Translated by Jamie Bulloch 2013
Peirene Press do publish some very interesting books – slight novels/novellas of less than 200 pages, from across Europe. These are books which I might never come across if it were not for Peirene’s presence on social media and the excellent reviews of other bloggers.
I had originally intended to read The Mussel Feast for #WITmonth which was in August – but just didn’t get chance to fit it in. The Mussel Feast has become a small, German modern classic. First published in 1990 – this translation from 2013.
Birgit Vanderbeke’s novel is in the form of a monologue, her writing has few paragraphs and no direct speech. It is nevertheless a quick and involving read. The author said of her novel…
“‘I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start.”
Vanderbeke uses a seemingly normal family, in which to explore this idea – a mother and two teenage children – we never actually meet the father – though he is a constant presence.
As the novel opens the mother and her two children are at home awaiting the arrival of the father. In the middle of the table is a large pot of mussels. The mussels have been prepared in anticipation of a kind of celebration – the expected promotion of the father. Although our narrator – the daughter of the family insists…
“It was neither a sign nor a coincidence that we were going to have mussels that evening. Yes, it was slightly unusual, and afterwards we sometimes spoke of the mussels as a sign, but they definitely weren’t; we also said they were a bad omen – that’s nonsense too. Nor were the mussels a coincidence. This evening of all evenings, we’d say, we decided to eat mussels. But it really wasn’t like that; you couldn’t call it a coincidence. After the event, of course, we tried to interpret our decision as a sign or coincidence, because what came in the wake of our abortive feast was so monumental that none of us have got over it yet. We would always have mussels to celebrate a special occasion, and this was a special occasion although in a very different way from what we had in mind.”
There are many questions the reader has immediately – upon reading that – and it’s perhaps no surprise that not all of them are answered – that would be too easy.
The daughter’s monologue – having no interaction between characters – the story, such as it is, emerges from the strands of remembrance told to us by the daughter. The story weaves back and forth between the present moment, waiting for the father, a pot of mussels cooking on the stove, and the past. Neither the mother or the daughter are particularly partial to mussels but they have spent time preparing them anyway, the mother bent over the bath, scrubbing each shell under cold water, knowing how much her husband dislikes finding sand in his favourite dish.
“Although I found the mussels creepy I went over, as I didn’t want to be cowardly; and they looked revolting, lying there, some opening slowly, fairly slowly, and then the entire heap of them started to move with this rattling sound. Unbelievable, I said, how revolting these creatures are, gasping as instead of seawater they get air, which they can’t breathe, and they’re also being scalded in the boiling water, and then they all open, which means they’re dead.”
As the clock ticks past six o’clock the daughter can’t help but get a strange uncanny feeling – something in the air. While the mussels cook, the son cuts chips – apparently, you must have chips with mussels, but as time goes on, the family begin to lose their appetite for the mussel feast.
It is soon apparent that the reason the father’s presence is so strong – despite his absence – is due to his quiet, domestic tyranny. The reader naturally wonders – along with the family themselves – what has happened to delay the father.The story we get is that of a family falling apart. The parents fled the east to live in West Germany – the story of their flight has the feeling of legend for the children, the division of East and West Germany very much represented in the divisions within the family caused by a tyrannical father. A man whose rules have slowly chipped away at the happiness and confidence of each member of the family. Various incidents are recalled – the forgetting of salt on a holiday, the obsessional collecting of German stamps, evening piano playing being outlawed.
The eighteen-year-old daughter (no character is ever named) shows her mother to often being in what she calls ‘wifey mode’ but as the evening goes on, the clock moves around, it is now almost ten, and still the father has not returned – there is a shift in mood, as the telephone starts to ring.
This offering from Peirene Press is a powerful, thought provoking little book. Brilliantly executed, and immediately compelling, the ending is both perfect and frustrating.