What I’m Reading: Wolfgang Herrndorf – Tschick

A word of warning ahead: Tschick is a novel by a German author, and as far as I could determine has not been translated into English yet. I was considering writing my post on it in German, but in the end I decided to stick with English, as this blog mostly about my reading rather than about the books anyway.

Until not all that long ago, there were basically only two kinds of German-language fiction being published – prettty much every released book fell either into the category of very cerebral, highly modernistic literary fiction, or that of trashy, iredeemably bad pulp, with all the huge middle ground between the two extremes being covered by translated books, mostly (and rather unsurprisingly) from the United States. This has somewhat changed over recent years, and these days you can find German genre authors who write for readers with more than the minimum intelligence required to decipher a text, and litfic authors to whom the concept of reading for enjoyment is not utterly alien. And sometimes you get a  novel like Tschick (which would have been impossible thirty years ago) that is undoubtedly literary fiction but also is insanely fun to read, enjoyable on all kinds of levels, whether it’s analysis of structure and imagery or or whether it’s being swept away by a ripping good yarn.

The main reason for Tschick’s success (artistically as well as commercially – the novel was a bestseller in Germany) lies, I think,  in its narrative voice, that of fourteen year old Maik who relates events from a first person view. Maik is your average awkward teenager, thinks of himself as boring and is in love with a girl from his class who barely knows that he exists. But then a new guy is introduced, Tschick, the son of Russian immigrants and very much a social outsider. Rather without intending to, Maik slides into a friendship with Tschick who one day stands at his door with a stolen car, and before Maik quite knows what is happening, the two of them are on their towards Wallachia where supposedly Tschick’s grandfather lives.

What then follows is a riff on simultaneously road movie, Bildungsroman and quest romance, a wild and hugely entertaining ride through Eastern Germany in the course of which encounter all sorts of bizarre characters while discovering both themselves and each other. It is a very hard thing to do, but Wolfgang Herrndorf manages to exactly hit the note of a fourteen-year old’s voice, giving his narrator just enough jargon and attitude to make him sound his age, but never so much as to make it come across as obtrusive and unconvincing. The novel is funny without being forced, touching without being sentimental, and while the story unfolds in what is quite recognisably present-day Germany it is never simply realistic (at least not in the sense of depicting things “just as they are” as realism is still most commonly understood). The narrative often has a dreamlike feel about it, sometimes peaking into the outright surreal, but it is always somewhat larger than life, as if common reality was not quite sufficient to hold Maik, Tschick and the people they encounter on their trip.

And while Wolfgang Herrndorf does not gloss over the bleakness of the East Germany Maik and Tschick travers in their stolen car, and does not serve the reader a facile happy ending, when all is said done, Tschick is not only a very funy and highly entertaining novel, but also a rather hopeful one; summarised neatly by the narrator at the end when he reflects that he has always been told how people are bad, and even though this might be true of 99% of everyone, he and Tschick on their journey enountered almost exclusively the one percent that was not bad. There is some melancholy in this, but also no small amount of optimism and I’d wager most readers will close this novel with a smile on their face and think back on it fondly.

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