The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

I have been sadly neglecting the blog for the last little while due to an overload of work, but am slowly emerging and hoping to start getting back on top of things again now.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, tr. Jamie Bulloch (Peirene, 2013)

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, tr. Jamie Bulloch (Peirene, 2013)

Knowing that I had a two-hour train journey back from London after the Book Fair last week, I had been saving up the latest book from Peirene Press especially for it. The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from German by Jamie Bulloch, is the first title in their Turning Point series. First published in 1990, it won Germany’s prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, has never been out of print since and is a set text in schools, and it’s easy to see why.

The narrator is a teenage girl, sitting at the dining table with her mother and brother, waiting for her father to come home. The mother has cooked mussels, despite not much caring for them herself, to celebrate her husband’s return from a business trip and the expected news of his promotion. He doesn’t come, however. As they sit there, wondering where he has got to, what has happened, they start to talk. The conversation that follows brings to light all kinds of secrets and issues to do with the life of this family and their relationships with a controlling and violent father.

It is told in retrospect as a meandering kind of monologue, weaving around the issues, the absent father and the congealing mussels – his favourite food – waiting on the table. Nothing is ever spelled out. We approach an issue, skirt away from it, move on to something else, and later come back to it from a slightly different angle. This leaves readers to figure things out for themselves and lays the story open to all manner of interpretations – ideal material for discussions, book clubs and school essays. What gradually becomes clear is that the father’s unflexible logic and controlling nature have created an image of an ideal family that nobody can ever live up to. This inevitable failure then triggers the father’s anger, which has torn the family apart.

The author says:

I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.

I didn’t quite appreciate how effective this device is when I was reading the book – at the time I was just gripped by the drama, even though nothing actually happens, and busy trying to piece everything together. It is a book that grows on you afterwards though, and as I’m writing now, I’m musing on the parallels between the father and the East German state, the idealism gone sour leading to violence, repression and rebellion. I’m also wondering what delayed the father and what the turning point might be. By the end of the evening, when the family have thrown out the cold mussels and drunk the wine intended to go with them, they have clearly come to some kind of resolution. But what is it?

The discursive, rambling narrative, all indirect speech, 105 pages in just a few paragraphs with no chapters or breaks, really draws you in. It was as well I was reading uninterrupted on the train though – I imagine I’d have found it hard to cope with anything breaking the flow. Jamie Bulloch has done an amazing job of both capturing the daughter’s voice and dealing with this style. Each sentence is beautifully written and must have required a major reconstruction job to detangle and reconfigure the German clauses in English.

Here’s a sentence taken at random from the middle:

We liked going swimming, but we didn’t like diving, we liked swimming and going underwater; we liked going to the pool because my father’s colleagues and sometimes his boss went too, with their familes, and then my father wasn’t able to shout at us and could only say, we’ll have words later, which is what he said that day, too, when my brother and I were supposed to dive. (p. 64)

See what I mean? This sentence also shows the understated, rather dark humour of the book. I didn’t find it laugh out loud funny, although others (including publisher Meike Ziervogel) apparently do, but more provoking of a wry smile.

In any case, it is an excellent read and I am thoroughly looking forward to the rest of the Turning Point series through 2013.

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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