Back to Back – Julia Franck (translated by Anthea Bell) – Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014


What can I do? I can’t do anything. What do I want? I don’t want anything. What am I? I’m nothing. Ella was crying.

I’ve been dwelling over this review for four or five days. What do I write? I can’t write anything. How do I explain my silence? I can’t say anything. To me this was a most harrowing journey. And I’m not talking about the subject matter here.
Narratively it’s quite simple, we have siblings Ella and Thomas, unloved by their sculptor mother Kathe, being left to fend for themselves weeks at a time at a really young age, and highly dependent upon each other, their father has been long gone. They live in East Germany and no end of turmoil comes into their lives.

Ella shook her head. She didn’t remember much, but she did remember that she had lied. For herself and for Thomas. She had said their father tossed her up in the air. But that was nothing but her made up picture, she saw a man tossing a little girl up in the air. So it couldn’t be true. If it had been her, she wouldn’t see the little girl in her memory, she would feel the dizziness of being whirled around, she would remember her father’s arms. But there was no such memory. Only a physical memory of being in the way. Her body, what Ella was and would be, was in the way. I was in their way.
Our main protagonist here is Thomas, he dreams of a future, even if that will never be realised, Ella plainly just exists and their mother is building a new future under the regime, where everybody is “equal”, she sculpts the heroes, but is incapable of loving her own children. Ella is consistently sexually abused and raped by the lodger (who works for the “party”), she sleeps under her bed, Thomas although younger finishes school before her and is bullied in his new job breaking rocks (on the path to becoming a geologist) and more and more and more.
I thought the structure of the novel, the stripped back language, the intermittent poetry, the bare bones of a structure was a sculpture taking place. I thought maybe the characters represented East and West Germany. I thought there was references to Shakespeare. I thought so much, but nothing was delivered.
One, two, three, four, no Seigfried and no Johnny, no one had turned up at Ella’s new apartment in Kopenick on Saturday, no Michael and no Violetta. Eight, nine, perhaps she had only imagined the invitations and never asked anyone out loud, ten. Ella wobbled, regained her balance and went on. Eleven, twelve, around midnight, tired of waiting, she had gone to sleep. Only next day, on Sunday, had she gone to Rahnsdorf to see Thomas. Why didn’t you come? She knew he had the note, he couldn’t talk his way out of that, she had invited him, she’d even put it in writing. Fifteen, sixteen, or had she counted plant number fifteen twice? Eighteen, nineteen. Why hadn’t he come to celebrate and dance with her? Twenty, twenty-one, he usually liked to be with her. Twenty-three. He had tried over the last two months, tried hard with her when she couldn’t remember a figure or a name, let alone a date. Twenty-five. A fire salamander was lying on the rails in front of her, basking in the sun, Ella wobbled again, she didn’t want to alarm the salamander, she got down into the grass and crouched beside the rail, stretched her hand out and waited. The salamander would come. Bubbles in her head, and blue elephants, they didn’t need formulas or correct spelling.
To me this makes no sense, there are unrequired words (of course the next day is Sunday, she’d just referred to Saturday, she can’t remember giving him the note, but of course he’s got the note). And that is just a short example of the whole novel. It is not really stream of consciousness, in my mind it is a mishmash, and with a very simple plot line. Of course tragic but when you have no real depth of character and you can’t associate with any of them it just washed over me.
What part was Thomas trying out? A strong and desperate one? When something felt strange to him he would resort to disguise, to dissembling. Madness never took him in its grasp. The madness was hers alone. Picklydipack shnucklesuck. Magic words, spoken only to herself, with no echo, bringing no happiness. What was he afraid of, what did grief and disgust mean to him?
Apologies here for my lack of understanding, I am sure a number of people will be able to draw parallels to other works, will probably get the metaphor, will probably see the whole Socialist structure. I just didn’t get it and was glad when the final page was turned. Even the poetry had no metre and was a huge distraction.

Not a novel that I’ll be revisiting.

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6 thoughts on “Back to Back – Julia Franck (translated by Anthea Bell) – Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

  1. Hmm, not encouraging 😉 I'm just waiting for my copy to arrive. With my German background, perhaps I'll enjoy this a little more (I know that was the case with Judith Hermann's 'Alice' a couple of years back).

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  2. Oops, just checked my library holds–it's on the way so it's my next up. I too have some German background–lived in the west in the 1980s. We'll see if it helps, but this sounds messy.

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  3. Please don't let me distract from your reading, you may find heaps more in this than I did (as I'm sure it's there). I did enjoy Alice from the 2012 list (not as much as “From The Mouth of The Whale” or “New Finnish Grammar” that year).

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  4. I have just begun this, and so I will have to come back to comment in a knowledgeable way. I'm reading as fast as I can, and so far I like it. I lived in Germany for two years while the wall was still up between East and West. I can already feel sympathy for the characters from that experience…

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