Tag Archives: German

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

I have read more adventurous and innovative fiction since deciding to read a book a month by a woman in translation. And the topics covered appear to be serious issues for humans. Those in German seem especially concerned with world issues – climate change, refugees etc.

A major prize has been inaugurated since I began the project in September: the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. This month I look at the first winner:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, published by Portobello Books.

Three Stories

I could have called this post Why write about real bears? (as I did about people some time ago). The novel is formed of three stories each told by a different but related bear with origins in real life. I have included pictures of Knut, the youngest bear, born and brought up in Berlin Zoo.

The first bear, his grandmother, was born in Russia, sent to East Germany and then to Canada. She wrote her own biography after she was unable to perform in a circus.

The story of the second bear, her daughter Tosca, is told by her trainer as she tried to design an original and creative act for the bear in the circus. Tosca rejected her cub at birth so he is raised by a human, with whom he formed a close connection. Knut tells his own story as he grows up in Berlin zoo, the poster cub for conservation.

Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007

Each section opens with a physical sensation of bear-ness, and one we can relate to in our human-ness: curling in a foetal position, stretching, suckling. The stories are strange, dreamlike, prone to sudden shifts in the telling. It seems that the bears can communicate with humans, write and even, in the case of the first bear, move around in human society without arousing curiosity.

As with any story told from the point of view of an animal, it points to aspects of humans, especially about their relationships with the natural world. As a result this is also an unsettling book. What are the boundaries between humans and other animals, we find ourselves asking. Are we so different? What can we say about the way we care for animals, even, as in the case of Knut, for good motives. (In his case he was used to promote awareness of climate change.) And what about our care of the natural world? (Knut never saw the Arctic. What does it mean to keep a polar bear in temperate conditions?) Polar Bears are being made highly vulnerable by the shrinking of the ice caps in the Arctic.

Much of the subtext is concerned with communication and language, and raises questions about humans and language, especially as so many humans today need to use something that is not their native/mother tongue.

The first bear is told by her publisher’s representative that she should write in her mother tongue:

“What’s my mother tongue?”

“The language your mother speaks.”

“I’ve never spoken with my mother.”

“A mother is a mother even if you never speak with her.” (51)

And later her reminds her to write in her own language.

“My own language? I don’t know which language that is. Probably one of the North Pole languages.”

“I see, a joke. Russian is the most magnificent literary language in the world.”

“Somehow I don’t seem to know Russian any more.”

”That’s impossible! Write whatever you want, but in your own language please.” (57)

And to make a point, and to further her campaign to be relocated to Canada because it is colder than Berlin, she writes this for the publisher, in Russian.

“All penguin marriages are alike, while every polar bear marriage is different.” (58)

Confusions of language and communication abound in the three novellas, much as they must do for any migrant. And we must assume that Yoko Tawada has some insight into this, having moved to Berlin from Tokyo in her 20s.

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation

The prize was introduced in 2017. Here is the announcement of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear on the website. I welcome this award as it will raise people’s awareness of women in fiction (woefully small numbers of novels published by women and tiny proportion of those chosen for translation). And I’m pleased that it is my alma mater hosting it. I did a history degree there about half a century ago, which required the study of foreign languages. The tradition of promoting foreign language use continues.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, first published in German in 2014, Etuden im Schnee. Published in English in 2016 by Portobello. 252pp

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Winner of the Warwick Inaugural Women in Translation Prize (2017)

Yoko Tawada May 2016

Related Links

An interview with the translator, Susan Bernofsky, about her work in the LARB.

Previous posts in this series include

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated from the German by Jen Calleja.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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Photo credits: Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007. Photo by Christopher Pratt via WikiCommons

Author picture by G.Garitan from May 2016 at a conference in the library Falada at Reims.via WikiCommons

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All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski

This is a novel of accumulating tension, yet the tension is set alongside the everyday concerns of people, even when they are afraid, or needing to flee.

The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea. (Opening paragraph 1)

From the outset, the reader sees a bigger picture: this estate is quiet and sheltered, largely passed by, muffled in winter. But it is January 1945 and history is about to intrude. Europe is in the final stages of war. The Russians are coming. The Red Army will soon arrive.

The Story

The residents of the Georgenhof estate have not been much troubled by the war. The family had already disposed of most of the land they once owned, relying on foreign investments to support them.

Eberhard von Globig, the estate’s owner, is away at an army desk job in Italy. His wife Katherina remains on the estate, with their son Peter, an old retainer called Auntie and several foreign workers who manage the farm and the kitchen. Katherina has several admirers, and many family members come to Georgenhof for supplies. Dr Wagner comes to tutor Peter from the nearby town. Across the road there is a new estate of houses, controlled by the local Nazi puffed up self-important Drygalski.

Despite being somewhat cut off more and more people come to the Georgenhof, for a night or two or because they are billeted there. Gradually it becomes obvious that everyone is leaving, a great westward trek is in progress. Katherina is persuaded to hide a man on the run, at the request of the local pastor. She is imprisoned. Everyone leaves and she joins the trek under guard. The second half of the novel recounts Auntie and Peter’s trek West and the gradual disintegration of their group, Auntie’s death by an enemy bomber and Peter’s transformation into a near-feral child. We see what happens to the visitors to Georgenhof. Each person in turn abandons something very precious that they brought with them.

There is a tension between the large and growing trek west with the casual deaths, abandonment, dead ends, thefts and so forth and the occasional highly organised rest centres.

Some reflections

I have never read anything by Walter Kempowski before, there is not a great deal that has been published in English. What struck me immediately was the number of characters he introduces very quickly, and how more and more people arrive on the page, gathered in to this great exodus. The details of their lives remind the reader that people have to be concerned with their own safety, hunger and chances before everything. And that humans may in retrospect think that the wrong priorities were chosen. The von Globig family, for example, take forever to decide to leave, wondering about their silver plate and crockery, and which pictures and what else will be left behind.

Peter’s journey is an example of how humans can be neglected: his mother is a prisoner, the Polish man who has been helping them abandoned Peter and Auntie, when Auntie is killed a pastor takes Peter in, but is himself about to leave. The child is alone. It seems as if there is no future for him but it is Drygalski, the local Nazi, who in an act of self-sacrifice gives up his place on the last crowded boat to leave.

Each person is a rounded character. Their motives are often nugatory, venal, self-serving, but they come across as human. The people who visit or who are billeted at Georgenhof are passing through, but one has a sense of their experiences up to this point, and that their lives will continue elsewhere. This accords with Kempowski’s work, chronicling the experiences of people during the war. He was a major figure in German literature after the war.

The novel considers what happens when a very controlled society begins to act in an anarchic way, but not all at the same time. The question implicit in the title remains over the entire story. With its insistence upon the significance of each individual the novel asserts the importance of humanity over ideology.

Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski’s work (1929-2007) is not well known in English. Born in Rostock, in the war he was unhappily enrolled into the Hitler Youth and then the Flakhelfer, the youth auxiliary of the Luftwaffe. His father was killed in the last months of the war. Walter Kempowski was imprisoned in East Germany for 8 years. He was accused of spying for the US.

He was a prolific writer. His work included 10 volumes of Das Escholot, a collage of German voices and their experiences of the Second World War. He was a writer who helped Germany come to terms with its Nazi past. This was his last book.

All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski, published in English by Granta in 2015, first appeared in 2006 with the title Alles Umsont. 343pp

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

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Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel

Dance by the Canal is a novella, published by the much appreciated Peirene Press and sent to subscribers as the third in their East and West Series: Looking Both Ways. In this book we are brought to East Germany before and after reunification, to explore how a young woman fails to find her way in either. The bleakness of the Communist East offers little to a free spirit, and reunification with West Germany is suffocating her hometown. Where is a young woman to be? First published in German in 1994, four years after the reunification, Dance by the Canal still has a great deal to tell us about Europe today.

The Story of Dance by the Canal

Gabriela von Haßlau grows up as an unloved and untalented child, in a fictional town called Leibnitz in East Germany. Gabriela is a disappointment and distraction to her parents. Her father is a self-important surgeon finding the restrictions of the East German state hampers his ability to impress people. Her mother is scarcely interested in her daughter and when the couple begin entertaining, against the wishes of the state, she begins an affair. The marriage disintegrates as Gabriela’s father is removed from his post.

Led astray at school, Gabriela begins to distance herself from her family and the future organised for her by the state. She begins an apprenticeship at a machinery factory. From there she is rescued in a shady deal. In exchange for reporting on her friends she is to be a spy, and when this doesn’t work out she ends up on the street, sleeping under the canal bridge.

Bleak because there seems no answer for Gabriela, and she cannot help herself. Neither the East nor the reunified Germany can cope with her.

Humour

There is a great deal of wit in this novel, despite its rather bleak tone and ambiguous ending. Her father, a vascular surgeon, rebukes the child for crying when the tangles in her hair are pulled.

– Think of all the people with varicose veins, Father would say, you don’t see them crying. (12)

And here is the vivid way in which Gabriela describes the work she was required to do at the I-Plant: filing iron plates.

Five kilograms of iron, heave up, press to bib, clamp, screw down, file, position, up and down, thirty-degree angle, release vice, hold the plate tightly, turn the plate, retighten, file, up down up down, only fucking’s better, rotate, change, take off plate, set aside, check with bare fingertips, five kilograms of iron, heave up, clamp, turn it the other way, nose wipe, iron stinks, bad filing cuts into flesh, five kilograms is women’s weight, arms like a heavyweight, the screech of drilling, shriek of milling, screech of grinding, file by hand, up down, the stack of plates shrinks, the other grows, […] after eight hours I don’t know who I am. (86)

And there are some great characters. The other down-and-outs who drink at the Three Roses could have emerged from the Commedia del Arte. Semmelweis-Marrie, Rampen-Paul, Klunzer-Lupo and Noppe. The wonderful partner in crime from her schools days, Katka. Various teachers. Her mother’s hammy lover. The sinister Queck and Manfred who end up drowned …

Gabriela is the narrator of the novella. From the writing emerge the sense of things happening to Gabriela, her lack of control over the events, her escapes and the bleakness of her life.

Kerstin Hensel

Kerstin Hensel was born in 1961 in what was called Karl-Marx-Stadt in East Germany. She studied in Leipzig, medicine and literature. She publishes poetry and plays as well as novels. Dance by the Canal was her first novel.

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, published in German in 1994, and in translation in 2017 by Peirene. 122pp

Translated from the German by Jen Calleja

For another review of Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, go to the blog ALifeinBooks.

On Bookword

I am reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation every month: here are three recommendations from those I have already included.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Berofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

What is the most pressing and intractable problem facing humans today? My answer would be the responses to migration, to the movements of peoples. I mean racism and the other abuses practised on vulnerable peoples. And I mean the responses of governments and especially of the EU to the people who arrive seeking asylum. Go, Went, Gone confronts these issues.

The story of Go, Went, Gone

Richard lives in Berlin, in what used to be called East Berlin, but in his lifetime it has been reunited with the rest of the city. He has just retired from his post as Professor of Classical Philology, and now faces decisions about how he will spend his time, his life. The description of his dilemmas about confronting retirement is excellent in itself.

Memorial to the Berlin Wall, May 2014

Richard’s attention is drawn to a group of refugees who are causing the authorities some worries as they are on hunger strike and then by camping out in Orienplatz. He visits their camp and notices that they have created a community. He decides to investigate, as he might have approached an intellectual question in his professional academic life. He reads up about migration and draws up questions for the migrants and goes to interview them. Here he reflects on what he reads after he has heard some of the men’;s stories.

Much of what Richard reads on this November day several weeks after his retirement are things he’s known most of his life, but today, thanks to this bit of additional information he’s acquired, it all seems to come together in new, different ways. (142)

And when he combines his reading with his previous studies he notices something about the world.

When he considers the path the Berbers may have taken: from the Caucasus by way of Anatolia and the Levant all the way to Egypt and ancient Libya, then later into modern day Niger (and then back from Niger to modern-day Libya and across the sea to Rome and Berlin), it’s nearly a perfect three-quarter circle. This movement of people across the continents has already been going on for thousands of years, and never once has this movement halted. There were commerce, and wars, and expulsions; people often followed the animals they owned in search of water and food, they fled from droughts and plagues, went in search of gold, salt, or iron, or else their faith in their own god could be pursued only in the diaspora. There was ruin and then transformation and reconstruction. There were better roads and worse ones, but never did the movement cease. (142-3)

Never once has this movement halted, never did the movement cease.

As soon as Richard hears the stories of one man after another, the intellectual becomes the personal. He becomes absorbed in their lives, begins to make a difference through language teaching and donations, and becomes a somewhat naïve witness to the treatment of the refugees by the authorities.

My reactions

I was quickly absorbed by this book. The stories of the refugees are full of impact, not least because surviving the fearsome passage across the Mediterranean leads only to yet more suffering. Many of the men who have landed, usually in Italy, find themselves a great deal worse off than before they made their decision to leave, and with little prospect for improving their lives. Everything is a problem: shelter, clothing, work, communications with authorities, language, transport, neighbours, money …

As he learns more, Richard reaches back into what he knew best, classical studies, and makes connections with this knowledge. The centrality of the Mediterranean emerges in all stories. Richard reflects too on parallels with the reunification of Germany and the changes that came with this, especially for those who had lived in the former GDR. German history, however, has little significance for the migrants and they know nothing of Hitler and the atrocities of the 1940s or the division of Germany that followed the Nazis.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, May 2014

The meanings of boundaries of all kinds surface again and again. Humans seem to separate themselves from others to create enclaves; they identify and differentiate themselves from others in ways that cause huge problems. Above all, the accident of birth determines a human’s legal rights, and those who were born in the wrong places suffer over and over. The project of the EU does not help those who are born outside it.

The movement of peoples, and the dividing of peoples, the creation of boundaries to try to halt them have been going on for thousands of years. What arrogance it is that the EU, and German citizens (or any citizens) believe they can stop it. It seems to me that attempts to breach those boundaries are what it is to be human. Towards the end of the book Richard reflects on the new boundaries as he watches a standoff between the refugees and the police in Spandau.

So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be; battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness.

At the New Year’s Eve party, standing with his friend Peter on his girlfriend’s balcony gazing out into the darkness, Peter told him that for the Incas the centre of the universe wasn’t a point but a line where two halves of the universe met. Is this scene unfolding before Richard’s eyes at the entrance to the asylum seekers’ residence? And are the two groups of people facing off here something like the two halves of a universe that actually belong together, but whose separation is nonetheless irrevocable? (209)

Richard’s experiences remind us that people can learn and change. His interest in and generosity to the men he meets reminds us of our individual responsibilities and possibilities. He draws in many of his friends into his activities. I also liked this book because it ended in a picnic, or rather a joyous barbeque.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, first published in English translation in 2017 by Portobello Books. 283 pp

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Go, Went, Gone was the Winner of the English Pen translate awards, which, by the way, included 50% of women writers and translated. You can find the complete list here.

On Bookword

I am reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation every month: here are a couple of recommendations from those I have already included.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

I failed. I got to page 93 out of 185 and I stopped reading. I have tried. For several weeks I have picked up this book and read the first chapter. Then put it down and later tried again. Now at the half-way point, ten chapters out of 20 have been read, but I can’t go on. I’ve weighed up the time it was taking to read this novel against what I felt I got out of it. I’ve decided to move on to other books.

The title of this post should really read: The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

The Quest for Christa T

Christa T is not an especially remarkable woman. Like the narrator, she grew up in eastern Germany during the war, and like many in that area, fled before the advancing Red Army. Living in East Germany (the DDR), as normality is resumed, the girls meet again in university and form a loose friendship. The narrator reconstructs Christa T’s life from the documents she left when she died young of Leukaemia.

Part of the novel seems to be about the impossibility of recreating anyone’s life, fictional or real. She opens the novel with doubts about memories.

The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of hers that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T.- that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive color on things.

But must we give her up for lost? (1)

It’s this kind of elliptical yet lyrical prose that made reading it so hard. And the novel continues by exploring witness evidence, documents, and conjecturing what happened in the gaps. There is very little narrative, more a series of events alongside the narrator’s suggestions of what might have been happening in Christa T’s mind and explanations of her responses.

What are we to make of the author’s name being shared with the main character? Why has Christa Wolf embarked on this search, the quest for her namesake, at all? I guess I’ll never know because I am moving on to other reading.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf lived 1929 to 2011, mostly former East Germany. The area in which she was born is now in Poland, and when her family fled the advancing Red Army at the end of the war they ended up inside the Russian Zone.

She worked as a literary critic and journal editor and although critical of the DDR leadership during the Cold War period she remained a socialist. She won many awards for her writing. From reading her obituaries and about The Quest for Christa T it seems that Christa Wolf was interested in individuals who make their own way rather than following the crowd. This had obvious implications for the East German state. Her book was not banned when it appeared in 1968, but only a limited number of copies were printed.

A Novel in translation

Well, I am sorry for my failure to get beyond half way. The Quest for Christa T was my October choice for the Women in Translation project. I chose it because it appeared in several lists of recommended reads for #WIT and others had responded positively. For example, on Heavenali’s blog and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I plan to read another, but more recent, text by a German writer: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017) in November.

I would like to hear from people who got further with Christa T than I did, and who got more out of it.

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, first published in English in 1970 by Hutchinson & Co. The translation from the German is by Christopher Middleton. I read a library copy from Exeter Library stacks. Virago also published a version.

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