Peirene Press is doing an amazing job of creating a space for themselves in the world of books as a publisher of punchy, meaty and memorable translations of short European fiction. The Mussel Feast is the second of their books I’ve read and I have been blown away again by the quality of writing, the narrative style and the amount that can be packed into so few pages. Not to mention the beauty of the translation from the original German.
Peirene curate their books by theme; this year’s is Turning Point: Revolutionary Moments. Birgit Vanderbeke wrote her debut, The Mussel Feast (Das Muschelessen), just before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the action mirrors the feeling of revolution that was in the air all over Eastern Europe at that time. She very cleverly uses the idea of a family awaiting the return of a tyrannical father to explore how revolutions starts. I really enjoyed reading it, despite a slightly oppressive overtone, I was desperate for the characters to follow through with their mini revolution, should the opportunity arise.
A mother and her two teenage children await the husband and father who has been away on business and is due to return with good news about his job. All afternoon they have been preparing 4 kilos of mussels, the standard family celebratory meal of choice, although only the favourite of the father. He is uncommonly late, so they wait, and become impatient. While they wait, they begin to talk and soon stories emerge and the three discuss things they’ve never talked of before. None of them seems happy and as the minutes tick by it becomes clear that they would be fine and much more able to relax if the head of the family never returned.
On the surface this is a story of family discontent, three members ruled over by a controlling, unflinching and inflexible father and husband; a patriarchal megalomaniac. He runs his family with a rod of iron, stamping out any misdemeanor before it becomes embedded, controlling through fear and thinking up interesting punishments.
My father regarded flights of fancy as childish, my father stood for sober objectivity and reason, and of course my mother showed consideration for his objectivity and reason, conforming and switching to wifey mode when he came home….You see we all had to switch for my father, to become a proper family, as he called it, because he hadn’t had a family, but he had developed the most detailed notions of what a proper family should be like, and he could be extremely sensitive if you undermined these notions. (pgs 17 & 22)
Looking a little deeper at the wife and children’s unhappiness and their murmurings of dissent having finally found safety in numbers, you begin to see the similarities of their microcosm rebellion with a much larger revolution, the snowball effect of losing all fear in community and togetherness. It becomes a commentary on the wave of revolution that flowed across Eastern Europe, gathering speed until it was battering down the Berlin wall and knocking on the very symbol of German separation, the Brandenburg gate itself. Because of her observation on “die Wende”, Vanderbeke’s book has been a staple on the German school curriculum for some years.
Its place on that curriculum might also have something to do with its unusual form. It is narrated by the teenaged daughter in one, sometimes breathless, paragraph (which is why I think the translation is amazing, Jamie Bulloch has done an great job with this text). This structure gives the whole thing much more of a confessional feel, a means of catharsis or even a testimony. It makes for interesting reading, just make sure you don’t get distracted and lose your place – this form makes it more difficult to find where you were! It shouldn’t be too much of an issue as you can read the The Mussel Feast, like all of Peirene’s titles, in one sitting.
So my advice would be; make a pot of coffee, find a quiet corner and get stuck in!
Thank you to Peirene Press for sending me this copy.