First published as „Schilf“ 2007 by Schöfling & Co. Verlagsbuchhandlung
Book Review – spoiler alert
Juli Zeh was meant to give a reading from her new book „Nullzeit“ at the Bayreuther Hugendubel last week, May 22. Unfortunately this was cancelled because of illness (some weeks previously - ?). I sincerely hope Juli Zeh is well, because I look forward to reading many more books from her.
The scheduled reading was the catalyst needed to rescue this book out of the attic, which I must have bought in England at a charity shop. I don’t normally read German authors in translation but then I don’t normally resist bargain books of well-known authors, either, and although I haven’t read her before I knew the name.
The first few pages led me to think that the translation was very awkward. I would like to read this in the original, to see to what extent the choppy and abrupt style was the author’s. I was never not aware that this was a translated work. Word choice sometimes jarred. At one point the description “bird-brained” was used, which is a phrase so old-fashioned it broke the rhythm of the book for me. It was probably a literal translation of, “Der hat einen Vogel,” appropriate in the context. Once I’d solved the puzzle of the translation choice, I was able to read on (must confirm this in the original). “Get lost,’ also threw me, and I deduced a “Hau ab.” No one says ‘get lost’ anymore, do they? “Fuck off” would have probably been more authentic, although at one point it is said by an eleven year old. But an eleven year old wouldn’t say “Get lost,” either, would they? I disliked continually weighing the appropriateness/inappropriateness of the vocabulary.
One further comment on the physical properties of the book – it was tightly bound with narrow inner margins, so it was quite difficult to hold with one hand and read. I always had the sensation of aggressively prising it open and reading it afforded little if any physical pleasure.
After a bit the simplicity of the style grew on me and I began to enjoy the plot and characters. The author’s old-fashioned chapter summary seemed to reveal everything before you read it, but this was misleading. The prelapsarian world of the adult ménage a trois is amply portrayed in the opening dinner scene, although the ‘wife’ character, Maike, gets short shrift. The main character, Sebastian, came off as compelling to me; I loved the observations like, “When Oskar was there, he touched her more than usual. This irritates him, but he can’t stop himself.” The relationship between Maike and Oskar is also observed: “Every time Maike’s eyes meet his, their eyes brighten with mutual mockery. A casual observer might even think they are secretly in love.” The absence of cliche kept the prose surprising and carried me along until a truly horrendous situation unfolds and the plot becomes compelling.
Two detectives are introduced: this is rather a welcome contrast to the bizarreness of the crime, as we are on familiar “Tatort” territory with the two eccentric Kommissars and their individualistic crime-solving methods. Rita Skura was a wonderful creation, as was her faithful police officer.
The book has a lot of physics in it: any fellow fan of The Big Bang Theory has been introduced to most of the concepts and I could just about follow along and grasp the differences in philosophy of the two physics professors. However, this was more intuited than actually understood; a brighter person than I (me=Penny) would have gotten more depth and meaning out of these differences.
The German title of the book is “Schilf”, the name of the visiting senior detective, who is Rita Skura’s former instructor at the police academy. Schilf also means ‘reeds’, but any deeper meaning of the name connected to the book passed me by. I found both English titles much superior: the book is called “Free Fall” in the US, and the phrase came up several times. ‘Dark Matter’ seems like a typically British double entendre.
The detectives were very satisfying characters. One thing I couldn’t understand was Schilf’s devotion to Sebastian’s family. Schilf was quite taken with Sebastian’s wife, Maike, but she never came alive as a character for me. She was described as a beauty, she was a gallery owner, but in the dinner scene she is completely the ‘little woman’, making and serving the dinner and responsible for managing the child, Liam. Maike and Sebastian’s relationship seemed boring to me and not necessarily worth saving.
I admit that the last scene of the book did nothing for me and did not truly resolve the story. I was more interested in potential prison sentences, time received, etc. However, it seemed to satisfy the author.
Generally, I found it a brilliantly conceived book and I would recommend it. I am eager to read it in German, as I think I will enjoy it much more.
What did you think of this book? Did you also feel the style was abrupt at first? Have you ever read Angels and Eagles by Juli Zeh? Anything else? Have you seen the Big Bang theory in German? Who agrees with me that it loses a lot in the translation?