The Mussel Feast – Birgit Vanderbeke (translated by Jamie Bulloch) – Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

Pardon my ignorance here, but how can a “modern German classic” one that “won the most prestigious German-language literature award, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize”, that was first published in 1990 and “has not been out of print since”, one that has “been translated into all major European languages”, take 23 years before somebody picks it up, translates it into English and releases it in Britain? What is going on here?  Surely such honoured works don’t just slip into oblivion for English readers? It does make you think, “How many untranslated masterpieces are sitting out there?” I could go into the merits of the Best Translated Book Award that doesn’t restrict their winner to being “alive” but may be another time. I should simply thank the independent publisher Peirene Press for bringing this work to life in English. www.peirenepress.com

The 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize features a number of short works and “The Mussel Feast” is yet another. Weighing in at 105 pages and 13 paragraphs (yes that is not a typo the book has thirteen paragraphs) it is a work that you feel you could knock over simply in one sitting.
Our story starts with our young (teenage?) narrator, via a monologue, explaining the process of cleaning mussels, because they’re having a feast, a celebration for their father as he’s about to return from a business trip. “We would always have mussels to celebrate a special occasion” but her and her mother don’t “care for them much”. On the surface a simple feast preparation for a normal family (there is a brother) about to celebrate the father’s potential promotion and his home-coming. Just like a mussel, strong, solid, shiny on the outside, resilient.
But soon our monologue reveals the true darkness of the family, the mussels begin to open. We are slowly led into the bleak world of a “normal family” that has moved from the East and settled in West Berlin. Even the pot that contains the mussel feast has a tale. As our night unfolds, and the ritual hour of the home-coming passes and hours tick away we slowly peel back the layers of this “proper family”:
We no longer liked being a proper family, as he called it. In truth we didn’t see ourselves as a proper family. Everything in our lives revolved around us having to behave as if we were a proper family, as my father pictured a family to be because he hadn’t had one himself and so didn’t know what a proper family was, although he’d developed the most detailed notions of what one was like; and while he sat in his office we played at being this, even though we’d far rather have let our hair down than be a proper family.
As the monologue continues we are drawn further into the horrors of this family unit, the omnipotent father has still not arrived but their uncomfortableness of him being all knowing, all seeing restricts their openness. As the hours tick by the special Spatlese starts to take effect and the revelations speed up, the honesty also opens up and the horrors become more revealing. Time seems to speed up too. The fully open mussels are now there for all to see, in all their resplendent colour, but because of the time, they’re ruined.
This is a moving and bleak tale of emotional and domestic violence, of manipulation and creation, a story where I had to double take and think…“have I ever said anything like that”? Dad’s come home from a long hard day, he just needs a bit of a rest…..
My father talked to my mother about his week at the office, whereas my mother didn’t talk to my father about her week at school, because the office was important and worth more than school.
The impressions that parents behaviour, actions and words makes on young children is all to the fore here, simple acts like discussing the next holiday are shown to be power struggles and with a domineering father in charge there is only going to be one outcome.
I don’t want to reveal too much of the family interactions and the opening up as the hours tick by and there is no father at the feast, I want to leave that startling unravelling to you as a potential reader. But I dare you to not be moved by the innocence, the acceptance of abnormal behaviour, and the reluctance to address it.
A book written just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it shows the relentless ambition of the Eastern bloc settlers, their shame of their past, their need to create a “proper family”, what it means to keep up appearances at all costs, the relentless pursuit of promotion and the emotional and physical neglect that comes as baggage. A very moving book indeed.
Another amazing work that’s appeared on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list (and now on both the Shadow Jury and the official shortlist) this is a book that every parent should read, even if it makes you simply think about the impact your day to day interactions with each other has on the children.

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One thought on “The Mussel Feast – Birgit Vanderbeke (translated by Jamie Bulloch) – Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

  1. Yes, this one definitely deserves its place on the IFFP shortlist (my review's just gone up on Naomi's blog). Such a powerful and ultimately heartening narrative, and it stands up to a second reading too. I definitely noticed more subtleties second time around.

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