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Novel set in 1960s Germany

7th June 2019

You Would Have Missed Me by Birgit Vanderbeke, novel set in 1960s Germany. Translated by Jamie Bulloch

Novel set in 1960s Germany

This novel – novella – is published by Peirene Press who are specialist publishers of short, sharp novels: “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film” (TLS). Award-winning translated novellas and proudly European.

50p of every book sale goes to refugee charity Basmeh & Zeitooneh – and it is the plight of the refugee that Birgit Vanderbeke brings to life in this novel, seen through the eyes of a seven year old child.

Her family has fled from East Germany to “The Promised Land” of West Germany and as they move from pillar to post to find their final settling place, the young girl observes her family’s responses to their new life. Mum is intent on acquiring new (fashionable as she sees it) teak furniture, and status is as much about the make and model of car as it is about being able to eat bananas (which were a commodity in the East only available at the time to certain categories of people, like sports men and women who were representing their country). The mother’s aspirations somehow always seem to fall short. She has clearly not found her nirvana and her expectations are dashed time and again. Yet, nowhere is perfect, the grass is only seldom greener.

The little girl looks back with yearning to time spent with her grandmother in the country in the East and hankers after the home cooked food which is in such stark contrast to the bland offerings her mother serves up now. Her parents have made their choice, yet for this little girl there is little to relish in the West.

Adults are a mystery, they have an agenda that clearly confounds her. Children are to be seen and not heard as the adults try to fathom what it is they want. The novel opens on the child’s 7th birthday and once again she has been denied the thing she really wants. A cat.

She is, however, given a globe and it is this that feeds her imagination, helping her adapt to her new surroundings and adjust to her tumultuous uprooting.

The author excellently portrays the confusion of the refugee family in their new Heimat. Striking is the perplexion of the child as she comes to terms with the loss of everything familiar and her struggle to assimilate and to comprehend a nation with the same language but with a different substructure and unaccustomed manners and mores.

I took this novel with me to read in Germany and found it illuminating. I remember much of the period myself – the issue of which car to buy (it had to be an Opel); that drinking tap water was deemed unhealthy; eating cherries and drinking water simultaneously were a no-no (I still have no idea why); factories belching out questionable substances, and yes, there was always a yellow/ochre tinge to the pollutant…

The prose is very good and the translator has brought real skill and judgement to the work.

In many ways the refugee experience has not changed, it is a universal situation with common experience of dislocation and helplessness. The book reminds us all, that those who enjoy settled status in one country are privileged – they (we) really are! It is something that many do not have; and it behoves those of us in such a privileged position to be mindful of and supportive to those who are struggling. – oftentimes through no fault of their own, other than by accident of birth.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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  1. User: barbara baer

    Posted on: 10/06/2019 at 4:05 pm

    Another post that offers window onto another world where in many ways we’re going to meet the same people, often ourselves. Will find this short novel and thank you to Trip fiction for prompt.