Pregnant and far from home, the unnamed narrator of The German Room exists in a strange state of unreality: drifting through her time in Heidelberg, a city that looks like something out of a fairytale, apparently numb, yet nevertheless riddled with anxiety about planes crashing, or the old Nazi at the next table across from her, and collapsing at night into “a bed fit for an exiled princess, a fake student, a solitary tourist, a refugee”. She’s an emblem of a generation whose inner life no longer matches its exterior, and The German Room probes that disconnect over and over in bold, disconcerting ways.
The novel’s plot is difficult to describe – if it really has one at all. Much like in Lost in Translation, what matters more than plot here is atmosphere, the hazy, gauzy world that Carla Maliandi creates. That’s not to say that nothing happens, but with a couple of exceptions, the story’s major events are pretty small-scale: instead we have threads and motifs circling around a central theme of disconnection. So, after the suicide of one of her acquaintances, the narrator goes to the girl’s room and is staggered by the amount of stuff inside – all of it generic, “two cameras, a mobile phone, a laptop, an iPod, an iPad, an e-book reader, a portable DVD player”, ultimately telling her nothing about who the girl really was. It epitomises the challenge of trying to know anybody at all.
Maliandi’s willingness to jettison narrative convention can at times be frustrating: people drift into the narrator’s life, attaching themselves to her, with little apparent fanfare or drama. Another Argentinian student, known as “the Tucomano”, tries to draw the narrator back into a culture she’s escaped from; an old friend from her home, the professor Mario, shows the ties of family. And Mrs Takahashi, the mother of her suicidal friend who refuses to leave after her daughter’s death, haunts the narrative like a spectre, a visible emblem of what the narrator is trying to forget. It’s highly unusual and stylised, but the distance it creates at times makes the novel feel a little intellectual, even chilly.
Where the novel really excels is in its creation of a dreamlike atmosphere. At times it reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s divisive book The Unconsoled, one that similarly sticks to its own internal logic. Arguably it’s because everything in the novel carries an equal weight – Shanice’s suicide, the visit that the Tucomano’s sister takes to a sinister psychic, the narrator’s pregnancy – which cleverly echoes the sensation of being depressed, where it’s all but impossible to tell what one should focus on. So when the narrator gets lost in the streets and has to call the Tucomano to lead her back home, or when she falls asleep and dreams of a strange, extended theatre performance that concludes with her committing hari-kari, or when she sits in a café and watches a small dog that’s been taught to dance, we ask, as she does, what does it all mean?
Occasionally, as towards the end, something horrifying breaks through the surface. A redacted letter from a lover imprisoned in a place called ‘the cave’, has just a few phrases remaining: “regret”, “hell” and “pass out”. A formerly composed and polite woman breaks down in a crowded restaurant, ends up blubbering on one of the dining tables in a language the narrator doesn’t understand. For the most part, though, the narrator is not knocked off course by these strange events, events that in another novel might be seismic. All of which emphasises her oddness, and the novel’s: we know something of her from what she tells us, but it’s almost as though we’re being held at arm’s length. Arguably we learn more about from what types of things notices, the way she acts.
The whole book is strange, haunting and brave. It’s a piece of writing that demands to be read slowly (probably more slowly than reviewing allows), and one that will linger long after reading. It will not give up its answers easily, and like a piece of abstract art, everyone will likely see something different in it. Whatever the case, it’s quite an achievement.
The German Room is published by Edinburgh’s Charco Press. It’s £8.99 from their website in Paperback, and as ever it’s as beautiful to look at as it is to read.
Direct sales make the most money for a publisher, so it’s worth shelling out a few extra pennies and buying direct. Alternatively, Foyles have it for £9.99.
You should also follow Charco Press on Twitter here. They’re one of the most exciting publishers working in the UK today. Nicola Sturgeon agrees.
Thanks to Charco Press for sending a free copy of The German Room for review.