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Tag: german literature month 2013

Mesmerized by Alissa Walser

Stories are invented and untruthful. At least most of them are. Anybody could come up with anything. But some, he says, convey a sort of primeval idea. And become true simply through the aptitude of those who understand them. It’s not about concepts or whether something actually was like that. Stories like these come from an unconscious drive. Which ultimately only needs to be aroused.
This is not the book for readers who are plot oriented, not much happens for the longest while, and even when it does, it’s not altogether exciting. But if what I’m saying makes you think I didn’t like this book, then I guess I’m not saying it very well. I loved Mesmerized, the idea of the book, the story it actually is based on, the odd writing style and the ruefully ironic musings on people and life, in general. In German, the sentence structure would have annoyed the hell out of me. I’m glad I read the English version, because here it was absurd and interesting.
People refuse to understand something that they cannot see.
I had no expectations from the book. I found it on a website about German books and bought it soon after reading just the description on Amazon. The reviews on the German Literature Month review site caught me wholly by surprise, but I was already done reading the book by then. I don’t suppose I would have liked it as much, if I had read them before diving into the story. I just have a vague feeling that this is the kind of book you’d really appreciate, when it surprises you.
So what is the book about, anyway? The only thing I read before I started the book was that the word ‘mesmerized’ comes from a certain Franz Mesmer, a German physician who treated patients with an occultish technique using magnets and hypnosis. Mesmerized by Alissa Walser is about one of Doctor Mesmer’s famous cases, a scandal, actually; the patient was a blind composer, called Maria Theresia von Paradis, whom he managed to cure (or so it goes), for whom Mozart is supposed to have written a concerto. The German title Am Anfang war die Nacht Musik has a charming, poetic quality to it; but I find the English one just as fitting. The book is as intriguing as its cover, and quite quotable.
Thoughts, he thinks, are like medicine. Take the wrong dose and you perish.
Here’s the summary from Goodreads: Mozart’s Vienna. A crucible for scientific experimentation
and courtly intrigue, as Europe’s finest minds vie for imperial favour. In a
colourful, chaotic private hospital that echoes with the shrieks of hysterical
patients, Franz Anton Mesmer is developing a series of controversial cure-alls
for body and mind. When he is asked to help restore the sight of a blind
musical prodigy favoured by the Empress herself, he senses that fame, and even
immortality, is within his grasp. Mesmer knows that he will have to gain her
trust if he is to open her eyes. But at what cost to her fragile talent? And
will their intimacy result in scandal?
The only other book dealing so wholly with music that I have read is Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. Mesmerized by Alissa Walser was so much better, so inspired. I loved the descriptions, they were beautiful without there being purple prose. The apt and vivid imagery made me smile, of a soupy fog, or someone being “whirled around by her anxieties like a snowflake in the wind“, of Mesmer’s wife as a dormant volcano, which could erupt at any moment, and of the dog’s nose. I have mentioned the strangeness of the writing style far too often not to elaborate. It does have the potential to be irritating, somehow I’m just fond of that the sort of writing, the repetitive, short sentences hardly bothered me, they read like spoken language. Nor did I mind the frequent shooting off on tangents. I was mildly surprised by the flow that the translation had. Case in point:
All officials are the same. The more punctual and perfumed you are when you meet them, the more graciously they receive you. And what more could you wish for than to be received graciously? More graciously than graciously. Most graciously.

The style simply completely fascinated me up to the very end. Despite the strikingly similar writing throughout the novel, the characters, strong and life-like, magically retained their uniqueness. I loved Maria’s point of view, it was subtly different from Mesmer’s, though I couldn’t tell you just how. Mesmer, of course, was just this delightfully eccentric creature.

As soon as Mesmer has to explain what he’s doing, people misunderstand him. He’s not fond of explanations.
What Maria goes through was described wonderfully, and her experience raised questions; so many about art, and science, especially around the time when it was considered so bizarre, about music, success, and also about how we see the world; not to mention, relationships and what society does to you, or to him. I am glad I bought this book. It’s like no historical fiction I’ve read. Give the book a try, if only to get to that twist at the end.

Erebos by Ursula Poznanski

“I withdraw my consent from reality. I deny it my
assistance. I dedicate myself to the temptations of escapism, and throw myself
wholeheartedly into the endlessness of unreality.”

Ursula Poznanski is an Austrian author, who mainly writes children’s books. Erebos is a young-adult science fiction thriller set in London. It is about a computer role-play game that is more than just a game! The book is translated into English by Judith Pattinson.

The kids in sixteen year old Nick’s school are all into some sort of game, passing DVDs around in secret and he is desperate to find out what it is. When he finally gets the white square package from Brynne, he is intrigued by its rules. Always play alone, never talk about the game, and never tell anyone your player name. Erebos is a multi-player computer game and Nick’s character is a dark elf called Sarius. The characters have to fight battles and earn points and find wish crystals and all that sort of gamey stuff I understand little about; the ultimate goal of every character is to reach the Inner Circle of five champions who will fight the final battle against Ortolan, the enemy. But Erebos is no ordinary game. It is complex and intelligent and leaks suspiciously into reality; the players are assigned tasks that they need to carry out in real life, the game can tell when they’re lying. No one can cheat the game nor hack into it or try to modify it. Most importantly, the game is manipulative; and the few kids who refuse to play have to pay the price. When Nick is sent on a deadly assignment, he has to choose between fantasy and reality. 
The book is as engaging as the game. I read it in one happy sitting. The descriptions of the game are delightfully vivid. When Nick is playing the game, Sarius takes over the narration and we can easily put ourselves in his shoes! The game draws from Greek mythology and that makes the imagery all the more intriguing. For the longest time, Erebos sounded a lot to me like Cetebos; but of course, that has nothing to do with it. Erebos is the God of Darkness and makes a wonderful name for this dark game. The game isn’t so much scary as wicked and it seems to relish the havoc it creates in the schools, the people who are kicked out show signs of withdrawal, becoming mysteriously weak and ill; those who don’t participate are goaded by the game and its players to join in the fun, or threatened if they still refuse!

When Nick joins his once-best-now-estranged friends to defeat the game, we meet the lovable Viktor, the twenty something gaming expert, who, in the face of bad news, looks like a troubled teddy bear. The romance between Nick and Emily is just gooey enough to not be overdone. And the ending is at once happy, sad and well plotted. I have to say, though, the stereotypes are annoying: the oriental boy, the fat anti-social girl and the shrill girly-girl to name a few. But you’d be crazy not to expect that from school kids and the fact is, when at the end, the authors reveals who each game character was in real life, she does shatter quite a few of the cliches!

Like I said, for a young-adult novel, this is pretty enjoyable. The translation is somewhat clumsy, I have to say, no one talks like that (do they? in London?) and there are some German words and phrases that are oddly out of place in that setting. That being said, though, I like Poznanski’s writing and am eager to try her adult (I think?) mystery Fünf, which unfortunately is yet to be translated. I would never have read this book had it not been for The German Literature Month. The light and entertaining story was a nice interruption to the the literary writings I usually read this time of the year.

Unter den Linden and Kassandra by Christa Wolf

I’m not sure if an English translation of Unter den Linden is available, do let me know if you find one. Kassandra, on the other hand is definitely available in English, translated by Jan Van Heurck. Christa Wolf is pretty much among the most famous German authors and I am glad I read her works. I found Unter den Linden pleasantly contemplative and Kassandra was quite a read. What engaged me above all was reading up on the author’s life. So, once done with these two, I was keen on acquiring her autobiographical novel: Stadt der Engel or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud; until I remembered the other German female authors I had waiting on my shelf. I’d still like to read Stadt der Engel, but maybe not right away!
Unter den Linden: There are three stories in this collection, but the title story alone is enough to completely enrapture the reader. Unter den Linden has an intriguing narrative structure. It is set in a dream and the line between fiction and reality is blurred. It is a Bildungsroman of sorts. The narrator walks through her past, in an effort to help us understand her, and in the process, ends up with more than she has bargained for. In her dream, she follows a young blonde woman, who acts as her counterpart, and comes across people from her life, a professor she seduced, a friend who died, and so on. As she dissects their actions, their faults and mistakes, she unwittingly uncovers something about herself. The prose is meandering, our narrator tends to go off on tangents and she spends much of the book musing over life. The most obvious theme of the book is self realization, and a few others could be betrayal or digging up and facing our bitterest secrets. The writing is so layered, that the deeper you dig, the more you are bound to find – I have to admit, I’ll have to re-read it, more than once, to fully comprehend its message.
Kassandra: Ever since back when History Channel aired a TV movie on Helen of Troy, which my sister made me watch, I have been fascinated by this and it is one of the rare parts of mythology I’m relatively well versed in (I’m unusually bad with names.) Kassandra by Christa Wolf is a compelling retelling of the Trojan War, with the focus on Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. According to what I knew, she was a seer, who was cursed by Apollo, so that none of her predictions would ever be believed. She was widely held in contempt for her prophecies and was ridiculed on her suggestion that the Trojan horse could be a ploy by the Greek. The story is narrated by Cassandra, who after being sent off with Agamemnon following the war, is now held in captivity and awaits her death. She reveals in the book the maddening secret that lead to the fall of Troy. It is true that the story is based in history and mythology, but you don’t have to read up on the Trojan war to follow it; just a little background info works; the story is mostly freestanding.

The only other proper retelling of a myth I have read is Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis and these two have one thing in common: the voice of a woman. But that’s as far as the similarities go. Kassandra is about oppression, and Christa seems to have drawn heavily from her own experiences. The book was written in 1984, and when set in historical context, it is easy to relate the writer’s own experience of the futile and essentially patriarchal nature of war with Cassandra’s guilt about the part she played, if in spite of herself, in Troy’s self-destruction. Kassandra is the kind of book that is written solely to make a point. While I appreciate the allegory, the story is often weighed down by gross exaggerations and one dimensional characters; there’s a lot to learn, or be fascinated by even; I’m probably going to spend a long time looking things up, picking out allusions and trying to draw parallels. But the book offers little entertainment. That and the fact that the winding prose that I adored in Unter den Linden seems a bit confusing and twisted in Kassandra were the two minor irritations I had with the book. Other than that, Kassandra is a must read. I wanted to read the book in English, and I probably will, if only to reconfirm what I’ve understood!

If not anything else, these books were a fabulous kick-start to the German Literature Month 2013, hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy over at Lizzy’s Literary Life. The book I plan to read next is lighter content-wise, but also a thriller: Erebos by Ursula Poznanski. I have a few other reads lined up, but I’m not planning so far ahead!

(Excuse the typos, if any; I have struggled through two German books in just one day, which is far more than I am used to, having stubbornly refused the luxury of a dictionary. I’m now exhausted and in no mood to re-read and edit this post!)