Maxim Biller, eh? He comes across as a bit of a one, a bit of a man-about-town. I don’t watch TV shows about literature because I prefer my viewing less stodgy, although I did occasionally watch Maxim Biller ripping other people’s books to pieces – before he left to concentrate on his writing. He’s been annoying the German literary establishment for so long that he’s become very good at it. I’m glad he went back to writing, though. My feeling is that he writes two kinds of books: serious literary tomes and short, playful fillers. The latter are excellent. Sechs Koffer (‘Six Suitcases’) and Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz fall into this category.
Ostensibly, this novel tells the story of the Biller family, which is a fascinating subject in itself, as evidenced by Elena Lappin’s memoir What Language Do I Dream In? Maxim Biller, her brother, takes a more mercurial approach. His six chapters are presumably the six suitcases of the title – certainly there’s a lot of migration involved. They are all set in different times and places where family members live: Prague, Zurich, Hamburg, with a storyline spanning from the 1950s to the present day. Our narrator, let’s call him Maxim Biller, has been trying for decades to find out a family secret. His grandfather was hanged by the Soviets for black-marketeering – and someone must have betrayed him. Each of the chapters adopts a different character’s point of view.
The nuclear family starts off in Prague. The mother, Rada, had moved there from Moscow, where she met the father Sjoma, a translator (heart emoji). Uncle Dima is married to Natalia – an attractive filmmaker generally considered a bad egg – and is put in prison for trying to escape to the West. There are two more brothers, Lev and Vladimir, in West Berlin and Brazil, who send occasional luxury goods. And there is Jelena, Maxim’s sister, and Maxim, who grows up mainly in Hamburg. We meet the family on the eve of Dima’s release, as observed by Maxim’s brother and his sister-in-law, then ten years later when Maxim visits Dima in Zurich, then in a letter from Natalia, sent from miserable Montreal to her ex-lover Sjoma. The last two chapters are told from the perspectives of a grudge-bearing Lev, at the time of Dima’s funeral, and a present-day Jelena. It’s important, and is stressed, that the family is Jewish. Although there is very little religion involved, communist Europe is not a safe place for them.
Imagine a game of Cluedo with six unreliable narrators. Biller has a lot of fun with us, sowing seeds of suspicion and then unearthing them again, varying tiny details – was the fridge red or blue, was it the lead piping or the candlestick? All the time, though, giving us a fascinating portrait of a Jewish family spread around the world. I’ve read it twice now and of course I’m none the wiser, but I do respect the author’s writing skills all the more. There is the humour of the voice – today’s ‘Maxim Biller’ telling us about how his parents or sister or uncles saw events at various times. There’s the quiet, affectionate humour of the characters themselves, the father not going into the kitchen because he knows he’ll shout at his kids, the sister looking through photos of her own grown-up children and thinking about what to cook for Shabbat if her daughter comes to visit – ‘with her goy or without him, that was up to her’. And in the longest section, the one in which a young Maxim plays the starring role – can this be a coincidence? – there’s a great comic-relief character, the kind of teenage wannabe Lothario who makes me grind my teeth in vicarious embarrassment.
And then there’s the excellent writing, the well-crafted sentences, the melancholy descriptions: of rainy Hamburg, shabby 1970s Zurich, the alluring smell of a brand-new Skoda in 1965. There are the literary references that are never quite transparent. The novel works partly because of its mischievous plot and partly because Biller is simply very good at writing. I recommend it.
Reviewed by Katy Derbyshire
This review originally appeared on Katy Derbyshire’s website: lovegermanbooks.blogspot.com.
Written by Maxim Biller
Published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch (2018)
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Katy Derbyshire is a London-born, award-winning translator who has lived in Berlin for over twenty years. She is now also publisher at V & Q Books, and in 2020 will be the London Book Fair’s Literary Translator of the Fair.