I discovered ‘Rain’ by Karen Duve through Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) post on contemporary German women authors. I haven’t heard of Karen Duve before and the plot of the story looked quite interesting with an atmospheric feel and so I thought I will read it for German Literature Month.
The plot summary of the novel given in the back cover reads like this.
When Leon Ulbricht lands a contract to write a gangster’s memoirs and moves into his dream home in an East German village with his beautiful wife Martina, everything seems set for an idyllic existence. But the dream home turns out to be in the middle of a fetid swamp; his house and marriage are falling apart; he can’t write the book and has spent all of his advance. It rains without end and their attempts to repair the house, or at least dry it out, are hampered by the plague of slugs eating away at the foundations. And then the gangster, wondering why his memoirs are not yet completed, decides to get nasty.
How can one resist a story like that? I couldn’t.
Now that I have finished reading I have good news and bad news. The good news first. The book is very true to the title. It is a bookish personification of rain. The whole book evokes the atmosphere of rain – the drizzle, the downpour, the steady incessant irritating rain, the slugs which come with the rain, the grey sky, the rainy nights setting in early, water getting soaked into the house roofs, walls and the foundation, water dripping through the roof into the house, clothes refusing to dry, boots and shoes soaked with rain, everything outside being marshy and mushy, brown water coming out of the tap, the rain because of which the power gets cut, the telephone cable gets cut, the mobile battery runs out, when it is dark and one can’t do anything but only hope that daylight arrives soon so that atleast one can see around. It is not the beautiful romantic rain – where two people stand under one umbrella on a bridge near the Fontanka river in St.Petersburg with love in their eyes. This is the rain which is messy, which makes your life difficult, which brings slugs, insects and worms inside your home, which you didn’t even know existed, the rain which prevents you from going out and which prevents you from enjoying your staying in, a rain which gets into your nerves all the time. This is the rain which the book portrays from the beginning to the end. Full marks to Karen Duve for that. I haven’t read another book which portrays the annoying characteristic of rain as well as this one. The second nice thing about the book is the way it shows how the rain and the atmosphere and environment it creates transforms the people who live there, not just emotionally or psychologically but in probably very real ways. The way how, Leon starts resembling his next door neighbour Isadora at the end of the book is very uncanny. I didn’t like the main character in the story, Leon the writer, but I liked some of the other characters – Martina (Leon’s wife), Kay (one of their neighbours who loves Martina) and Noah (a stray dog whom Martina takes inside her home).
Now the bad news. I was expecting the book to evoke the atmosphere of rain. And that Karen Duve has masterfully done. But I also expected the book to have a plot which was quite engaging and funny and which grabbed my attention and made me laugh. That is what the blurb hinted at. Unfortunately, I felt that the book didn’t do that. It started off quite well but at some point, I felt that the depiction of the atmosphere and the environment won over the story and the humour. There are some nasty characters (which was okay with me) and some nasty, repulsive scenes (which was not okay with me). One particular scene was so repulsive that I was very upset with it and I also wondered why I bothered with the story. Luckily the book redeemed itself a bit after that. But that scene left a bad taste in the mouth.
In conclusion, I don’t know how to react to the book. I definitely didn’t like it. But the evocation of rain and the rainy atmosphere and environment was masterful. I don’t know whether it was just me – because ‘Rain’ was a bestseller in Germany and has been translated into sixteen languages – or whether other reviewers felt the same as me. So I did some research. Interestingly, I couldn’t find a single blogger-review of the book in English. But I found two other reviews – the Guardian review (by Margaret Stead) and the review at the Goethe Institut site (by Barbara Baker). These two reviews had opposite points of view – Stead’s praised the book while Baker’s review was more complex and was overall unfavourable to the book. I sided with Baker.
I will leave you with some of my favourite lines from the book.
After only a minute out in the rain, Martina’s chin-length red hair was plastered to her face. A strand of it described a calligraphic flourish on her forehead, from which water licked its way down to her mouth.
The stream changed from flowing above ground to flowing underground like a needle swiftly stitching.
The sound woke Leon and Martina up on their first few nights. Then they integrated it into their dreams, which from now on were full of creaking bridges and falling trees.
The rain increased, falling from the sky like a set of evenly arranged guitar strings.
Have you read ‘Rain’ by Karen Duve? What do you think about it?