From the Sea to the Night – but mainly in the Desert. A Review of Wolfgang Herrndorf’s ‘Sand’

Every so often, we at OGN Towers like to take a look round the blog-o-sphere and see what other people are writing about German-language life and culture. Last week we reblogged a post by Mary Boyle about her stopover in Aachen. This week, we spotted Heike Krüsemann’s recent review of Wolfgang Herrndorf’s acclaimed novel, Sand (2011). Heike published her post on her blog here: From the Sea to the Night – but mainly in the Desert. Review of Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf. She’s also written for the OGN blog in the past. But now, read on…

[An edited version of this post was published under #RivetingReviews on the European Literature Network website, 12 April 2017. ]

Sand

North Africa, 1972. A man with no memory wakes up in the desert with a massive hole in the head.  So far, so yawn: please, not another one of those lost memory characters stumbling around the plot trying to solve a mystery slash crime, been there, done that, keep your T-Shirt.  Not so fast!  Carl (named so after the label in his suit) is not your average unreliable narrator.  In fact, although we’re trapped inside his head most of the time, he’s not the narrator at all.  Somewhere, someone’s sitting at a desk writing all this down in the first person, someone who was there as a seven-year-old, dressed in “a T-shirt with Olympic rings and short lederhosen with red heart-shaped pockets”.  Who’s he? Not sure – everyone in Sand is reliably unreliable, apart from the author himself, who’s reliably, erm, dead.

After being diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour in 2010, Herrndorf churned out some literary gems – including international bestseller Tschick (English title: Why We Took the Car) and Sand – and then, in 2013, shot himself.  Perhaps fittingly, Sand is stuffed full of pain, gallows humour, false hopes, dead ends, absurd coincidences, misunderstandings, senseless chance events, torture, and death.  It’s set under a desert sun so merciless, that a mere glance at the cover triggers an inverse Pavlov’s dog reaction of dry mouth for the reader. Sounds offputtingly soul-crushing?  Not so!  What’s holding it all together, over 68 chapters and five books from the Sea to the Desert, the Mountains to the Oasis and on to the Night, is the search for meaning, never mind the answers, it’s the questions that matter.  Of those, there are many – and it makes for a hilarious, intriguing, heart-breaking, and ultimately gratifying read.

‘And now Lundgren had a problem. Lundgren was dead.’

A young simpleton murders four Hippies in a commune (it is the 70s…), a mediocre spy doesn’t survive a handover, a pair of bumbling policemen investigate – to not much avail, what else – a dangerously smart American beauty muscles in on the act, a fake psychiatrist tries to get to the bottom of Carl’s subconscious, a small-town crook and his henchmen get involved in the odd bit of kidnap, torture and blackmail. The hunt is on for a man called Cetrois, who may or may not exist, and a mysterious centrifuge makes an appearance, or it might be an espresso machine, who knows.  More important seems to be a mine – this could mean a number of things, a bomb, a pit, a cartridge for a pen, … a cartridge for a pen?!

Yes – now let’s talk language, and translation.  The characters in Sand are supposed to be speaking French, and thanks to Pushkin Press and translator Tim Mohr, we can now read it in English.  Think ‘Allo ‘Allo.  Tim Mohr, writer, translator, former Berlin Club DJ, and lucky owner of the coolest mini-bio ever, constructs an achingly immediate desert world by locating the English prose somewhere between 70s nostalgia and the contemporary.  In German and French, ‘mine’ can mean the inside of a pen, and Carl’s knowledge of this means that he’s a step closer to solving the puzzle, but is it close enough to see it through?  You decide for yourself, but really, that’s not the point.  He tried, he really did.  And in the end, that’s what matters.

Sand

written by Wolfgang Herrndorf (Rowohlt Verlag, 2011)

translated from German by Tim Mohr

published by Pushkin Press (2017)

 

Heike Krüsemann is currently completing her PhD thesis on representations of Germanness in UK discourses. Her Quirky Guide to Oxford will be published by Marco Polo in German and English in 2018.

Heike’s 30 second video review of Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Tschick

Heike’s blog German in the UK

Twitter: @HeikeKruesemann

 

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Deutsch(e) jenseits von Deutschland – German(s) beyond Germany

The Oxford German Network recently launched its annual national competition: the Oxford German Olympiad 2017! Now in its fifth year, this year’s theme is ‘Deutsch(e) jenseits von Deutschland – German(s) beyond Germany’. The OGN Team put their heads together to suggest some of the questions and topics you might like to think about when you enter the competition…

pennsylvania_german_sticker-svg
A Pennsylvania Dutch badge design

Peoples have always migrated and taken their languages and stories with them. Moreover, languages and cultures are almost never confined to one geographical area or one nation. Of course, the English language provides a good example of this – but so does German! German and German dialects are spoken not just by those living in Germany, but also in Austria, Switzerland… and parts of the USA, and German culture has found its way into all sorts of unexpected places. So this year, the Oxford German Olympiad explores German peoples, language and culture beyond the borders of Germany. There’s a lot out there to provide food for thought!

Historically, Germany didn’t even come into existence until 1871 and Austria didn’t exist as a defined republican state until 1919. They’re both very young in terms of ‘nation states’. So what does that mean for what we might consider ‘German’? Would travelling back in time open up a world in which all of ‘German’ existed only ‘beyond Germany’?

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A shop sign in Liechtenstein. In Swiss German ‘Hoi’ means ‘Hi’ – ‘Hoi zäme’ is for greeting more than one person.

Like English, German is the official language in more than one country. Do people in Austria speak ‘German’ or ‘Austrian’? And what about Switzerland? Officially divided into German, French and Italian speaking areas – the German you’ll encounter here is again very different and even varies with each Kanton! Did you know that German is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg?

Like Britain, France, Spain or Portugal, Germany became a colonial power, but only in the late nineteenth century under Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was a latecomer seeking a “place in the sun” – “einen Platz an der Sonne”. There are still traces of that heritage, e.g. in Africa, where the German Empire settled colonies in areas that are now parts of Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Ghana, and other modern African countries.

Can you think of any famous German migrants in the UK? You could start with looking into the ancestors of the Royal Family or the ancient Rothschild financial dynasty… A wave of migration to other parts of the world was caused by National Socialism in the 1930s and early 1940s, but Germans also moved across Europe and across oceans for religious and economic reasons from the sixteenth century onwards. Religious reforming communities, like the Mennonites and the Amish, which have Dutch and Swiss origins in the sixteenth century and still maintain some of their linguistic heritage (e.g. ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’) to this day, can be found in parts of the USA, South America and elsewhere.

People migrate for many reasons: they may follow a friend or partner, work for an international company, seek an education abroad or just want to try living somewhere else. How many people in the UK do you know who originate from a German-speaking country?

Of course, texts also migrate – above all through translation – and can be adopted and adapted by other cultures. Think of the international cultural influence of Goethe’s Faust or the many well-known fairytales collected, adapted and published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the nineteenth century. Pick a piece of German you find interesting – a song, a poem, a news article or part of a story – and try translating it. It’s fun! You’ll find words that are almost the same, and words that are challenging. Are any untranslatable?

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Rumpelstiltskin ‘spinning’ a tale, from an edition of Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane and illustrated by Walter Crane, 1886.

You’ll find lots more inspiration and interesting ideas on the Oxford German Network’s competition pages, as well as all the competition tasks and guidelines. The deadline for entries is 12 noon, Friday 17 March 2017 (note that submission is online only). If you have any queries you can email the OGN Coordinators at ogn@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk.

The Future of German Studies

On the occasion of the inauguration of Prof. Henrike Lähnemann as Chair in Medieval German Literature and Linguistics at Oxford University, a round table discussion on “The Future of German Studies” was held on Friday, 22 January 2016. OGN’s coordinator, Nicola, gives her thoughts here…

Arriving for an event about “The Future of German Studies” I was curious as to what awaited me. This title suggested a whole series of questions: “What is the future of German Studies?”; “How do we make German Studies fit for the future?” or even the more provocative “Is there a future for German Studies?”

The panel was chaired by Prof. Ritchie Robertson (Taylor Chair of German Studies) and featured OGN’s Director Prof. Katrin Kohl, alongside Prof. Dr. Hans-Jochen Schiewer (University of Freiburg), Dr Wilhelm Krull (VolkswagenStiftung), Dr Dorothea Rüland (DAAD) and Dr Carsten Dose (FRIAS). It was part of a series of events to mark the Inaugural Lecture of Henrike Lähnemann, Chair in Medieval German Literature and Linguistics at Oxford University. More on these other exciting events in a future post…

Given the credentials of the panel it will come as no surprise, though perhaps still something of a relief, to hear that all of them believe there is a future for German Studies. As to the question of what this future may look like, two broad themes emerged: intercultural learning and exchange, and interdisciplinarity. In a globalised world there is a role for the humanities in helping us to better understand and integrate different cultures, and within the academic sphere there is much to be gained from a transfer of academic cultures through initiatives such as summer schools or joint degree programmes hosted by, for example, German and British universities. Many of the speakers noted that German Studies is by nature interdisciplinary – perhaps explaining why it can prove such a hard term to pin down! – and suggested too that more can be done to strengthen links with other fields and to better articulate these in existing projects.

But for me the future of German Studies is perhaps to do more with the who than the what. This is arguably where the Oxford German Network fits in. Prof. Kohl summed up a key part of OGN’s mission as providing a “dimension to German that goes far beyond what it is in schools”. Generating enthusiasm for German now – whether language and literature or Lebkuchen and Laugenbrezel – is fundamental to the future of German Studies. A former teacher who shared her experiences during the Q&A section summed this up by saying that for German teachers “getting pupils to Germany equals job done” – whether visiting a Christmas market, eating Currywurst or crossing Checkpoint Charlie – pupils are excited and enthralled by what they discover when they are given the chance to really experience German culture.

My reflections on the event, and this topic as a whole, can be summed up in just one word: ‘youth’. A youthful spirit and open-minded approach will ensure that German Studies is fit for the future, and young voices, able not only to speak German but to see the world through someone else’s eyes, are in themselves the future.

                                                                                                                                                Nicola, OGN Coordinator