Order for £9 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
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.
There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turningTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rihanna 'nude pictures' claims emerge on 4Chan as hacking scandal continues
- 2 Kim Kardashian 'nude photos' leaked on 4chan weeks after Jennifer Lawrence scandal
- 3 'F*ck it, I quit': KTVA reporter Charlo Greene quits live on air in spectacular fashion
- 4 Free U2 album: How the most generous giveaway in music history turned PR disaster
- 5 Scotland could still declare independence – even without referendum, says Alex Salmond
Downton Abbey fans outraged at Kindle sponsorship adverts
Cilla, episode 2, ITV, review: Sheridan Smith continues to shine as the young singer
Kendrick Lamar announces new song 'i' following leak
Free U2 album: How the most generous giveaway in music history turned PR disaster
Top Gear to launch in France after Jeremy Clarkson banned from driving on roads
Scotland could still declare independence – even without referendum, says Alex Salmond
Scottish referendum results: Cross-party consensus collapses amid Tory-Labour spat on the 'English question'
Hilary Mantel 'should be investigated by police' over Margaret Thatcher assassination story, says Lord Bell
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Plebgate MP Andrew Mitchell called officer a 'little s**t', claim court documents 'exposing ex-Chief Whip's 'record of abusing police'
Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God