The German storyteller

Uwe Timm's deceptively light narrative is a mixture of Kazuo Ishiguro, Graham Swift, Woody Allen and James Joyce. He has saved German letters and written the reunification novel
June 19, 1997

Imagine a london where you find yourself in Roddy Doyle's Dublin Northside the moment you pass east of Hol- born. Suddenly, words have different meanings; some, you hardly recognise. Bullet-marked buildings witness a shared history you had nearly forgotten; the stonewashed jackets and shell suits, the street cries, the sharp eyes and tanless faces of the population-pinched from low-level malnutrition and drink-shout "second world." On vast building sites sharp-suited figures are on the make as crime, arms, drugs and danger invade. But more profoundly disturbing than the details is the certain knowledge that here, in what is supposed to be part of your own city, your own capital, you are hopelessly revealed, the moment you open your mouth to speak, as someone from "over there."

Then imagine that this half-strange half-city is packed with monuments of the militarist strand of your national tradition, of the despotic princes who more or less forcibly united your country scarcely 120 years ago, and at whose door many historians have laid the blame for both world wars. Now you have some conception of how a west German feels in east Berlin six years after reunification.

It is this tension, one suspects, which explains the extraordinary scenes in the summer of 1995, when the artist Christo fulfilled a 20-year dream of wrapping the Reichstag in silver cloth. People cancelled holidays and postponed weddings to see the completed wrap in its deliberately transient glory; the atmosphere towards the end grew close to mass ecstasy. It was as if everyone hoped that Christo would prove to be a magician, not an artist-that the curtains would be whipped away to reveal a brand new, historically cleansed Reichstag. Or, even better, what if, when Christo removed his wrappings, the Reichstag had simply not been there?

The Reichstag Wrapped, and the secret emotions of the new Berlin over which it presides, provide the imagery and atmosphere into which Uwe Timm has set his masterpiece: Johannisnacht (Midsummer's Eve).

The term "German masterpiece" is hardly calculated to set the hearts of English readers or the chequebooks of publishers a-flutter. The almost inevitable second thought is "difficult." But Timm-although he has been an acknowledged fixture on the serious German literary scene since the mid-1980s-simply does not fit the bill.

Which other German writer would go on record as saying he could not write Peter Handke's books for sheer boredom? Which writer anywhere-never mind in the world's most sophisticated and philosophically inclined literary market-manages to be both an established heavyweight novelist and a successful children's author? Timm is, in short, the least "Germanic" of authors. Or rather, the least mitteleuropean, for he is part of a very different German tradition, that of ironically romantic, socially critical magic realism.

The German literary scene is dominated not by the dubious powers of transatlantic multinationals and flavour-of-the-month hype, but by the even more dubious alliance between a hypertrophic "radical" literary theory establishment and the respectful burghers of Germany's multiple mini-Nobel committees. Every decent size town, never mind city or state, has a remunerative literary prize to award every few years, and the local worthies generally ensure that one of Germany's dozen or so "literary popes" makes a safely enlightened choice for them. There is no Anglo-Saxon equivalent for the influence of these people, unless you count the Broadway critics. I have heard one, a man who can make the career of a writer or academic, declare grandly that he has never felt the need to write a primary text himself. The result has been a gro-tesque Karussell whereby a few critically certified authors-or theatre directors or filmmakers-take turns at shaking the B?rgermeister of Dingeldangelstadt's hand for the cameras and pocketing the cheque. Naturally, the preferred authors are the most theorief??hig (a hideous term which can only be translated as "suitable for being theorised about").

Uwe Timm's work is as concerned with writing about writing and with formal experiment as ever one could wish. He is "the classic short storyteller... who has woven together the various layers so skilfully that they produce another story: the novel itself" (Die Welt). Timm has also had his fair share of the bigger literary prizes in recent years. But in the applause of the German reviewers it seems that he is being greeted with relief by those who long for a new-or renewed-German literature after reunification: "Timm sets all your senses to red alert, he sends your head spinning and then saves the day with the artistry of his storytelling" (Die Zeit); "Sparkling political satire joined with magical visual moments, romantic longing, lyrical expeditions and a tense whodunnit... shows that German literature does not have to indulge forever simply in self–reflection" (Der Standard); "Against the bloodlessness of German writing, Johannisnacht flashes with a lightning that is subtle, brilliant, ironic, melancholy" (Badi-sche Zeitung).

Timm's uniqueness on the German scene is his refusal to concede the death of storytelling. But rather than tell the story of Johannisnacht, let me try to convey the tone of his novel by comparing it with those of writers better known in Britain.

Let us take as our basis Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, but set in a real place instead of a Kafka-derived psychological limbo. Those who know this work will get some idea of the sense of a life not quite lived, of the gap between thought and action, of a glass wall of defensive irony, which pervades Timm's novel. They will also get a sense of the artist whose art cannot really help him in the end. But this is only the first step.

Let us imagine, then, that The Unconsoled, reset in Berlin, were to be rewritten by Graham Swift, bringing all his delight in the everyday, his conviction that everyone has, if only once in a lifetime, experienced something extraordinary, and can tell it if we stop to listen. Now we are starting to get there: a picaresque journey through a wild city, peopled with characters who all have something truly arresting to tell, yet whom the narrator never truly manages-or is willing-to engage with.

Now take this imaginary construct and add the perfect satirical ear of an Evelyn Waugh free of snobbery. Maybe Woody Allen, too, at least in the scene where the hero cannot take his eye off the terrifying telephone bill even as he-a storyteller with writer's block-experiences the power of telephone sex storytelling for the first time.

Next, the intellect. Not being British, Timm has the advantage that he can be unabashedly, naturally intellectual without for a moment conjuring up the fatal shades of labradors and Viyella; being a truly educated man rather than a half-baked gentleman autodidact (he was a time-served furrier in the trade before attending university in Munich and Paris), Timm flings off on every page the kind of ideas that our would-be "intellectual" authors tease out ad nauseam, fearful lest we miss the evidence of their erudition. The metaphorical level, on which Timm is writing about writing itself and the impossibility of language and stories ever truly preserving the transient beauty of sensual experience, is so utterly integrated that those used to having their metaphors signposted for them can easily read the story without noticing this subterranean theme; until, that is, the sudden, deeply affecting turn in the last chapters. In this best of senses, Timm is as continental as you could wish. So let us add a little Kundera to the mix.

Finally, and decisively, the poetry. This is what carries the whole novel: at any moment he chooses-and he chooses with a true sense of the balance between epic and lyric-Timm can dazzle you by the reality of his descriptions. Our 50-something hero feels long dormant erotic yearnings as he chats to a 20-year-old girl (or boy); much later, while eating a hot curry soup at a rave party and sharing the spoon with her (or him), he tastes his companion's black lipstick on the spoon under the spices. At such moments, the lyric writer in Timm (his first publications were poems) has the resources to break down that glass wall and put us as truly there as we are with Leopold Bloom on his wanderings.

The novel is full of fleeting memories of Germany's own great tradition. From beginning to end there are echoes of Death in Venice-it is almost as if Timm has written an anti-Death in Venice, in fact. In the end, the all too visceral reality of the new Berlin, in all its danger and ambiguous fascination, is too much: the narrator flees. He becomes the true heir of an uncle whose last, mysterious words have haunted him from the start-a quintessentially German romantic "no-good layabout," but one whose life we now see to have been secretly dominated by an ancient political defeat. This defeat occurred, at the turn of the last century, on the border of Prussia, that semi-western land which has now come back to the comfortably truncated liberal Germany of the postwar dispensation.

So there you have it. Something of Ishiguro's gentle tragedy of transience combined with the just- magic realism of Swift, the bite of Waugh, the frank sexual comedy of Woody Allen, the intellectual range of Kundera and the total sensual recall of Joyce-all wrapped up, like the Reichstag itself, in the neatest of structures, with enough historical meat and literary intertextuality to fill several PhDs. And presented as an irresistible, deceptively light narrative by a fine storyteller.

But now from the imagination to the balder realms of fact: I have tried to give some notion of Timm's book to those who will not yet have read it, but unless you are American (New Directions are bringing it out shortly), "yet" is too hopeful a word-no one in Britain has any plans to publish it. I suppose that all we Brits ever wanted from Europe was the odd year in Provence.

Uwe Timm

K?ln: Kippenheuer & Witsch