SignAndSight.com

Features » Literature

Here we introduce the most talked about books of the autumn season 2005. The German newspapers have long and (for us) tedious names, so we use abbreviations. Here a key to them.

30/11/2005

Books this Season: Fiction

Autumn 2005

Fiction / Nonfiction / Political Books

We're going to have to wait a bit longer for the novel of the century: Peter Nadas' 1,500-page "Parallel Stories", a sensation in his native Hungary, still has to be translated. En attendant, this fall's book harvest is full of treats. The most important novels, Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" and Michel Houellebecq's "The Possibility of an Island", are about clones. Several major nonfiction works, by contrast - Karl Schlögel's "Marjampole", Gerd Koenen's "Russia Complex" and of course Jung Chang's monumental Mao biography - were written by former Maoists. A pure coincidence! But it's no coincidence that with Wolfgang Kraushaar's "The Bomb in the Jewish Community Centre" and Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's "Consumer Rebels", the era of the 68ers is slated for scrutiny. Have a good read!


Futuristic novels

The heroes of the two most-discussed books this season are clones, and not boring ones! Kazuo Ishiguro (more) has put them in a boarding school, where they wake up as organ donors. The most unnerving thing about his book is how he keeps his nerve. "Never Let Me Go" (now available in German as "Alles, was wir geben mussten") is a "masterpiece" writes the FAZ, dedicating the front page of its Frankfurt Book Fair supplement to the work. The author has his young clones discover their real destiny painfully slowly: their lives will be sacrificed to prolong those of their human originals. The British author and former Booker Prize winner is interested neither in moral debates nor a critique of technology, but simply in the purity of the human heart, writes Die Zeit.

Michel Houellebecq's new novel "La possibilité d'une ile" ("The Possibility of an Island") was undoubtedly the major literary event of this summer. If you believe the papers, it is yet another scandalous Houellebecq. Nevertheless the SZ misses the frantic anger of earlier works in the disgust at the world of protagonist Daniel, who has been cloned no less than 25 times. The taz delights in the "naturalist-sexist-adventurous scenarios". The FAZ, by contrast, finds Houllebecq an incurable romantic.

Thomas Lehr's novel "42" describes an improbable scenario, but it does keep strictly to the scientific facts: for 70 visitors of the atomic research centre CERN, time suddenly stands still. The earth changes into a sculptured park, void of the slightest motion. Only the CERN visitors continue to live in individual time bubbles, soon developing distinctly criminal attitudes. Lehr, who was born in 1957 and studied biochemistry before devoting himself entirely to literature, is compared with an astounding range of major authors. For the NZZ, he's heir to Alexander Döblin and Herman Broch. The SZ sees echoes of Robert Musil, Hans Henny Jahnn and Mallarme, and revels in Lehr's refined ideas, such as sex via temporary chronosphere coupling.


Novels about the "Wende" or the opening of the Iron Curtain

This is the "Wenderoman" we've all been awaiting for so long, proclaims the NZZ, warning that the title "Die Ruhe" (calm) is obviously ironic. Because Attila Bartis' book, "bursting with linguistic boldness and theoretical cleverness", is not only about a Hungarian actress who breaks down after her daughter flees to the West, retiring from the world for fifteen years until the system follows her. It is also an indictment of the the image of harmless Hungarian "goulash communism". The FAZ vaunts the book's intensity, praising Bartis, who was born in 1968 in the Siebenburgen region in Romania and has lived since 1984 in Budapest, for always staying close to the facts, even in the sometimes hot and heavy sex scenes. Yet, the paper writes, the label "Wenderoman" is too restrictive, as the book is also a "powerful epitaph" for a "tyrannical, demented, insufferable mother."
(A short story by Attila Bartis in English here)

It took Ingo Schulze (more) seven years to write his novel "Neue Leben" (new life) which after "Simple Stories" was hotly awaited by critics and readers alike. The novel is a literary coming to terms with the end of communism, told in a series of letters. Writing to three different people, the former dramaturge Enrico Türmer tells about his career as a newspaperman after the fall of the Wall. The letters are commented by the "publisher": Ingo Schulze. The book is the "best yet" on German reunification, writes Die Zeit. A "stroke of genius" proclaims the FR. Other critics are a tad harsher on Türmer's "uncharismatic" letter-writing style, which the NZZ calls "greasy".


The other books are best ordered by country:

Germany and Austria

This book is a "wonderfully little tragedy", writes the taz, even if the title "Es geht uns gut" (we're doing fine) is less than earth shattering. With his story about three generations of a Viennese family between 1938 and 2001, the Austrian author Arno Geiger moved into the "leading ranks of contemporary literature", writes the FR, and most critics agree. Already, the book has won the very first Deutsche Buchpreis, or German Book Award. With what the NZZ calls a "firm understanding of human nature blended with linguistic magic", Geiger tells his story in 21 chapters, each from the perspective of a different character. Critics praise the author's sober reserve, and the masterly ease with which he presents private and historical material without judging earlier generations. Only Robin Detje in the SZ is unimpressed by the book, calling it "consensus crap".


Back-patting all around: Daniel Kehlmann's adventure novel "Die Vermessung der Welt" takes place "high in the Andes and in spiritual heights", as the FR comments. In a sort of double biography, Kehlmann tells the life of two very different intellects. The one, Alexander von Humboldt, fights his way through jungles and steppes, travels up the Orinoko River, tastes poisons, counts lice and encounters sea monsters. The other, mathematician and astronomer Carl Friedrich Gauß, cannot live without women and yet jumps out of his nuptial bed to scribble down a formula. At home in Göttingen he shows that space is curved. The two men, now aged, renowned and a little quirky, meet in 1828 in Berlin. The NZZ is pleased by the "documentary meticulousness" behind the research, the fine balance between worldly knowledge and worldly innocence, and the narrative stance of this 30-year-old author. The SZ is delighted by the book's finesse, calling it the funniest German novel of the year. Die Zeit would have liked a bit more metaphysics, and is the only paper to comment that Kehlmann failed to make the best of his enormous potential.

Irene Dische's "Großmama packt aus" (Grandma unpacks), about her Jewish grandmother, is both deeply tragic and highly comical, Michael Naumann writes in Die Zeit. The book is about family and catastrophes, death and relatives who were sent to concentration camps, the flight to America, and last but not least granddaughter Irene. Naumann turns the book like a kaleidoscope, each time revealing a new detail of the lavishly opulent work. Dische shows that the American family is by no means as bleak as John Cheever, John Updike and Richard Ford make it out to be. The SZ is also tickled by the book, if somewhat irritated that the action takes place against such a distinctly unfunny background.

And then we come to "Herr der Hörner" (lord of the horns), Matthias Politycki's novel about 50-year-old Border Broschkus, a successful banker who travels to southern Cuba armed with three ten peso notes to look for a woman whose green eyes have him spellbound. Although he doesn't even know her name, he hopes he can find her through indications jotted down on the banknotes. On his way he witnesses dog and chicken fights, exhumations and animal slaughter, becoming fascinated in the Afro-Cuban cult rituals practised not only by the country's poor. The critics from the FAZ, SZ and Die Zeit all find the book splendidly written, even while expressing doubts about the revitalising potential offered by the Dionysian vitality of dark skinned cultures. (Read an essay by Matthias Politycki, and here is the authors homepage)


Korea

This year Korea was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, presenting readings and books by a panoply of authors. As a result a new crop of books has hit the market in Germany, including two anthologies. The FAZ praises the collection of stories "Sympathie der Goldfische" (sympathy of the goldfish). These include Li Munyol's "Befestigter Gesang" (fastened song) which the paper calls the "most unusual depiction of war in world literature". Die Zeit is equally enthusiastic, although it prefers Park Wan-Seo's story of an old woman's experience of the Korean War. In another collection, "Koreanische Erzählungen" (Korean stories), the SZ delights in Kim Young-ha's "brilliant" tale of the wife of one of her three lovers, who was murdered because of her intellectual superiority. The paper would have preferred to see more works by Kim Young-ha in the volume, with correspondingly fewer mediocre stories.
For more on Korea's presence at the Fair, see our features "The bright side of the moon", "Please touch!" and "Korean literature in flux".


United Kingdom

In the rigid, corporative society of Thatcherite England, Nick (gay and lower-middle class) sets out in search of status and beauty. For his morality play "The Line of Beauty", Alan Hollinghurst won the 2004 Booker Prize, and rightly so according to German critics. "Preserved in amber", writes the SZ about the atmosphere of the time, paying tribute to Hollinghurst's light, polished prose. The FR finds the book on the significance of the right tone wonderful, and applauds when Nick asks Margaret Thatcher for a dance. The FAZ is equally impressed, especially by Thomas Steger's translation, which ably reproduces Hollinghurst's occasionally pretentious style.


Eastern Europe

Dubravka Ugresic's novel "Das Ministerium der Schmerzen" (The ministry of pain) tells the story of a life of emigration. Dubravka, born in 1949, worked for many years at the University of Zagreb's Institute for the Theory of Literature before leaving Croatia in 1993 and dividing her time between Europe and the US. The book's heroine, a Croatian philologist, joins a "Yugonostalgic" experiment at her university in Amsterdam. Together, she and other war refugees from the former Yugoslavia collect the bitter sweet memories of their childhood, language, eating habits, school, dance classes and holidays. But soon each of them must ask what can still be saved of their broken lives. The NZZ calls it an "impressively smart, sensitive and uncomplaining" book.

Jiri Kratochvil is one of the "smartest authors in recent Czech literature," writes the FAZ. Kratochvil was born in 1940 in Brünn, where most of his six novels take place. In the 1970s and 80s he was forbidden from publishing, and later received the Jaroslav Seifert Prize, the highest literary award in the Czech Republic. His book "Der traurige Gott" (the sad god) is about the librarian Ales who hates his family, a clan of shameless opportunists. Only his love for his wife – and cousin – Lucie protects him from the vicissitudes of the clan. But when he refuses to take on the role of the patriarch, fate takes its course. What sounds like a classic mafia novel with surrealistic moments soon shows itself to be a parable of totalitarianism in the 20th century. Peter Demetz of the FAZ calls it a "self-ironic book of grotesqueness and depth."


USA

Jonathan Lethem's "Men and Cartoons" is a must for fans. Die Welt promises that Lethem's stories relate to the novels like the A to the B side of a single. As always, they're about lost hippy children and wannabe detectives who have experienced nothing more exciting in life than a fantastic comic or a great album. The taz is delighted by this "loving selection of marginal heroes". Die Welt is impressed by how mercilessly Lethem tells the story of a generation that "has allowed itself to be hollowed out by irony, nostalgia and egomania."

Fiction / Nonfiction / Political Books
signandsight.com - let's talk european