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Archive for November, 2012

After reading Peter Stamm’s brilliant ‘Unformed Landscape’ a week back, I thought I should read another Stamm book for German Literature Month. I decided to read ‘Seven Years’. Here is what I think.

‘Seven Years’ is a story told in the first person by an architect called Alex. The story flits between two time periods – the present when Alex is married to Sonia and has a daughter called Sophie, and the past when Alex was still a student at university. Alex describes how his architectural career evolved since those times. He also describes how he fell in love with the two women in his life, his wife Sonia and a Polish woman, Ivona. Alex and Sonia have been friends since childhood and their relationship evolves more or less naturally with some hiccups. But Alex himself doesn’t understand how he got attracted to Ivona, because by his own estimate, she is poor, unsophisticated, is an illegal immigrant, is too religious, is silent most of the time, is not educated or talented in any way. Sonia’s friend Antje is visiting and the past part of the story is mostly told by Alex to Antje with Sonia not present when the storytelling is in progress.

 

‘Seven Years’ can be called a story of a love triangle. It can also be called a novel on architecture. In between the triangle love story, Alex describes his thoughts on architecture in some beautiful passages. Peter Stamm’s spare prose is perfect as always. Most of the characters in the book were complex with flaws and that made the story very interesting and real. My favourite character in the book was Ivona – she is complex and flawed in her own way, but has a childlike simplicity too which probably makes her the character who finds the most happiness, inspite of the difficult situation she is in.

 

I couldn’t resist comparing ‘Seven Years’ with ‘Unformed Landscape’. I discovered that they were written nearly a decade apart and so the author and his writing style and the topics he would have been interested in would have evolved in that period. Giving allowance to such things, I feel that though ‘Seven Years’ was good, ‘Unformed Landscape’ was brilliant. Because I remember when I finished reading ‘Unformed Landscape’, I refused to let go off the book and carried it around for a couple of days, browsing it and reading my favourite passages again and again and refusing to pick up another book. That rarely happens to me. It is still there on the top of my book pile waiting to be re-read. I didn’t feel the same way about ‘Seven Years’. Of course, the problem is mostly with me, because after reading ‘Unformed Landscape’ I was expecting a similar book in ‘Seven Years’. But ‘Seven Years’ is not like that. It is a good book. It is worth a read. But in my opinion ‘Unformed Landscape’ is better – more dazzling, more brilliant and more beautiful.

 

I loved the cover of the edition of ‘Seven Years’ I read. It had two parts – a translucent dust jacket which had the title and the author’s and translator’s names. The cover image was on the actual cover which was visible through the translucent dust cover. Both of them together created a beautiful effect. This is probably not a new idea for cover designers, but this is new to me. I loved it.

 

If you like complex love stories with an architectural backdrop, you will love ‘Seven Years’. I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

I thought about my new blueprint. It must be possible to create space that would allow feelings, that would enable and communicate the sort of freedom and openness I was thinking of. I envisaged lofty transparent halls, open staircases, the play of light and shade. I wasn’t quite sure whether I was awake or dreaming, but all at once I saw everything before me, clear and distinct.

 

I had reckoned I would get sick of Ivona sooner or later, and get rid of her, but even though the sex with her interested me less and less, and sometimes we didn’t sleep together at all and just talked, I couldn’t shake her off. It wasn’t pleasure that tied me to her, it was a feeling I hadn’t had since childhood, a mixture of freedom and protectedness. It was as though time stood still when I was with her, which was precisely what gave those moments their weight. Sonia was a project. We wanted to build a house, we wanted to have a baby, we employed people, we bought a second car. No sooner had we reached one goal than the next loomed into sight, we were never done. Ivona on the other hand seemed to have no ambition. She had no plans, her life was simple and regular. She got up in the morning, had breakfast, went to work. If it was a good or a bad day depended on certain little things, the weather, some kind words in the bakery or in one of the houses where she cleaned, a call from a friend with whom she had a drink after work or went to the movies. When I was with her, I participated in her life for an hour and forgot everything, the pressure of time, my ambition, the problems on the building sites. Even sex became completely different. I didn’t have to make Ivona pregnant, I didn’t even have to make her come. She took me without expectations and without claims.

 

Sometimes I fished out my old papers, projects I had worked on in college, competition entries from the time we started the business. Most of it looked alarmingly banal to me. But in the drawings I still sensed something of my mood in those years, my determination to go new ways. Nothing was sacred to me then, and nothing seemed impossible. For all the limitations of the work, there was a kind of truthfulness in it, a freshness that our current designs no longer had. I could understand architects like Boullée, who eventually turned into draftsmen pure and simple, without ever craving to see one of their designs realized. It was only in the fictive world of plans and sketches that you were free to do everything the way you wanted. I started drawing in the evenings, usually oversize interiors, empty halls with dramatic light effects, sacral buildings, labyrinths, and subterranean complexes.

 

You can find Tony’s review of the book here.

 

Have you read Peter Stamm’s ‘Seven Years’? What do you think about it?

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I loved Bernhard Schlink’s ‘Homecoming’ and ‘The Reader’ and I thought at some point that I would like to read every one of Schlink’s works which has been translated into English. When I heard about ‘The Weekend’ and how it has polarized readers – with some loving the book and some hating it – I thought that I will read it for German Literature Month and see where I stand on it. I had high hopes because Schlink had a hundred percent strike rate for me till now and typically that is the sign of a favourite author for me. I finished reading ‘The Weekend’ yesterday. Here is what I think.

The story of the ‘The Weekend’ is set during the weekend in a house in the German countryside. Jörg, who had been convicted for more than twenty years, for his violent activities when he was part of the RAF / Baader Meinhof group, has been pardoned by the President and is going to be released from prison. His sister Christiane arranges for a welcome party for him at her countryside home. She invites their common friends for the party – friends who once had the same political thoughts as Jörg, but who have since then, become part of the mainstream. Though Christiane thinks that it is going to be a nostalgic and warm weekend, things don’t go as planned. There are a few verbal battles between Jorg and one of his old friends Ulrich, a few secrets come tumbling out of the closet and everyone is not what they seem.

                                                    

When I read a Bernhard Schlink book, I expect a few things in the book, which I like. They include things like – a first person narrator, not too many characters but a few characters which are well fleshed out, long monologues by the narrator on life, love, truth, philosophy, law and justice, one or two surprises in the plot, many beautiful passages. ‘The Weekend’ didn’t have most of these. There is no first person narrator. There are too many characters. At the beginning of the book, I had to keep referring back to find out who is who. There are a few monologues here and there but they were not as good as one expected them to be. There are one or two surprises but they don’t have the impact that one expects. There is a tacked in 9/11 scene which feels totally out of place. There are one or two beautiful passages but not enough number of them.

 

The basic premise of the book – a few old friends some of whom have controversial backgrounds meet during a weekend and relive their past – is quite interesting. It raises the reader’s expectations. But I think not anyone can pull this off. I think this kind of setting would have worked well in an Agatha Christie novel. Or an Anton Chekhov play. Or maybe even a film. It didn’t work so well here.

 

I didn’t really like most of the characters in the book – I didn’t dislike them, but I didn’t like them either. However, there was one character whom I liked. She was Margarete,  Christiane’s friend. Unfortunately, she didn’t get the space she deserved.

 

‘The Weekend’ is not Schlink’s best work. It was quite disappointing. Still, I think Schlink’s two good books out of three is a good strike rate though it is down from the rarefied level of a hundred percent. I hope my next Schlink novel is better.

 

I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book :

 

      The dawns are quiet, and they are melancholy – like the noontimes and evenings, like the mornings and the afternoons. They are melancholy not only in autumn and winter, but also in spring and summer. It’s the melancholy of the high sky and the wide, empty land. The eye finds no purchase among the trees, the church tower, the electricity supply with its masts and cables. It finds no mountains in the distance and no city nearby, nothing to set boundaries and create a space. The eye loses itself. The visitor who lets his eye wander loses himself along with it, and it saddens him and is at the same time so compelling that he is seized by the longing to merge with it. Simply to lose himself.

      Anyone who was born and bred here, and who sets about taking a job and founding a family, has to make his mind up. Stay or go. Staying small under this sky and in this void or growing at the cost of a life away from home. Even those who do not consciously make the decision sense that if they stay, their lives will be small even before they have really begun, and that if they leave, they are leaving behind not just a place but a life. A life whose small format is full of beauty – that’s why the visitors come back and buy themselves a house or a farm and yield to the desire to lose during the weekend.

 

You can find Caroline’s review of the book here.

 

Have you read Bernhard Schlink’s ‘The Weekend’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Peter Stamm through Caroline’s review of his short story collection, ‘In Strange Gardens and Other Stories. When I thought of reading one of Stamm’s books for German Literature Month, I decided on ‘Unformed Landscape’, as the storyline of this book appealed to me very much. I finished reading it yesterday. Then I opened the book on the first page and re-read all my favourite passages again. And again. Here is what I think.

Kathrine is a Customs inspector in a coastal village in Norway. It is a village in Norway, but it is really a place where different people live. As one of the early pages in the book says :

 

Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway, up here they all looked alike. The borders were covered by snow, the snow joined everything up, and the darkness covered it over. The real borders were between day and night, between summer and winter, between the people.

 

Kathrine is married to a well-to-do man, Thomas, and has a son from an earlier marriage. On paper everything is hunky-dory. The only problem is that Kathrine’s husband tries to change his wife everyday. He imposes his lifestyle, values, interests, habits on her and at some point Kathrine feels that she is living not in her own house but in someone else’s house.

 

She had thought they were building something together, but it was just Thomas building her into his life, trying to mold her, to train her, until she suited him, and suited the type of life he planned to lead. Until her own apartment was as foreign to her as his parents’ house, as he was, and as the life she led with him.

 

Then one day things reach a flashpoint. Kathrine has a one-night stand with her childhood friend, Morten. When her husband and his family discover this, things turn unpleasant. Soon, Kathrine packs her bags and leaves her village, takes a ship and goes into the sea. She has read about all the wonderful places of the world in books like Jules Verne’s novels. Though she has never travelled south of the Arctic circle, ever in her life, now she wants to see some of these exotic places and have interesting adventures. But when she goes to one new place after another, meets new people from different countries, makes new friends, she is in for a surprise. Things are not what she imagined them to be. They are very different. But they are also not very different from the way things are in her coastal village.

 

Kathrine felt disappointed. So many years she had been dreaming of a trip to the South. She had supposed that everything would be different south of the Arctic Circle. She had pictured worlds to herself, wonderful, colorful worlds full of strange animals and people as in the books of Jules Verne she had liked so much as a child. Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But this world wasn’t very different from the world of home. Everything was bigger and noisier, there were more people around, more cars on the streets. But she had hardly seen anything that she hadn’t seen at home or in Tromso. There’s not a lot of room in a person, she thought.

 

She had seen so much in the last two weeks, so much that she had never seen before, and yet she had the feeling she hadn’t seen anything at all. That people had different faces, she had already known. She had known that there are some houses that are bigger and more beautiful than others. A thousand times a thousand makes a million, and it wasn’t necessary to go to Paris to find that out.

 

Kathrine meets one her old friends Christian, in Paris. They spend some time together. Then Christian has to leave. Now, Kathrine has to decide what she wants to do with her life. Should she go back to her old life – her husband who doesn’t care about her feelings, her son, her old job? Or should she go back to her old village and see whether there are still sparks in her relationship with Morten? Or should she start a new life in one of the new places that she is visiting? What Kathrine decides on and what happens after that form the rest of the story.

 

‘Unformed Landscape’ is a beautiful, slim book. I liked it very much, starting from the title, to the name of the heroine (I have seen it spelled Catherine, Catharine, Katherine, Katharine and Kathryn, but this is the first time I have seen it spelled Kathrine – how many variations exist in one name!), to the beautiful prose of Peter Stamm, to the beautiful evocation of the Norwegian landscape, to the beautiful passages which come throughout the book. Even the last sentences of the book – ‘It was fall, then winter. It was summer. It got dark, and then it got light again’ – said many things. Peter Stamm’s spare prose was perfect. (I really tacked in this sentence here, so that I could use the phrase ‘spare prose’ 🙂 By the way, is it ‘spare prose’ or should it be ‘sparse prose’? Is there a difference between both the phrases? What do you think?) I was dreading that there will be an unpleasant surprise in the end, like some of my favourite authors had done before – like Muriel Barbery does in ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ and E.L.Swann does in ‘Night Gardening’. Fortunately, Stamm doesn’t do that. The ending is nice and elegant, even if it has a predictable element to it. I liked most of the characters in the story – the people who live in the village and the people whom Kathrine encounters during her travels. Even her husband Thomas has some redeeming qualities, though I didn’t like him much.

 

After reading ‘Unformed Landscape’ I thought about it. Or rather I thought about one aspect of it. The writer Peter Stamm is Swiss, but most of the story is set in Norway and the main characters are Norwegian. In a sense it is a Norwegian novel. But it wouldn’t be classified under Norwegian literature. It would be classified under Swiss literature and under German literature, because it was written in German. I thought of other books which were similar. I could think of Patrick Süskind’s ‘Perfume’ and ‘The Pigeon’ (the novelist is German, the books are written in German, but all the characters are French and the story happens in France) and Vikram Seth’s ‘An Equal Music’ (the author is Indian, the book is written in English, all the characters are English and the story happens in England). We normally see this happening in historical novels and in detective novels (like Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series), but it is interesting that this is happening in literary fiction too. What do you think about this?

 

‘Unformed Landscape’ is one of my favourite reads of German Literature Month. Its potential competitors for the top spot might be Herta Müller’s ‘The Land of Green Plums’ and Bernhard Schlink’s ‘The Reader’. It is also one of my favourite reads of the year. I want to read all of Stamm’s books now. It is nice that he doesn’t write chunksters. I want to read his book ‘Seven Years’ next.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

The Music

 

The music in the bar was lovely. There was something glassy about it, and the rhythm seemed to fit with Kathrine’s heartbeat, her breathing, which kept accelerating. She made herself breathe more slowly, and before long she had the feeling she was only breathing out, or in and out simultaneously. It was as though she’d left the room, and was passing through a landscape, hovering over a landscape of sounds. When she shut her eyes, she saw brightly colored patterns that opened out like delicate fans or flowers. The patterns were yellow and purple and hemmed with black lines. They looked like gentle hills. It was beautiful, and Kathrine felt at ease.

 

Laughing alone

 

Kathrine laughed, and was surprised at the sound of her laughter in the quiet apartment. It wasn’t her laugh at all. She laughed to hear herself laughing. Strange, she thought, that you cry alone, but never laugh. I’ve never laughed alone before.

 

Marriage

 

      “Is your wife competent?”

      “Very. Our marriage works best when I’m away. Then she can do whatever she wants.”

      “And when you’re there, then she does whatever you want, is that it?”

      “Then I do what she wants.”

 

Being bored

 

She had never been bored, even though her life was monotonous, even though nothing happened in the village. Her favorite days had been the ones where everything was exactly as always. Only Sundays had sometimes bothered her.

 

On Faith

 

      She didn’t believe in God. Almost no one in the village believed in God, perhaps not even the vicar, who was a nice man, and did his job same as everyone else.

 

***

      “The people here believe in God, they just don’t believe in Jesus,” Ian said once, “they believe in the Creation, but they don’t believe in love.”

      “Well, Creation exists,” said Kathrine, “whereas love…”

 

***

Kathrine didn’t believe what the minister was saying, and yet his words were comforting to her. Perhaps it was enough if he believed it, or Alexander’s wife believed it, or Ian or Svanhild. Perhaps it was enough if the minister just spoke the words. Perhaps it was enough that they were all assembled here, that they were thinking of Alexander, that they would remember him later, and this day and this hour.

 

You can find Tony’s review of the book here and Amy’s review of the book here.

 

Have you read Peter Stamm’s ‘Unformed Landscape’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Ferdinand von Schirach’s ‘The Collini Case’ through Caroline’s review of it. Even since I read Schirach’s short story collection ‘Crime’, I had hoped that some day he would write a novel. So, it was nice when I discovered that Schirach had put his legal talents into writing a novel and it has been translated into English. I read this book for genre week of German Literature Month. I read it in one sitting and here is what I think.

‘The Collini Case’ tells the story of a murder and the case which revolves around it. One day a man enters a luxury suite in a famous hotel in Berlin. He pretends to be a journalist who wants to interview the famous industrialist Hans Meyer, who is staying in that suite. The industrialist invites him inside his suite. A short while later, the industrialist is dead with bullets through his head. The man who entered his room goes to the hotel reception and reports the murder and asks the receptionist to call the police. He is Fabrizio Collini. He is arrested for murder. He gets a defence lawyer from the government. The defence lawyer is a newbie, Casper Lienen. It seems to be an open-and-shut case where the defence lawyer cannot do much. The only thing missing is the motive. Collini refuses to talk about it. He makes a confession that he murdered the victim but hee doesn’t say anything beyond that. By a strange coincidence, Lienen knows the victim, Hans Meyer. Lienen grew up with Meyer’s grandson Philipp and Lienen had a crush on Philipp’s sister Johanna. Meyer himself had treated him like his own grandson. Johanna calls Lienen and asks him angrily why he is defending the murderer. Lienen tries to withdraw from the case but then finally decides not to. Then one day during the trial he discovers a clue. And he discovers the truth behind Hans Meyer. And the motive behind Collini’s action. And the case becomes more complicated than it seems.

 

‘The Collini Case’ is an interesting novel. It is a fast-paced read and tells an interesting story. It describes how the German legal system works, explores some of the nitty-gritties of it and also explores philosophical issues related to law and justice. It asks some interesting questions :

 

  • Who is a criminal and who is an accessory? Is there really a distinction?
  • Can a defence lawyer withdraw from a case for personal reasons?
  • For a violent act to be regarded as a crime should it be a crime according to the law that was in force at that time or should it be held to account according to some absolute moral standard?
  • What are the pros and cons of the statute of limitations?
  • Under what circumstances can a law not be repealed?

 

It is vintage Schirach. Though I have to say that I liked Schirach’s ‘Crime’ more, I found ‘The Collini Case’ a gripping read. It is tempting to compare Schirach with his countryman Bernhard Schlink, as both are in the legal profession (Schirach is a defence lawyer while Schlink is a former judge and current professor of law) and as both of them explore philosophical and moral issues pertaining to law and justice. Though both of them cover the same ground, I have to say that they are as different as chalk and cheese and each is unique in his own way.

 

If you like a not-so-big, fast-paced legal thriller which asks some interesting questions, you will like ‘The Collini’ Case’. I will leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

 

Leinen used the dry language of the law, saying only what he had heard from Collini and what he had founding the files in Ludwigsburg. But as he read out the statement, as he presented the horror of it sentence by sentence, the courtroom itself changed. People, landscapes and towns came into view, the sentences became images, the images came to life, and much later one of those who had heard Leinen said he had been able to smell the fields and meadows of Collini’s childhood. However, something else, something different, was happening to Caspar Leinen himself : for years on end he had listened to his professors, he had learned the law and its interpretation, he had tried to get a good grasp of criminal proceedings – yet only today, only in his own first plea to the court, did he understand that those proceedings were really about something quite different : abused human beings.

 

Leinen didn’t like those large outfits where up to eight hundred lawyers might be employed. The young men there looked like bankers, had first-class degrees and had bought cars that they couldn’t afford; whoever could charge clients for the largest number of hours at the end of the week was the winner. The partners in such large practices already had two marriages under their belts; they wore yellow cashmere sweaters and checked trousers at weekends. Their world consisted of figures, posts on directorial boards, a consultancy contract with the Federal government and a never-ending succession of conference rooms, airport lounges and hotel lobbies. For all of them, it was a disaster if a case came to court : judges were too unpredictable.

 

You can find Caroline’s review of the book here and Lindsay’s review of the book here.

 

Have you read ‘The Collini Case’? What do you think about it?

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I won Zoran Drvenkar’s ‘Tell Me What You see’ in the giveaway hosted by Caroline for German Literature Month. I read it along with Caroline for genre week – that is the third week –  of German Literature Month. Here is what I think.

The story of ‘Tell Me What You See’ is told from multiple points of view but all of them tell the story of the teenage heroine Alissa. When Alissa was young her father dies in a road accident. Alissa misses her father and every year she goes to her father’s grave on Christmas night along with her best friend Evelin. The story told in the book happens during a period lasting for around a week starting from Christmas night. Though it is snowing, Alissa and Evelin leave their homes after everyone has gone to sleep to visit Alissa’s father’s grave. Because of the snow, they are not able to find it easily. While they are searching for it in the graveyard, Alissa falls into a crypt. While her friend Evelin goes home to get her father to help Alissa, Alissa walks through the crypt and finds a small coffin. She notices a strange kind of plant growing out of the coffin. Some force beyond her control makes her open the coffin and she discovers that there is a child’s body inside and the plant grows straight out of the child’s heart. Before she has realized it Alissa has taken the plant and put it in her pocket. Alissa is rescued by Evelin and her father and she goes back home. The next day morning there are two strange people inside her room, when Alissa wakes up. She asks them who they are, and they are surprised that she can see them. One of them says that they are too late. The other asks her about the plant. Alissa suddenly remembers it and searches for it in her jacket pocket. She realizes that it is not there. She realizes that she might have eaten it. The visitors leave mysteriously, the same way they came. Then strange things start happening to Alissa. And her ex-boyfriend Simon starts stalking her and starts behaving strangely towards her. What is the mystery behind the plant and what happens to Alissa and how she discovers the secret and what impact it has on her life form the rest of the story.

 

‘Tell Me What You See’ has many of the typical elements which one finds in a modern YA story – a teenage heroine having strange experiences, her loyal friend who stays with her through thick and thin, a stalking ex-boyfriend, a lesbian character or two, supernatural (or should I say paranormal) incidents and a central mystery which is revealed in the last few pages. I liked most of the characters in the book, except for the stalking ex-boyfriend. He reminded me of the stalking, violent husband in Stephen King’s ‘Rose Madder’.

 

The book also has beautiful sentences sprinkled throughout the book. For example this one :

 

Whenever I open my mouth, the wind blows snow crystals into my throat. They feel like powdered glass. And whenever Evelin speaks, it sounds as though she’s chewing cotton.

 

And this one :

 

When did we start drinking coffee? It’s really odd. At some point you start to do things that never interested you before – drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, lighting candles during the day, sitting on the floor and answering the telephone with an Uh-huh?

 

The book also has warmly depicted family scenes The way the relationship between Alissa and her stepfather is described is very beautiful and warm. In one place Alissa describes her stepfather Robert like this :

 

A few minutes later we’re sitting opposite each other. We’re alike, even though he’s not my father and never will be. We’re alike in our mannerisms. That’s probably what happens when you live with somebody for a while. The way he smells the coffee. Or the way he leans forward and hunches up his shoulders because he’s cold.

 

In another place Robert describes a conversation he has with Alissa like this :

 

      “How’s he doing?” asks Alissa.

      “Better…The doctors say he’s lucky to be alive.”

      Alissa puts the soup onto the tray.

      “But nothing happened to me?” she asks, looking at her hands.

      “You were lucky.”

      She puts her hands back on her stomach and says quietly, “It wasn’t my fault.”

      I nod, even though I don’t know whether to believe her.

      “Of course it wasn’t your fault,” I say. There are two liars in the room now.

 

I am sorry if the above dialogue doesn’t have the same impact, when it is quoted out of context.

 

Here are a few descriptions of the cold.

 

Cool air blows in. It’s the special cool air that you only get in winter. I’m so happy, I want to cry.

 

The cold has changed. It’s more familiar to me. Now I also know why it’s so biting. I understand it, we know each other. The cold is bundled rage. Rage and longing. All in one.

 

Even though I’m dressed warmly, the cold sticks to me. It’s especially bad at night; warmth shuns me, cold is my new friend. At first it hurt, but now I feel as though the heat of the apartment is suffocating me. I hope I’m not ill with the flu or one of those new viruses.

 

The central mystery revealed was very different from what I expected. While the mystery was panning out, it reminded me at different times of C.S.Lewis’ ‘Till We Have Faces’ and the films ‘The Sixth Sense’ and ‘A Beautiful Mind’. I was hoping and praying that it wouldn’t turn out the way ‘A Beautiful Mind’ did. The ending is bittersweet – first bitter, then sweet and then a combination of both. It was sad in some ways, but I am glad that it was not tragic.

 

I liked ‘Tell Me What You See’ very much. Zoran Drvenkar is an exciting new-to-me writer and I hope to read more of his books in the future, especially ‘Sorry’ his thriller for grown-ups. I also hope that more of his books get translated into English.

 

You can find Caroline’s review of ‘Tell Me What You See’ here.

 

Have you read Zoran Drvenkar’s ‘Tell Me What You See’? What do you think about it?

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I got Herta Müller’s ‘The Land of Green Plums as a gift from my favourite friend and I have been waiting for the right time to read it. So, when German Literature Month arrived, I took it down from the shelf and read it. Here is what I think.

‘The Land of Green Plums describes life in Romania during the Cold War. It is told by an un-named woman narrator who tells us about her life and that of her family and her three friends. The story starts from the time the narrator is studying at university and is living in a dormitory with five other girls. One day one of the girls commits suicide and the university disowns her. The narrator gets to meet three other boys who knew this girl. The four of them become friends. The rest of the story is about the four of them and how they graduate from university, go to work, how they live under the shadow of a totalitarian regime every day with uncertainty and fear and how they lose their jobs as they refuse to give up their individual freedom and how they try to emigrate from Romania.

 

Reading ‘The Land of Green Plums was like reading a long poem. A poem not in the popular sense in which we use that word – that the book has beautiful sentences, though it certainly had that – but in the sense that it is a succession of powerful, beautiful, fascinating and vivid images which are held together by a plot. The description in the inside flap calls them ‘simple images of hieroglyphic power’ and it felt nice reading that. Till around one-third of the book, the images predominate the plot and so the temptation is to linger on the sentences and read them again. And again. The story takes precedence over the plot after that, but the images keep coming till the end of the book.

 

The book starts with the lines :

 

When we don’t speak, said Edgar, we become unbearable, and when we do, we make fools of ourselves.

 

And in a very James Joycean way, the book ends with the same lines, giving it a circular look.

 

While reading the book, I had a suspicion at some point of time that many of the events described in it might be autobiographical. When I read the author’s Nobel lecture at the end of the book, these suspicions were confirmed. Some of the anecdotes that the author talks about in her lecture – for example, how her mother is taken to the police station and is locked inside for the whole day and how she cleans the room in the police station to keep herself occupied – all have corresponding anecdotes in the story. It is tempting to conclude that this book is a fictionalized autobiography of the author.

 

Towards the end of the book, there is a scene where the narrator’s friend Edgar is asked by the West German authorities to produce a document which said that he was fired from his job in Romania for political reasons. And that document has to come from the Romanian government. And this during the Cold War era. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when I read this. Really?

 

The edition of the book I have also had Herta Müller’s Nobel lecture. It is a beautiful essay on its own and was wonderful to read. I would love to read Müller’s memoir or autobiography, if she has written one, sometime. I have also not read many books by Nobel prize winning authors. When I did a quick count I discovered that out of 112 Nobel prize winning authors, I have read only 10 (and a short story by one, but I think that doesn’t count). So, it was nice to read add Herta Müller as my 11th author.

 

I liked ‘The Land of Green Plums very much. It is not a book that one reads at a fast pace – though that is possible because the language is deceptively simple – but a book which one reads slowly and lingers on each sentence. I want to explore more of Müller’s works now.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

Mother says : Whenever life becomes unbearable, clean your closet. Then your worries will go out through your hands, and that will free our head.

 

You could say Lola’s sentences in your mouth. But they didn’t let themselves be written down. Not by me. They were like dreams, suited for speech but not for paper. When I wrote them down, Lola’s sentences dissolved in my hand.

 

My father, said Georg, took his bicycle to the station so that he wouldn’t have to walk so close to me on the way there, and so that, on the way back, his empty hands wouldn’t remind him he was returning home alone.

 

      Because we were afraid, Edgar, Kurt, Georg, and I met every day. We sat together at a table, but our fear stayed locked within each of our heads, just as we’d brought it to our meetings. We laughed a lot, to hide it from each other. But fear always finds an out. If you control your face, it slips into your voice. If you manage to keep a grip on our face and your voice, as if they were dead wood, it will slip out through your fingers. It will pass through your skin and lie there. You can see it lying around on objects close by.

      We could see whose fear was where, because we had known each other so long. Often we couldn’t stand each other, because we were all we had. We had no choice but to lash out at each other.

 

I wanted love to grow back, like the grass when it’s mown down. To grow differently, if need be, like children’s teeth, like hair, like fingernails. To spring up at will, wild and untended.

 

The child leaves the house where there are only grown-ups, to go play with the other children. She carries as many toys as she can, in her hands, in her pockets. Even in her underpants and up her dress. She empties out her dress and underpants, and spreads out her toys. Then, when the others start to play, the child can’t stand to have her toys played with by anyone else.

      The child is transformed by envy, because others are better at playing. By selfishness, because others are grabbing things that belong to her. But also by fear, that she will be left alone. The child doesn’t want to be envious, selfish, or fearful, and becomes all the more so.

 

      Mother swallowed. She said quietly : What time is it?

      On her wrist she had one of my father’s dead wristwatches. Why do you wear it, I asked, if it doesn’t work? Nobody can see that, she said, and ou have one too. Mine works, I said, otherwise I wouldn’t be wearing it. If I wear a watch, it makes me feel more secure, she said, even if it’s not working. Then why ask what time it is? I said.

      Because that’s all I can talk to you about, said Mother.

 

A friendship isn’t like a jacket that you can pass on to me, he said. I could slip it on. It might even look as though it fitted, from the outside, but on the inside it wouldn’t keep me warm.

 

This passage is from Muller’s Nobel lecture.

 

“DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was the question my mother asked me every morning, standing by the gate to our house, before I went out onto the street. I didn’t have a handkerchief. And because I didn’t, I would go back inside and get one. I never had a handkerchief because I would always wait for her question. The handkerchief was proof that my mother was looking after me in the morning. For the rest of the day I was on my own. The question DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was an indirect display of affection. Anything more direct would have been embarrassing and not something the farmers practiced. Love disguised itself as a question. That was the only way it could be spoken : matter-of-factly, in the tone of command, or the deft maneuvers used for work. The brusqueness of the voice even emphasized the tenderness. Every morning I went to the gate once without a handkerchief and a second time with a handkerchief. Only then would I go out onto the street, as if having the handkerchief meant having my mother there, too.”

 

Have you read Herta Müller’s ‘The Land of Green Plums? What do you think about it?

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I read Bernhard Schlink’s ‘Homecoming’ last year and liked it very much. I have wanted to read other books by him since then, especially his more famous book ‘The Reader’. So when German Literature Month arrived this year I added ‘The Reader’ to my ‘Must read’ list. I finished reading it today. Here is what I think.

I am not going to bore you with the plot outline of the story, as you have probably seen the movie version of ‘The Reader’ (for which Kate Winslet won an Oscar). What I would like to say after reading the book is this. The movie stays more or less faithful to the book with some minor liberties to the screenplay. When I read the book and the parts about Hanna, Kate Winslet’s face kept coming to my mind. That is one of the problems of seeing the movie version before reading the book.

 

Which one is better – the movie or the book? I saw the movie a few years back when it came out and I can only talk about what I remember now about the impression the movie created on me at that time. With our memory being unreliable most times, I would take my own comparison with a pinch of salt. But if I stick my neck out and make the comparison, I would say that the movie and the book were good in different ways. The movie was good in terms of creating a visual picture of the story and saying things which cannot be said in words. The book is good with respect to the philosophical discussions which are explored through the narrator’s voice, which is difficult to do in a movie. The reasoning behind Hanna’s reluctance to reveal her secret is also better explained in the book. It also leaves many clues to the central mystery which I don’t remember the movie doing. The book also mentions many German books and writers – Intrigues and Love by Schiller, Schnitzler, Heller, Fontane, Heine Morike, Kafka, Frisch, Johnson, Bachmann, Lenz – one can make a ‘TBR’ list out of it 🙂 The things about Bernhard Schlink’s prose in ‘Homecoming’ that I liked very much were all there in ‘The Reader’ – the deceptively simple prose which hides the depth of the philosophical ideas and questions he addresses, the insightful observations on different things, the quotable quotes in every chapter. I thought that as I knew the story already, the book wouldn’t affect me that much. But inspite of that, the ending was still heartbreaking. Hanna is a beautiful, haunting heroine and I will never forget her. I wish things had turned out differently.

 

If you have seen the movie version of ‘The Reader’, I don’t know whether I should recommend the book to you. It is good in its own right, but all the surprises have been revealed if you have already watched the movie. But if you haven’t watched the movie, then I would recommend that you read the book first and then watch the movie.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

      Then I began to betray her.

      Not that I gave away any secrets or exposed Hanna. I didn’t reveal anything that I should have kept to myself. I kept something to myself that I should have revealed. I didn’t acknowledge her. I know that disavowal is an unusual form of betrayal. From the outside it is impossible to tell if you are disowning someone or simply exercising discretion, being considerate, avoiding embarrassments and sources of irritation. But you, who are doing the disowning, you know what you’re doing. And disavowal pulls the underpinnings away from a relationship just as surely as other more flamboyant types of betrayal.

 

      ‘I…I mean…so what would you have done?’ Hanna meant it as a serious question. She did not know what she should or could have done differently, and therefore wanted to hear from the judge, who seemed to know everything, what he would have done.

      Everything was quiet for a moment. It is not the custom at German trials for defendants to question the judges. But now the question had been asked, and everyone was waiting for the judge’s answer. He had to answer; he could not ignore the question or brush it away with a reprimand or a dismissive counterquestion. It was clear to everyone, it was clear to him too, and I understood why he had adopted an expression of irritation as his defining feature. It was his mask. Behind it, he could take a little time to find an answer. But not too long; the longer he took, the greater the tension and expectation, and the better his answer had to be.

 

Now escape involves not just running away, but arriving somewhere. And the past I arrived in as a legal historian was no less alive than the present. It is also not true, as outsiders might assume, that one can merely observe the richness of life in the past, whereas one can participate in the present. Doing history means building bridges between the past and the present, observing both banks of the river, taking an active part on both sides.

 

Have you read ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink? What do you think about it?

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