This year I did read quite a few shorter works as well as a very large number of independently published books. From the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist came Birgit Vanderbeke’s “The Mussel Feast” (translated by Jamie Bullock). A work 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” and one that has “been translated into all major European languages”. It took 23 years before somebody picked it up, translated it into English and released it in Britain. A worthy inclusion on the Prize shortlist and one I personally rank slightly higher than the seventh book on my favourite list, “The Sorrow of Angels”.
This is a very short work (105 pages) and contains only thirteen paragraphs, it is one that you can sit down and read from start to finish without even having to make yourself another coffee.
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.
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;
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.
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.