Tuesday, November 06, 2007

books, books, books

In Germany, when I was not eating or talking to people, I was reading, reading and reading. I don't like carrying hardbacks in my luggage (too much weight per word), so I tried to read all those passed on to me, to leave them there for other people. They were all in German....

I read Daniel Hope's book (in German, already reviewed here), two biographical books involving Israel, another about Italy, and Pascal Mercier's novel 'Lea'.

Michael Degen, the wonderful German actor, had as a Jewish boy, survived the war in Berlin as a 'U-boat' (hiding, often literally, underground), and then got himself to Israel to look for his brother at a time just after the war when the Brits generally did not let the Jews in; somehow his boat managed. Immediately he was recruited for the army, but his rather stroppy temperament made him unsuitable for this, so he did various bits of work, met various relatives, and found himself as an actor in a theatre company months after his arrival. Consider that he did not speak Hebrew before then, and that a German accent might not have been much appreciated. It's quite an achievement. Degen writes very entertainingly; it's his second book after the first one which described the war experiences - you wonder whether his is going to produce a book for every year or two of his life? Only in German.

Saul Friedlaender's (he just got the Peace Prize of the German book trade [association])book 'Wenn die Erinnerung kommt' (when memory comes) is about his war time experiences as a Jewish emigre child in France, which the family had fled to from Prague. Eventually he is placed in a boarding school, and his parents are taken to the camps where they perish. After the war [in France], he goes to live with his state-appointed guardian, before at a rather young age making his own way to Israel. He interleaves this with current scenes in Israel in the 70s, where he now lives. It's interesting; the writing is of a rather higher class than Degen's - Friedlaender is now an academic. The book exists only in German.

Franca Magnani was the Italian correspondent for a German TV station for many years (it would appear). Her book about An Italian Family (only in German and Italian) describes her childhood as the daughter of two anti-fascists during Mussolini's reign. I had not really thought about when Mussolini started operating, but it would seem that it was in 1926, a year after Franca's birth. Her father flees immediately to France, then her mother follows with the older daughter over the mountains (despite being closely guarded by the police and the carabinieri) - later young Franca's grandfather gets permission to take her to join her parents. For a while the family lives in Marseille, but in the early 30s they move to Zuerich in Switzerland where they stay until the end of the war. (Lenin also lived in Zuerich, earlier, and is reported to always having paid his rent and taxes on time). Money is always tight - her father does not have a work permit so the parents keep having to work illegally. There are very active in the anti-fascist movement, and many well-known activists visit their home, many also regularly landing in prison, or occasionally ending up dead. They are constantly observed or spied upon, and the Italian authorities cooperate closely with the Swiss police. You tend to forget that fascism affected many countries directly; Germany maybe got off lightly with 12 years only ... except....

Pascal Mercier's book 'Lea', also only in German, is about a widowed father whose daughter suddenly develops a passion and a considerable talent for the violin. In this case, unlike in Jessica's 'Alicia's Gift', the child is driven not by the father but from within herself. Like all Mercier's books this one is unputdownable, though it does not have the usual density of texture that his other books have, and it is read very quickly. The good news is that his 'Night Train to Lisbon' which I have not reviewed, but I've read, is now almost available in English. Paperback version out in February. It's a tour de force about a teacher from Berne who is close to retirement but suddenly decides, after meeting a suicidal Portuguese woman on a bridge, to go to Lisbon, to find out more about her (or to find her?). It's a great book, very dense, and takes a long time to get through. Ideal for taking on a journey. Make sure you don't accidentally buy Emily Grayson's book of the same name! Here's a fuller review of another Mercier book.

Finally I read Emine Sevgi Ozdamar's book 'The Bridge of the Golden Horn', out in paperback in English this month. It's a novel, though with an autobiographical flavour, about a young Turkish woman who comes to Berlin to work in a factory for a year in the late 60s before returning to Istanbul to study acting. It's very interesting, and very funny about the period in Berlin, her struggles to speak German, learning it from newspaper headlines (of the 'Sun' type of paper), the relationships in the boarding house where they live, with 6 women to a room, and their attempts to preserve their virginity (their 'diamond'). The main character, being quite liberated, makes every effort to lose her diamond... Already in the boarding house she gains an interest in acting, since the chap in charge of the home is an actor himself, who later returns to Turkey to run a theatre (people in exile nearly always do jobs they are overqualified for). On her return to Istanbul she gets a place at theatre school and then becomes very involved in consciousness raising, and trying to experience life as others live it, at one stage making a treck towards the Iranian/Iraqi border to see for herself the conditions of farmers who are reported to be starving (as opposed to trying to help them). Her diamond? She lost that yonks ago.

This book is a bit like Orhan Pamuk's books in that it is quite complicated, particularly so when it reaches Turkish soil (or is the world there less familiar to me?). She has a wonderful way of writing, using very distinct images, eg at one stage describing the students revolting in Berlin as 'chickens' and going off in a long flight of fancy describing Guenter Grass as a famous chicken, the city of Berlin as a chicken shed and so on. Is it something Turkish about using imagery? The author now lives in German working as an actress. It's worth getting!