Friday, May 15, 2009

Reading group: The Invention of Curried Sausage by Uwe Timm

Hans suggested this book, which we all very much liked, after a German friend had recommended it to him: we hadn't heard of it, but in fact it's a bestseller and something of a modern classic in Germany. It's short, a novella, and is told by a narrator who, like that of Austerlitz which we read last, seems very close to the author. Returning to his native Hamburg, the narrator sets out to prove that the popular dish of curried sausage sold on German street-stands did not originate in Berlin in the fifties as is generally accepted, but was invented by his aunt's Hamburg neighbour, Mrs Brucker, who sold it on the local square immediately after the war. However, tracking her down to an old people's home and getting her talking, he learns far more than the answer to this question - which was yes, she did invent it - and the matter of how she came to invent it is withheld as her poignant wartime story unfolds.

With a husband and two grown children away in the war, Lena Brucker meets at the cinema a young soldier who, failing to leave her flat next morning, becomes a deserter secreted by her there. When the war ends very soon after his arrival, she can't bring herself to tell him and inevitably lose him, and thus he becomes her unwitting prisoner. It is only later, after this story has played itself out, and Lena sets about making a postwar living for herself, that the recipe for curried sausage comes to her more or less by accident.

Thus the search for the truth about curried sausage is a kind of device, or even a McGuffin, for the unravelling of a more emotionally complex tale, but, 'combining the farthest with the nearest' as the narrator says it does, it is also a kind of metaphor for that tale too: the coming together of two disparate people who would not under normal circumstances do so, a woman reaching middle age and a young man with a wife and new baby to whom he feels committed.

John suggested that it also operated as a way to make palatable and approach a subject which is of great sensitivity in Germany, since the denouement of Lena's wartime story, which I won't give away here, hinges on the revelation to her of what had been happening in the death camps. He said he also thought that the double-narrator device which this book shared with Austerlitz was connected with this: a way for the generation of Germans tackling this subject in novels to 'distance' it and make it possible to handle. He thought it was interesting too, and perhaps inevitable as a strategy, that both these novels and The Reader feature a younger narrator forging a relationship with an older person who had been involved to greater or lesser degrees in these events.

Everyone had good things to say about this book. People liked its depiction of the ways that the extremities of war disrupt convention, and in particular the portrayal of the tenderness yet toughness of the unconventional relationship. They loved the little touches, such as the two officers of the occupying British force turning out to have Hamburg accents (and to be Jews), and the portrayal of the postwar black market bartering. They were especially taken by the book's illustration of the fact the people you least expected turned out to be the wartime informers. Clare said that she was amazed when she realized what a short time the two had been together in the flat, as it had seemed to go on for ages, and everyone agreed that this was an achievement of the novel: recreating the suspension of time and reality for the two characters.

I said that I thought the book extremely well written, as far as you could tell from a translation, or maybe you could tell because the translation read so well. Clare then asked me what I meant by well written. I said I meant emotional acuity or truthfulness conveyed via apt language, and John summed it up better by saying that in well-written prose there isn't a false note, which everyone agreed was true about the prose of this book. I also said that one of the things which struck me forcibly about the double narrator device which seems to be a feature of these recent German books is that it serves to subsume the ego of the author: all the emotional and verbal acuity is handed by the author to a narrator, which I said struck me as an act of great authorial generosity, and John wondered if it were a function of the act of reparation which these novels may be seen as.

We did find some false notes on other levels, however. While the narrator reports Lena's story indirectly, thus giving himself room for interpolation, it is nevertheless the story as told to him by Lena, and on one or two occasions the novel swerves unconvincingly from its own convention when we are presented with the interiority of other characters. Some people said they had found themselves wondering if it really were believable that the soldier, Bremer, didn't guess that the war was over as he watched the road from the window all day long. I said I had a slight doubt about the novel's treatment of the business of the informers and people's knowledge of the death camps: the novel seems to imply that people like Lena were completely unaware of what was happening with the Jews (Lena thinks back to a Jewish neighbour leaving with her case and how nothing much struck her about it at the time), yet Lena lived more or less in the Jewish quarter, and also, the novel seems to indicate, people knew that there were informers informing on the Jews.

Doug said that the worst false note was right at the end, indeed the very last word, when the narrator comes upon a scrap of paper on which is one of the crosswords which Bremer whiled away his time doing. One of the words filled in by Bremer is 'even though nobody will believe me - novella'. Everyone cried out in horrified agreement, and Doug said he'd thrown the book down at that final point.

Even so, we liked the book enough to forgive it any of its faults, including this.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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