Let me start by saying that I haven’t been this thoroughly entertained by a book in a while, especially not by a German book (which may have something to do with the fact that I’ve done little German reading lately). I have to say I went into this a little sceptical, because you know how it often is when an adult tries to write about 14 year-olds: cringe-worthy, overly paedagogical, or downright unrealistic and wrong.
Tschick is about two boys on the verge of becoming men, Maik Klingenberg and Andrej Tschichatschow (“Tschick”) and their summer holidays. Both are outsiders: Maik is considered boring by his cool classmates and Tschick, well, he’s an ethnic German immigrant from Russia, comes to class drunk and generally doesn’t give a shit about the other kids in the class.
Maik is in love with the girl everyone else is also in love with, and of course his love is unrequited. She doesn’t even invite him to her birthday party. His mum is an alcoholic, and as she’s shipped off to rehab once more, his dad jumps at the chance to go on a “business trip” with his assistant. All of a sudden, Maik finds himself free and unattended. And then, Tschick shows up on his doorstep with a “borrowed” Lada and a proposition: a road trip. Off they go, with a bunch of frozen pizzas and no map. A few days of wild freedom begin, and they savour them despite being searched for by the police. On their way, they also meet some very interesting people: a slightly crazy family that knows almost everything and a few things more but has no idea where their local supermarket is, an old man who first shoots at the boys and then teaches them a thing or two about communism, a speech therapist whose wits you can’t quite be sure of (she’s either using the chance to break the rules a bit herself, or she’s just not terribly clever, but terribly nice), and a few more.
Tschick has been compared a lot to YA classics like Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye. I thought that with its experimental rule-breaking, it was a bit like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with two teenage boys and minus all the drugs. On second thoughts, that makes it quite far removed from Fear and Loathing, actually – but the feeling of absolute freedom I associate with Fear and Loathing was somehow present in Tschick (My memory of Fear and Loathing is evidently very remote. I read it ages ago). Wolfgang Herrndorf hits just the right tone: savvy, streetwise, and surprisingly innocent at the same time. He never judges and he doesn’t want to push any ideas onto his young protagonists. He just tells the story from Maik’s perspective as Maik sees it. The boys’ growing up, their deep philosophical conversations, their awkward coolness and first love adventures, all of it is authentic and has the taste of the absolute freedom of a summer without adults. I earned strange looks on the bus more than once for laughing out loud. These two guys are awkward, confused and often afraid, but they’re also damn cool and on the lookout for some good, clean fun.
There are some issues with Tschick, as kjd of Love German Books points out: not realistic of a German high school situation, not enough action (or rather, too subtly told), and not enough sex. While I agree on the first (sadly for the German schooling system, it’s not at all likely that a “new” immigrant kid would end up in a Gymnasium, a grammar school, although Tschick is evidently very smart), I’m not so sure about the rest. Because these flaws, as kjd also points out, apply to Tschick as a book for young adults. Granted, perhaps – like all the other reviewers who raved about it – I’m a bit too far this side of 14 to judge Tschick from the point of view of the young adult audience it has been marketed to. But I still think I would’ve enjoyed it immensely at 14. I don’t think I would’ve found the action too subtle: on the contrary, personally I was allergic to books that were too over the top. I also don’t think a book needs at least one sex scene to go down well with the young crowd (I might be wrong though). On the contrary, when everyone around you is having – or pretending to have – lots and lots of sex, wouldn’t it be comforting to know that you could also refuse it and things would still be OK? Or that you could be gay and things would still be OK? And there’s definitely some sexual tension to get your imagination going. Unfortunately, I don’t know any 14 year-olds I could ask how they felt about Tschick. Another possibility is that it has indeed been marketed to the wrong audience: maybe this is a novel for adults who are looking back on their teenage days with a fair bit of nostalgia, wishing they could’ve gone wild like that when they were that age.
I found Tschick to be very, very entertaining – not at all high-brow literature, but a tremendously good read.
If you’ve read Tschick, I’d be thrilled to hear your views on the whole suitability for young adults question – too tame or not? Would your 14 year-old self have enjoyed the book?
Sadly, Tschick hasn’t been translated into English yet. There’s a French translation, Goodbye Berlin, and a Spanish one, Goodbye Berlín.