Let’s do the timewarp… Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes

The year is 2011. A disoriented Adolph Hitler awakes in an abandoned lot in Berlin. Yes, that Hitler. He doesn’t know how he got there, but in 66 years he has not aged a day. Taken in by a newsagent who marvels at his uncanny resemblance to you-know-who, right down to the authentic uniform, he has to accommodate himself to a world which is alien. But accommodation is not his strong suit. What follows is a biting commentary on our modern world and, as such, it is fitting that he finds an audience for his rehashed rhetoric through TV and You-Tube. An audience that does not always interpret his “performance” as satire. After all, in his mind he is dead serious.

2015-03-25 11.23.17As you might imagine, this premise affords Timur Vermes, the German author of Look Who’s Back, an opportunity for much humour. The newly revived Hitler faces a host of curiosities  and surprising sights. He marvels at plastic bags, satellite dishes, the computer with its “internetwork” and all the residents of “dubious Aryan heritage.”

His first encounter with a modern television set is quite funny.

“To begin with I assumed that the flat, dark plate in my room must be some bizarre work of art. Then, taking into consideration its shape, I speculated that it might serve as a means of storing my shirts overnight without them creasing.”

Once a hotel maid introduces him to the secrets of the TV and its remote, he is very dismayed to find one cooking show after another. Naturally it is a waste to have such an effective tool for propaganda dedicated to such bland mediocrity. No worries though. Before long Hitler will be making his way on to the televised airwaves.

Even after more than six decades, he has not mellowed. His naivety is amusing, but his single-minded commitment to the visions, ambitions, and speeches of his past is chilling. It creates an abiding discomfort in the reader. That is, of course, the purpose, but the satire does wear a little thin over the course of the novel.

Author Timur Vermes does manage to maintain a consistent and steady voice throughout this accomplished debut. He keeps his Hitler grounded in reality, at least as he perceives it. Translator Jamie Bulloch does an excellent job of incorporating words that are most effectively kept in the original German, and in creating a realistic English slang for the younger characters. Together this all works to produce a quick, entertaining, if somewhat disturbing, read.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: Look Who’s Back is well crafted and provides ample food for thought. It has a strong commercial appeal which may act in its favour for a spot on the short list.

Portents of death: The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed

“The brook here in the forest – where did it begin —
Don’t think like that!
Not about beginnings and endings, but just about what is.
Throw in a stone and make time stop.”

The passage of time, the flow of seasons, the repetitive routine of life on the farm – these are the currents that course through The Ravens, the English-language debut from Swedish author Tomas Bannerhed. The landscape is rugged and raw. The land, reclaimed from peat bogs, is stingy and unforgiving. The weather is harsh and unpredictable. It can break a man’s back and, if he is not careful, it can drive him mad.

ravensThe events of this dark rural novel unfold over the span of one year from spring to spring. Our narrator, Klas, is a sensitive and intelligent 12 year-old boy with a passion for birds. His ear is finally tuned to the songs and calls of the species that nest in the trees and marshlands near his home, he knows their habits and is on the lookout for the chance visitors who may happen to appear outside their normal range. Birds are not only an obsession but a refuge and distraction from the pressures at home.

Klas has a troubled relationship with his father who, as the year progresses, is clearly losing his grip on reality. Ange is haunted by the cries of ravens that only he can hear. He constantly worries away at a huge pile of scrap metal and bemoans the endless work that weighs down on him on the farm. The more he complains and beseeches the Lord for the trials he suffers, the more he drives his older son to the marshes. Klas’ mother exercises a weary stoicism, continually working to pull her family together, while his younger brother spends much of his time retreating to increasingly juvenile behaviour. Hanging over the family is the legacy of mental illness. Klas’ grandfather committed suicide, his father is becoming more unpredictable and eccentric, and, in his heart, Klas is terrified that he too will inherit both the farm and the madness.

The summer sees a hint of respite for young Klas as the attentions of Veronika, an attractive girl from the city, set his hormones reeling. True to form he takes her on a late night birdwatching outing, but she disappears to the city soon after. Before long Ange overdoses on pills and is committed to a psychiatric hospital. As his father fades, Klas will be forced to question whether he will be able to carry the weight that will be placed on his shoulders. And as Klas appears to be pursued by voices and superstitions of his own, the reader has to wonder if he is not already haunted by demons. An eye he imagines above his bed disturbs his sleep, the voices keep driving him to the marsh’s edge.

“Stare down into a mirror.
No sign of life. Just my own blurred face and the tiniest ripples if you looked really carefully, like vibrations in the air from the silently whirring wings of the circling gnats. A pond skater came shooting across the water on its sewing-thread legs. Here and there, gas bubbles percolated gently to the surface and popped with a wet sigh.
Is that all?
No toothless Marsh Wife leering down there, no long arms and yellow nails like claws to draw you down into the black hole?”

There is much to love in this novel. The landscape comes alive. The language is achingly beautiful and spare, smoothly translated by Sarah Death. As someone who grew up in a rural environment in the 1970s, I found that the cassette tapes, aging hippies, and city fashions that Klas encounters when he visits Veronika brought back memories. The darkness that seeps through and builds as the story progresses is well managed. My only criticism would be that I felt it might benefit from being edited a little more tightly in the first half.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: This is certainly one of the more ambitious of the long listed novels and I would be pleased to see it make the short list.

Border crossing ahead: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

“You don’t lift other people’s petticoats.
You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business.
You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot.
You are the door, not the one who walks through it.”

signsA sinkhole opens up in the road in the opening passage of Yuri Herrera’s brilliantly inventive Signs Preceding the End of the World. Makina, a streetwise young Mexican woman charged by her mother with a mission to deliver a message to her brother who has disappeared across the border in the US, just narrowly misses being swept into its depth. Or does she? She is a wary customer, old beyond her years, capable of communicating in native, latin and anglo tongue – a skill that has secured the task of manning the central switchboard in her hometown and has equipped her, as well anyone might be, for the daunting task her mother has set out.

The rules outlined above are those that Makina holds close. Securing her safe passage will require making deals with a series of shady characters and her hardened discretion will be vital if she is to reach her destination. The language matches her pace. The short chapters, clipped sentences, and unique vocabulary hurry along, sweeping the reader with it as if time is of the essence and dare not be wasted. There is no time for for frivolities, Makina – and with her the reader – must be on the alert. This is a dangerous journey. It is one that many desperate people make every day. On the far side, the world to be navigated is both familiar and strange.

“The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing.”

But for the illegal migrant, temporary or permanent, the risks are real. The rewards often elusive, the costs high.

This slim novel is filled with passages of vivid intensity. Dark, epic in scope if not in scale, a few hours with Herrera is akin to a journey with Dante or Lewis Carroll. Right through to the final breath taking passages, I would challenge a reader to not emerge gasping for air.

Another wonderful offering from And Other Stories, Signs Preceding the End of the World is a deeply rewarding way to spend a few hours. In the Translator’s Note at the end of the novel, Lisa Hillman describes the joys and challenges she faced in capturing the right tone and shaping the language to preserve the magic and power of the original text. The result is an absolutely compulsive read. Highly, highly recommended.

Now, after this brief respite, back to reading the International Foreign Fiction Prize long list with my fellow bloggers on this year’s shadow jury.

A nuclear folktale: The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

lakeAt the beginning of The Dead Lake, by Uzbek author Hamid Ismailov, an unnamed traveller encounters Yerzhan, a 27 year-old man seemingly confined to the body of a young boy, playing violin on the platform of a railway station. Fascinated by this odd character, he invites him to join him on his  train journey where Yerzhan proceeds to share his account of growing up in a two-family railway “stop” on the steppes of Kazakhstan during the years of the Cold War. The landscape of his homeland, vast and underpopulated, is seen to be the ideal testing ground for the Soviet side of the nuclear arms race. The tremors and explosions that rock the “Zone” become a terrifying feature of daily life for the nearby residents.The resulting radiation will take a much more devastating toll.

Early on Yerzhan finds respite in music. At the age of three, he shows exceptional musical aptitude for playing his granddad’s dombra, graduating quickly to the violin. For years music consumes him. A Hungarian worker at the Mobile Construction Unit is found to tutor the young musical prodigy. He absorbs the music, quickly learning to read and play many classical masterpieces.

“He dreamt these phrases, together with the sounds of the violin in the different-coloured, rounded notes. His dreams had never been so jolly before. The notes walked about like little men. This one was fat and pompous, with a huge pot belly, while these minced along on skinny legs.”

reedHe also finds a personal hero in the handsome Dean Reed, the American born pop and rock singer who became a celebrity behind the Iron Curtain, and imagines himself growing in the image of his mentor and securing the heart of his beloved Aisulu. But when he suddenly stops growing at the age of 12, his intended continues to grow, eventually reaching an unusual height for a woman. His heartache, which he seeks to answer in the songs, magic, and legends of his people becomes an allegory for the very real and tragic legacy that atomic fallout has left on the land and people of this remote part of the world.

This moving novella is part of Peirene Press’ Coming of Age series. Ismailov breathes life into the steppes, from the snow dusted barren slopes, to the ubiquitous worms, lice, and flies. The silence of the landscapes is contrasted with the violence of the test flights and explosions. The musical tones of violin meet traditional folksongs. Andrew Bromfield’s sensitive translation form the Russian is especially effective in maintaining the lyrical quality of the songs that are woven into the tale. The result is a simple, but thought-provoking read.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: It is good to see small, subscription supported presses like Peirene receiving the attention that these nominations bring to the wonderful stories that deserve to reach a wider audience.