The German Riveter: From YOU WOULD HAVE MISSED ME by Birgit Vanderbeke (Peirene Press, 2019), translated by Jamie Bulloch

We have our best ideas between the ages of five and ten. Some people have only a few ideas after that, maybe until they’re twenty-five or thirty, depending on whether they’re still talking to anyone then, but after thirty most of them no longer want to talk to anyone, they’ve given up, so obviously that puts an end to any more ideas.

I had my best idea when I was seven, because at the time I urgently needed to talk to someone, and when it occurred to me how I might go about that, I sensed too that it was a really good idea, although I didn’t realise quite how good until much later.

To be precise, it happened on my seventh birthday.

We were standing in our two-bedroom flat in the Promised Land and once again it was clear that I wouldn’t be getting a cat for my birthday.

I’d been wanting a kitten ever since we left the refugee camp. I was five back then. This was the third birthday in a row I wouldn’t be getting one.

You get used to disappointments, but in the long term they make you feel cold and empty inside, and you begin to lose heart.

*

It wasn’t true that pets were banned in the new housing development.

The Egners in 24C had a dachshund in their first-floor flat, and Gisela’s mother bred chinchillas in the basement. Everybody knew, and nobody had yet raised any objections to the Egners’ dachshund or Gisela’s mother’s chinchillas. The chinchillas lived in cages like the rabbits at Grandma’s, but Grandma was in the East. Sometimes she’d kill one of her rabbits, usually on a Friday before her sons came to visit. On the Saturday they’d be skinned and would then appear on the table on Sunday and be eaten.

Now we were in the West and things were done differently. Gisela’s mother didn’t kill her chinchillas and didn’t skin them for a roast, but very soon she’d be selling them live to a furrier, which would make her rich, because the furrier would kill and skin the animals, then pay her 300 marks per fur. That was a lot of money for Gisela’s mother, but the price would go even higher, to 400 or 500 marks, definitely. At least that’s what Herr Reiland said, who’d sold Gisela’s mother her first chinchillas, a pair for 2,000 marks, and since then those chinchillas had been reproducing as quickly as Grandma’s rabbits in the East. Four times a year. Soon the basement wouldn’t be big enough for her breeding programme, but then the family would move anyway, because they’d be so rich they wouldn’t know what to do with all that money, so rich that they’d be able to afford their own bungalow. Gisela’s mother wouldn’t have to work part-time as a cleaner any more and her father wouldn’t have to work night shifts at the red factory and sleep during the day when Gisela and her sister wanted to listen to Elvis Presley on the radio.

None of this was a secret. Everyone knew. And so, when my mother said we weren’t allowed to have a cat on the estate, it wasn’t true and my mother too knew perfectly well it wasn’t true. This was one of those things I couldn’t bear about most adults: they lied all the time.

Whenever you said anything, no matter what it was, either they didn’t listen or they told you lies because they thought you were too small to realise you were being lied to, and in any case the estate’s management wouldn’t have objected, it was just that my mother didn’t want me to have a cat, but she didn’t say why.

By Birgit Vanderbeke

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.

Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.


Birgit Vanderbeke was born in Dahme, East Germany. When she was six her family fled to the West and she grew up in Frankfurt. She has written more than twenty novels and won several prestigious literary awards, including the Ingeborg Prize and the Kranichstein Literary Prize.


Jamie Bulloch is an historian who began working as a professional translator from German in 2001. One of the most prolific literary translators working in the UK today, he was awarded the 2014 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for Best German Translation for Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast.

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