Books, Bikes, and Food

Reviews, Recipes, Rides… and some other things, too.

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Timur Vermes: Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back; 2012)

Er ist wieder da (English translation: Look Who’s Back) is the kind of book you can’t resist because of the cover. Good graphic designers can say so much with so little: one quick look and you immediately know what, or who, this book is about. I bought this at some point last year, having eyed it on the shelves for some time. Then, the book spent several months in my TBR pile, and the other day, I decided to pick it up.

The premise of this novel would’ve been considered outrageous in Germany just a few years ago, and it did cause quite a stir: One fine day in 2011, Adolf Hitler finds himself waking up in Berlin some 66 years after his suicide. He’s wearing his uniform, and he’s in good shape. Berlin, however, is not what it used to be. It is the capital of a liberal democracy, self-complacent and cynical.

Germans are not what they used to be, either, he finds: There are too many Turks, and an entire population of people who don’t work but are generously provided for by the Government through a puzzling scheme called Hartz IV, as he finds out during his first forays into trash TV. And, no-one is much inclined to take him seriously. Speaking, as he does, in a military tone and with antiquated Nazi vocabulary, and firing his tirades at anyone who will talk to him, nobody can quite believe he is actually being serious (and of course, Hitler is dead anyway). So, people quickly decide, he must be a comedian, a particularly radical one who never leaves character. He receives a slot in a comedy show run by a comedian of Turkish descent, and takes the audience by storm. Except for Germany’s leading tabloid, Bild-Zeitung, and some old-timers who have actually suffered under his regime. But he manages to turn Bild Zeitung around, and after he is beaten up by some neo-nazis for “ridiculing” their “idol”, he becomes unstoppable…

I wasn’t expecting anything brilliant, but I also didn’t expect to have such a lukewarm reaction to this book. Really, the most radical thing about it is the premise. After that, it’s kind of predictable. There are a few interesting turns, such as the fact that the only political party Hitler sympathises with are the Greens, or that Bild, a tabloid that normally holds, shall we say, hyperconservative populist views, doesn’t take to him kindly. But other than that, I found it was mostly trying too hard. Most of the scenes weren’t that funny, even though they were meant to be. These episodes caused the Süddeutsche Zeitung‘s critic to wonder to what extent portraying Hitler as a bit eccentric or detailing his reactions to modern technology wasn’t trivialising him too much. I can see where she’s coming from. His first experiences with smartphones and computers provoke a “Ha ha, just like Grandma!” type of reaction. The only really brilliant scene, in my view, was Hitler’s visit to the headquarters of the NPD, Germany’s most radically right-wing party, exposing them and their pseudo-democratic rhetoric as the hypocrites they are (but we already knew that too – it was just funny to see them criticised from the “other side” for not being “properly” right wing).

There is also an aspect in which the very circumstances of the book undermine one of it’s most important points. The reason people find “comedian” Hitler so fascinating is that he criticises German society from a viewpoint that nobody else would dare to take (so there’s always a bit of an awkward taste to his “jokes”). But on the other hand, there’s a scene where people shout “Sieg Heil” back at him in a way that is absolutely chilling. Yet, since people think he’s a comedian, wouldn’t you think they’re shouting it “ironically”? And wouldn’t that actually detract from the fact that the way he’s still able to grip the masses is beyond frightening? I’m not sure about this, but it was a thought that occurred to me as I considered that particular scene.

Some of the cultural references to current affairs are also quite funny and on-point. But most of these are very Germany-specific and if you don’t know the politicians or celebrities involved, you’d really be missing out. I suppose if you read it in translation and without socialisation into contemporary German politics/public life, you’d likely be even more disappointed. If you don’t understand all these cultural codes the book plays on, I would imagine that what remains is the hollow shell of an intriguing premise that leaves a stale taste in your mouth afterwards.

For me, the main problem was that the novel seemingly couldn’t decide whether it wanted to make a serious point or not. I mean, I suppose it does, and the idea had quite a lot of potential. But the introduction of quite a few slapstick comedy-like elements sometimes draws it dangerously close to losing track of that and thereby actually trivialising this serious point.

If you’re still intrigued, you should also read Tony’s review of Look Who’s Back. He provides the viewpoint of a non-German and makes some great observations.



Christian Kracht: Imperium (2012)

glm_iiiI’m posting this review for German literature month, an initiative run by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life. It’s always fun to join and read other bloggers’ reviews of German/Austrian/Swiss literature, so thanks to our intrepid organisers for their dedication – you are wonderful! What I particularly like about this year’s edition is that they’re trying to achieve an even gender balance and encouraging people to read female German-language writers. Even so, I’m starting my contribution of a meagre two books with a male author, and on top of it I’m technically cheating because I actually read Imperium in October already… pssst.

Imperium tells the fictionalised story of August Engelhardt, a German apothecary from Nuremberg who emigrated to German New Guinea in the early 1900s. Engelhardt was a nudist and vegetarian, who believed that the coconut was the holiest of all fruits because it grew up high, closest to God, and so he became a cocovore. He purchased land on Kabakon, an island with a coconut plantation in German New Guinea in order to plant the seeds of what he was hoping would eventually become a world empire of fruitarianism. Engelhardt actually gained a small group of followers, some of whom joined him on his island – even though they didn’t last long, what with the issues of malnutrition that arise from only eating coconuts. If all this doesn’t sound crazy enough, it seems that somewhere along the way Engelhardt really lost his marbles, to the extent that the colonial authorities prevented further potential followers from joining him on Kabakon because they considered him dangerously mad.

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Ferdinand von Schirach: Der Fall Collini (2011)

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot more reading done than what it would seem like from the blog. I just read and then don’t write about it because there’s so much more reading to be done. And also, because apart from reading, I’ve been enjoying the gorgeous summery weather and working too much. The combination of the latter two has also drawn me in the direction of pleasure reading – not that I don’t do most of my reading for pleasure anyway, but by “pleasure reading”, I mean the kind where you just devour a book that doesn’t challenge your brain too much by being very literally radical or innovative.  And so I purchased Der Fall Collini (English translation: The Collini Case) with the intention of giving my grey matter a bit of a rest. It was a good choice, although it reads so fast it only lasted me for a day and a half (during which I also did other things, including cleaning, doing the shopping, and going to a birthday party).

Der Fall Collini is about an unusual murder. Fabrizio Collini, an Italian who’s been living in Germany as a law-abiding citizen for decades, kills a well known industrial magnate, and immediately confesses. He doesn’t want to give away his motive though, the only thing that could reduce his sentence. And so it is up to his young lawyer, Caspar Leinen, to find out why Collini shot an innocent man.

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Wolfgang Herrndorf: Tschick (2010)

TschickLet 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. Continue reading

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Friedrich Ani: Süden und die Schlüsselkinder (2011)

Süden und die Schlüsselkinder made me feel so “meh” that I wasn’t even sure whether I wanted to review it at all.

But hey, I guess this is all about sharing the not-so-awesome reading experiences, too. I’d read about this mystery novel in various places just before Christmas last year when it came out. It was praised pretty much everywhere as not “just” a mystery but one with literary quality. Here’s a quick synopsis of what it’s about.

Just before Christmas, 10 year-old Adrian runs away from his children’s home in Munich. The person charged with looking for him is former policeman-gone-private-sleuth Tabor Süden, who is quite the sad, depressed dude. He is “aided” by Adrian’s friend Fanny, who’s receiving text messages from Adrian on her mobile. Süden und die Schlüsselkinder takes you into the supposedly bleak pre-Christmas world of those who do not have a family or friends to sit around the Christmas tree with on Christmas Eve. The way it was depicted in the critiques I’d read, it sounded like it could be deep and exciting at the same time, and therefore worthwhile.

Except I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of the characters. Not about Tabor Süden – I felt like his depression was too old manly and self-centred for me to empathise (oh, he’s just such a poor, lonely, old drunk. Sob. Not.). Not about Adrian – although we learn about his background and the horrible people he was surrounded by prior to his stint at the children’s home, you don’t really get to know the kid. Not about Fanny – though smart and occasionally quite sweet in her own way, she also annoyed me quite a lot. And of course not about the novel’s other adults (mainly parents and educators), who – from the point of view of the children and also the reader – don’t “get” anything that’s really going on.

I also didn’t think the book was particularly “literary”. Most of the time, it actually seemed quite shallow. Plus, it wasn’t even exciting – not a trace of tension throughout the book. Except for maybe one scene, which I won’t tell you about here, just in case you do decide to read the book despite my review – I don’t want to ruin the one and only exciting part for you. I definitely don’t concur with all those critics heaping praise on it. Frankly, I was almost bored to tears. Thankfully, it’s such a quick read that the boredom was over after reading about an hour and a half in total distributed over two days, or else I wouldn’t have finished.

Apparently – I hadn’t realised this before actually buying the book – this is part of a whole series about Tabor Süden. Well, I won’t be rushing to read any more of those.

Evaluation: 3/10 (it’s not that the book is totally horrible. It just left me completely cold)

There are no other language editions of this, or any of the other Süden mysteries. If you don’t read German, you will be spared from at least this source of boredom.

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Andrea Maria Schenkel: Tannöd (2006)

After some busy weeks that included a week-long trip to Brussels, I am back with a review of a small crime novel, Tannöd, that I read a while ago and enjoyed a lot.

The book belongs to my mum, so thanks to my dad who photographed it for me!

By “small” I mean that you can literally read it in less than one afternoon. And you will want to, because once you’ve picked it up, you won’t put it down until you know exactly what happened. So I won’t say too much about the plot here – it has a great “whodunnit” structure I don’t want to spoil. (I’m always taken by “whodunnits” because I’m not a huge fan of modern day “mysteries” that reveal the killer on page 2. Honestly, where’s the mystery in that?) But Tannöd goes well beyond Agatha Christie-type mysteries* in terms of both topic and literary ambitions. Here are just a few words to whet your appetite:

In 1950s rural Germany, a family and their maid have been brutally murdered on their family farm. Nobody survived, and nobody knows who killed them. But there are plenty of villagers with plenty of motives – they were not a popular family and had always been surrounded by some dark mystery. Bit by bit, the cruel reality comes to light.

Schenkel’s laconic prose (at least in the German version) beautifully brings out the darkness of the novel, the bigotry and the small-mindedness of a village where everyone carries their own bundle of blame. I hope the translations are good, because this book completely depends on Schenkel’s style and rhythm. Has anyone read it in another language and can comment?

Evaluation: 10/10 (great writing and suspense rolled into one, what more would you ask for in a crime novel?!)

English title: The Murder Farm
Spanish title:  Tannöd, el lugar del crimen

*I already mentioned that I love a good Christie. But let’s be honest, in terms of literary ambition and style… well.


Book Day!

Every year on April 23, it’s St George’s Day. In Catalonia, this means it’s St Jordi‘s, not only one of the most important holidays, but also “el día del llivre” – the Day of the Book (UNESCO made it world book day in 1996). Traditionally, men give women roses, and women give men a book on this day. This year, Mr Liburuak and I decided it was time we joined the party. But did I want roses? Hell, no!* So we decided to scrap tradition and just give each other books.

I gave him this one (I’m on a mission to educate him in great German literature):

And I got this (after my not really taking to Paul Auster in the first attempt, he decided I had to give the man the benefit of the doubt):

I think St Jordi’s is a great tradition that should be spread!

* Before anyone gets me wrong, that’s not to say I wouldn’t accept roses on any other given day 😉