I read The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke in 2013, and reposted my review to coincide with #WITmonth in August 2015. My book group read that novel a little later. On every occasion it attracted much positive comment. In the post I praised the style of writing, long sentences, almost hypnotic rhythms, and the translation from the German by Jamie Bulloch.
So when my Peirene subscription brought me a second novel by Birgit Vanderbeke I was excited to read more of her work, and at the same time apprehensive in case it did not match the first book. It is not the policy of Peirene Pressto publish a second book by an author, but for this one they made an exception. And again I was very moved by her writing. And again it was translated by Jamie Bulloch.
You would have missed me
The short novel is told in the first person by a child who is part of a very dysfunctional family. She is in trouble as this early excerpt makes clear.
I had my best idea when I was seven, because at the time I urgently needed to talk to someone, and when it occurred to me how I might go about that I sensed that it was a really good idea, although I didn’t realise quite how good until much later.
To be precise, it happened on my seventh birthday.
We were standing in our two-bedroom flat in the Promised Land and once again it was clear that I wouldn’t be getting a cat for my birthday.
I’d been wanting a kitten ever since we left the refugee camp. I was five back then. This was the third birthday in a row I wouldn’t be getting one.
You get used to disappointments, but in the long term they make you feel cold and empty inside, and you begin to lose heart. (9)
The setting is divided Germany in the ‘60s. The Promised Land is a housing complex for the workers and their families of a dye factory in the West.
The unnamed child is the unwanted offspring of two parents: an older mother from the East who is neglectful and selfish and harks back to a better time: before the war when she was engaged to the heir to a wealthy land-owning Nazi family. She is never satisfied with anything. The girl’s father is the son of a Belgian woman who migrated to Germany and his father is unknown. He is much younger than his wife. He suffered in a fire and his hands were badly damaged. They are not a happy couple.
As the child tells us about her seventh birthday, it emerges that she is the victim of both physical abuse (from her father) and mental abuse from both parents. She remembers a time in the refugee camp when she was befriended by a trio of older Germans who provided care, love, affection and some cultural stimulus.
Inside her a voice, her own strong voice, is developing and it prompted her to stand up to a bully at school and eventually to her father. Her best idea is to be brave and to take risks, to consider her future. In the final scene she achieves this with a dramatic flourish.
Reading You would have missed me
It was clear from The Mussel Feast that the family stood, in part, for the East German state, the GDR. Like that family, specifically the father, it was paternalistic, oppressive and violent in response to transgressions. In this second novel both parents are neglectful and uncaring, they lie to her and are unable to provide for a child’s needs. Fortunately she thrives on the love shown her by her grandma (left behind in the GDR) and by three literate, story-loving old liberals in the refugee camp. Each of these, along with some other more positive social interactions as she grows up and help her hear her own voice, a voice of invention, humour and rebellion.
The reader must ask under what circumstances have we avoided missing this little girl: if she hadn’t be born, if she had escaped, if we had put the book down and not thought of her as so many others did? One answer is, ‘You would have missed me if I hadn’t found my voice’.
This is what Meike Ziervogel says about the decision to publish this novel.
Today, as in the past, people flee from one country to another in the hope of finding a better future. But how do children experience such displacement? How do they cope with traumas of a refugee camp? In this novel Birgit Vanderbeke goes back to her own childhood in the divided Germany of the 1960s. She shows how the little girl she once was saved herself by imagining countries on the far side of the world. A masterpiece of memory turned into fiction.
You would have missed me by Birgit Vanderbeke, first published in Germany in 2016. English translation published by Peirene Press in 2019 in the There be monsters series. 122pp
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch