Similar but different
A long time ago, when I was doing my PhD, my greatest fear was not that I would not finish it, but that I would suddenly find after a couple of years that someone else was ahead of me in looking into my area of research and what had seemed an original idea would suddenly be blown out of the water. Back then, checking such things on the internet was still in its relative infancy so there was an element of crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. It turned out that nobody else seemed to have been interested in East German journalists so I was fine.
Fast forward a couple of decades and now I’m just hoping that someone hasn’t had a too similar idea to me for a novel.
Then I came across Fiona Rintoul’s The Leipzig Affair.
East Germany in the 80s, a Westerner going there to university, an East German linguist desperate to escape to the West, and some pretty unpleasant Stasi people along the way.
Phew. Not even superficial similarities unless you think that every story set in the same country will be the same.
So, what of the novel?
The most striking element from the start was that half of it is written from the second person perspective. ‘You see this,’ ‘you walk there,’ and so on. It’s not for me and there’s a good reason it’s used so sparingly. Stephen King started Needful Things with the second person perspective and it stood out immediately. I’m struggling to think of anything else I’ve read which uses this perspective. But despite my personal preferences, after a while I got used to the language and it almost faded into the background.
I found it gratifying that Rintoul gives a more nuanced view of East Germany than the all too easy ‘East bad, West good’ cliche. One of her two main characters, Magda, wants to escape because her earlier enthusiasm for the East German system has turned into disillusionment, and she has enough minor characters who are able to argue for what was good in the country to give different perspectives. Her other main character, Robert (Bob), comes from Scotland to Leipzig to study and this allows Rintoul to give an outsider’s view on what the country was like, and what it felt like, including his constant faux pas. She based his experience on her own when she studied in Leipzig in the 80s, which came across as a good dose of authenticity and provided a very different narrative. Another big tick there.
The overall story contained a good number of uncertainties, doubts and machinations to keep me wanting to keep going. The fact that I knew pretty early on what the big reveal at the end was going to be is more because it was probably the one way it could have worked and I read novels with one eye dissecting and the other just reading. Sometimes the reading eye manages to cloud the vision of the analytical one (Gone Girl and Fingersmith spring to mind – both surprised me).
I enjoyed reading something on my home turf and seeing how someone else combined a few facets of the myriad possible stories and created characters and a narrative which worked for me. And which were entirely different from the strands I picked out to tell a different story.
For the non-pedants, you can stop here. For those who have any interest in dealing with writing in one language and setting the book in a country with a different language, I have a couple of additional observations.
Dealing with non-English language is always a question for the author. My impression is that there is an assumption that everyone speaks enough French so that dialogue can have entire sentences with no explanation or translation, even if they are important. I have to say that I find that annoying. When it comes to German, I think it’s right that we ensure the reader understands the German dialogue if we are going to use it, even if we use a phrase particular to an area or time that it hard to render exactly in English. I am less keen on translating street names (which Rintoul does). And if I were translating Edinburgh’s ‘Princes Street’ into German, I would not call it ‘Princes Strasse’ or ‘Prinzenstrasse’ because I think it is clear that it is the name of a place. But that’s my preference. So that’s just my preference. What does get to me is when the language is just wrong. If I’m using another language, I think it behooves me to make sure it is correct. Either I am absolutely sure it’s right from my own knowledge, or I check it with someone. And if I’m translating something into English, it also has to be right. And there was one thing which did annoy me in this novel.
You might know the German word ‘bitte.’ It normally means ‘please.’ But it also means ‘you’re welcome.’ As in, if I pour you a drink, you say ‘danke’ and I say ‘bitte.’ It does not mean ‘please.’ Rintoul has waiters putting a plate of food in front of someone and saying ‘please.’ No. ‘Bitte’ cannot be translated as ‘please’ in that context. What beats me is that Rintoul is a translator from German to English, so I have no idea why she would get this wrong, which means that I don’t think she did get it ‘wrong’ in the sense of not knowing what was correct, but that she consciously chose to use that translation. I just don’t know why because it makes no sense in English.