READS OF THE YEAR 2016: Rebecca DeWald

Regardless of all other events in this bizarre year of 2016, it’s been a very good reading year for me (partly because I finished my PhD and finally seemed to have more brain space left to enjoy a good read), making it particularly difficult to choose my favourite three out of 25 ½ books (Navid Kermani’s Dein Name will hopefully feature in next year’s reads, since I’m still making my way through the 1400 Bible-thin and incredibly dense and challenging pages, much like Moby-Dick took me years to read, see my 2013 ROTY). I also managed to sneak in another video review of the incredible A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins, in a crowd-sourced video for the European Literature Network’s German literature month (#ELNetGerman), which you can find here (my review being the very first one). Ok, enough, sneakery. My (other) top-3 Reads of 2016:

Neil MacGregor Germany, Memories of a Nation (Allen Lane, 2015)

Despite the difficulty in choosing this year’s best 3, MacGregor’s tome on German history, published on the occasion of the reunited country’s 25th anniversary in 2015, was always going to make the cut. Following the eponymous podcast, which took the same form as his A History of the World in 100 Objects, and the accompanying exhibition at the British Museum, the book is divided into parts and chapters that focus on objects representing Germany history. Reading about German history from MacGregor’s British point of view is fascinating, not only for a native German, but a native German who was never very good at history in school, with all its facts, dates, and endless wars – the latter’s celebration (in Britain) MacGregor’s criticises. For Germany, MacGregor says, history is exemplified in a Mahnmal (the monument as reminder, as a raised index finger pointing both towards past and future), not a Denkmal (a victorious memorial, as reminder and celebration of superiority). As he said in a documentary, repeated on the occasion of his appointment as head of the future Humboldt Forum, a cultural hub in Berlin:

What is very remarkable about German history as a whole is that the Germans use their history to think about the future, where the British tend to use their history to comfort themselves … the Germans use it as a challenge to behave better in the future. [1]

The only criticism may be his incredulity as to why “a nation like Germany” could commit the atrocities of the Holocaust, since this disbelief points towards the idea of a coherent people which never existed, as he shows all too clearly throughout that Germany as “one”  nation only existed since 1989 (and even this unity of the federal country with its 16 distinct states is questionable). In fact, it is particularly the country’s history as a federation of multiple duchies, earldoms etc. that makes it so well positioned at the centre of the European Union.

The most eye-opening section for me – which gained further relevance in light of the refugee crisis since 2015 – is the part on the Vertriebenen: ethically German expellees from all over Europe who were forced by the Allies after WWII to move back “home” to Germany, although many saw themselves, if anything, as loyal to Maria-Theresia, the Austrian empress. The fate of the Vertriebenen, who took the blame for a war they did not support, is a hidden subject in Germany’s history – if I am to think back to my school days, in any case – which, given its contemporary relevance, deserves to become a much more prominent Mahnmal.

Jenny Erpenbeck Aller Tage Abend (Verlagsgruppe Random House, 2012)

A young couple – she: Jewish, he: Christian – lose their newborn daughter to sudden infant death in the early years of the 20th century. The father disappears and emigrates to America; the mother leaves her small Polish town and her mother’s shop to move to the big city and become a prostitute. In the first intermezzo, the narrator speculates about what would have happened if the baby girl had not died. In the second part, the family moves to Vienna, has a second child, and struggles on the verge of starvation. Throughout five sections and four intermezzi, the family story – longlisted for the German Book Prize in 2012 – continues in a “what if” possible world throughout European history, from a small Polish town to life in the GDR. Erpenbeck, who became internationally known through winning the (last) Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015 (before it became the Man Booker International) with her translator Susan Bernofsky for Aller Tage Abend/The End of Days, tells a realist story of life/multiple people’s lives throughout the 20th century, despite its possible worlds. Repeating patterns provide the novel with continuity: the relationship between the woman and her mother, who wants her daughter to lead a Christian life to escape the fate of her father, killed by an anti-semitic mob. The memory of judgments made about the women in childhood, which go so deep that they determine a whole life, and the recurring image of death as determinant in twists in people’s lives. Erpenbeck asks relevant questions through the fates of one person, or one family, who could be any person, any family. The continuity of images and symbols poses the portentous question whether there are constants, unchangeable, unalterable events that will occur regardless of our turns and decisions.

Martin MacInnes Infinite Ground (Atlantic Books, 2016)

Infinite Ground is a Latin American novel, with the cynicism of Julio Cortázar, the mysticism of Clarice Lispector and the wit of César Aira. But it is also a mix of Tom McCarthy and Paul Auster. And yet, MacInnes’ debut novel is nothing like any of the above (though these names will doubtlessly pop up in the tags to any online article, alongside a mention of his Not the Booker longlisting). The novel starts as a crime case, with the disappearance of Carlos from the restaurant La Cueva in an unnamed South American city. The investigating detective digs deep, skin-deep, microbe-deep into the case, while the narrative blends biological and anthropological accounts of life in the jungle, questioning the detective’s sanity, and reality in general. MacInnes’ stylistic repertoire ranges from crime to satire, textbook entries to dialogues and memoir-esque third person accounts. The whole text becomes slippery and nobody really knows what happened to Carlos – or the detective, for that matter. It’s a book that can only ever be described in comparisons, in “likes”, since nothing is quite like it.

[1] Ben Knight and Mark Brown, ‘Appointment of Neil MacGregor as head of Humboldt Forum silences critics’, The Guardian, 10 April 2015.

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