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Juli Zeh: Nullzeit (2012)

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Finally, here’s my last instalment for German Literature Month 2014. I’d actually finished Nullzeit (English translation: Decompression) in good time to write a review while German Lit Month was still on, but to be honest I really, really couldn’t be bothered. Writing a good bad review takes time (or hot passion at how bad a book was), I didn’t have it in me. I still don’t really, so if this review is somewhat less than thoughtful, please excuse me.

I honestly have no idea how this book got so many people to like it. It definitely wasn’t a hit with me. Nullzeit is a love-triangle story about an (almost) failed actress, Jola, who comes to a Spanish holiday island with her partner Theo, an (almost) failed writer, to prepare for what she thinks is her final shot at getting a good role (she doesn’t get it). The two of them are in the most toxic, co-dependent and, yes, ridiculous relationship ever. They’re either completely insane or completely unbelievable and unfortunately, Zeh can’t write them to be crazy enough to be credible, so they’re just annoying and stupid, especially Jola.

Jola and Theo are prepared to pay an insane amount of money to spend two weeks of exclusive training with diving instructor Sven, a failed (spotting a pattern yet?) lawyer who fled Germany because he couldn’t handle reality and is now living with his accidental girlfriend Antje. She showed up in his life one day and he didn’t have it in him to throw her out. Active participation in life doesn’t seem to be Sven’s forte. What does seem to be his forte is a stupid contempt for everyone around him, the Spaniards (Zeh unpacks every single stereotype she can think of, it’s revolting), the other foreigners on the island, the Germans, Antje, Theo, and even Jola.

The book alternates perspectives between Sven’s notes and Jola’s diary. These different perspectives are the only mildly interesting aspect of the book. In the beginning you don’t notice it, but as the storyline moves on differences between the two narratives begin to appear, until the two stories become completely irreconcilable. According to Jola, Sven begins a passionate love affair with her. According to Sven, Jola goes completely crazy for him, but he fends her off. Events unfold and of course there is a dramatic climax that could be read in two different ways. Because of the double perspective, you don’t know who’s telling the truth, Jola or Sven, but it didn’t matter because by the climax I was so annoyed with every single character in the book that I didn’t even care and was wishing they would all just shut up.

The writing alternates, too, but between being quite good (I think this was what kept me going. I was constantly waiting for this book to finally come around) and being absolutely cliché and tacky. The annoying stereotypes about the Spanish inhabitants of the island were just the icing on the cake. The whole storyline just seemed stilted and like she didn’t care about constructing a solid background, let alone a credible plot. Needless to say, not this year’s most recommended reading.

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Author: bettinathenomad

Nomadic fan of books, food, the outdoors, and water. International Relations geek. Chlorine is my perfume.

7 thoughts on “Juli Zeh: Nullzeit (2012)

  1. I was disappointed in this one too. Thought it could have been a lot better.

  2. Interesting review, Bettina. Sorry to know that you didn’t like this book as much as you had hoped to. I liked what you said about the two narrations – on how they move away from each other and towards the end become irreconcilable, making either or both the narrators unreliable. That seems to be a wonderful aspect of the book. Sorry that it couldn’t deliver even though the premise is promising.

  3. Hi Bettina, just discovered your blog, this was the second book of Zeh’s that I had read after Dark Matter, a little cerebral, which I enjoyed immensely, I would like to put forward a contrasting view, I appreciated the dual narration with the slowly separating view of events. I’ve lived outside of my native country for most of my adult life ( more than 30 years) and recognise in the view of the people around them ( the Spanish), a relatively accurate view of certain ex-pat communities, usually lonely and rarely long lived, as in this case. I found her study of Sven, a serial coward, also quite interesting. I’m sorry you didn’t like it , but if there weren’t contrasting views there wouldn’t be an active blogosphere.

    Happy reading

    Pat

    • Hey Pat, thanks for popping over! 🙂 Glad to hear you enjoyed this book, even though I didn’t like it. I suppose my dislike of it came from two separate personal pet peeves. One is, I don’t have much patience for apathetic people, so Sven’s character just annoyed me to no end. I know this has nothing to do with how good or bad the book really is. If you see it as a character study of a serial coward, like you do, then she did an incredibly good job, because that’s exactly what he is! The second is my annoyance at the national stereotype thing. At the moment, such stereotypes about southern Europeans are being thrown around very liberally in Germany, and I just couldn’t help seeing this book in the context of a barrage of stupid clichés about lazy, spend-thrift Spaniards and Greeks who are out there to suck the hard-earned cash out of serious, worker-ant Germans. As you say, her portrayal of expat arrogance is incredibly on point. It’s just that after having to wade through so much of that crap “in real life” at the moment, seeing it in this book just topped it off. I’m half convinced she was pandering to what her primary audience, Germans, want to read about Spaniards right now, and I can’t even. (Maybe she wasn’t pandering. I don’t know. It’s a very poisonous climate out there and I got sucked right into it.)

      • Thanks for your expanded thoughts on a book you read some time ago, don’t let b*****ds get you down.

        I lived a number of years in Germany in the 80’s and still visit from time to time, I mostly liked/like the people I met or grew to know there, but I guess crowd mentality is a toxic thing and personal feelings/ emotional reactions between books and real life either add to or detract from what we read. Just enjoy your next book
        Pat

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