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June 2003

Prose and Cons

Two new books recently translated from German-one lyrical, one prosaic

Austerlitz ***
By W. G. Sebald
Translated by Anthea Bell
Penguin Books, 2002

W. G. Sebald had a reputation for writing stories that focus on history and the human memory, and his last book, Austerlitz, is no exception. The novel revolves around a series of fragmented conversations between two academics, the unnamed narrator and Jacques Austerlitz, over a period of 30 years. Each time they meet, beginning with a chance encounter in an Antwerp train station, Austerlitz reveals more of his tale: in order to escape Nazi occupation, five-year-old Austerlitz was shipped on the Kindertransport from Prague to Wales, where he was raised by a foster family and shielded from his past. Only at school, several years later, does he discover his true identity, and after finishing his studies and immersing himself in academia (the novel begins with a lengthy discursion on history and architecture), he experiences a breakdown, involving recurrent dreams and flashbacks. The second half of the book is devoted to his subsequent search to uncover his roots; the prose takes on a more narrative, melodic tone as Austerlitz travels to Prague, various cities in Germany and finally to Paris.

Sebald’s beautiful descriptions of nature and his evocations of a lost past lull the reader into a dreamlike world similar to that of his two principal characters, who seem to be forever searching for some kind of fulfillment, whether that is through each other or through the more abstract unveiling of their souls. Photography is displayed throughout the book, in a successful attempt to connect art and dreams with memory: “In my photographic work I was always especially entranced by the moment when the shadows of reality emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night, darkening again if you try to cling to them, just like a photographic print left in the developing bath too long.” The photographs do not include captions, allowing the reader to disjoin them from the writing on the page and form their own perceptions of cognition and meaning.

Austerlitz is a ponderous, slow-moving novel—certainly not a story that can be devoured in an evening. The diffuse prose, tending towards uninterrupted monologue, can at times be trying. In a style reminiscent of Faulkner, Sebald manages to eliminate all direct dialogue (the narrator uses the phrase “said Austerlitz” instead) as well as any paragraph breaks in 418 pages of text. In the end, it proves rather difficult to read, and many readers may decide it’s not worth the struggle–– alternatively, for those who are willing to take the trouble, Sebald has produced a work of art that will leave a lasting impression.

Russian Disco *
By Wladimir Kaminer
Translated by Michael Hulse
Ebury Press, 2002

When Wladimir Kaminer decided to leave Moscow in 1990, at the end of the Gorbachev era, emigrating to Germany was the easiest option—in those days. Out of curiosity and in the hope of finding a better life, Kaminer moved to Berlin with his friend Mischa, carrying a blue suit, 200 Russian cigarettes, several photos from his time in the army, a Russian doll lying in a coffin and a bottle of vodka. From the early days, when he is taken in by a group of gypsies living in former East German army barracks, to the moment when he decides to take on German citizenship, Russian Disco documents Kaminer’s experiences in post-wall Berlin. It is a fast-paced, light and sometimes entertaining read, but that is where the praise must end.

Kaminer’s short tales could have been humorous. After all, the subject matter is often comical, even absurd: overhearing fellow Russians discussing taboo topics on the tram, getting a job as a sound technician on account of his Russian accent, his wife’s run-in with a half-dead electrician who turned out to be somebody else entirely, Russian versus German telephone sex, various nationalities’ gambling styles, Russian brides, Germans writing Russian guidebooks and even a girl from Samarkand, who has a mouse in her head. Yet, many stories border on the banal, and even interesting moments are overshadowed by a “who cares?” slap-dash style of writing. Occasionally Kaminer produces a thought-provoking piece, for example on the lives of Russian Jewish immigrants, or makes insightful comparisons between different nationalities and their efforts to create a new life for themselves in Germany, but these “nuggets” are few and far between. Kaminer never goes the extra mile required to make his stories worth reading. Perhaps his skills as an observer and writer have been lost in translation. Perhaps.

Every once in a while, Kaminer’s attempts at comedy are successful––for instance, one story relates the troubles of a young German man who learns Russian from a children’s radio program and ends up in prison after traveling to Moscow equipped with nothing more than the memorized line “And now, my little friend.” Another tale focuses on the difficulties of learning German, as when Kaminer wastes an entire day researching youth culture (Jugendkultur) rather than Jewish culture (Judenkultur) for a local newspaper assignment. In the end, however, the reader is left disappointed––the book has been at best a short diversion, at worst a waste of time. To pick up and flip through on an airplane or to provide distraction on a rainy afternoon, it may serve its purpose, but if you buy and peruse it carefully, looking for a window on Germany’s Russian immigrant community, the book fails.

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