or their translators read from their works, the interviews were sometimes a little awkward, largely due to what seemed to be a lack of preparation on the part of the interviewer. Instead of focusing on more relevant issues, Armistead would begin each of the interviews by reading out what seemed to be the author’s Wikipedia entry, prompting Hoda Barakat to say that these “googled resumes” were not only incorrect but also unimportant.

In spite of this it was exciting to be in a room with a panel of renowned international authors and to hear their thoughts on language and their reasons for writing. We are therefore thrilled to share some of the wonderful things they had to say:

Krasznahorkai reading some “audience-friendly lines”

“A writer has no maternal language, a writer has a duty to forge a language […] I write in Condé.” (Maryse Condé, Guadeloupe)

“As a writer you try to break up functional language” (Marlene van Niekerk, South Africa)

“Women are not always victims, I don’t want to talk about victims. There is no slave without a master […] I write about the complexity of femininity and masculinity […] In writing there are no borders, I think.” (Hoda Barakat, Lebanon)

“All of my novels are involved with how to survive America.” (Fanny Howe, USA)

“If someone wants to know more about Hungary, I cannot recommend my books.” (László Krasznahorkai, Hungary)

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Tim Krohn – Aus dem Leben einer Matratze bester Machart

Aus dem Leben einer Matratze bester Machart (Scenes from the Life of a Top-Quality Mattress), the newest novel by the Swiss author Tim Krohn, is a slim volume of only 120 generously set pages which uses a German mattress as a device to explore the history of twentieth-century Europe.

The novel begins with Immanuel Wassermann’s journey from Berlin to Switzerland to attend a conference. There, he falls in love with Gioia, a Sicilian waitress, whom he marries and takes back to Berlin. On their journey, they overnight at a guesthouse which has just received a delivery of brand-new, top-class mattresses. The events of their wedding night leave a bloody stain on the mattress, and so Immanuel buys it and takes it back to Berlin. Immanuel, a German Jew, refuses to take the ‘Anstreicher’ Hitler seriously, and so returns to Berlin even after he finds out that the Gestapo have been looking for him. IMG_20150504_212414078_HDR The following seven chapters of the novel follow the mattress’s journey across Europe in the subsequent decades. During the war, a family living in Gioia’s old flat use the mattress for protection during Allied air strikes. In post-war Zurich, the mattress is bought at a flea market and helps an exhausted couple revive their relationship. In the 1960s, it provides comfort for an elderly lady suffering from dementia. In the 1970s, a Swiss student hopes the mattress will help him seduce yet another young woman. In the 1980s, a young woman is stranded in Rome, where the mattress offers shelter. Later, it saves the life of an enamoured Italian man who has lost his way at sea and falls overboard.

The eighth and final chapter returns the focus to Immanuel Wassermann, who survived the vicissitudes of the Nazi era, although Gioia left him for a Jewish cardiologist an emigrated to the US. Immanuel lives in France, where he collects the flotsam and jetsam washed on shore. For Immanuel, these objects are more attractive, more alive ‘in ihrer Zersetzung und Verformung […] als in ihrer ursprünglichen monotonen, zweckgerichteten Makellosigkeit’ (‘in their decomposed, distorted state […] than in their original monotonous, designated perfection’). One day, he finds the remains of his mattress, and recognises the blood stain left by his and Gioia’s wedding night. He recalls the events of his life, his arrest on returning from Switzerland – which destroyed his belief that the Nazis were harmless as long as he refused to take them seriously – the annulment of his marriage in accordance with the Nuremberg Laws, and his life in a labour camp. He feels a sense of shame at having survived, for no one survived ‘ohne sich an anderen zu vergehen, und auch er war kein guter Mensch geblieben’ (‘without harming others, and even he had not remained a good person’).

Krohn’s writing is sparse and economical, yet immersive and engaging. The chapters function as brief vignettes, but the characters are nevertheless vivid. My only criticism regards the focus on, and meaning of, the mattress. A mattress is an intriguing choice for such a plot device, but its metaphorical significance is not clear: while it provides safety and security for its owners in times of danger, it washes up on the French coast in a dilapidated condition and is burned by Immanuel. Why is it important that the mattress is a top-quality German product, and is it significant that its remains wash up on the French coast in 1992, the year the EU was founded? Despite these reservations, this is a beautifully written and interesting novel which shines particularly strongly in the final chapter.

Published by Galiani Verlag, February 2014, 120pp

Lutz Seiler – Kruso

Born in 1963 in Gera in the former GDR, Lutz Seiler has become known for his poems and essays. Winner of the prestigious Bachmann prize for his poetry, Seiler won this year’s German Book Prize for his long-awaited novel Kruso.

Kruso is set on the island of Hiddensee, an island in the Baltic Sea which became a popular destination for people hoping to escape the GDR’s communist regime. A place of relative freedom in the midst of a culture of political and personal oppression.

During the summer of 1989, Edgar Bendler decides to leave his life as a student of German literature behind in order to start a new life on Hiddensee. He manages to find a job as a kitchen porter at the mysterious “Klausner”, the restaurant in and around which most of the novel is set. It is here that Ed meets Alexander Krusowitsch, i.e. Kruso, the son of a Russian general who came to the island as a child following his mother’s tragic death. Somewhere between love and friendship, the relationship between Ed and Kruso stands at the centre of this novel in which seemingly very little happens. And yet in a sometimes absurd and very intense atmosphere, largely dominated by the rhythm of the “Klausner” and its hectic washing up demands (Ed and Kruso are working alongside each other) as well as Ed’s conversations with a dead fox, the story of their losses evolves. Ed lost his girlfriend in a tram accident whilst Kruso lost his sister Sonia to the sea when they were children. Moreover, Ed is burdened by an obsession with poetry and only eventually with the help of Kruso learns to accept himself as a poet. In return, he promises Kruso, who dedicated his life to helping the refugees arriving on the island, to solve the riddle of the disappearance of his sister Sonia and thus to look after the anonymous victims of a regime that is quietly coming to an end in the midst of all of this.

A superb linguistic achievement, Kruso tells the story of all the things that did not happen, the riddles that could never be solved. Strongly resonating the works of Uwe Johnson, Kruso captures the emotional undercurrents of major historical events though hardly ever mentioning them. And finally, by touching on the story of those refugees that did not make it to Hiddensee but were washed ashore as anonymous dead in Denmark, the novel fulfils Ed’s promise: to give an account of those people and events that did not make it into the history books.Kruso1

Kruso was published by Suhrkamp in September 2014 and will be published in English by Scribe in 2016.

Welcome to Suada Review!

We are Katha and Matthew, and here at Suada Review we’ll be writing about the books we’re reading: classic and contemporary fiction, lots of it foreign, lots of it German. See the About section for more on us and what we’re trying to do, and feel free to get in touch: suada.review@gmail.com