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Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Alexander Pechmann’s ‘Die Zehnte Muse’

A neo-gothic novella dripping with creepy.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Die zehnte Muse by Alexander Pechmann

Synopsis

It’s 1905 (or is it?) and Paul Severin, a gnostic painter, sits on a train through the Black Forest. His ultimate goal is a small village where he once met a mysterious girl called Talitha by a pond in a clearing in the woods. On the train, another young(ish) man starts speaking to him, by the name of Algernon Blackwood. He spent years at a boy’s boarding school in the same village, and is also heading back to find out what happened to this mysterious girl who seems more like a woodland nymph than anything human. It turns out that they met the same girl twenty years apart, and she hadn’t aged a day. The story is in the late 19th century Gothic tradition- laced with folklore, the supernatural, quaint language, curses, boarding schools, art, philosophy and middle-class men. The author, Pechmann, is a translator from English specialising in 19th century novels. It’s not surprising that his writing shows clear traces of this literary style and moment.

Highlights

The story is short (around 170 pages) and it felt rather compact. It didn’t waste any time. At the same time, it was so dense that I sometimes had to re-read whole pages, especially because Pechmann uses shifting times and perspectives to his advantage. This book is unapologetically clear as mud, and you have to love it for what it is.

There was a huge amount of references among the pages, ranging from occultist and late 19th century symbolism and spiritualism in Paris, to Yenish travellers, old Black Forest folklore, theology, Gnostic philosophy and art history. I love my art, but I don’t particularly love philosophy or theology. Although it felt like there was a reference embedded every other sentence, they were deftly woven into the story so it never felt like too much. It never felt like Pechmann was laying it on too thick or showing off his knowledge for the sake of it. At the same time, I think it would be difficult to love this book if you are not an art lover or interested in the supernatural, the theology isn’t quite so important.

However, as a translator, I absolutely adored the passage detailing Severin’s experiences in the bookshop where he re-examines a passage in the Bible in German translation and in its Greek original, which explains the Biblical Talitha’s resurrection from the dead. I thought to myself, this would be difficult to translate if the words chosen aren’t as controversial in English versions, and wow, this is how you incorporate a translation problem into a novel. Interpreting a single verb in a positive or negative light could hold the key to unlocking the mystery of Talitha. I would then be trying to translate a passage about a translation problem? Very meta.

I absolutely loved the supernatural elements to the story. Talitha is never quite explained, she’s some kind of immortal/possibly human dead/alive ghost/vampire Yenish girl who seems to be able to induce timeslips by her mere presence? I still wasn’t sure after finishing the book, and I think I’ll have to read it again to make my mind up. I am a huge fan of a good ghost or horror story, and while this was certainly creepy, it was never gory and it never felt cheap.

The Yenish elements in the story were also incredibly enjoyable. It can feel like such a stereotype to cast a gypsy (I am half Romani, and for me, gypsy is not offensive, so I’m using it, suck it up) girl as ‘mysterious’ and ‘other’, but Severin’s Yenish background lessened the othering to me to an acceptable level. His own experience (and being able to speak her language) helped Talitha to open up, and he ultimately possibly ‘freed’ her. Nothing in this book is particularly certain.

And lastly, Pechmann’s handling of languages was beautiful. He’s a linguist himself, and I only really think multilingual authors actually do justice to language barriers in books. So many authors skim over language barriers without addressing them or turning them into an opportunity for narrative play (while I’m sitting there thinking, hey, how come this white settler is communicating with this Native American chief without any communication errors or grammatical differences, either the settler is speaking fluent Cherokee or the chief is speaking fluent, idiomatic English, neither of which is particularly likely seeing as its the 1700s and these groups do not have much contact. I think I’m going to put this book down and find another one now.). So I was so jazzed to read a book which really maximises language differences. There’s a smattering of English in there, as well as French, Yenish and Black Forest dialects, all of which lead to miscommunications and puzzles. Yay languages!

Lowlights

There are few lowlights for me, but the persistent male gaze is probably my only problem with the book. I get it, 19th century literature was obsessed with beautiful, mysterious ‘muses’ who turned out to be really flat characters, but I’m not sure if this novel is subverting or challenging this at all rather than just perpetuating it. In places, it felt very boyishly Old Etonian in its objectification of the only female character. She is their inspiration, their muse. She doesn’t mind getting naked and swimming around in the woodland pond amongst the waterlilies. She’s flighty, ethereal and doesn’t speak much. She’s a male fantasy. Is this still okay, or is this just tired? An overdone trope? Or is Pechmann satirising this fantasy – it’s all in their heads, she doesn’t actually exist? I can’t decide.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: Franziska Schöneberger’s “Tausche Dirndl Gegen Sari”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Tausche Dirndl gegen Sari von Franziska Schönenberger, Stefanie Ramb

This book was cute. I would have given it four stars, but I deducted half a star for the absolutely terrible title. The cover design is great though, so I’m certain whoever designed the cover certainly didn’t come up with the title too, which literally means “swap a Dirndl for a Sari”. A Dirndl is a tradition Germanic women’s costume recognisable to Brits and Americans only due to Oktoberfest. Yes, that apron-dress thingy with ample cleavage (although traditionally, not so much ample cleavage).

So, you could tell from the get-go that it was going to be a light read. It’s also co-(possibly ghost?)written by Stefanie Ramb, as Schöneberger is more of a filmmaker than a writer. The premise is pretty simple: It’s the real-life story of a Bavarian woman who ends up marrying a south Indian man, and the bureaucratic, cultural and logistical hurdles which they overcame in the process. It’s a touching story which focuses on their personal romance, so for better or worse, not much else comes into it, apart from Franziska’s journey from film student to filmmaker. The book contains illustrations drawn by Franziska’s husband, Jayakrishnan, which did help me to conceptualise the characters and added another personal touch. The book isn’t very long (under 300 pages), so I finished it in just over two days.

At times, I find the character of Jay a bit flat and infuriatingly passive. The scenes where Franziska meets Jay’s Tamil parents for the first time is arguably the most interesting in the book, and it’s full of tension and subtext. Jay has traditional Indian parents who would have much preferred to have arranged a marriage for him with a Hindu Tamil girl. Franziska, a Catholic Bavarian, is possibly the exact opposite of what they had hoped for in a daughter-in-law. However, instead of jumping in to help smooth over the awkwardness between his parents and his girlfriend, Jay says absolutely nothing during the whole scene, effectively throwing Franziska under the culture-clash bus. I found his reserve and self-retreat at times bordering on selfish. The meeting was filmed, and the book is actually based on the storyline of the documentary film (Amma & Appa) they were making at the same time. The film was a moderate success in India and Germany after its release, but hasn’t yet been released with an English voiceover or subtitles. And yes, Jay really is that passive in real life. But that’s not really an issue with the book, it did just leave me wondering why Franziska bothered moving heaven and earth to marry this guy.

Because the book is based on their documentary film, I found it really insightful and entertaining to watch the trailers on YouTube after I finished the book so I could re-experience the exact scenes they were describing. The descriptions of India and Indian culture in the book are one of its highlights – I’m also fascinated by India as a multicultural country of extremes, both steeped in history and brimming with contradictions. The heat, the sounds, the smells, the religious festivals and the people are beautifully described, and many scenes are both heartwarming and disturbing. One of the chapters which stuck in my mind the most was when Franziska accidentally gives herself third degree burns whilst showering (the boilers have no temperature controls) and had to go to the hospital. The male doctor refuses to examine her chest area and Franziska has to wait hours to see the only female doctor in the hospital. After Jay appears, one of the doctors insists they have to notify the police of the incident. They explain that it’s surprisingly common for men to arrange for their fiancees to have an accident in which they get horrifically burned in order to bargain for a bigger dowry with the woman’s family. The chilling logic behind it all is this: if a woman is scarred and her looks are therefore ruined, the prospective husband can demand more money for taking her off her family’s hands anyway, as she has effectively become worthless. These more disturbing passages are mixed in with the more lighthearted ones. I really enjoyed the passage where Franziska is getting ready for her second wedding ceremony in Tamil Nadu- the process of henna’ing, waxing, styling, dressing and make-up takes days, and the women at the salon are among the friendliest and most hospitable Franziska has ever met.

Overall, this was a quick and enjoyable read which sagged in some places. The book starts off fairly weakly with the usual travelogue spiel ‘I was always fascinated by India…’, and gets much better towards the end where the culture clash intensifies and more is at stake.