Sunday, 23 May 2010

Berlin: A Cold Spell in the Summerhouse

"Summerhouse, Later" is a collection of short(ish) stories – largely set in modern Berlin – which, despite itself, manages to be quite engaging.

I say despite itself because it seems that the author, Judith Hermann, is consciously trying to evoke a sense of isolation and emotional detachment in these disparate stories… This is reflected in both the language (with its staccato, matter-of-fact delivery) and the narratives themselves, which often end abruptly, with no resolution of sorts.

However, despite these stylistic mannerisms I found the book to be extremely enjoyable and affecting. Indeed the narrative coldness of much of the writing only serves to accentuate some genuine moments of pathos and humanity that occur in this book.

I have been speaking in largely abstract terms about the literary feel of this book so far; but that is not to say that the stories themselves are not of genuine human interest. Indeed, there is a fascinating range of scenarios and characters played out in the nine stories contained herein. I won’t detail the stories themselves here – I would rather encourage you to read them yourselves! – but there is a strong thematic link, in that they all feature individuals who are somehow divorced from their surroundings; who are alienated by a fragmented society yet still a part of that society. This is the common thread that Hermann interweaves between the characters here – be they a bohemian twenty-something partying their way through Berlin’s art scene, or a reclusive scriptwriter who has put those days behind him to concentrate on a peaceful family life, or a lonely old man in a tenement whose interest is life is briefly, and painfully, ignited by the appearance of a transient young female neighbour.

Two of these stories ('Hurricane' and 'Hunter Johnson Music') take place outside of Germany; and whilst I believe the former has something to say about modern Berlin (featuring ex-pat Germans on a Caribbean island); the latter is a real surprise. It is evocatively written about an old-timer living in a downtown US tenement and reads almost like a film script based on an Edward Hopper painting. It is shot through with a classic American gothic literary feel, and this only serves to demonstrate the versatility of this debutante German author.

Regarding this point, in several other reviews the word ‘cinematic’ is used in regards to this book, and it is notable that in one of her stories Hermann name-checks Andrei Tarkovsky – a Russian film-maker who was known for his long-takes, his deliberate inaccessibility and his cold, isolated film style. This is a perfect way to describe Hermann's own literary style.

Elsewhere in this book we are treated to a series of vignettes regarding the disparate (and generally dissolute) lives of contemporary Berliners. As the UK’s “The Independent” newspaper review stated:

“The title story is most telling. A group of friends lead typically bohemian Berlin lives, filling their days with drugs, boredom and the odd bar job. They suffer from the malaise of nothingness, while studying a "sophisticated, neurasthenic, fucked-up look". Only Stein has a dream: a summerhouse. Yet when he achieves the dream, it folds. As Hermann says, the summerhouse is "the moment before happiness" that is best put off until later. These stories are not the confused musings of some doe-eyed voguish Berliner who knows not what to do with her time. The Summerhouse, Later is an elegant and perceptive reading on the emptiness that fills our lives. Its author is a master storyteller.”

I would concur with this – and Hermann is an author that I shall revisit after I finally complete my global journey.

Whilst planning my onward trip from Berlin to my next destination (Luxembourg, courtesy of “An Expat's Life, Luxembourg and The White Rose” by Englishman David Robinson), it becomes clear that direct travel from these neighbouring countries is neither easy nor cheap (the cheapest connecting flight quoted on the Internet is over 400 Euros!!). The best deal I can get is by train which involves a connection and a price tag of £154 (which - to be fair – one can easily pay travelling between cities in the UK!).

And so I leave the huge glass structure of Berlin’s main station (Berlin Hauptbahnhof) at 11.48 and embark on the daunting 9hr 46min journey to Luxembourg’s main station. I connect at Köln Hauptbahnhof (the main rail station in Germany’s Cologne area), arriving at 16.09 and - as I don’t leave until 18.18 - I take the time to grab a bite to eat and a quick tour of Cologne Cathedral, which is next door to the station, with its stunning Gothic architecture. From Köln it is a three hour trip into Luxembourg City’s main station – a large baroque-style building which looks more like the previous stop's Cologne Cathedral than Köln station!

Upon finally arriving in Luxembourg I am now looking forward to an informative account of its capital city (and one of its premiere expat pubs: The White Rose) from David Robinson, who left a life in banking in the City of London to seek a new life abroad in the smallest EU member state…

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Positivity in the Face of Adversity. A Poignant Swiss Love Story.

My journey to Switzerland, a landlocked country dominated by the Alps housing around 8 million people, is represented by “Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story” by native writer and artist Frederik Peeters. This book is a graphic novel, mixing imagery and words: the first such book on my travels since Aleksander Zograf’s “Regards From Serbia”.

Whilst Zograf's Serbian graphic novel depicted the human side of the military battle between men of differing ideologies, Switzerland’s “Blue Pills” depicts a much more personal battle between Man and virus. In this case the battle of a man, a woman and a child with HIV.

This book forms a comic-strip memoir of Peeters’ romance with a HIV-positive woman named Cati (whose young son is also HIV-positive). The plot forms a series of episodes - ranging from his first meeting with Cati, to their relationship developing, her revelation of her condition and her son’s ongoing treatment. The boy gets sick during the course of this narrative, and this effectively serves to cement the fragile relationship between the two protagonists. As such, this is a story of love formed out of adversity, and it is honestly and touchingly depicted through Peeters' words and images. Although it must be said that the translation into English is rather clunky at times. However, given that my own foreign language skills are limited it would be churlish to labour this point!

What Peeters also manages to depict is the way in which a potentially devastating issue such as HIV can be incorporated into the ordinary, the everyday routine. In one sequence, Cati is shown exhaustively checking her gums each morning for signs of bleeding. In another, Peeters discusses the best brand of condom with a baffled male friend (Manix Infini 002, for those of a curious mindset). The daily routines, the frequent hospital visits, the incomprehension of Cati's son when he first starts swallowing anti-retroviral drugs, mashed up in his breakfast-time yoghurt: all these are rendered on the page with a compassionate clarity that could only come from experience.

And it not just about the words - Peeters's fluid, slashing, unfailingly evocative ink brushwork documents the psychological changes he's gone through to great effect. Sure-handedly depicted facial expressions and body language tell a lot of the story, and almost every page is punctuated with a silent panel or two that suggests the way Peeters's newly expanded awareness of his mortality has made him more aware of the world he lives in, too. The penultimate chapter of this book features an interesting visual metaphor: after a doctor tells Peeters that he has "as much chance of catching AIDS as you have of running into a white rhinoceros on your way out", he imagines himself stalked everywhere by the rhino. This is an engaging, touching and surprisingly humorous book. Despite its potentially depressing subject matter, it manages to culminate in an ending which is both heartbreaking, affecting and ultimately hopeful – in the most positive way.

Peeters’ book engaged me to the degree that I made an effort to Google him to see how he and his family are now doing; and I was delighted to find out that (as of 2008, anyway) they are still together, still happy, their son is growing up and they have a healthy daughter, born by Caesarean to minimise the risk of infection through blood. Sorry, if that provides a spoiler to the end of the book but let’s face it, there are much worse spoilers in life.

Does this book tell me much about Switzerland? Well, as I am finding on my travels; there are two types of works on my journey. The first type is the narrative travel journal (such as the last book, Charles Connelly’s account of his stay in Liechtenstein), which give more detail of a traveller’s - i.e. outsider’s view of a country. The second type are those accounts by native authors set in their own countries, such as this one. Whilst we may not learn about the key landmarks and tourist trails through these books, what we do gain is a glimpse of the everyday lives and concerns of people living in these countries. Lives and concerns which often, I have found so far, are generally universal.

And so I bid a fond farewell to Switzerland. I would have liked to travel from Geneva to my next stop of Berlin in Germany by train, as I am told the scenery – especially on the Swiss side - is spectacular. However it seems travel between these two neighbouring countries is not cheap. A train journey between the two – as well as taking over 10 hours – would have cost the equivalent of £165.

Therefore I opt for an EasyJet flight (still not cheap at £134, but it only takes an hour and a half!) from Geneva into Berlin Schönefeld airport. Schönefeld Airport is situated outside the city proper, so I take the short walk to the Berlin Schönefeld Flughafen railway station and catch the Berlin S-Bahn S9 line’s “RE AirportExpress train” which is the only direct link to the city centre of Berlin.

Thus I arrive in Berlin proper, and the next leg of my journey: “Summerhouse, Later” a collection of short stories by acclaimed German author, Judith Hermann, of which more in my next post.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Liechtenstein Football: the Beautiful Game in a Beautiful Country.

As I think I mentioned in my previous blog, “Stamping Grounds: Exploring Liechtenstein and its World Cup Dream” is the first non-fiction work on my journey for a while, as well as being the first for a while that is written by a non-native of the country (the author being Charlie Connelly from the UK).

I don’t know if it was the first person narrative, the fact that this was a fellow Brit writing, or just the engaging style of Connelly’s prose; but I immediately felt like a long-distance traveller who has happened upon a chance overseas meeting in a bar with a fellow compatriot and suddenly feels homesick as a result…

And I haven’t even left my hometown in England! Maybe that says something about the power of literature…

Anyway, on to Liechtenstein. I have to say that I really enjoyed Connelly’s portrayal of this tiny nation-state: whose 32,000 residents would not even fill Old Trafford, and which could fit into Ireland 437 times. Connelly intersperses his personal experiences of the country with a number of fascinating facts such as these – and indeed the Old Trafford stat is particularly pertinent: as Connelly is here as much because of the unique national football team as the unique country itself – although as becomes clear, the two elements are inextricably linked (despite the home fans’ general indifference to their team).

Connelly arrives in this country pretty much on a whim, which is fine as he brings with him a total ignorance of this state, which I as a reader shared.

Connelly provides a colourful, funny and genuinely affectionate account of this idiosyncratic nation: with just the right amount of historical background; an account of the general tedium of the capital city Vaduz (a description which still manages to be entertaining – especially the inevitable visit to the stamp museum), and a roll-call of the various colourful characters of this tiny state: including a man who is ‘married’ to an eagle, and some truly disturbing hotel staff who seem to be straight out of a 70s Hammer film.

Of course, central to all of this is the Liechtenstein football team, and their efforts to make some sort of an impact upon their 2002 World Cup qualifying group (qualification is never a realistic goal here, from a team whose last competitive goal came 2 years ago and until recently conceded deficits more often seen in cricket matches). Charlie had me biting my nails during his descriptions of the games of this minnow nation - despite me being totally aware that they didn't go on to win the World Cup! – whilst counter-pointing these dramatic descriptions with a series of dialogues (often taking place in one of Liechtenstein’s few nightspots at the end of a drunken evening) with the genuinely self-effacing members of the national football team themselves. It is here that Connelly skilfully uses football as a wider medium to explore Liechtenstein’s national idiosyncrasies.

Connelly makes some interesting points about the differences between his homeland of England here (where success in football – and indeed success at any cost generally - is paramount), and that of Liechtenstein, where quality of living and modest security reflects the more modest, and realistic, aims of the national team and the wider citizenship. On a wider, cultural level, Connelly highlights these differences through a description of the country’s National Day (a brilliant chapter which incorporates equally tragicomic accounts of Connelly’s excruciatingly embarrassing meeting with the country’s monarch, as well as an ill-advised attempt to scale several of the local peaks with some – far fitter – locals). That said, his obvious affection for this country does lead him to draw a few parallels between our nations – such as the shared national anthem tune (apparently the Liechtenstein family, upon establishing their sovereign state, liked the tune and so commissioned a German-language set of lyrics for it), and also the sense of using the monarchy as a means of distinguishing ourselves from neighbouring states.

All in all, an enjoyable book which does not sacrifice insight for entertainment.

If I have one gripe about this book it is that it all ends rather abruptly. Connelly includes an Afterword which provides an update of sorts, but - right at the last page – I was left with a feeling that I had spent an enjoyable few hours in a bar with Charlie as he recounted his adventures and then, mid-sentence, he just got up and left…

Which made me pleased that I had a further chapter on Liechtenstein to finish off with in Colin Leckey’s book “Dots on the Map” (you may remember Colin’s book was a Godsend in providing the only contemporary literary account of San Marino that I could find for my trip). Colin’s wanderings through this tiny monarchy pretty much backed up Connelly’s account (indeed Leckey gives Connelly’s book due credit in his chapter), and it was nice to sign off from this engaging country with an equally engaging account of Leckey’s stopover in the state.

Indeed Leckey - without the need to focus on the national football team - provides a number of insights which add to Connelly's description of this country. For a start, Leckey bases himself outside of the capital, opting instead for a mountain village called Triesenberg; and a B&B named Haus Alpenbeck where (he soon discovers), guests arriving back from travels to Vaduz after 10pm are met with locked doors and an absence of internal lighting... Leckey also gamely takes a number of walking trips around this tiny state. Charles Connelly - in extremely humorous fashion - describes his lack of walking fitness in a particular chapter on an attempt to scale one of Leichenstein's peaks, so it is nice that Leckey takes this challenge up. And we do learn more about this tiny state beyond its capital through these excursions. He uncovers areas which may well of been of interest to Connelly in his book - such as the "National Calculator Museum" in Schaan, and a competitive crazy golf centre in Vaduz. Of particular interest was Leckey's visit to the impressive historical building Castle Gutenberg, in the Balzars region. This is a 13th century structure to rival the ubiquitous Castle Vaduz. Whilst this is apparently owned by the state, it is only open for a few public events each year. However, I am surprised that Charles Connelly did not cover this in his book - perhaps reflecting a rather Vaduz-centric focus to the work.

Thus I make my way to Vaduz’ modest but efficient bus station in the centre of town where I also take a moment to receive the popular souvenir stamp in my passport. From here I take the 12433 bus to Sargans, and so am in Switzerland within half an hour! As there is no border control between Liechtenstein and Switzerland, I don’t need to show my passport (the bus doesn’t even slow down). I take a brisk walk to Sargans’ train station and just catch the 12.28 train to Zurich - a train which, I must say, puts British trains to shame: with its smoked glass, double-decker layout, extremely comfortable seats and working air-conditioning.

More impressive is the amazing scenery on the hour-long journey; as the trip passes along the southern shore of Lake Zurich, against a backdrop of snow-peaked mountains and picturesque villages. Upon arriving at Zurich’s volumous rail station (and ensuring that I don’t mix up Abfahrt (departures) and Ankunft (arrivals) on the connections board – a pitfall that Charlie Connelly fell into); I board the 13.32 InterCity train to Geneva, where I arrive at 16.15.

And so on to my Swiss book “Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story”. This is my first graphic novel since “Regards from Serbia” (which was an account of the Balkans War). My next book deals with an equally serious subject in describing the author’s romance with an HIV-positive woman named Cati (whose young son is also seropositive). As a long-term graphic novel fan, I look forward to updating you all on how this genre deals with this sensitive and personal subject...

Monday, 3 May 2010

Talking About The Weather in Austria…

I have to say, finding a work for Austria was a tricky one in terms of fitting my criteria of a post-1990s setting. Initially, I opted for “On a Dark Night I Left my Silent House” by Peter Handke – one of Austria’s most noted authors. However I was slightly dissatisfied by the fact that this work - whilst starting off in Austria – also encompasses a picaresque journey through a number of European countries during the 1990s. As such, I persevered in my search and am glad that I did, as it brought me to a fascinating novel entitled “The Weather Fifteen Years Ago” by Austrian writer Wolf Haas.

Wolf Haas – prior to this work, was best known for writing a series of crime novels featuring the character of grumpy ex-detective Brenner, set in Vienna (the city of Haas’ residence). Despite their international acclaim Haas killed off Brenner in book six, and voiced a wish to take a different direction in writing. The result, “The Weather Fifteen Years Ago” is a highly original and affecting work, set in the Austrian holiday resort of Farmach…

Indeed, it is interesting to come across this novel at this stage of my travels as – having just left the Czech Republic with an attempt at a post-modern ‘metafiction’ novel which did not come off, here I believe is a novel with triumphantly succeeds in the genre.

As such “The Weather Fifteen Years Ago” is no conventional narrative. The reader must infer a sensational love story that the real author hasn’t actually written, but which his fictional persona (also called Wolf Haas) describes to an interviewer referred to only as “Book Review”. This takes the form of a play-like dialogue, in which the two discuss the fictional book’s plot and thus reveal the story to the reader.

The real Haas plays several mind-games at once, for the love story begins with an ambiguous kiss between the protagonists who have known each other since childhood. The reader must deduce the mysterious relationships, which zigzag erotically through several characters and two generations. At the core of all this is a sophisticated web of scientific and poetic weather lore.

The prosaic romantic hero of the fictional novel, Vittorio Kowalski, possesses a strange talent: he can remember the weather for every day of the past fifteen years in a village resort in the Austrian Alps called Farmach, where he used to holiday with his family and where he formed a bond with a local girl named Anni. When he is invited to display this uncanny ability on a TV game show, he uncovers memories of his unrequited love for Anni, the accident that led to her father's death, and his own near-fatal experience at the place of their secret childhood meetings. By viewing this TV show, the fictional Wolf Haas becomes intrigued with the back story and, in the course of writing his novel, uncovers a series of revelations which occur both in the past and also in the present, as the adult Vittorio returns to Farmach with dramatic and far-reaching consequences.

As the interview progresses, intricacies of the children’s parents’ stories unfold to reveal a startling erotic entanglement. On the very last day of the fictional transcription, we learn almost everything else.

Without revealing too much of the fictional novel’s plot, I can say that the ‘real’ Wolf Haas uses a fascinating narrative device of the interview with the ‘author’ to tease out the strands of the story in a way which - if told straight, may well have seemed overly melodramatic. As it is, in the use of the structure that he employs, Haas skilfully teases the reader with tid-bits of information about the fictional novel, and it is a testament to his writing that we are kept engrossed in the story arc right to the end (and suffice to say the ‘teasing’ of the reader does not necessarily end at the final page!). Indeed, in the potentially dry format of an interview transcript, Haas writes prose which is truly engaging and affecting – such as where he deconstructs his description of a thunderstorm in the interview whilst simultaneously reconstructing the tension and atmosphere of the portrayal of the storm as described in the novel.

As well as pulling off this literary coup, Haas is also able to include a sub-plot of the literary duelling between the “Book Review” interviewer and the Wolf Haas who is being interviewed (and who, it should be said, is strongly identified with the actual author – to the degree of naming him as the author of the Detective Brenner series). As such, as well as the unfolding of this dramatic story set in the Austrian Alps, we are also treated to an exposition on the relationship between author and literary reviewer. The fact that the reviewer is German is important here; as Haas has in the past been criticised for his use of a narrative style loosely based on the Austrian vernacular (a dialect of German heard on the streets rather than generally used in literature). As such, the literary and social tensions between so-called High German and the vernacular that Haas employs, add to the tension between reviewer and author. This highlights a certain linguistic tension between Germany and Austria - two cultures (as is often said about the UK and the US) who are separated by a common language.

All in all, this is a book that I was not looking forward to – I was concerned that the postmodernist format would make it difficult to engage with. I have in fact found the opposite – this is a wonderful novel that works on two levels – in deconstructing the novel-writing process and in ingeniously presenting an engaging love story set against the evocative backdrop of the beautiful Austrian Alps.

From Austria I make my way to the tiny state of Liechtenstein, courtesy of English writer Charles Connelly and his journal “Stamping Grounds: Exploring Liechtenstein and Its World Cup Dream” which follows the national football team on its unlikely campaign to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, but also depicts his personal observations of this unique European principality.

To be honest, I am going about this leg of the journey in a slightly awkward way – as, for historical and practical reasons, Liechtenstein has no border control with Switzerland, which is the next stop on my journey. Indeed getting to this next stop is no easy matter – Vaduz may be Liechtenstein’s capital, but it boasts neither a train station nor an airport. Fortunately the Liechtenstein Bus service ( takes me from Feldkirch in Vorarlberg (a state in western Austria), through assorted villages to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein. A day pass for the bus costs EUR 3.20 or CHF 5.00 – the Swiss Franc (CHF) being the currency in use in Liechtenstein although many shops also accept Euro. Border controls are minimal. To get to Vaduz I have to change buses in Schaan – with the country’s only railway station (Schaan-Vaduz) being a stone’s throw away from the bus station there. I look forward to updating you with my experience of this tiny state (which is also the first ‘non-fiction’ work on my journey since Transnistria!)