As if there were another one of me
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.
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.
Fifteen-year-old Morten, known as Motte, gets a call – and afterwards nothing in his life is ever the same again. Suddenly, his best friend Bogi is very sick. But that’s just one of the heart-shattering explosions that happen to Motte that year, turning his life upside-down. Soon afterwards Jacqueline rides past him on a roadster and the next shockwave runs its course.
Between these two extremes – the possibility of death and the possibility of love – events come to a head increasingly, get out of hand and leave Motte face-to-face with unfamiliar, painful challenges. But, at the right moment, the right people are by Motte’s side, doing just the right thing. And he himself faces things bravely head-on, with a keen eye and dry sense of humor.
(Text: Kiepenheuer & Witsch Verlag)