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The Mussel Feast, By Birgit Vanderbeke. Peirene Press, £10
Wednesday 27 March 2013
In a Berlin apartment, a woman scrubs four kilos of mussels and places them in a heavy pot to cook as she and her two teenagers wait for the father to return. The meal is his favourite, and she has prepared it to celebrate his expected promotion. Written in 1989 as East Germany's communist dictatorship was unravelling, Birgit Vanderbeke's novella was first published the following year. Capturing the national mood, it won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, and is now a school text.
The action spans four hours, and is told from the perspective of the daughter whose freewheeling stream of consciousness is admirably captured by Jamie Bulloch's fine translation. It is she who sounds the first note of dissent, expressing revulsion at the sound of the molluscs opening in the boiling water as the black, glistening heap rises over the rim of the pan.
The girl – like the other characters, not named – has recently come of age and is testing the bounds of independence, bunking off school to hang around in cafés, smoking. We learn that the family has fled East Germany to make a new life in the West, and that the mother, a teacher, must switch to what her daughter disgustedly calls her "wifey mode" on her return home.
Home life is organised according to the father's concept of the "proper family" he never had. Obsessed with status, he acquires pompous furniture, and toadies to his superiors. He makes a cult of athleticism and has no use for culture, standing for "sober objectivity and reason". As time passes and he does not return, the daughter's rebellious mood infects the others. Questions hang in the air.
The Mussel Feast is both a coming-of-age novel set in Germany, and a coming-of-age novel for Germany. The father has brought with him the authoritarian paternalism of the state he fled, turning his family into a mini-surveillance society. Sinister, funny and heartening, this taut novella reflects, within the microcosm of the family, the dissolution of the East German state, with an insight, economy and controlled fury that have made it a modern German classic.
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