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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German is like a mushroom…

This is a guest post by our PhD researcher, OGP coordinator Heike Bruton, who is investigating motivation for German learning.  You’ll know her as the author of our ‘Joining up German teaching in the UK’ newsletters, top tips, events and resources from the world of German teaching (to sign up for the newsletter click here; to see past newsletter editions click here).

German is like a mushroommushroom (2)

The year is 1994.  In a comprehensive school on the outskirts of London, a newly qualified German teacher takes up her first job.  She’s brimming with plans and enthusiasm, and she’s looking forward to her many questions being answered.  How do students in this country feel about learning German?  What makes some people here just take to all things German, and what’s the best way to share the love?

That teacher is me.  Two decades later I’ve taught countless numbers of students in a wide range of set-ups, and my questions haven’t really been answered, in fact, I’ve got even more now.  People will usually be quick to tell you why German just doesn’t seem to be popular any more: at school level because of its competition with ‘easier’, ‘more useful’ or ‘more fun’ languages, and for the wider picture due to negative media coverage, overshadowed by the sinister past and/or fearmongering around EU issues.  But is this really true?  One way to find out would be to study press representations of German, and to talk to the people who deal with this every day: students, German teachers, and head teachers.  And this is why twenty-odd years after my NQT year I find myself walking the corridors of my very first school again, this time as a student myself, on a mission to get to grips with this slippery thing that’s a major part of me: German in the UK.

Memories flood back.  The Language office is now shared with the PE department, but apart from that, things seem the same.  A pile of orange exercise books on a desk, decorated in yellow, black, red, blue and white: a happy melange of French, German and Spanish flags. Back in the day, at this same school I had asked a student to please explain the red, black and white motif he’d taken care great care over on his ‘Heft’ cover. He looked at me as if I was stupid.  “It’s the German flag, Miss!”  Only it wasn’t.  It was a swastika.  There was work to do here, and I did my best to help do it.  What I’d really like to know is: has anything changed?

mushroom (2)
Deutsch ist wie ein Pilz. Oder ein Champignon. Oder doch ein Schwammerl?

If German was a food, it would be toast.  Or a mushroom, or a chocolate orange, or a beer-flavoured sausage with a chilli centre and a peeling black outer plastic bit. I was floored by some of the learners’ answers.  At a closer look, it all makes sense: German is like toast because “it isn’t the most fancy food but is always dependable and goes well with many other things”.  Of course! The metaphor tasks on my questionnaire seem to be helpful for drawing learners’ conceptualisations of German.  Now all I need to do is evaluate all of this and bring it together with what teachers and head teachers say, and of course with the wider press discourse around German, done.

If you suspect there’s a bit more to it, you’d be right.  But, in a nutshell, that’s it… or should that be a coconut shell…, because my questionnaires say German is like a coconut… I’m getting carried away, so time for a break now, but just one more, for the road: “German is like a pineapple”.  If nothing else, German has gone exotic, and to that, let’s raise a pina colada.  Prost!

 

Curious why German might be like mushroom?! To find out, and to learn about what motivated key stage 3 learners to choose German for GCSE, watch this short video.

Would you and your school like to be involved in Heike’s study? Contact Heike by email.

You can find out more about Heike’s project and follow her PhD journey on her blog, Germanintheuk.com.