Last year, I read the rather brilliant Die, My Love, written by Ariana Harwicz and published by Charco Press, which specializes in releasing translated literature from Latin America. Die, My Love easily made it to my Top Books of 2018 list, and also made Charco Press, a publishing house to watch out for.
As a subscriber to Charco Press, I can’t wait to get my hands on Harwicz’ new novel – Feebleminded.
However, I still had a lot of Charco Press’ backlist to explore and a recent trip to Nice seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. Carla Maliandi’s The German Room is what I finally settled for and packed in my suitcase.
If your current life – in a particular city with your friends and family – is giving you much heartache and cause for discontent, will moving to another city and starting afresh give you the peace of mind you so crave for?
This is the central theme at the heart of The German Room.
When the book opens our unnamed narrator is a woman who has suddenly run away from her life and personal troubles in Buenos Aires and taken the plane to Heidelberg, Germany.
Years earlier, looking for a safe haven, her parents had fled to Heidelberg to escape the crippling impact of dictatorship in Argentina, only to return home later.
To our narrator, therefore, Heidelberg – where she was born – seems like the natural choice to begin life anew.
On the plane I was dizzy with anxiety again. But this time I wasn’t afraid of it falling, I was afraid of landing safe and sound, not knowing what to do or why I was there. Going down with the plane would’ve have been easier than landing in Germany with my life in shambles, without having told anyone in Buenos Aires what I was doing.
However, it is not as easy as it seems.
Our narrator initially worries that language will be a hurdle. Subsequent events, however, will highlight that to be the least of her problems.
Despite not being a student, our narrator manages to secure a room in a hostel, although this is a temporary arrangement and she will eventually have to provide proof that she is studying for a course.
Feeling out of place in the hostel, our narrator manages to befriend a fellow Argentinian Miguel Javier who is from Tucuman, and later a Japanese woman called Shanice.
In the first few pages itself, it is revealed that our narrator is pregnant, a fact that Miguel Javier had already gauged from her symptoms of morning sickness.
Learning of her pregnancy, she seems ambivalent at best, her first choice being to terminate it. But not wanting to be judged by the doctor she visits, she decides not to abort. Although she has no clear plan of her prospects in the new city and how she intends to raise her child.
Meanwhile, our narrator has to grapple with a new acquaintance Mrs Takahashi, who visits the city with her husband, when her daughter Shanice commits suicide.
Mrs Takahashi is a strange, melancholic woman who is at odds with what is happening around her and insists on spending time with our narrator. In fact, the sections in the novel, which focus on Mrs Takahashi, are quite disconcerting and eerie. Did some part of Mrs Takahashi’s personality insinuate itself in her daughter Shanice pushing her to end her life?
Earlier, in a dream, Shanice warns our narrator:
‘What? About my pregnancy?’
‘No, ask her about my mother…so she can warn you.’
‘Warn me about what?’
‘Warn you that my mother is full of a very dark sadness…and, ya know, that she can get inside you.’
And later the same point is conveyed to her by Feli through Miguel’s sister, Marta Paula…
‘The girl is dead but the mother is alive. The girl knew that the mother was dangerous.’
Post the tragedy surrounding her daughter, Mrs Takahashi refuses to go back to Japan and resume her life there, to move on. Instead, she prefers to stay put in Heidelberg seeking newer experiences.
We are also introduced to some more characters:
- Mario, a professor at the university and also an acquaintance from her childhood in Heidelberg
- Joseph, possibly Mario’s lover with whom our narrator has an affair, further complicating the situation, and
- Miguel’s sister Marta Paula based in Buenos Aires, who our narrator has never met. However, through correspondence and telephone calls our narrator confides in Marta Paula, who in turn looks to give advice by consulting a clairvoyant Feli, much to Miguel’s chagrin.
All of these characters and strands come together to form a very compelling and gripping narrative.
Where the author Maliandi clearly excels is in creating an unsettling atmosphere, as well as in conveying the narrator’s sense of displacement and a deep urge to belong. We feel our narrator’s up-rootedness, making us uneasy as we watch her move forward with no direction. It is as if she is struggling to find her identity or herself, which also explains why she is not named throughout the novel.
Even if I course the whole world looking or a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere.
Even in her new relationships, she seems to take people for granted. Then, at one point in the novel, desperately looking to cut off ties with Mrs Takahashi, our narrator urges her to go back to her old life in Japan, which is ironic given that she, in a similar situation, is not willing to do the same.
And yet, it is difficult not to sympathize with our narrator, a testimony to Maliandi’s strong writing.
In a nutshell, The German Room touches upon the themes of escape, family, independence and belonging.
The blurb at the back of the novel reads:
This is a book for anyone who has ever dreamed of running away from it all, but wondered what they might do when they get there.
Does our narrator finally find her peace?
I thought this was a wonderful novel and another strong offering from Charco Press.
Translation credits go to Frances Riddle.