Yoko Tawada – Three Streets
When a new book by Yoko Tawada comes out, you pay attention. One of Berlin’s finest authors, Tawada was born in Japan but has lived in Germany since 1982. Her celebrated novels include Memoirs of a Polar Bear (about three generations of Eisbären in the Berlin Zoo), the National Book Award-winning Japanese dystopia The Emissary and a picaresque romp through the potential language politics of the future entitled Scattered All Over the Earth, reviewed in these pages earlier this year.
In her latest work of fiction Three Streets (New Directions), Tawada brings her remarkable intelligence and linguistic playfulness to bear on the cityscape of Berlin itself – or, more specifically, its former East. On Kollwitzstraße, Majakowskiring and Puschkinallee, Tawada conjures a series of ghostly encounters with the past, present and supernatural possibilities of our history-heavy city. This klein aber fein addition to Tawada’s oeuvre, translated elegantly by Margaret Mitsutani, compresses plenty of its author’s trademark offbeat brilliance into a pleasingly short format.
Samanta Schweblin – Seven Empty Houses
A haunted sense of place also features in Samanta Schweblin’s Seven Empty Houses (Oneworld), out now in Megan MacDowell’s translation. Schweblin, an Argentinian Berlinerin, is one of Latin American literature’s leading young lights. Her new book – rightfully longlisted for the National Book Award – is short fiction at its finest. With deftness of touch, impeccable pacing, and a powerful sense of the weird, Schweblin probes brilliantly at the undersides of relationships.
In the unforgettable first story, a woman and her mother get their car stuck in a wealthy neighbourhood. The mother appears to need medical help, so a snobby local reluctantly invites her in – at which point she jumps up and starts fussily rearranging the homeowners’ possessions. “Please, Mom, what is it?” the daughter implores after they flee. “What the hell are we doing at other people’s houses?” Each of Schweblin’s seven stories concerns a family or home defined by absence; each of those absences turns out to be more than meets the eye. The result is eerie, dreamlike – and fantastically disturbing.
Mithu Sanyal – Identitti
Finally, Mithu Sanyal’s Identitti (V&Q Books, trans. Alta L. Price) is a campus novel, but not as we know it. Its narrator Nivedita – a young woman who blogs about race and sexuality (and the Hindu goddess Kali) – is one of many Düsseldorf students who idolise the dupatta-wearing professor of postcolonial theory known as Saraswati. Charismatic and sharp-tongued, Saraswati is a star of the identity movement; she expels the white kids from her lectures and demolishes Jordan Peterson on TV. But Saraswati is suddenly outed as being white herself, and all hell breaks loose for everyone.
As Nivedita searches for answers, and as Saraswati infuriatingly defends her actions – if race is a construct, why can’t you change it? – Sanyal takes her readers on a larger-than-life odyssey through what is broadly called ‘identity politics’. This is not a novel for or against all that, and thank goodness – it is a topic that invites enough polemic. Identitti, instead, is ambivalent and wise. It’s also seriously fun.
All books are available at Dussmann English Bookshop.