Category: Children's Books

Matthias Brandt
Blackbird
[Blackbird]

Novel

As if there were another one of me

One fateful day, fifteen-year-old Morten - Motte, to his friends - receives a telephone call to say that his best friend Bogi has been taken to hospital with cancer of the lymph nodes. For him, it is as if “a huge ‘but’ had fallen from the sky”. All of a sudden, Motte’s life is turned on its head - and while Motte tries to suppress the truth and carries on hoping that everything will come good, the reader already knows that Bogi is going to die.
 
That said, Matthias Brandt’s novel isn’t a sad book. Bogi’s illness only really appears in the margins of the novel, as Motte very rarely visits the hospital. Motte is unable to adopt any kind of relaxed or sympathetic mode of being vis-à-vis his friend, preferring instead to avoid him. As a result, of course, he feels horrendously guilty. This dark backdrop of illness serves particularly clearly to illuminate the novel’s central theme: the trials and tribulations of puberty.
 
The first-person narrative throws us head-first into the full-on chaos of Motte’s puberty. A typical teenage boy, he is full of bluster about crazy friends and failed dates, hideously embarrassing parents and Nazi-type teachers. He swaggers around, talking about getting drunk, having sex, music, late 70s films, and the kinds of laddish escapades that characterise teenage boys. The readers sense, smells, feels and tastes this time with him, even if they weren’t there themselves. This is because Matthias Brandt’s accurate recollections (he was born in 1961), his precise descriptions and his pointed tone together create a intensive and dense portrait of a generation and a panorama of an entire era.
 
The author conveys his protagonist with immense sensitivity and, equally, with subtle humour. Motte has a lot to deal with. Not only his friend’s illness and his parents’ divorce, but also his first forays into romance (sometimes with more success, and other times with less). He is, above all, incomprehensible to himself. He is unable to fathom why he feels so little empathy for his dying friend: “In fact, I was a bit pissed off with him, because I just wanted to have my old life back, including him. Bogi.” Motte isn’t just a master of suppression, but also a master of self-observation, self-reflection, self-analysis. Thus he stands there as if next to himself, “as if there were another one of me”. Thoughts course through his brain which he would rather not have; feelings arise which he doesn’t understand; shame and anger alternate within him. This is sometimes funny, sometimes touching, and always totally convincing. For puberty involves feeling alienated from oneself and slowly trying to put oneself back together again, from a mass of previously unknown experiences.
 
 
This isn’t the only reason why the literary depiction of puberty (or the ‘Coming of Age’ novel) is beyond complicated. However, Matthias Brandt’s novel stands on a par with such iconic novels in this category as Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Tschick. The author - well known for his highly subtle acting skills - manages to find his own unique voice, hitting all the right notes: sometimes flippant, sometimes poetic; sometimes round-the-houses, sometimes direct; sometimes serious, sometimes full of deliberately clichéd rhetoric. It might not be the tone of a man in his 60s, but it’s the tone of a man who remembers what it’s like to be young. And this adult narrator ‘outs’ himself every now and then behind the teenager’s back, in careful hints and inconspicuous changes of tempo. A narrative ruse which gives the novel even more depth and meaning. And which also makes it impossible - and unnecessary - to work out whether this is supposed to be a novel for teenagers or for adults.
 
The novel’s ambiguous title, Blackbird, is a quotation from a Beatles song. However, it simultaneously alludes to the Kosovan ‘Blackbird Fields’ sweet red wine, which the boys imbibe in copious amounts (and regurgitate too, in equal quantities). ‘Blackbird’, however, signifies even more than this: it is also the little bird in the tree outside Bogi’s sick-room. It is black and free, a tender embodiment of sadness and levity. Life will carry on.
Sylvia Schwab

By Sylvia Schwab, 20.02.2020

​Sylvia Schwab is a radio journalist with a special interest in literature for children and teenagers. She serves on the jury for the monthly ‘Best 7’ list of books for young readers produced under the aegis of Deutschlandfunk and Focus, and works for Hessischer Rundfunk, Deutschlandfunk and Deutschlandradio-Kultur.

Translated by Helena Ragg-Kirkby