Yoko Tawada – Scattered All Over The Earth
Berlin is home to many fine international authors – but none, perhaps, is as accomplished as Yoko Tawada. The Tokyo-born Berlinerin, who has lived here since 2006, has won countless awards for an impressively diverse oeuvre of fiction and nonfiction. Remarkably, Tawada publishes in two languages. Among her books first written in German are the celebrated novel Memoirs of a Polar Bear, which features the late Berlin Eisbär star Knut, and the fine untranslated essay collection Sprachpolizei und Spielpolyglotte.
Her latest work, Scattered All Over the Earth (New Directions), was written in Japanese and rendered into English by Margaret Mitsutani. This novel is set in an alternative near future where Japan has vanished from the Earth. Hiruko, a woman who teaches migrant children in Denmark, sets off with an unlikely band of companions across a topsy-turvy Europe in search of any other Japanese speakers. What results is no gimmicky sci-fi but instead a deep – and surprisingly playful – investigation into language, migration, metamorphosis and what it means to be human. If you haven’t read Tawada, it’s time to start now.
Katia Oskamp – Marzahn, Mon Amour
For something more rooted, try Katja Oskamp’s Marzahn, Mon Amour (Peirene Press). This charming literary memoir, art- fully translated by Jo Heinrich, begins with the author – born in 1970 in Leipzig – enduring what one might call a midlife crisis. Eventually, Oskamp takes up work as a podiatrist in Marzahn, the outer-East Berlin district often associated with poverty and grim Communist architecture.
Among those much-maligned Plattenbauten, however, Oskamp discovers a whole new social world of coworkers and patients, many of whom charm her with their warmth and rough humour. In a series of gently wry chapters, Oskamp draws portraits of her regular clients – their feet, their vibes, their backstories, their dreams. Most of these subjects are ill and ageing; several suffered greatly from the economic turmoil of reunification. It is to Oskamp’s credit that they emerge from her book with dignity, as truly memorable characters.
Phillip Oltermann – The Stasi Poetry Circle
Another kind of East German biography is on offer in Phillip Oltermann’s The Stasi Poetry Circle (Faber). Oltermann, the Guardian’s bureau chief in Berlin, is also the author of a witty potted history of Anglo-German encounters named Keeping Up With the Germans. Here the tone is somewhat heavier, as he unveils the darkly fascinating true story of the “Working Group of Writing Chekists”, a regular poetry workshop that consisted exclusively of Stasi agents and border guards.
Oltermann’s vigorous investigations into this writing circle, its motivations and the post-Wall fates of its vari- ous members are charmingly linked together by a series of meditations on consonance, metaphor, form and other poetic concepts. There is plenty of bad writing about the GDR out there, but Oltermann avoids all the usual pitfalls. It is with an impressive command of historical nuance – and an impressive degree of narrative restraint – that he weaves together a tale that is absorbing but never sensationalist.