Tag Archives: Peirene Press

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen (tr. Emily & Fleur Jeremiah)

White is the colour of death, like the frost that ‘spreads weed-like through the window frames along the timber joints across the wall.’

Finnish writer Aki Ollikainen’s debut, White Hunger, is the first novella in the Peirene Press Chance Encounter series (their theme for 2015). This bleak yet poetic story is rather remarkable, and it’s my favourite Peirene release in quite some time.

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The setting is the Finnish countryside in the winter of 1867. Successive years of crop failures, widespread famine and the harsh winter weather have taken their toll on the inhabitants of the country. Ollikainen’s story focuses on a farmer’s wife, Marja, and her family. As we join them, Marja’s husband, Juhani, is dying. There is nothing more that Marja can do for him, so she wraps her two children, Mataleena and Juho, in their clothes as they set out on foot in search of food. They must move if they are to have any chance of survival – to remain in Korpela would bring death upon the whole family.

She thinks angrily of Juhani refusing to eat and giving everything he could lay his hands on to her and the children. It was stupid: the man should have looked after himself so that he could take responsibility for his family. She and the children would have stayed alive on less, but now, without Juhani, they would not survive the winter in Korpela.

It was not generosity that motivated Juhani’s decision, but cowardice. (pg. 33)

Marja’s aim is to make it to St Petersburg where there is rumoured to be food. As the family travel south, they encounter a variety of people, most of them strangers. Some take pity on them offering shelter for the night and bowls of thin gruel for the children; others are more territorial shunning Marja’s family while they prioritise their own. They are often labelled as beggars (or worse). The most they can hope for is a piece of bread made from the bark of a tree, and maybe if they’re very lucky, a morsel of dried pike. All the while, the hunger persists.

Mataleena walks behind her mother, treading in the footprints, holding her coat more tightly to protect herself from the blizzard. She does not hear the rumbling of her stomach, but she feels it.

Hunger is the kitten Willow-Lauri put in a sack, which scratches away with its small claws, causing searing pain; then more scratching, then more, until the kitten is exhausted and falls to the bottom of the sack, weighing heavily there, before gathering its strength and starting a fresh struggle. You want to lift the animal out, but it scratches so hard you dare not reach inside. You have no option but to carry the bundle to the lake and throw it into the hole in the ice. (pgs. 46-47)

Thousands of others are also on the move, all of them just as desperate for food and shelter. There are several distressing scenes along the way. Marja’s nights are dominated by nightmares, terrifying dreams of all the horrors she has experienced or may have to face in the coming days. By day, she hallucinates as visions of the elusive St Petersburg taunt her mind.

The wind decides now on a direction and pushes Marja over the bridge. Swirls of snow lap around her feet; the current no longer flows under the bridge but along it, towards the snow plain on the other side, where the road vanishes.

Far away she sees the trees edging the open space; they change into the silhouettes of spires and palaces in the Tsar’s city. They flee, fluttering, into nothingness, and towards this nothingness Marja crawls, Juho in her arms. The Tsar himself descends to the crown of the biggest spruce, but dressed up as death, as a black raven. (pg. 103)

Alongside the story of Marja’s family, White Hunger touches briefly on the lives of two brothers, Teo (a doctor) and Lars (a state official). While they are aware of the desperation and poverty facing the country, the brothers are relatively well insulated from it, and their positions provide a counterpoint to the devastation around them. We are also privy to the perspective of the Senator, passages which highlight the detachment of the governing authorities despite the desperate shortages of food. (These brief chapters are interspersed between those focusing on Marja, Mataleena and Juho.)

White Hunger is a short book, so I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot. Save to say it’s a devastating portrayal of humanity at the very brink of survival. It might sound utterly unbearable, but the story ends with a few glimmers of hope, signs of spring and the possibility of renewal. A chance encounter proves vital in the face of adversity. Add to that the quality of Ollikainen’s writing. His prose is spare and controlled – it has a poetic feel, which serves to highlight moments of beauty amidst the bleakness.

The storm has subsided. The city has won one battle; the spire on the church cupola has succeeded in tearing holes in the blanket of clouds, through which the moon shimmers. (pg. 22)

White Hunger is a hugely impressive book, one with the feel of a classic in miniature. A timely story conveyed with real skill and gravitas. This novella has been widely reviewed elsewhere – links to a range of other reviews can be found on this page from the Peirene Press website. Grant (of 1streading) has just published this excellent review. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (review)

The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (tr. by Andrew Bromfield) is the first novella in Peirene Press’s Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series, and having now read the full set, I think it’s my favourite of the three. (You can read my thoughts on the other two here: The Blue Room and Under the Tripoli Sky.)

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Kyrgyzstan-born Ismailov moved to Uzbekistan as a young man and now works for the BBC World Service in the UK. His democratic beliefs forced him to flee to the UK in 1994, and to this day his work remains banned in Uzbekistan. The Dead Lake, a novella first published in Russian in 2011, is set in the Kazakh Steppe region and comes with a foreboding preface:

Between 1949 and 1989 at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site (SNTS) a total of 468 nuclear explosions were carried out, comprising 125 atmospheric and 343 underground blasts. The aggregate yield of the nuclear devices tested in the atmosphere and underground at the SNTS (in a populated region) exceeded by a factor of 2,500 the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the Americans in 1945. (preface, Peirene Press)

This novella tells the story of Yerzhan, a twenty-seven-year-old man trapped inside the body of a twelve-year-old.  An unnamed narrator encounters Yerzhan while travelling across the Kazakh countryside by train. At first sight, he assumes Yerzhan to be a young boy selling yoghurt and playing the violin to amuse passengers during the journey. But when he hears the boy’s deep voice, our narrator is shocked to discover that Yerzhan is an adult. The men strike up a conversation and we rewind several years as Yerzhan reveals his backstory.

As a young boy, Yerzhan lives with his mother, uncles and grandparents in one of two houses in an isolated way station on the Kazakhstan railway. From an early age he displays a talent for music and learns to play the dombra and violin. School is a long donkey ride away, and the boy spends his days playing with Aisulu, the daughter of the neighbouring family, playing the violin and listening to fables.

Ismailov captures the stark beauty of the Kazakh landscape so effectively it could be another character in the book. The writing is lyrical and poetic with snatches of lyrics from folk songs and poetry threaded through Yerzhan’s tale.

Life is simple here in the Kazakh steppe, and Yerzhan’s childhood should be a happy one. However, as in many such stories, there is a dark shadow lying in the background. Every now and again, the families’ lives are disturbed by the sound of explosions from the nuclear test site, ‘an inescapable, terrible, abominable thing that came a rumbling and a trembling.’ In this scene, Yerzhan, his grandfather and uncle are travelling by train when they hear the ‘clangerous, forgotten sound’ of the Zone:

The train clattered along the frozen rails. The fierce cold of the steppe blew in through the wagon door, which stood slightly ajar. But suddenly the shadows in the wagon shifted abruptly, as if pushed aside by the huge hairy legs of the fly on Yerzhan’s nose. A din louder than its buzzing, worse than the rumble of the wagon and the empty metal bread boxes followed, penetrating the eardrums of the men and the boy. The wagon began to dance. The old men disappeared through the open door. The fly made the ground under Yerzhan’s feet spin. Then it dragged him into a rumbling darkness.

The Zone! That’s how Yerzhan remembered that day, when the wagons toppled off the track and lay in the steppe. (pgs. 28-9)

Yerzhan’s Uncle Shaken (who also happens to be Aisulu’s father) works at the atomic plant. A staunch supporter of the Soviet propaganda of the time, Shaken takes every opportunity to lecture Yerzhan’s family on the importance of developing a nuclear capability:

He preached to the others that it was more than just an atom bomb. It was our Soviet response to the arms race, without which we would all have been gone a long time ago. But the blasts were necessary for peaceful purpose too. In order to build communism! ‘It is our absolute duty not merely to catch up with, but to overtake the Americans! In case there’s a third world war!’ he concluded with his hallmark phrase. (pg. 47)

The pivotal moment in the Yerzhan’s life comes when Uncle Shaken takes the children on a visit to his place of work and the ‘Dead Lake.’ Despite a warning not to touch or drink the water from this lake, the young boy cannot resist its beauty. Having taken Aisulu’s hand for a moment, he lets go, strips down to his underclothes and immerses himself in the forbidden waters:

It was a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of an atomic bomb. A fairy-tale lake, right there in the middle of the flat, level steppe, a stretch of emerald-green water, reflecting the rare stray cloud. No movement, no waves, no ripples, no trembling – a bottle-green, glassy surface with only cautious reflections of the boys’ and girls’ faces as they peeped at its bottom by the shore. Could there possibly be some fairly-tale fish or monster of the deep to be found in this static, dense water? (pg. 65)

The terrible consequences of his dip become apparent when Yerzhan’s body stops growing. By the time he reaches twelve, the other children start to outgrow him, and his stunted development becomes noticeable. Yerzhan’s family feed the boy liver, fish oil and vegetables. They visit a faith healer and resort to grotesque and painful physical methods in an effort to stretch the boy’s bones. All attempts prove fruitless, and Yerzhan is left feeling angry and fearful as he sees Aisulu slipping away from him:

The same fear that had always begun with a trembling in his knees and frozen as a heavy ache in his stomach seemed to have risen higher up now, right up to his throat – and got stuck there, preventing his body from growing. (pg. 71)

This is a story that will appeal to lovers of fables and folk tales, but it’s bleak and haunting one. As you’ll have guessed from the outset, there is no happy ending here. Like many other Peirene novellas, this one packs a punch – like an iron fist in a velvet glove. The narrator is left to reflect on the horror of it all, the lives marred by the terrible legacy of nuclear radiation:

What unpredictable and crooked experiment had I glanced and seen in him – this wunderkind Yerzhan, imprinted as a crumpled shadow alongside the grass, the trees and the birds in the concrete wall of the Zone, jutting out of the steppe? (pg. 120)

Claire (at Word by Word) Grant (at 1stReading), MarinaSofia (at findingtimetotime) and Stu (at Winstonsdad’s) have also reviewed this novella.

The Dead Lake is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: personal copy. Book 1/20 in my #TBR20.

Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda

Peirene Press specialise in high-quality fiction, mostly European – novellas and short story collections which always have something interesting to offer. They curate their books by theme, and Under the Tripoli Sky (a novella by Libyan-born writer Kamal Ben Hameda, first published in French in 2011) is the third in their Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series. I’ve already reviewed the second book in this series, The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik, and the first (The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov) is in my tbr pile.

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Under the Tripoli Sky takes us back to the 1960s where we meet Hadachinou, a young Muslim boy living in Tripoli with his parents and two elder brothers. The novella takes the form a series of vignettes in which Hadachinou observes his mother, aunts and other women in the community as they go about their days cooking and taking care of their homes and families. Hadachinou’s mother often seems oblivious to the young boy’s presence when other women are around, thereby giving him ample opportunity to listen to their discussions and gain a sense of their lives. It soon becomes clear that many of the women suffer at the hands of their husbands and other men in the community. For instance, Hadachinou’s Aunt Hiba feels the need to hide her face and back away from people in shame, even her young nephew:

She didn’t want to show her broken teeth or her face with its fresh bruises from the latest blows inflicted by her husband, Uncle Saïd, who went through life with a big full belly, chain-smoking and raining down blows and instructions on the unfortunate woman. He beat her whatever state he was in, drunk of first thing in the morning, and on any grounds. Not enough salt in the couscous or, no, too much! She’d overdone the flavouring or, no, she hadn’t put in enough! (pg, 27)

And as Hadachinou’s characterful great-aunt Nafissa summarises, ‘the only thing men are interested in is destroying with one hand what they’ve created with the other.’

They swagger about in front of their wives and children, but when they get together in their bistros and their mosques they draw in their horns. They’re deceitful and servile when they don’t have any power, and depraved and offensive when they do.’ (pg. 35)

Hadachinou’s mother takes comfort from her friendship with her childhood friend, Jamila, and the novella contains some beautiful passages as the young boy watches the women discussing their secrets and hopes for the future:

I stepped forward cautiously and saw them through half-open curtains, in the muted light of the living room. Wrapped in a single peaceful moment, like a beautiful calm sky after whirlwinds and storms, wind and rain have cleared. Simply there together: my mother and her soul sister, her alter ego, Jamila. Two innocent, well-behaved girls who wanted nothing else than to spend time together uninterrupted, their bodies resting full length on a humble old carpet and their arms dancing about to articulate their words more fully. (pg. 51)

The women in the community come together over tea and pastries, and family life tends to revolve around the preparation and serving of a selection of tempting dishes. This is not a book to read when you’re feeling hungry as the evocative descriptions of food will have you heading for the kitchen:

Fella really loved honey sweets, particularly the ones flavoured with rose water. She often cooked them herself on an old stove in her tiny kitchenette, using a slow flame to simmer the caramel made of pure spring water, acacia honey, lavender and rose water. Then she generously offered it to everyone in the neighbourhood. (pg. 29-30)

But at the centre of many of the novella’s vignettes lies the tension between the men and women in the community, a relationship characterised by episodes of abuse and violence. We hear a number of distressing and brutal stories: a man who forces himself upon his wife; a woman who kills her violent husband; a woman who takes her own life in a terrifying manner in order to avoid an arranged marriage. And this tale of a woman who seeks medical help without first gaining the permission of her husband:

Do you know what one local man did to his wife when she went to hospital to see a doctor without his permission? She was having trouble breathing, poor thing, and was often terribly out of breath. Every time she complained about it to her husband, he brushed her aside with a “stop being such a pain! I’ve got better things to be doing…Go on, piss off, filthy thing!” And when he found out that she’d dared go to the doctor, he sliced off her nose and rejected her, saying, “Now you’ve got no nostrils you’ll be able to breathe perfectly well.” (pgs. 85-86)

During the novella, there is a sense that Hadachinou is going through a period of self-discovery, and when Siddena, a fifteen-year-old black girl comes to live with his family to help with the household chores, the young boy is attracted to this fascinating girl. While Under the Tripoli Sky is a coming-of-age story, there is a distinct maturity to Hadachinou’s voice which suggests he is looking back on his days as a young boy a number of years down the line.

Under the Tripoli Sky presents an interesting and sensitively-written insight into the different cultures in Tripoli in the 1960s (the city is inhabited by Muslims, Jews, Christians and the American military). The threat of violence and tension lingers, both within the homes of the families we meet and the city itself (there are references to Mussolini’s arrival in Tripoli many years before). Some sections of Under the Tripoli Sky may make for uncomfortable reading, but as is often the case with translated fiction, this novella offers us a window into another part of the world.

Grant at 1streading has also reviewed this book.

Under the Tripoli Sky (tr. by Adriana Hunter) is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig (tr. by Tess Lewis)

Peirene Press continues to do a great job in discovering top-quality European fiction – novellas and short story collections which always have something interesting to offer. I’ve reviewed a couple of their novellas on the blog, The Mussel Feast and The Blue Room, both of which are excellent thought-provoking reads. Peirene curate their books by theme, and Maybe This Time (a collection of short stories first published in Austrian German in 2006) is the third in their Male Dilemmas: Quests for Intimacy series.

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Hotschnig’s stories are quite difficult to describe, but the experience of reading this collection is akin to experiencing a lucid dream, one that blurs the margins between reality and the imaginary. In her introduction to the book, Meike Ziervogel, founder of Peirene Press, says of Hotschnig’s work ‘outwardly normal events slip into drama before they tip into horror,’ and I can see what she means by this statement. Initially, many of these stories appear to be heading in a certain direction, but then something shifts, and we begin to question our understanding of events. In some instances, the change is relatively subtle, but in others we are rapidly pitched into dark and unsettling territory.

In The Same Silence, the Same Noise, we encounter a man observing his neighbours as they sit in deckchairs on their jetty. As the story progresses, he becomes obsessed and irritated by his neighbours’ presence and their indifference towards him, so much so that he begins to feel a growing sense of paranoia:

They lay next to each other on their deckchairs, arms by their sides, legs bent or straight. For hours they didn’t move, not even to wave away the mosquitoes or scratch themselves. Every day, every night, always the same. Their stillness made me feel uneasy, and my unease grew until it festered into an affliction I could no longer bear. At first, I had thought them part of the idyll I had come here to find, but now their constant presence irritated me. When I realized how easily one could see into my house from their jetty, I felt annoyed, caught out, exposed. Under surveillance, even. Yet I was the one who never let them out of my sight. (pg. 12, Peirene Press)

As this story progresses, the narrator steps up his observations, distancing himself from his friends in the process, and he realises his fixation with these neighbours is an attempt to escape from his own life. And this brings me to one of the main themes in Hotschnig’s collection, that of identity:

They refused contact, yet they willingly exposed themselves to me. I had caught the scent of their lives, which obviously had reached some sort of premature end. I had fed on them, devoured them, and now I wanted more. I couldn’t resist absorbing their most fleeting emotions as my own, and so I carried them inside me and I lived out their disquiet, which was also my disquiet (pg. 17)

In the most unnerving story in the collection, Then a Door Opens a Swings Shut, an elderly woman leads a man – his name is Karl – into her house where he is confronted by a sprawling collection of dolls. Three of the dolls, which the woman calls ‘her children,’ represent her successful grown-up daughters. The situation takes a more disturbing turn when the woman introduces her visitor to Karl, a doll that bears an exact resemblance to the man himself. As our narrator allows himself to be drawn into the old woman’s life, there is a blending of identity between the man and the doll. It’s a very creepy story indeed, one that reminds me a little of some of Yoko Ogawa’s dark tales in Revenge.

Hotschnig explores another aspect of identity in Maybe This Time, Maybe Now (one of my favourites) in which a family come together and wait for Uncle Walter, the one member of their clan who never visits on these occasions. The narrator’s parents live in constant hope that Walter might show up one day, just to have everyone together for once. As we observe the family gathering, it’s almost as though the narrator’s parents fail to recognise others as individuals in their own right. No one else seems to matter except the elusive Walter; all other family members are subsumed into an amorphous formation. Here’s an extract from an early section of the story:

But Walter doesn’t come, at least not while we are there. We don’t make up for his absence, those of us who are present, and no matter how hard we try to distract them, to make them forget about Walter, it never works. The rest of us do count for something, but not enough compared with him, since Walter’s absence makes us all invisible in our parents’ eyes and in our own. Those who are missing are noticed, but only until they come through the door, join those who are waiting and disappear into the group. It’s always the same game, who’s there and who isn’t, how many are we now, and who might then still come and who not. (pg. 59)

As the story progresses, we begin to doubt Walter’s existence. After all, the younger family members have never laid eyes on him either in the flesh or photographs. He exists only through stories that pass through the family, through the expectations and dashed hopes that have passed from one generation to another:

In this sense, we have always lived with Walter. We know him and don’t know him. (pg. 60)

In another favourite story from the collection, Two Ways of Leaving, a man follows a woman as she goes about her day. At first we are led to assume that this man is a pursuing a stranger, perhaps for somewhat voyeuristic reasons. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that these two individuals are connected is some way. Hotschnig cleverly leads our train of thought in a particular direction, only for the story to tilt slightly thereby challenging our assumptions in the process.

As I’m writing this post, I can see another theme emerging from this intriguing collection of stories – that of observation, the act of observing others from a distance, how we make assumptions about their lives, situations and motives. And there’s a good dose of ambiguity to these tales; in fact, I found a couple of them quite tricky to pin down. Hotschnig leaves plenty of space to allow the reader to draw their own interpretation of events, to make these rather eerie dreamlike stories their own. There is much food for thought here.

Stu at Winstonsdad’s blog has also reviewed this collection.

Maybe This Time is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: I won a copy of this book in the Peirene Press PeiQuiz – my thanks to the publisher.

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik, tr. by Deborah Dawkin

Peirene Press do a fantastic job in unearthing contemporary European novellas, many of which are written by women writers. Peirene curate their books by theme, and The Blue Room is the second in their Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series.

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Hanne Ørstavik, an award-winning Norwegian author, has published several books, but The Blue Room is her first to be translated into English, skilfully translated here by Deborah Dawkin. The story is narrated by Johanne, a young woman in her early twenties who lives with her mother in a small apartment in Norway. The novel begins on the morning when Johanne is due to leave Oslo for a six-week trip to America with her boyfriend Ivar, a trip her mother seems very reluctant for Johanne to take. When Joanne wakes, she finds herself locked in her room, alone in the apartment and unable to break free on her own. As the young girl waits, she soon realises she must let go of her excitement and hopes for everything that might happen in her relationship with Ivar. Instead, Johanne’s thoughts coalesce around a number of recent experiences: how she came to meet Ivar at University (where she’s studying to become a Clinical Psychologist), the role of religion in her life, and her relationship with her mother.

Johanne’s reflections reveal a recent sexual awakening, but also internal conflict between the different demands and influences in her life. On the one hand, she’s attracted to Ivar and is keen to explore her desires and sexual fantasies; but at other times, feelings of guilt and pain flood into her mind:

I lay on my side with my head on the pillow and looked out of the window; the blue of the sky was so clear it almost hurt. I felt it come again. I didn’t cry much, just a few tears rolling down, wetting my eyes. I wondered about the cause. My thoughts lay embedded in sinews and skin, beyond my reach. Those of you who believe yourselves to be clean, without sin, without guilt, may cast the first stone. I saw myself under a heap of stones. (pgs. 46-47, Peirene Press)

These conflicting forces play a part in Johanne’s reactions towards Ivar. As an example, here’s Johanne as she thinks back to an early stage in their relationship, and we see how quickly her thoughts change; what starts with the hope and promise of the first flushes of love suddenly flips into a mood tainted by fear and a sense of danger:

What I wanted most was to go for a walk in the forest, just the two of us, talking, alone, with the sun coming through the trees at an angle, looking at it together, getting to know each other. Ivar took a folded piece of yellow paper out of his pocket. Here’s the address and time and stuff, he said. He looked at me with his head to one side. He was serious. His lips moved a fraction, I observed the breath between them, and his freckles. He’ll kiss me now, I thought. My lips were tingling, but nothing happened. He just looked at me, his face very close. It was if we’d made a promise to each other, exchanged a vow that had no outward expression, because it was unvoiced, but it would live on inside me for ever, real and genuine. Pure. I think Ivar felt it too. Like the words I love you. But then why, I wondered, hadn’t he kissed me? Did he think I was ugly? Repulsive? What was he after? A basement party somewhere near the Akerselva river, late at night. What did he intend to subject me to? Why me? Men always accost me when I’m in town or on the train, alcoholic kids, guys who are out of their heads, or who need someone to confide in. There must be something about me, something they see. Perhaps I’m marked. Perhaps I have a wound that everybody can see but me. Something wrong? Ivar asked, putting a hand on my arm. I still hadn’t answered him about the party. His grasp was firm. A strong, warm hand on my arm. That’s how it starts, So-called concern, I thought later. Just another word for manipulation. (pgs. 94-95)

As the story develops, we can’t help but feel that Johanne’s fears about Ivar’s intentions stem from her mother’s ideas about men and their motives in general:

Men are so simple. Controlled by sex and power. Like robots, she said. (pg. 51)

The claustrophobic, almost stifling setting for Johanne’s confinement reflects the nature of her ties to her mother. It’s a very unsettling, unnerving read, especially when disturbing visions of a sexual and intense nature flood into Johanne’s mind like bolts from the blue. But it’s a subtle book, too; I found myself reading each line quite slowly, looking behind the words on the page for hints and clues about events in Johanne and her mother’s past that might shed light on various elements within the story. And the ending is quite chilling; it’s one that left me trying to imagine what might happen to Johanne in the hours and days to come.

As with all the Peirene novellas I’ve read to date, I’m sure a second reading of The Blue Room will reveal additional nuances and insights. That’s one of the things I like about Peirene books – there’s always something new to discover when one returns to a Peirene story, even if The Blue Room might be an uncomfortable place to revisit.

A number of other bloggers have also reviewed this book – if you’d like to read their thoughts, just click on the links: Claire at Word by Word, Lindsay at The Little Reader Library and Naomi and The Writes of Women.

The Blue Room is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

A German riesling from von Kesselstatt – a match for ‘The Mussel Feast’

As you may have gathered by now, I’ve been reading the books longlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and one of the shortlisted titles is Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, translated by Jamie Bulloch. Although The Mussel Feast missed out on the prize itself, I was delighted to learn that the judges honoured this book with a special mention.

The Mussel Feast is a modern German classic, first published in Germany in 1990, but only recently translated into English and brought to us by Peirene Press. It’s a great little novella, one which packs much nuance and depth into its 100 pages.

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In the opening scenes, a mother and her two teenage children, a girl and a boy, are waiting for the imminent arrival of their father. Mother has spent hours scrubbing four kilos of mussels in ice-cold water and preparations are underway for a feast of mussels as they are her husband’s favourite meal. She doesn’t care for mussels herself, but her husband has been away on a business trip, one which was destined to be the final step on his path to a big promotion. The novella is narrated by the daughter and it soon becomes clear that all is not well within this family. While they wait for father to return, the three members of the family start to talk, expressing thoughts they’ve never dared to mention before.

As time passes, they grow restless, rebellious even, so they open a bottle of one of father’s favourite wines. It’s a riesling, a Spätlese meaning ‘late harvest’. As the wine flows, mother and her children start to let their hair down and the story of their life unravels.  I won’t reveal any more of the narrative, but if you’re interested, you can read my review of The Mussel Feast here.

The Mussel Feast got me thinking about riesling. It’s one of my favourite grape varieties, and I love its chameleon-like nature. Some rieslings are dry, others intensely sweet, and it can successfully straddle the middle ground between these two ends of the spectrum, too.

Last week I returned to a favourite German riesling, a bottle of Nies‘chen Riesling Kabinett (2012 vintage) made by the von Kesselstatt estate. This wine is a Kabinett, so it’s a little less concentrated and lighter in body than a late-harvest Spätlese, but it was the only German riesling I had to hand at the time. (Note: Kabinett and Spätlese are different styles of German wine; these terms form part of the Prädikatswein system that categorises German wines by the ripeness, or ‘must weight’ of the grapes.)

The grapes that go into this von Kesselstatt riesling hail from an estate-owned vineyard in the Ruwer where the soil is hard and slatey and this gives the wine a slightly mineral note. On the nose, this wine smells quite floral – elderflower with some zest of lime, too. This riesling is medium dry (or off-dry), with a good balance between the acidity and sweetness. In terms of taste, the wine offers a succession of different sensations; an initial wave of acidity followed by some sweetness, and then more acidity to give a long, mouth-watering finish. It’s a bright and refreshingly light wine, but there’s plenty of passion fruit and citrus flavour here.

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It’s a very pleasant wine to drink now, but I think it’ll be even better in another two or three years from now, once it’s had sufficient time to develop a little more flesh and richness. ‘I’d like a few more curves’ say my notes. Earlier this year, I tasted the 2009 vintage of this von Kesselstatt riesling and it was a richer, more rounded wine. Given time, I’m sure the 2012 will head the same way.

Would this von Kesselstatt Kabinett be a fitting match for The Mussel Feast? While it’s not a Spätlese (as featured in the book), it is made from riesling and this grape variety certainly works well with seafood. And if the mussel broth contained a decent kick of chilli, something to counterbalance the edge of sweetness in this wine, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be worth a shot.

Wine stockist: I bought the Nies‘chen Riesling Kabinett 2012 from The Wine Society.

The Mussel Feast is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: personal copy.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, tr. by Jamie Bulloch

The Mussel Feast is a modern German classic, first published in Germany in 1990. In the opening scenes, a mother and her two teenage children, a girl and a boy, are waiting for the imminent arrival of their father. Mother has spent hours scrubbing four kilos of mussels in ice-cold water and preparations are underway for a feast of mussels as they are her husband’s favourite meal. She doesn’t care for mussels herself, but her husband has been away on a business trip, one which was destined to be the final step on his path to a big promotion.

But something is not quite right; it’s three minutes past six and father hasn’t arrived. And the family always has dinner at 6pm on the dot when father is due home.

Afterwards we said that this was when we started to become anxious, when we suspected something was up; of course it was only afterwards that we knew what would happen. So maybe we were simply twitchy because we were waiting; we always felt twitchy when we waited for my father, there was always a certain tension. (pgs 11-12, Peirene Press)

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The novella is narrated by the daughter and it soon becomes clear that all is not well within this family. While they wait, they stare at the rather creepy-looking mussels which have ‘created a morbid atmosphere in the room’. The three of them start to talk, expressing thoughts they’ve never dared to mention before. And as the story unfolds, we discover how the family is forced to conform to a strict schedule when father is around. His business trips, however, give mother and her children the opportunity to experience a taste of freedom from such constraints:

There were cheese rolls and hot chocolate, we ate whenever we wanted to, sometimes standing up in the kitchen and with our hands. I don’t think we ever ate with a knife and fork when my father was away. We let our hair down while you were away, Mum said when my father asked, what did you get up to without me; it’s really nice to let your hair down a bit sometimes, Mum continued slightly wistfully, because she had as much fun as we did and less work, too, when we were alone with her. We seldom argued, and I liked it when we let our hair down, but my father didn’t want to hear any more of it and so she switched to wifey mode. (pgs 18-19)

Over the course of the narrative, we learn a little more of the family’s past and how they escaped from East Germany to the West. Ashamed of his underprivileged background, father is now fixated with status and notions of what constitutes a ‘proper family’. He’s the logical one, the scientist, a man of reason; he despises weaknesses in others and nothing his children can do is ever ‘good enough’. His family remain a constant source of disappointment. By contrast, his wife is the true bedrock of the family, the practical and thrifty one. And yet she’s emotionally sensitive too; she values beauty, nature and music, things for which her husband has little time.

As the daughter’s uninhibited monologue continues, we gradually discover more shocking examples of father’s tyrannical behaviour. He subjects the children to intimidation and physical abuse, so much so that his daughter cannot bear the sight of a wall unit in the living room, her ‘head having been smashed against it on a number of occasions’. Vanderbeke deftly slips these chilling details into the teenager’s revelations as the story unwinds.

There’s a looping rhythm to the daughter’s narration as she returns to the same thoughts and phrases, almost reflecting the way the family has become constrained by a fixed pattern of behaviour. But it’s the small, yet significant, disruption to the family’s usual routine that prompts them to challenge their situation:

Shortly after seven Mum said, I do hope nothing’s happened; and out of pure spite I retorted, what if it has, because all of a sudden my father was a spoilsport in my eyes, or, to be more precise, a mood-wrecker. Suddenly I no longer wanted him to come home, even though an hour earlier, as I said, we all were prepared for him to walk through the door and ask, so, what do you have to say, because he’d been successful. Mum looked at me, not as horrified as I’d expected, but with her head to one side, and then she smiled and said, well, we’ll see, and she didn’t sound as if she’d find it surprising or even terrible if he didn’t come home. (pg 22-23)

In one sense, The Mussel Feast gives us a portrait of an abusive father and how such a figure can stifle the joy and spontaneity of family life. On another level, the narrative can be read as a possible allegory for the uprising against the oppressive political regime in place in East Germany at the time of the novel. A quote from Vanderbeke on the back cover reads: ‘I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.’

The Mussel Feast is a slim novella, yet it offers much food for thought. I noticed more subtleties in the narrative on a second reading – additional nuances, more darkness and flashes of droll humour. Vanderbeke has skilfully crafted a heartening and moving story, and it’s superbly translated by Jamie Bulloch, too.

I’m delighted to see this book on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist. Peirene Press do such a fantastic job in unearthing contemporary European gems such as The Mussel Feast, many of which are written by women writers, so it’s great to see one of their leading novellas in the spotlight.

I read this book as part of an IFFP-shadowing project led by Stu at Winstondad’s blog. Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed The Mussel Feast: Stu, Tony Malone, Bellezza, Tony Messenger and David Hebblethwaite – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was first published as a guest post on Naomi’s The Writes of Women blog (10th April 2014) and Naomi has kindly granted her permission for me to republish my review here.

The Mussel Feast is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: personal copy.