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Off to the countryside. The provinces as a new literary protagonist

Kreißler, Hansen, Randl, Zeh
© mairisch, © Penguin, © Matthes & Seitz, © Luchterhand

Authors such as Juli Zeh (Unterleuten, ‘Unterleuten’) and Dörte Hansen (Mittagsstunde, ‘Noon’) were already blazing the trail some years ago by focusing their novels on life in the countryside. This trend is now firmly established in contemporary literature, with numerous books appearing this year that centre on life in the provinces, but highlight it from drastically different perspectives: that of people fleeing from big-city life, of people whose families have lived in the countryside for generations, of those who are returning after a long absence in search of answers.

The longing for a peaceful life is at the heart of Lisa Kreissler’s novel Schreie & Flüstern (‘Screams and whispers’; Mairisch Verlag). Vera, a writer, Claus, a painter, and their son Siggi unexpectedly inherit a large sum of money. They decide to give up their life in Leipzig and buy an old farm in the West German provinces. But while Claus enjoys their new freedom, Vera finds the solitude difficult to cope with, and can forge a new relationship with nature only by becoming pregnant again. The ambivalences occasioned by country life that are hinted at here may well be very familiar to the author Lisa Kreissler herself, living as she does on an old farm in Lower Saxony.

The film director and writer Lola Randl lives in a village in the Uckermark district of Brandenburg. She too deals with village life in her new novel Angsttier (‘The Bogy-Beast’; Matthes & Seitz), in which she sends writer Jakob and his girlfriend Friedel in search of a house in the country. As already intimated by the novel’s title, their clichéd expectations of idyllic country-cottage life are soon turned upside down. After being attacked by wild animals, Jakob descends into a kind of madness that is described by Lola Randl only in very abstract terms. The protagonists’ longing for tranquillity and contentment remains unfulfilled, and their life in the village turns instead into a nightmare.

In Mirjam Wittig’s novel An der Grasnarbe (‘Scrubland’; Suhrkamp Verlag), which in places comes across as distinctly poetical, Noa, the first-person  narrator, undergoes rather less drastic experiences. In the big city, Noa suffers badly from panic attacks, but by guarding sheep and planting vegetables in the French countryside she seeks to get a better rapport with her own thought processes, and the change in location does at least afford her a beneficial change of perspective.

Whereas Schreie & Flüstern, Angsttier and An der Grasnarbe all tell of people who pine for rural life and the prospect of nature and self-renewal that it seems to portend, the protagonists of two other novels are driven by unresolved issues back to the villages of their childhood and youth. One of them is the protagonist in Johannes Laubmeier’s partly autobiographical debut novel Das Marterl (‘The shrine’; Klett-Cotta Verlag). Ten years after the death of his father in an accident, the narrator, Johannes, returns to his home village in Lower Bavaria, driven by the desire to immerse himself once again in the past. As the story develops, his fresh impressions of the once so familiar environment mesh with portrayals of the past as he remembers it, which results in his acquiring a sensitively handled and clearer understanding of the tragic loss of his father.

Achten, Schulz, Laubmeier, Wittig © Piper, © Hanser, © Klett-Cotta, © Suhrkamp

In Willi Achten’s novel Rückkehr (‘Return’; Piper Verlag), Jakov Kilv goes back to his home village in Bavaria’s Lower Alps region after an absence of almost twenty-five years. Here too, re-encountering former friends and girl-friends, not least Liv, the big love of his early years, brings many memories back to life, especially of their last summer together, which had ended in a fire that caused the death of one of their friends. And so the first-person  narrator finds himself confronted once again with the question of who was responsible for what happened.

Two other novels demonstrate how it is possible to revisit one’s childhood and youth purely through one’s own recollections. In Wir waren wie Brüder (‘We were like brothers’; Hanser, Berlin), the journalist Daniel Schulz describes the era of the 1990s in Brandenburg immediately following the Wende, a period marked by unemployment, right-wing violence and insecurity. The novel Nullerjahre (‘The noughties’; Kiepenheuer & Witsch)  by Hendrik Bolz, otherwise known as Rapper Testo, also deals with this period of drastic change. In a dramatic diction shot through with pop-cultural references, Bolz uses this autobiographical book to recount his youth on the Stralsund estate of prefabricated housing known as ‘Knieper West’. With their grippingly personal accounts of the post-Wende era in the East German provinces Daniel Schulz and Hendrik Bolz fill a previously yawning gap in German literature.

However, the ‘countryside’ doesn’t necessarily always imply an alluring idyll or a projection surface for a character’s memories: occasionally it just happens to be the focal point of a protagonist’s life. Thus Sven Pfizenmaier is disinclined to describe his novel Draussen feiern die Leute (‘People are partying outside’; Kein und Aber Verlag) as a ‘provincial novel’, despite the fact that the book is set in a village between Hanover and Celle. Pfizenmaier’s authorial interest is focused chiefly on three young adults who find themselves at the mercy of their own unusual and highly diverse characteristics. In addition, both in this village in Lower Saxony and in the countryside as a whole, young people start disappearing, with the result that the novel gradually morphs into a mystical thriller.

Bolz, Pfizenmaier, Bilkau, Kaiser-Mühlecker © KiWi, © Kein & Aber, © Luchterhand, © S. Fischer

In her novel Nebenan (‘Next door’; Luchterhand Verlag), which is characterised throughout by a spooky atmosphere, Kristine Bilkau depicts a small village on the Kiel Canal where two women called Julia and Astrid live. As well as evoking the existential crises affecting the two women, Bilkau also focuses on the large number of empty dwellings in the nearby main town, and the sudden disappearance of a village family.

The writer Reinhard Kaiser-Mühlecker has previously been labelled the ‘chronicler of country life’, and his new book, too, is characterised by a gloomily melancholic overall tone. In Wilderer (‘Poacher’; Fischer Verlag) he depicts a collision between the different worlds of ‘town’ and ‘country’, as personified in the young farmer Jakob and the Salzburg artist Katja, who meet on an online dating platform and go on to share their lives.

A striking feature of this new genre of German-language literature about provincial life is that it frequently associates country life with an ominous atmosphere, with no sense of it promising a path to paradise. It’s almost as if today’s authors were determined to break with the one-dimensional cliché of carefree country life. For just as life outside towns is in reality highly multifarious, so too life in current variations of the ‘village novel’ is being depicted as hugely diverse. And as a result contemporary German-language literature is acquiring some interesting new dimensions.

Sally-Charell Delin is a journalist, presenter and reviewer at Saarland Radio. She presents book readings, the chat show ‘Literature in conversation’, and the podcast ‘Tabula rasa - Out with taboos’. She concentrates chiefly on culture, society, and new German-language literature.

Translated by John Reddick

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