Saturday 30 November 2013

'Professor Unrat' ('The Blue Angel') by Heinrich Mann (Review: Part Two - Stage Fright)

Today, we continue with the second part of our story about this year's German Literature Month end-of-challenge excursion.  If you missed the first part, click here, and read that first ;)

[The Doctor turns on his heel and walks back to Tony angrily.  Just as he is about to say something, the sudden sound of screaming comes from outside the TARDIS, from the direction of the dance hall.  Tony and Clara quickly run to the door and open it - the screaming gets louder.  The Doctor sighs...]

Doctor: Sorry about that.  Always seems to happen when I'm in the neighbourhood...
Tony: [Grinning] Me too, funnily enough...  [He beckons outside.]  Allons-y?
Clara: [Looking at the Doctor and stifling a giggle] With pleasure.  [She walks through the door and Tony follows her out.]
Doctor: [Angrily] That's my line! [He shakes his head and follows the others out of the TARDIS.]

[As Tony, Clara and the Doctor run around the corner, they see the chaos unfolding in the dance hall.  The blue angel is moving around the hall slowly, focusing on men trapped in corners with no way out.  The air is heavy with the smell of smoke and burnt flesh.  The other performers, all with a strange gleam in their eyes, are running around the hall, blocking off doorways and directing the guests in the direction of the angel...

...from the opposite direction, Lohmann, von Ertzum and the other bloggers come running towards Tony, Clara and the Doctor...]

Doctor: [Turning to Tony]  I presume these are your friends, then.  [Bows to the ladies] Enchanté!  I'm the Doctor, and this is...
Clara: [Interrupting] Erm, shall we leave the introductions for later, yeah?  Let's get back to the TARDIS...
Tony: [Pointing to the corridor behind them] I think we might need to hold off on that...

[The angel has turned in their direction, blocking off their retreat.  She slowly moves towards them...]

Caroline: So, that running I was talking about before...
Lizzy: Yep, I'm with you...

[The group race off in search of an escape route, scattering to escape from the clutches of the performers.  As Caroline and Lizzy look for a door at the side of the hall, Stu spots a shadow of a door by the side of the stage and jumps up onto the stage.  Before he can get to the opening though, Kieselack appears, locking the door and throwing the key across the hall.  As he turns to Stu with a sneer on his face, the angel begins to climb the steps...]

Kieselack: [Running to the angel]  Fräulein Rosa!  I trapped this one - I know you're fond of tall men... [The angel begins to move across the stage.  Stu backs into the corner opposite...]

Rosa:  Thank you, little one - such devotion.  You deserve a little reward...

[As Kieselack moves towards her expectantly, the angel reaches out her hand and caresses his face.  Instantly, he collapses and melts into a puddle of grease on the floor.  The angel glides slowly around the mess and moves towards Stu...]

Rosa: Now my dear - I think it's your turn.  Would you like to dance?  I'm sure you'll enjoy i...

[Metres from Stu, in mid-step, the angel plunges through the stage floor into a hole - one which wasn't there before.  Stu hears a whistle and turns to see Caroline holding a lever for the trap door...]

Caroline: [Moving the lever again] Hopefully that'll hold her for a while - let's get out of here...

[As the performers flock to the stage to find the angel, the bloggers and their companions take the opportunity to get out of the hall.  They run back down the corridor towards the TARDIS...]

Lizzy:  [Panting] Is there any point going down here?  There can't be any doors in this part of the building...
Doctor: Don't worry, I've got it all figured out.  You see, I've got a getaway car - of sorts. 

[He turns the corner and promptly comes to a stop.  This causes a chain reaction with the others crashing into the person in front of them.]

Clara: What are you doing Doctor?  Let's... [Looks ahead] Oh.

[At the end of the corridor, the TARDIS can be seen, but in front of the familiar blue box, barring entry, are the two overweight comic performers - and what looks suspiciously like a small blue angel...]

Stu: What. Is. That?
Lohmann: I believe that's the daughter - and I think she's looking for the people who messed with her mummy...

Will the junior angel stop the bloggers?
How will the Doctor get his TARDIS back?
Where is mummy angel?
Find out in Part Three of 'The Blue Angel'!

Thursday 28 November 2013

'Professor Unrat' ('The Blue Angel') by Heinrich Mann (Review: Part One - The Abode of the Angel)

German Literature Month is drawing to a close, and that means it's time for me to express my gratitude by organising another outing on the German Literature Month Tour Bus.  Unfortunately, my choices over the past two years haven't been a great success: in 2011, we never actually got to see Kafka's castle, and last year's trip to a restaurant was very grim(m) indeed.  Still, things can't go wrong three years in a row - can they?

[The camera fades in from black to reveal a large coach driving around a small town with narrow, winding streets.  It drives past a harbour, leaving several astonished fishermen in its wake, most of whom alternate looks between the bus and the bottles in their hands.  Eventually the coach comes to a halt outside a large building.  Just in front of the bus is a blue lantern, by the light of which we can see a sign reading 'Zum blauen Engel'.

A handful of figures get off the bus, breath steaming in the winter air.  As they are about to walk off, the driver calls out after them...]

Gary: I'll catch you up in a bit.  I've just got to work out where to park this thing...
Tony:  Surely there'll be a car park around the back?
Caroline: It's 1905 - I doubt there's one in the whole country...

[The door closes, and the coach drives off.  Tony opens the door of the building, and the others walk in, their ears immediately assaulted by loud music...

...after walking down a long, brightly-lit corridor, with the noise growing ever louder, they reach a sort of box office and, after Tony slips the clerk a few coins, they open another door and enter a dance hall...

...on stage, a rather overweight couple are singing comic songs, and judging by the roars of laughter coming from the people in the audience (mostly men), they seem to be doing a great job.  The room is packed with tables, most of which are full, but the bloggers make their way to a half-empty table to the side of the hall.]

Caroline: [Looking around] Wow - this is definitely a lively place!
Stu: Better than last year, Tony, at any rate.
Lizzy: [Darkly] Well, now, that wouldn't exactly be difficult, would it?  It's not surprising that you didn't get a great turn-out this time around...
Tony: [Nervously] Let's just forget about that... [He turns and sees the few people seated at the table, an old, shabby-looking man and three teenagers.]  Excuse me - could we join you?  [The man stands up and bows, showering the table in front of him with dandruff.]
Man: Naturally, my pleasure. [Bows again] Allow me to introduce myself - Raat is my name, Professor Raat of the local grammar school.  This here [Pointing to a small, greasy-looking youth] is Master Kieselack, this [Pointing to a fat, fair-haired giant] is Master von Ertzum, and this [Pointing, with a grimace, to a sallow-faced young man inspecting his fingernails] is Master Lohmann - all my students.
Stu: Pleased to meet you [There are handshakes and bows all round.]
Lizzy: [Sitting down] What's that smell? [The boys struggle to stifle a smirk - the professor is momentarily agitated.]
Raat: Perhaps it is the toilets - although they are a fair way from here...
Tony: Speaking of which, I'll be back in a minute...
[He nods at the others and heads towards the back of the room, leaving everyone else to chat...]

[We cut to a corridor somewhere inside the dance hall.  Tony is walking quickly down the corridor, trying every door he passes - in vain.]

Tony: Where is it?  There's got to be something, somewhere...  Aha!

[Finally, Tony finds a door which opens.  In the darkness, he fails to notice the faded blue colour, or the writing across the top...  He opens the door and rushes into a bright room, where a man and a woman stare at him open-mouthed.]

Tony: [Still walking]  Sorry, could you tell me where the loo is?
Man: [Flustered] Erm, straight on, first on the left, but... what?  How?  Who? 

[Tony rushes on, turning right by mistake in his desperation to reach the toilet.]

Woman:  No, left, not right!  Watch out for the... [Splash!] ...swimming pool...

[Back in the dance hall, the bloggers are still chatting with the professor and the students when Raat - or Unrat as Lohmann calls him behind his back - suddenly stops dead and turns to the stage.  The reason for his action is soon evident as an attractive red-haired singer smiles and begins to sing.]

Singer: 'Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt'... [Winks at the bloggers' table] ...and for our English-speaking guests 'I can't help it' [She blows a kiss towards the table, and Unrat Raat leaps up to intercept it.]
Stu: [Leaning towards Lohmann] Who's that?
Lohmann: [Behind his hand] Rosa Fröhlich, star of the show and Unrat's girlfriend, believe it or not...
Raat: [Turning to Stu]  Don't worry, I'll introduce you after her set.  Isn't she wonderful?

[Elsewhere in the club, Tony is drying himself off with a towel, as the man tries to explain just exactly who he is.  Tony stops, suddenly, the penny dropping...]

Tony: Wait - you're the Doctor?
Doctor: Aha, yes, now you've got it!
Tony: Alien?  Magic blue travelling box?
Doctor: Yep, [Smiles smugly] that's me.
Tony: Timey-wimey stuff, plot holes you could drive a bus through? [The Doctor storms off, and the woman, Clara, stifles a giggle.]
Clara: Yeah, that's him alright...

[Back in the main salon, Unrat Raat has just walked up to Rosa, wanting to introduce her to the bloggers.]
Unrat:  Darling, please come over and meet our foreign guests, they're dying to meet you!
Rosa: Dying, you say? [Her eyes gleam brightly as she follows the professor back to the table.  Unrat strides back, not noticing that Rosa isn't following him that closely...]
Unrat: Everyone, this is... [The others begin moving backwards slowly.]  What's the matter with you?  I... [He turns around.]

[Behind him, Rosa is bathed in a bright, shimmering blue light.  Her body illuminates the whole hall, and what seem to be wings begin to appear behind her, long bright appendages, formed purely from light...]

Rosa: Unratchen, come to me, darling...
Unrat: [Nervously] What is it, darling?
Rosa: [Smiling] I just want a kiss, that's all... [She moves forward.]
Unrat: Ahem, I'm not sure if this is the place, liebling...

[Rosa grabs Unrat and kisses him.  Immediately, the professors body glows bright blue and disintegrates, leaving nothing but a pile of dandruff - and a foul smell - behind...  The bloggers stare in shock.]

Caroline: Time to run?
Lizzy: Yep, Malone's done it again...

Has Tony really met a time-travelling alien?
Will the bloggers escape from the mysterious blue angel?
Will Gary ever find a parking spot?
Find out in Part Two of 'The Blue Angel'!

Tuesday 26 November 2013

'Leonardos Hände' ('Leonardo's Hands') by Alois Hotschnig (Review)

Alois Hotschnig is a writer whose name you may have heard before as his short story collection Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht was published in English by Peirene Press as Maybe This Time a couple of years back.  After enjoying that book, I ordered a further example of his work - and promptly ignored it for the next two years.  Here then, especially for German Literature Month, is a very belated review ;)

Leonardos Hände (Leonardo's Hands) is about Kurt Weyrath, an Innsbruck ambulance driver who stands out a little from his colleagues.  In order to survive their mentally-taxing duties, most of his colleagues develop a sense of detachment towards their 'clients':
"Gleichgültigkeit war ein Berufsinstrument, ohne das ihnen die Arbeit nicht möglich war, und wie die Handschuhe hatte man sie immer dabei."
p.6 (Haymon Taschenbuch, 2008)

"Indifference was a tool of the trade, without which work was impossible, and like gloves, you always had it to hand." (my translation)
However, Kurt, who gave up a white-collar career to join the ambulance service, is much friendlier with the people he transports, developing relationships with the people he sees regularly.

One day, this turns into a regular obsession when he begins to spend all his free time sitting next to the bed of a woman in a coma.  His colleagues are unable to understand why he has become so attached to someone he doesn't know, but that's because they don't know his secret, the one which brought him to the ambulance service in the first place.  You see, he suspects that he's the one who put her there...

Anna Kainz, the woman in the coma, eventually wakes up, and (as you might expect) she is extremely grateful for the attention she received from Kurt, attention which played a large roll in dragging her back into the land of the conscious.  The closer the couple get, and the longer the deception continues, the more difficult it becomes for Kurt to confess his dark secret.  But will she care?  And does she suspect it already?

Leonardos Hände is a gripping story, even if the description above makes it sound like a plot from a soap opera.  Rather than being a story of love triumphing over adversity, it's a dark, complex tale, and the reader can never quite be sure where it's going.  It takes a while before you get past the initial confusion of Kurt's work in the ambulance service, but once you get to the main story of Kurt and Anna, it all starts to get much more interesting.

Kurt is a well-written, nuanced character, a man suffering through a crisis caused by a momentary misjudgement.  In leaving his girlfriend and changing careers, he is punishing himself, attempting to atone for his crime.  Once he finds Anna and a place by her bedside, he actually feels better:
"Dasitzen, stundenlang, ohne ein wort, bloß da zu sein, nebeneinander.
 Ich habe vorher nicht gelebt." (p.79)

"Sitting there, for hours on end, without a word, just being there, next to each other.
 Up until then, I hadn't lived."
Having found Anna, he feels partially absolved - and happy.

Once Anna wakes up though, things start to unravel.  Suddenly Kurt isn't quite so sure that his actions are welcome, and he hesitates before getting involved with the conscious woman he loved when she was comatose.  Matters are complicated by Anna herself as she has a few secrets of her own, a past which has something to do with the crash that put her in the coma.  In many ways, she's using Kurt as much as he's using her...

The second half of the book then is devoted to unravelling the secrets of the mismatched couple, but there's also a lot to like about the first part, in which we are given an insight into the duties of an ambulance driver.  We see the depressing, soul-crushing grind of the job, whether it's picking up terminally-ill patients for dialysis, rushing to accidents in the hope of finding someone still in a condition to be helped or hanging around waiting for news of 'jumpers' in a high-rise part of town.  It's certainly not a job for the faint-hearted...

However, whether you enjoy the book or not may well depend on how you deal with Hotschnig's style.  As with Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht, Leonardos Hände is always slightly off-kilter.  The story jumps around in time, switching from person to person, moving between different situations in the space of a few words.  At times, it's rather a hard book to read and concentrate on, a novel where much is alluded to, but not always explicitly stated.  I suspect that it wouldn't be to everyone's taste.

Did I enjoy it?  Well, yes, although enjoyment seems the wrong word.  It's absorbing and intriguing, and if you think you can endure the oddities I mentioned above, it's definitely worth a try.  And luckily, even if your German's not quite up to scratch, you can give it a go.  There's an English version, translated by Peter Filkin, available from the University of Nebraska Press.

That's not all though - there's more from Hotschnig coming into English next year.  May 2014 sees the translation of Ludwigs Zimmer (Ludwig's Room) appear courtesy of Seagull Books (with Tess Lewis, the translator of the Peirene book, on duty again).  Maybe this time I've shown you a writer you might be able to enjoy in English - now I don't feel so guilty about all those untranslated books I've been reviewing this month :)

Sunday 24 November 2013

More About January in Japan 2014

Over at the January in Japan blog, I've just put the introductory post up, with a few more details about readalongs, giveaways and other exciting things.  Why not have a look and sign up for the event?  You know it makes sense... ;)

Thursday 21 November 2013

'Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter' ('The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick') by Peter Handke (Review)

It's German Literature Month time again, and today I have the pleasure of reviewing a book by a writer I've read for the first time.  We're off to Austria, in a book which has surprisingly little to do with football, but a lot to do with language...

Peter Handke's Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick***) starts off in Vienna.  Josef Bloch, a former professional goalkeeper, thinks he's been fired from his job, so he goes off and checks into a hotel.  Over the next few days, he reads newspapers, watches films, meets people and generally idles his time away.

The dramatic, Kafakaesque first sentence then soon gives way to a strange, uneventful story.  The story stutters along, stumbling over simple sentences, in a bizarre, disjointed manner - until, after hooking up with a woman:
"Sie stand auf und legte sich aufs Bett; er setzte sich dazu.  Ob er heute zur Arbeit gehe? fragte sie.
Plötzlich würgte er sie."
p.22 (Suhrkamp, 1972)

"She stood up and then lay down on the bed; he seated himself next to her.  She asked whether he was going to work today.
Suddenly, he strangled her." (my translation)
Boom.  Out of nothing, the story takes a new, and rather violent, turn - before slowing down again immediately.  Bloch calmly leaves and takes a bus to the country...

The story itself is only 100 pages or so, and in terms of plot, there's not a lot to it.  While you might think it's about a murder, in reality (if such a word is relevant here), it's all about Bloch and his strange relationship with the world.  From the very start, he acts decidedly strangely, and he has an unusual take on reality, seeing each second, each motion, step by step:
"Die Kellnerin nahm das Glas von der Flasche, auf die sie es gestülpt hatte, legte den Bierdeckel auf den Tisch, stellte das Glas auf den Deckel, kippte die Flasche in das Glas, stellte die Flasche auf den Tisch und ging weg.  Es fing schon wieder an!  Bloch wußte nicht mehr, was er tun sollte." (pp.34/5)

"The barmaid took the glass off the bottle over which she had placed it, laid the beer mat on the table, put the glass on the beer mat, tipped the bottle into the glass, put the bottle on the table and went.  It was starting all over again!  Bloch had no idea what to do."
There's an awful lot of this in the book.  Bloch seems overwhelmed by the input of raw data in everyday life, unable to simply filter it out like a 'normal' person...

Bloch also struggles with language and noise and has great difficulty in distinguishing sounds (he's constantly mistaken as to what he thinks he hears).  He seems to be seeing and hearing life through a filter, one which makes it difficult for him to understand precisely what is going on around him.  As is mentioned in the brief introduction at the start of the book, these errors are like a leitmotif, constantly appearing throughout the novel.

Having just killed someone, you can understand that Bloch has a certain sense of paranoia, but there's more to it than that, and everything is wearing him down.  He seems to struggle with the simplest of actions, whether it's greeting someone in the street or choosing the right time to enter a conversation.  Still, he just moves on, even if his interactions seem to end in arguments, conversations and fights.  At times, he seems like an alien who understands the language perfectly but has little cultural background
(and a very shaky grasp on manners...).

Like its central character, this is a very difficult and uncomfortable book to read at times.  Handke is playing with language and the way it affects our experience of the material world, and no word, or sentence, is taken for granted, each utterance weighed carefully before being committed to paper.  It's very tempting on occasion to try to read things into the story which perhaps aren't there.  Is Bloch suffering from some sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?  Is he just concussed from one too many kicks to the head?  Surely there's a deeper meaning to the title?

In fact, later on we hear about a goalie and Bloch's views on the game:
"Es ist sehr schwierig von den Stürmern und dem Ball wegzuschauen und dem Tormann zuzuschauen", sagte Bloch.  "Man muß sich vom Ball losreißen, es ist etwas ganz und gar Unnatürliches." (p.117)

"It is very difficult to look away from the attackers and the ball, and look at the goalkeeper", said Bloch.  "You have to tear yourself away from the ball, it's something completely and utterly unnatural."
Yet this is what we've been doing all along.  In a crime novel where the police are elsewhere, in living the story through Bloch the reader is effectively watching the goalie...  Yes, it is decidedly unnatural - and rather uncomfortable too ;)

The English-language version, translated by Michael Roloff, is available from Farrar, Straus & Giroux

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)

Sunday 17 November 2013

'Bozena' by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (Review)

German Literature Month is back with another female writer today, one whose work I've tried (and enjoyed) before.  It's another piece of classic G-Lit, but the bus is taking us further afield for this work - we're off to Slovakia...

Božena was 'Austrian' writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach's first major success.  It's set in a provincial town in Slovakia (at the time, part of the Austrian Empire), and it's the tale of the fortunes of the family of a wine merchant, Herr Heißenstein.  After his first wife dies, leaving him with a daughter but no son, he remarries in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to provide himself with a male heir.  Instead, he gains another daughter, and when the old man dies, the outlook is bleak for the elder daughter with a nasty step-mother around.  However, the girl does have someone on her side...

That someone is Božena, the housekeeper, an attractive woman who also happens to be rather big and strong (in my head she was a dead ringer for Xena, Warrior Princess...).  Božena is hard-working and fiercely protective of Rosa, and when her poor girl passes away later in the story, the housekeeper also takes care of Rosa's daughter, Röschen.  With wicked step-mothers, gigantic housekeepers and girls named after flowers, the novel has a decided fairy-tale feel to it: but will there be a happy ending?

Despite the title of the book, the main focus (eventually) is on Regula, the younger Heißenstein daughter, and her niece, Röschen.  Once the elder generation is out of the way, the story hinges on the rather plain and dull woman's attempt to have her wealth snare her a desirable husband, all the time attempting to treat her niece as poorly as possible without affecting her public image of a kind, gracious lady.  The problem is that handsome young men are more inclined to chase pretty faces than ugly purses, and Röschen is very attractive indeed...

The novel is set in the middle of the nineteenth century, a time of social unrest and revolutions:
"Die Revolution ging indessen unaufhaltsam ihren Gang.  Pöbelunruhen in Wien, Bürgerkrieg in Ungarn, die Oktobertage, die Abreise der kaiserlichen Familie nach Olmütz, die Desertion der Tschechen aus dem Reichstage..."

"Meanwhile, the revolution went unstoppably on its way.  Popular unrest in Vienna, civil war in Hungary, the October Days, the departure of the Imperial family for Olmütz, the desertion of the Czechs from the parliament..." (my translation)
These events have several serious consequences for the characters of the novel.  For one thing, Rosa's husband is a soldier, and he is to be sent off into these lengthy and dangerous conflicts taking place in Central Europe.  In a wider sense, the unrest affects the social stability of the region, leading to the rise of the merchant classes and the poverty of nobles - a state of affairs which allows Regula to dream of her alliance.

Božena is a big personality and a great creation, even if she disappears a little from the story at times.  Her strength and honesty are crucial to the plot, and even the moment of her greatest disgrace serves to push the story along, showing as it does her unswerving honesty.  Despite her flaws and low standing, she is not a woman to be crossed lightly - even the men fear her for her fiery temper and her powerful presence.

There is also an impressive cast of bit parts to complement the main characters.  The professor who falls in love with the plain Regula, a man who can't help being attracted to the plain, dull head of the household, is great comic value.  Božena also has a (platonic) admirer in Mansuet Weberlein, Herr Heißenstein's right-hand man, and Weberlein is vital in holding things together when the wine merchant disowns his daughter.

As in Das Gemeindekind (The Parrish Child), the first book I tried by this writer, the story betrays constant touches of humour, especially sarcasm.  A nice example of the light tone is shown in the description of Heißenstein's first meeting with Nannette, where she:
"...enteilte mit so gleichmäßigen kleinen Schritten, daß es war, als rolle sie auf unsichtbaren Rädern über den Kies des Weges dahin."

"...hurried away with such even little steps that it was as if she were rolling away across the gravel on invisible wheels."
This eye for detail is constant throughout the book, although Ebner-Eschenbach can be a lot more cutting on occasion.

To be honest, Božena is not nearly as good as Das Gemeindekind though.  It's fairly predictable, and we always know where we're going, with the plot just plodding along at one pace.  The writing rarely stops to reflect on what's happening, and the story is far too plot-driven, leaving reflection and detail aside.  There's also the rather clichéd step-mother trope, which doesn't exactly leave us wondering where the story's heading...

This book was written eleven years before Das Gemeindekind, and I could really see the difference and the development shown in the later work.  While Božena is enjoyable in parts, it's really a fairly slight work, one that only the purists are likely to read.  Still, there's enough in Ebner-Eschenbach's style to have me trying another work at some point - and I'll be looking for a later novel to see if my hunch is right :)

As far as I can see, Božena isn't available in English.  In fact, I'm not sure if there is anything of Ebner-Eschenbach's work readily available in translation...

Thursday 14 November 2013

'Wellen' ('Waves') by Eduard von Keyserling (Review)

Today, we're looking at a German classic, but I have some sad news for you before I begin.  You see, I've had a good look around the net, and I haven't been able to find any translations of this writer's work into English.  I'm afraid most of you will just have to read the review and take my word on its merits...

At the end of the first German Literature Month, Caroline chose Eduard von Keyserling's Wellen (Waves) as her gift to Lizzy, and I decided to follow her recommendation and get a copy for myself.  The blurb claims that Keyserling is "the Baltic (Theodor) Fontane", and anyone who has read any of Ted's work will see the comparisons very quickly.

Wellen takes place on the Baltic coast, part of Germany's former East Prussian territories.  A noble family is going to spend the summer at their traditional family home, and the Baroness' mother is preparing for their imminent arrival.  The visiting party consists of the Baron and Baroness, their three children, and their elder daughter Lolo's fiancé, Hilmar, and the extended family settles down for an enjoyable, relaxing summer.

However, there is a cloud in the sky of their contentment.  Down on the beach, in a little fisherman's cottage, Doralice, a beautiful young woman, is spending her honeymoon with her new husband Hans, a painter.  All well and good, but Doralice is actually well known to her noble neighbours as she used to be one of them - until she left her elderly husband for the painter...

While the Baroness is appalled at the prospect of spending time in the presence of the fallen woman, the rest of her family get over the surprise a little more easily.  The children are entranced by her beauty and follow her around, spying on her whenever possible.  However, it is the interest other members of the party show in Doralice which complicates matters.

Wellen is a beautifully-written (short) novel, and (as mentioned earlier) the comparisons with Fontane are fully justified.  Like Fontane, von Keyserling takes well-off Germans and their trivial woes as his centrepiece, and he develops his characters far more than the many nineteenth-century novella writers did.  There's always a sense of proportion and humour to the writing too, just to balance out the melodrama and romanticism:
"Du sprachst da vorhin wegwerfend von Kartoffelsuppe, ich möchte sagen, kein Leben, auch das idealste, ist möglich, in dem es nicht einige Stunden am Tage nach Kartoffelsuppe riecht."
p.25 (dtv, 2011)

"You were talking dismissively before about potato soup, I have to say that no life, even the most perfect, is possible in which, for a few hours a day, it doesn't smell of potato soup." (my translation)
Hans' half-joking remark to Doralice is a little too close to home though - the former Countess is not one to resign herself to a life lacking in romance.

The tragedy of the book (and it is giving little away to indicate that there are problems ahead) is that Doralice's beauty, which shines so brightly that all around her are attracted like moths to the flame, is coupled with a character that needs stimulation, adoration and romance.  The adventure of running off with her painter is fading into history, and she finds it difficult to accept the quiet domesticity that seems to be her lot.  Struggling to settle down (for the second time!) into married life, she shows traces of regret at the comfortable life she left behind.

Matters aren't helped though by the way in which Hans repeats the mistake Doralice's first husband made.  Like the elderly Count, Hans wishes to possess Doralice, form her, mould her into his creation.  Hilmar's comment to Lolo sums up the prevailing sentiment towards wives:
"Willst du mich überraschen?  Wozu?  Nein, unsere Bräute sollen nicht Überraschungen sein, sondern hübsche Notwendigkeiten." (p.67)

"Do you want to surprise me?  What for?  No, our brides shouldn't be surprises but pretty necessities."
The attentive reader can see trouble coming a mile off - which is not to say that this is how matters will play out...

The writing in Wellen is beautiful, even if the description is laid on a little thickly in some places, and the centrepiece of the book, as you may have guessed from the title, is the Baltic Sea itself, the glittering, shimmering backdrop for the story.  In fact, at one point, it is pointed out that the shore is a stage, one on which the many characters parade and act out their drama.  For the most part, the sea is content to remain passive, calm and serene in the background, but there is the occasional reminder that this won't always be the case.  On a walk with another holidaymaker, Doralice comes across an old cemetery and is shown bones poking out of the sand.  The corpses are slowly being claimed by the sea during storms, piece by piece - now if that's not a subtle foreshadowing of events... ;)

I greatly enjoyed Wellen, and I'm happy to have found another classic German author who wrote more than novellas.  Short works are all well and good, but it's nice to have something with a bit more depth, and nineteenth-century German literature can be a bit short(!) on longer novels.  Sadly, as I pointed out at the beginning of the post, if your German's not that hot, you're out of luck.  On the other hand, if you can read in German (and have a Kindle), I have some good news for you - most of von Keyserling's work is available free in electronic form.  You're welcome ;)

Tuesday 12 November 2013

'Holzfällen' ('Woodcutters') by Thomas Bernhard (Review)

German Literature Month rolls on, and so too does the bus, taking us to the next stop on our literary travels.  Today we're off to Vienna, where we're expected at a dinner party, or rather "an artistic supper".  The hosts, and the guests, are friendly and welcoming - although, there is this one man...

That man, of course, is the barely-concealed alter-ego of Austrian writer Thomas Berhard, and the book is his novel Holzfällen (Woodcutters***).  It's a deceptively rambling novel, a story that unfolds over more than three-hundred pages of circling vitriol from a man who despises the company he finds himself in.

The narrator is seated in a comfortable chair in a dark corner, having been invited by some old acquaintances to attend their:
"...künstlerischen Abdendessen mit dem berühmten Burgschauspieler."
p.39 (Suhrkamp, 2012).
This arty supper, ostensibly in honour of a famous stage actor, happens to coincide with a rather more sombre event, the funeral of a former friend.  Joana, a failed dancer and actress, hung herself in her home in the country, and the narrator (a thinly-veiled Bernhard) and the rest of the Viennese cultural milieu have paid their final respects before moving on to an evening of food and theatre chatter.

As we wait for the guest of honour to arrive, the narrator sits in his chair, scowling upon the other guests as they prattle on in the room across the hall.  Recently returned to Vienna after a long, self-imposed exile in London, he despises the empty-headed, vain, self-serving world of the Viennese literati and sits in judgement on them from his dark throne - and still we wait for the actor to arrive...

Holzfällen is my first view of Bernhard's world, but it was pretty much everything I'd expected it to be from the reviews and comments I'd read.  The thirty pages or so that I read in the first sitting were a confronting, circular mass of sentences, deliberate repetition building into a dizzying wall of words seemingly intended to obscure meaning and prevent progress into the heart of the story.  Slowly though I began to make headway, and once I'd become more accustomed to the style, the story started to make sense.  Again and again, we return to the focal points of the story, the writer sitting in his chair, and the moment when he accepts the invitation from his former acquaintances, thus undoing the work of several decades of exile in a moment.

It's a moment of weakness which he regrets, loathing as he does the cultural side of his former home:
"Diese entsetzliche Stadt Wien, dachte ich, die mich tief in die Verzweiflung und tatsächlich wieder einmal in nichts als in Ausweglosigkeit gestürzt hat..." (p.11)

"This horrendous city Vienna, I thought, which had plunged me deep into despair and, once again, into nothing but hopelessness..." (My translation)
It's a city which attracts would-be artists and writers from the provinces, sucking them in, then chewing them up and spitting them out, broken, damaged.  As he muses:
"Wien ist eine fürchterliche Genievernichtungsmaschine, dachte ich auf dem Ohrensessel, eine entsetzliche Talentezertrümmerungsanstalt." (p.97)

"Vienna is a terrible Genius-destruction machine, I thought in the wing chair, a horrendous talent-destruction installation."
The supper he has come to take part in, with its self-gratulating writers and alcoholic musicians is unlikely to soften him in his views.

The death of Joana, a woman he was once very close to, is the proof we are given of this terrible world.  Drawn to the metropolis at an early age, she becomes a part of the cultural community but never quite manages to make it, and when things go wrong, she is abandoned, only to be patronised and fondly remembered after her death.  The unfortunate, coincidental scheduling of the supper on the day of the funeral seems oddly apt - not even death stops the literary schmoozing...

The central image of the writer sitting and thinking in his 'Ohrensessel' (translated as 'wing chair' in the English version) is one of a tyrant sitting in judgement over the guilty.  From his dark corner, he can see the other guests in the brightly-lit room while they can only see an outline through the clouds of cigarette smoke, a vaguely-suspected image sitting silently and yet with a presence felt from a distance.  He casts down his unheard thunderbolts on the uneasy Viennese, punishing them mentally for their fakeness, their unceasing pursuit of public honours and, above all, for their ceaseless chatter.

However, the longer the novel goes on, the more the reader sees cracks appear in the writer's facade and story.  The truth is that he is as guilty as all the others of using those around and above him to make his way to the top, financially and sexually, and if anyone is to be blamed for abandoning poor Joana, he would be right near the top of the list...

Holzfällen is a novel which takes some getting used to, but once you have caught the circular rhythm, it's a joy to read, a hypnotic style of writing which, while appearing slightly random, is actually incredibly-tightly plotted.  This circular, repetitive motion, the structure of a single, gigantic paragraph, and the constant reminders that a story is being told (we are constantly torn back from a story by "...I thought..." and " I sat in the wing chair...") are unmistakably Sebaldian.  Except, of course, that it is actually the other way round - in many ways Sebald is Bernhardian.  Having read a lot about the influence Sebald has had on writing over the past decade or two, it's nice to see who influenced him :)

Of course, the question you probably won't be are all asking is whether the actor actually ever arrives at the supper (and whether the writer ever makes it out of his comfy chair).  I'll let you find that out for yourselves - you can't expect me to tell you everything ;)  Rest assured though, the tone remains the same, and the writer retains his bitter demeanour for the whole of the novel.  And that's something to enjoy...

The English-language version (Woodcutters, translated by David McLintock) is available from Faber and Faber.

Sunday 10 November 2013

January in Japan 2014

We interrupt coverage of German Literature Month for a breaking news flash - it has just been announced that January in Japan will be back in 2014!  Yes, that's right, another month of J-Lit wonders to enjoy as you struggle through the cold winter days (or go to the beach - depends where you are...).  January is also the last month of Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge, so the event will give you all a reason to fit in a final book or two before it's all over.

So, what's it all about?  Pretty simple, really.  You just have to read, and review, any work of Japanese literature next January and then post the review to the January in Japan Blog.  Last year, we had about seventy reviews, of all kinds of books (classics to crime, romance to non-fiction), and I'm hoping for more this time around.  Remember - anything is OK, as long as it's made in Japan ;)

That's not all though.  Last year saw the start of the J-Lit Giants project, easy introductions to big names in Japanese literature, with seven posts contributed by myself and a few other bloggers.  This year, I hope to continue the series, and I'd appreciate your help with this.  If anyone is interested in submitting a piece, please let me know, and we can arrange for you to add to the list of biographies.  I'd be particularly interested in having people write about female writers as there was no giantess among the first group of giants...

Once again, I'll be trying to keep up with the literary news from Japan (and it's amazing how much there is when you actively look for it).  If anyone has any favourite sites, just send me the links as I'd love to add them to the list (which badly needs overhauling...).  I'm also sure that Momotarō will be back each Sunday with his Nichi-Yōbi News segment, keeping us all up-to-date with what's happening ;) 

In short, then:
- Keep a reading spot in January free for J-Lit
- Think about who should be in the next group of inductees for our Hall of Fame
- Send me your links to great J-Lit sites

Oh, and there may well be a readalong and (if you're lucky) also a prize or two.  So, what are you waiting for?  Bookmark the January in Japan blog today:)

Thursday 7 November 2013

'Austerlitz' by W.G. Sebald (Review)

Time for more from German Literature Month, and today we're looking at a male author, one a few of you may have heard of.  I loved my first book by W.G. Sebald, Die Ringe des Saturn (The Rings of Saturn), so I've been meaning to get to today's offering for a long time - and what better time than November?  Time to hop on board the bus for another Sebaldian journey of discovery :)

Austerlitz*** sees an unnamed narrator, on a pointless trip to the Belgian city of Antwerp, make a chance acquaintance in an ostentatious railway station waiting room.  The person he meets, Jacques Austerlitz, is a man obsessed with buildings and form, travelling all over western Europe to inspect and photograph the architecture, and a rapport soon arises between the two men.

Despite this, they make no real plans to meet in the future, and their subsequent meetings are, once again, bizarrely random.  Even more unusual is the way that Austerlitz treats each meeting as a continuation of the last conversation, starting off their chats where they had broken off last time.  Of course, 'chats' is probably a misnomer - in reality, the book consists of Austerlitz telling his new acquaintance his story.  It's worth it though, a tale of a boy, two names and a continent at war...

Austerlitz is a holocaust story with a difference; in fact, we're not even sure it is one until half-way through.  The title character is a boy whose identity is a mystery - having grown up as Dafydd Elias in the Welsh countryside, it comes as quite a shock for him to find out that his real name is Jacques Austerlitz.  Part of the delay in finding out the man's identity lies squarely on his own shoulders though, as he deliberately looks the other way for most of his life, afraid of what he might find.  By the time he belatedly decides to search for information about his background, we sense that it might be too late (although we're also not entirely sure that it matters that much...).

Everything in the novel, despite the languid manner, is carefully planned.  Nothing is left to chance, and every detail reappears in its right place later in the story.  Near the start, the narrator offers the reader descriptions of Antwerp's old defensive walls and estates for workers to reside in.  Little do we know at the time that these off-the-cuff remarks actually foreshadow more ominous versions of the buildings later in the text.  Buildings, stars, pictures, tents in the desert - in Sebald's work, everything has its place...

The story, and the events described within it, go back and forth, are unpredictable.  Buildings in London echo train stations on the continent, lakes in different countries evoke echoes of each other (even when one of them is hiding a chilling secret).  Every detail contributes to a greater idea, another piece in the puzzle, at times a matter of life and death:
"An der wand über der niedrigen Werkbank Evans, sagte Austerlitz, hing von einem Haken der schwarze Schleier, den der Großvater von der Bahre abgenommen hatte, als die kleinen vermummten Gestalten sie vorübertrugen an ihm, und gewiß ist es Evans gewesen, sagte Austerlitz, der mir einmal sagte, mehr als ein solches Seidentuch trenne uns nicht von der nächsten Welt."
pp.83/4 (Fischer Verlag, 2011)

"On the wall above Evans' low work bench, said Austerlitz, there hung from a hook the black veil which Evans' Grandfather had taken from the funeral bier as the small, masked figures carried it past him, and it must also have been Evans, said Austerlitz, who told me once that nothing more than such a piece of silk separates us from the next life." (my translation)
Life and death, apparently, are closer together than we like to think.

This is, according to Sebald (according to Austerlitz) because time is like a river.  It flows, just like the text, but not in a straight, usual, temporal manner.  The writer provides us with frequent reminders that the past and future are always there, ready to be unlocked when someone finds the right key:
"Es scheint mir nicht, sagte Austerlitz, daß wir die Gesetze verstehen, unter denen sich die Widerkunft der Vergangenheit vollzieht, doch ist es mir immer mehr, als gäbe es überhaupt keine Zeit, sondern nur verschiedene, nach einer höheren Stereometrie ineinander verschachtelte Räume, zwischen denen die Lebendigen und die Toten, je nachdem es ihnen zumute ist, hin und her gehen können, und je länger ich es bedenke, desto mehr kommt mir vor, daß wir, die wir uns noch am Leben befinden, in den Augen der Toten irreale und nur manchmal, unter bestimmten Lichtverhältnissen und atmosphärischen Bedingungen sichtbar werdende Wesen sind." (p.269)

"It seems to me, said Austerlitz, that we don't understand the laws, through which the eternal repetition of the past occurs, but I feel more and more as if there is no time, rather just various rooms, nestled inside each other according to a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead, as they desire, can go back and forth, and the longer I consider it, the more I realise that we, who are still to be found in the land of the living, become, in the eyes of the dead, unreal and, only occasionally, under certain circumstances of light and atmospheric conditions, visible beings."
Austerlitz, unsurprisingly, is a man with no time for watches...

While Sebald plays up the idea of the closeness of the living and the dead, he prefers the reader and the action to be as far apart as possible.  As seen above, the narrator frequently reminds us that Austerlitz is speaking, taking us further away from the action being related.  In fact, at several points, we get third-, or even fourth-hand knowledge, where (for example) the narrator tells us what Austerlitz tells him of a story related by a character named Věra, who in turn is recounting the words of a man called Maximillian...

Another aspect of his style, as you may have noticed above, is his predilection for what I like to call 'Russian Doll' sentences, a mesmerising creation of clause within clause, with detail upon detail piling up until you can barely recall where, or why, the idea started.  I spent a long time translating the few lines above - trust me, I know what I'm talking about!  On top of this, the book consists of a few gigantic paragraphs, an immense wall of words, a decision which makes knowing when to stop reading a rather difficult task.  Where do you stop for the night, when the novel never really stops?

I say 'novel', but Sebald does his best to convince us at times that Austerlitz is anything but.  The book already appears more like a work of non-fiction than a story, and the frequent use of photographs to accompany the people and places described can put a momentary doubt in your mind.  In the first part of the book, especially, we seem so far away from any kind of plot, or even forward momentum, that the average reader will begin to doubt that they exist.  Slowly, inexorably, though, the scales fall from our eyes, and we begin to discern the slow, steady approach of the Nazi horrors.  And why should we rush towards that...

Austerlitz is another superb book that defies description and categorisation, as much as I've tried to do both here today.  It's a work which shows us that the line between fiction and non-fiction is a rather blurred one, and that the past and present aren't quite as distinct as we might think either.  This is a book I recommend you try, and if you do, I'm sure that you, like me, will want to read more of his work.  Add me to the list of Sebald completists ;)

*** An English-language version of Austerlitz, translated by Anthea Bell, is available from Random House

Monday 4 November 2013

'Was bleibt' ('What Remains') by Christa Wolf (Review)

German Literature Month is in full swing, and as it's still Ladies' Week, I have another review of a book by a female writer for you.  It's actually quite a short work, one you can zip through in an hour or so - its importance though goes far beyond its pages...

Christa Wolf's Was bleibt (What Remains)*** is a novella set in the late 1970s in East Berlin.  A female writer has recently become aware of a disturbing development, where several men are constantly parked outside her house.  Every morning when she opens her curtains, they are there, patiently sitting the day away, not really doing anything, just reminding the writer that Big Brother is watching.

The novella records one day in this period of her life, from waking up to going to bed, an attempt to imprint the events in her mind for the time, far in the future, when she will be able to find the words to document the events clearly.  It's very tempting for the reader to read things into this idea - unsurprising when you consider that the book was written in 1979 but didn't appear until 1990...

It's a story of a society in stasis, a country where life is slowly ebbing away.  Both the writer and the city seem cold and grey.  A fire has died out inside, and as far as the eye can see, it's cold, drab and pitiless.  As the writer goes about her day, we see her looking for warmth and signs of life: she gets involved in a conversation with a woman at the bottle shop; she receives a visit from a young writer who has just been released from prison; and she gets several letters, some more welcome than others.

The observation, while a fairly unobtrusive one for the most part, is intended to wear the writer down mentally:
"Einschüchterung nenne man das, sagte ein Bekannter, der genau Bescheid zu wissen vorgab, aber waren wir eingeschüchtert?"
p.25 (Suhrkamp, 2012)

"Intimidation is what that's called, said an acquaintance of mine, who claimed to know about these things, but were we intimidated?"
(my translation)
The answer, of course, is yes.  The effects of the observation are clear as the writer is obviously stressed and suffering from nightmares.  She's even finding it difficult to write, too busy worrying about what might happen.  A pointless break-in which leaves a bathroom mirror shattered shows that she is right to be concerned...

The writer spends much of her day involved in dialogues in her head - monologues, as she says are pointless.  She finds herself talking and arguing with those who are oppressing her, even if she realises that it's pointless to talk to an unknown entity:
"Und wie anders als kindlich, kindisch, sollte man die unaufhörlichen Gedankenmonologen nennen, auf denen ich mich ertappte und die allzuoft in der absurden Frage endeten: Was wollt ihr eigentlich?  Wieviel ich noch zu lernen hatte!  Eine Institution anreden als sei sie ein Mensch!" (p.18)

"And how, other than childlike, childish, can you describe the constant internal monologues in which I caught myself and which all too often ended in the absurd question: What do you want?  I still had so much to learn!  Talking to an institution as if it were a person!"
Still, you can understand her frustration.  With no real face to her enemy (her observers are very much faceless), she is destined to continually torment herself with thoughts of how to change the unchangeable, to escape the inescapable.

The end of the novella though gives her hope for a brighter future, and it comes, naturally, in the form of the young, the students who talk to her after her reading.  She goes to bed confident that while today is grey and depressing, tomorrow (or the day after that) might just be a little sunnier, a little brighter...

Was bleibt is an interesting little piece, but it's not really one of Wolf's major works.  However, it has a cultural significance which goes far beyond its ninety pages.  Its real importance is to do with the (to use a beloved neo-Germanism) 'shitstorm' which erupted on its publication - this was a book which really shook up the German literary establishment.

Why?  Well, Wolf waited until after reunification to bring it to public attention, despite having written it back in 1979, and many writers and critics saw this as opportunism, even cowardice.  If the book had been released back in the 1970s, some claimed, it may have had a major impact on the way the Stasi carried out their observations.  Instead, they argued, Wolf sat on it to protect her own comfort...

I won't go into all that here, but the German Wikipedia page for Was bleibt goes into the debate in detail.  As a book, Was bleibt is fairly average and of only minor interest.  However, as a document of writing under Communism - and of the culture wars that followed its demise - it's well worth reading :)

***An English-language version (What Remains and Other Stories, translated by Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian) was available from Virago Press - you may have to look for a second-hand copy though.