Tuesday, 19 November 2013

'Wir Fliegen' ('We're Flying') by Peter Stamm (Review)

One of my favourite contemporary German-Language writers is Swiss author Peter Stamm.  I've enjoyed three of his novels so far, but Stamm doesn't just write long books - he's also adept at the shorter form and has published four collections to date.  With not many of his novels left to try then, I thought it was high time I tried Stamm's shorter work to see how it compares to the longer books - and when better than during German Literature Month? :)

Wir Fliegen (We're Flying)*** is a 2008 collection consisting of twelve stories, the majority coming in at somewhere around twelve pages.  The style and language is unmistakably Stamm, with his clipped, simple language and the slightly uncomfortable feeling he evokes in his creations.  However, the smaller canvas he works on in his stories means that matters come to a head a lot more quickly.

If there's a connecting theme here, it's one of frustration.  'Die Verletzung' ('The Hurt') is a story of summer love, with the boy returning years later to the village, only to be disappointed that the girl has become a woman who wants no part of him.  In 'Männer und Knaben' ('Men and Boys'), a night-time visit to a swimming pool also brings back memories of a youthful romance, albeit one which never quite happened:
"Lukas konnte sich nicht vorstellen, worüber sie sprachen, er konnte sich nicht erinnern, worüber Franziska die ganze Zeit mit ihm gesprochen hatte.  Irgendwann würde sie nichts mehr zu erzählen wissen.  Vielleicht war das der Moment, in dem man sich küsste.  Bevor man sich küsste, musste man still sein."
'Männer und Knaben', p.113 (Fischer Verlag, 2009)

"Lukas couldn't imagine what they had talked about, he couldn't remember what Franziska had talked to him about the whole time.  At some point, she must have run out of things to say.  Perhaps that was the moment in which you were supposed to kiss.  Before you kissed, you had to be silent." (My translation)
Regrets - he has a few...

Several stories also look at the distance which exists between two people, a gap which can never quite be bridged.  The first story, 'Die Erwartung' ('Expectations'), looks at a relationship between two neighbours, one which somehow never manages to get off the ground.  There's something not quite right about the man, and the interaction between the couple is stilted (and slightly creepy...).  In 'Fremdkörper' ('A Foreign Body'), this sense of unease is heightened when a cave explorer spends an unusual evening with a couple he's just met.  Even in a moment of intimacy, Stamm uses the subjunctive, indirect speech to create a sense of distance.
"Das mache nichts, sagte sie.  Das könne jedem passieren."
('Fremdkörper', p.33)

"She said that it didn't matter. That it could happen to anyone."
It's a structure that's more common in German than English, but I always feel that Stamm uses it deliberately to create a wall between the reader and the narrator - and the narrator and the people they are interacting with.

Stamm also explores the effect of traumatic events from the past on the present.  'Videocity' is a short piece which shows how a video shop owner has been crushed by the loss of his mother at an early age, and in 'Der Brief' ('The Letter') a widow finds out about her dead husband's infidelities and wonders how she should react to the discovery.  Perhaps the most disturbing of these stories though is 'Drei Schwestern' ('Three Sisters'), in which a housewife with a passion for art is bored, trapped at home with her son.  It is only when we travel back into her past that we realise why we should sympathise - and how many people have conspired to bring her to her current state...

Of course, there's always room, and time, to turn your life around, and two of the better stories look at this idea of a tipping point.  In 'Der Befund' ('The Result'), a man waits for his biopsy results, using the time alone working the night shift at a hotel to work out what he wants from life.  The title story, 'Wir Fliegen' ('We're Flying'), also follows this thought, with a childcare worker forced to care for a child after hours seeing her partner through new eyes - and it's not a pretty picture.

There's not a lot of hope and joy in the collection, but there is a kind of light at the end of the tunnel.  The penultimate story, 'Kinder Gottes' ('Children of God')  involves a priest in a small town somewhere (anywhere) in Central Europe.  When a young woman falls pregnant, claiming never to have had sex, the town initially scoffs.  However, the priest, an outsider, begins to wonder...  Could this really be an immaculate conception - the second coming in his parish?  The story has all the signs of an impending disaster, but it actually provides a happy ending for the collection as a whole.  People want to believe, and it really could happen...

Overall, I found Wir Fliegen enjoyable, and there's definitely enough there to make me come back for another look at Stamm's shorter writing.  Despite the piles of books mounting in my study, I feel another (virtual) trip to The Book Depository coming on...

An English-language version, We're Flying (translated by Michael Hoffman), is available from Granta Books (UK)/ Other Press (US)