It's even nastier than the Nazis
A gratuitous tale of sex and a wartime thriller reveal two sides of German literary endeavour, says Eilis O'Hanlon
Published 01/03/2009 | 00:00
It would be no bad thing if Kate Winslet's Oscar for her portrayal of a former Nazi camp guard in The Reader sent other readers back to Bernard Schlink's original translated novel, by now a perennial book club favourite -- even if the book itself might serve only to confirm the caricature of German culture in general as sober, masculine, straitlaced, efficient, a little po-faced perhaps, and, naturally, fixated on the war.
Fourth Estate, €16.46
Alone in Berlin
Ironic then that the most famous German writer in the world right now should be a young English-born, female music TV presenter with an Irish surname, which certainly doesn't fit the Teutonic stereotype. Or should that be notoriety rather than fame?
Periodically a book appears that trails such jetstreams of hype the sky practically disappears. Nine times out of 10, sex is what fuels the fuss. Charlotte Roche's debut novel Wetlands is no exception.
The story, such as it is, concerns an 18-year-girl hospitalised after a painful accident shaving her private parts, who deliberately extends her stay in order to try to bring her divorced parents together again, before running off at the end with a young male nurse. So much for the narrative. Padding it out are frequent, very frequent, and detailed, very detailed, meditations on narrator Helen's sexual couplings, of which there have been an inordinate quantity and variety. One can only admire her stamina.
No sexual stone is left unturned, from masturbation to prostitution to avocado abuse and all points inbetween. But for all the criticism and praise the book has garnered for its pornographic content, it's not the sex that is striking so much as the scatalogical excesses.
"Hygiene's not a major concern of mine," boasts Helen, a serious understatement. She is constantly experimenting with her own bodily functions, in episodes that, on the surface, have a certain comic potential but which are never allowed the space to develop because Roche is too busy trying to see how naughty she can be in a manner which, like a stroppy, foul-mouthed teenager, quickly becomes irritating rather than daring.
At one point the narrator's mother announces that she finds sex with her husband painful, and Helen notes: "This is not information I wanted to know." Novelist and narrator alike appear unconscious of the irony. That's the strange thing about Wetlands. For all its surface vivacity and punch -- content aside, there is nothing in the language itself that would trouble a reasonably literate 10-year-old -- it's as humourless in tone as any of the post-war navel-gazing giants of German literature. Nor is it in the least bit erotic, because it's too concerned with being gratuitously revolting: an exercise in the aesthetics of grunge.
Roche insists she is trying to confront what she regards as an oppressive demand that women be scrupulously clean; but whilst that may be an interesting idea as far as it goes, the truth is it doesn't go very far. So women should liberate themselves by not showering? It's hardly a stirring manifesto for feminist action. Ultimately, one can't help wishing she'd written the non-fiction book she initially planned, because that would at least have been honest. Wetlands is not fiction at all, it's an essay dolled up with a basic cast of stereotypes and a narrative so thin it could make a living as a supermodel.
Hans Fallada stands at the opposite end of the literary spectrum. He doesn't have the publicity potential of Roche. He's not available for interviews and photoshoots, because he died in 1947. He was an alcoholic imprisoned for embezzlement and for killing his best friend in a duel. He tried to kill his wife too. But a few months before his death from a morphine overdose, he also wrote, in a few short weeks, his final novel Alles Jeder Stribt fur sich allein, which has now been published in its first English translation as Alone In Berlin, the first of a planned series of reissues from a writer who, though little known now in Germany and hardly at all outside it, was one of the most popular novelists between the wars.
Alone In Berlin follows a couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who, disillusioned by the criminality of the Nazi regime and mourning the death of their son at the Front, start to write postcards denouncing the regime and leave them lying about in public, an act that brings them, with tragic inevitability, to the attention of the Gestapo.
Primo Levi called this, "the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis", and Penguin is marketing it as a thriller, but neither approach really gets to the heart of this strange and intense novel.
This is wartime, yes, and there are policemen and an investigation, but the Quangels' resistance is a quiet, isolated one, their world is shrunken and domestic, and the telling of their story is done through writing more dense and detailed than the average thriller reader would tolerate for long.
Rather, this is an enthralling, terrifying account of a country under occupation by its own bureaucrats and brutes, the paranoia that it breeds, the simmering violence and suspicion. The city is claustrophobic as party speakers tour the factories threatening to "kick the feebleness" out of workers not deemed to be pulling their weight for the Fuhrer, and a collapsing economy only makes the atmosphere nastier still. (Some things never change.) In the midst of it all, Fallada constantly weaves in little comic details, even at the very end, where standing in the People's Court to which the people are not allowed to come, the judge asks Anna, apropos of nothing, how many men she slept with before marriage, and she contemptuously answers "eighty seven", at which the judge, outraged at such mockery of his court, declares that, if she really was so shameless, she wouldn't have been counting.
There are unconvincing moments. Otto's final realisation that Nazi Germany had become a "negation of God erected into a system of government" is a little too pat. But these are small faults in a book which, in its sprawling, crowded way, captures a vivid sense of a broken place and time. Only after reading this book did I realise that Roche doesn't say where her narrator lives. It's Anytown.
It's a striking illustration of the differences between them. Fallada tried to engage with and, despairingly, make sense of the world around him, but Roche's gaze is directed wholly inward, quite literally, into the body. Hers is, foremost, a triumph of the ego.
That whining solipsism is not unique to contemporary German popular culture; it's simply that country's misfortune to have engendered a book that feels symptomatic of the broader rot.
The only hope is that it leads to a wider interest abroad in modern translated German literature, because then at least there'd be other images to replace the ugly, nihilistic pictures that Wetland's grotty pages leave in the memory.