Friday, 11 July 2014

Book Review: The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke Sunday (6 July 2014) the writer and cartoonist Tex Rubinowitz received this year’s Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in Klagenfurt, Austria. Since it’s the most prestigious literary award for German-language writers, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to review today the work of one of the thirty-seven previous laureates. As luck would have it, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke has just recently been translated into English for the first time and shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Almost a quarter of a century ago (sic!) an extract from the very same narrative about the repressed anger of a family ruled by a tyrannical father earned the author the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. 

Birgit Vanderbeke was born in Dahme, Brandenburg, German Democratic Republic, in August 1956. As from 1961 she grew up in Frankfurt am Main, Federal Republic of Germany, where she later studied law, Germanic and Romance philology. Reading from her narrative The Mussel Feast (Das Muschelessen) she won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize 1990 which marked her literary breakthrough. None of the author’s other works, most notable among them Ich will meinen Mord (1995; I Want My Murder), Alberta empfängt einen Liebhaber (1997; Alberta Receives a Lover) and Geld oder Leben (2003; Money or Life), have been translated into English yet. Her latest published work is Der Sommer der Wildschweine (2013; The Summer of the Wild Boars). Birgit Vanderbeke lives in Southern France.

The main plot of The Mussel Feast is set in Western Germany some time during the 1970s. Waiting for the father’s return from an official trip which is expected to have led to the longed-for promotion, the eighteen-year-old narrator sits in the kitchen with her mother and younger brother. In anticipation of the good news the mother has prepared mussels which are the father’s favourite dish ever since he fled with his wife and baby daughter from East Germany shortly before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961. None of the others cares for mussels – the two women even find them disgusting –, but everything in this family is done according to the father’s rules and (presumed) wishes because otherwise they would have to suffer the humiliating, often violent consequences. He is a tyrant with very precise ideas of how a proper family works and how a perfect wife and the perfect children should be. He’s always right and everybody else is automatically at fault. Of course, reality never corresponds with the idyll in his mind and every so often he interrogates and punishes wife, daughter and son. At every opportunity he makes them feel his disappointment. He is obsessed also with social status to the point of living beyond the family’s means. Mother and children have learnt to play their roles and to live their own ideas of life outside his sphere when there’s no risk to be discovered. As the evening advances and the usual routine is broken because the father doesn’t arrive for dinner at six as expected, the three help themselves to some wine and before long they get slightly drunk. Their repressed anger drifts to the surface.

Superficially The Mussel Feast looks like a first-person narrative about a family falling short of the all-controlling father’s distorted ideal, but in reality it’s the story of people living in a tyrannical system of any kind. The dysfunctional family assembled around the kitchen table is at the same time a small-scale model of a dictatorial state like the German Democratic Republic between 1949 and 1990. Characteristic of both social entities is a climate of constant fear and distrust. Also the strategies of oppressor and oppressed are the same: the first rules with an iron fist to crush opposition against the proclaimed only truth as well as to sap self-confidence and the latter take on a habit of servility while secretly indulging in unwanted or even prohibited activities and behaviour. At the end the pressure gets too strong and emotions boil over in a revolution. History proved more than once that sooner or later the human urge for freedom of thought always succeeds in overthrowing a repressive system! Birgit Vanderbeke’s book is a slim volume of scarcely more than a hundred pages even in German, certainly less in English translation. There are no chapters and in addition the text is divided by only few paragraphs composed of long, involved periods which require a bit of concentration in order not to lose the thread. The language used by the author is colloquial in general and appropriate for the eighteen-year-old narrator. Everything, including dialogues, is narrated.

All in all, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke is an absorbing read which reveals a lot about the mechanisms of tyranny and the abysses behind the façade of a proper family. Unfortunately, there are fathers like the one portrayed in this novella in reality… and even worse brutes (men and women) who bring up children and keep the vicious circle of violence and abuse going behind the well-protected walls of home. The novella no light read, but one that makes think. Therefore I’m more than willing to recommend it.

To know more about the Austrian author in whose honour is awarded the leading prize for German-language literature  »»» read my portrait of Ingeborg Bachmann.

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