Angelika Overath – All the Colors of Snow – Sent Diary – Alle Farben des Schnees

Have you ever dreamt of moving to the place where you spend your holidays? That’s exactly what German journalist and writer Angelika Overath did in 2007. She, her husband, and their youngest child moved to Sent, a small village in the Engadine region of Switzerland. Before that, they lived in Tübingen, Germany, where her husband was a professor at the university. Her two older children stayed in Tübingen.

Shortly after they moved, Overath was asked whether she wanted to write something for a local newspaper about moving to her holiday home. That article was the starting point to this book— a diary of a little more than a year in her new home Sent.

I read a few of the diary entries in an anthology and liked them so much that I wanted to read her whole book. As a child, we used to spend many holidays in the Engadine region. My mother had a Swiss friend whose family owned a holiday home there. The scenery is spectacular and I was always fascinated to see how differently the seasons changed in the mountains. I never spent a Christmas there, only New Year, but it must be lovely as the parts I read in the anthology, and now reread, take place during Christmas and Overath describes so many wonderful things and interesting customs.

The descriptions of the changing seasons are some of the best parts in Overath’s “diary”. That and her joy to be somewhere she loves as much as she loves the Engadine. She describes what it takes to change status, to move away from being a tourist and become a local. In her case, it’s not that easy because, as you may know, the Engadine region is the Swiss region, where the fourth Swiss language – Romansh (Rätoromanisch) is spoken. People speak some German and Swiss but they distinctly prefer to speak their own language and in order to get fully accepted it’s better to learn to speak the local language.

While her son, who is only seven when they move, picks up Romansh easily at school, and her husband has a greater facility to learn Romansh, it’s not that easy for Angelika Overath to learn the language. But since she’s so enthusiastic, she uses a special way for herself, which I found quite ingenious and well-worth copying. In order to familiarize herself with the language, especially the nuances of the vocabulary – many words sound similar but have  a completely different meaning – she began to write poetry in Romansh. The result is quirky and playful. It’s a brilliant way to learn a new language.

I enjoyed this book a lot because of the beautiful descriptions of the landscape, and the many interesting people that populate these pages. The Overaths have a rich social life and meet many fascinating people. Sent seems to be a place that attracts a lot of foreigners, artist, writers. It’s also a place people seem to return to after having stayed abroad for a while.

My only small reservation concerns the term “diary”. In my opinion, this is rather a notebook than a diary. Angelika Overath herself, her interior life is almost completely absent from these pages. One can sense it was meant for an audience and not as personal as diaries normally are. But that’s a tiny reservation. It’s such a rich and diverse book that has a lot to say about moving to another country, learning a new language, new ways of living. It also describes beautifully the charm of living in a small community. And her love for the mountains, the short but intense summers, and the long, cold, snowy winters, can be felt on every page.

Sadly, so far, none of the books by Angelika Overath have been translated into English. This book would be interesting for American readers as there are several entries set in the US, during the summer, when both she and her husband teach at a college in Vermont. Since I liked the way she wrote, I might try one of her novels next.

Did you ever want to move to a place where you spent your holidays? I know I did. I often dream of moving to the South of France. It wouldn’t be a challenge language-wise, so, maybe, that doesn’t count.

Daniela Krien: Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything – Irgendwann werden wir uns alles erzählen (2011)


Daniela Krien’s debut novel Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything (German title: Irgendwann werden wir uns alles erzählen) was a success in Germany and has already been translated into 15 languages, one of which English. That’s why I thought I’d like to see for myself if it’s really that good. I’m not sure the book won me over as a whole, but I liked a lot of the elements and the end packs a real punch.

The narrator Maria is a young woman of 16 who is living with her boyfriend Johannes on his family’s farm. It’s 1990 and the Berlin wall has just fallen. The novel begins shortly before the reunification of Germany. What makes the story interesting is that it’s set in Eastern Germany and that we see the end of the former Democratic Republic through the eyes of the people who lived there. The author grew up in the country, in the former DDR, so she knows what she’s writing about.

It’s odd that Maria is living with her boyfriend’s family and not with her own but we learn later that the mother has been left and that Maria can’t stand her sadness anymore. It’s far livelier on the Brendel’s farm. But even though it’s livelier, there are tensions as well, and just like in her own family, there are family secrets.

Maria and Johannes are still going to school but Maria stays at home most of the time, hiding somewhere, reading Dostoevsky. She’s often sad as well, prone to mood swings, but she is a keen observer and a kind girl. She want’s to help and make her stay worthwhile for everyone.

Not far from the Brendel’s farm is the farm of the Henners. Henner is a forty-year old guy, a brute, as they say, a man whose wife couldn’t stand his company anymore and who has left him. He’s said to be violent and drinks like a fish. He comes to the Brendel farm occasionally because they have a small farm shop. Maria watches him and Marianne, Johannes’ mother. Marianne seems to have a bit of a crush on him. Maria herself is fascinated and before long, without thinking of the consequences, she’s having an affair with him.

Their love affair is one of those dark maelstrom passions. They try to fight it but to no avail. Maria feels extremely guilty, but at the same time she cannot let go. What they share is too deep. It’s passionate, violent, but it’s also more than that. Henner opens up, tells her his life story.

At first their affair is all about sex but later they are content to just read Dostoevsky and Trakl together. Henner even tries to get sober.

They way this is told is quite appealing. The beginning is strange but after a while, you feel sucked in and read more and more quickly.

I have never read a novel about the end of the former Democratic Republic from the point of view of someone who lived “over there”. I really liked how Daniela Krien captured this. Just imagine: one day the authorities decide that your country will not exist anymore. Even though it might be for the better, it would still be a shock. There are many small details which show that and they are well rendered.

I was surprised that Maria was allowed to live with her boyfriend’s parents and that they shared a room and a bed, but then I remembered that the attitude towards sexuality is said to have been much more liberal in the former Democratic Republic. I watched a talk show on German TV a few years ago with athletes from the ex-DDR and they mentioned that for them one of the strangest things was how sex was handled in Germany. They said they preferred partenrs who came from the former Democratic Republic because they were more liberated. Judging from this novel it certainly seems as if there had been quite a difference.

The title is a Dostoevsky quote taken from the Brothers Karamazov. The book contains a few quotes from Dostoevsky, others are taken from Hamsun. Henner repeatedly quotes Trakl’s poem Song in the Night. Trakl is an Austrian poet. His poems are beautiful but gloomy.

If you like dark love stories you’d like Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything. You might equally like it if you have an interest in country life or life in the former Democratic Republic of Germany. The style is quite simple, most sentences are short. It’s not subtle but it works. The whole story is carried by the narrative voice, which I found haunting. The end alone makes it worth to read the book.

Andrea Maria Schenkel: Bunker (2009)

It had been a normal day at work. Monika was locking up, ready to head home, when the man arrived. She didn’t see his fist until it was far too late. Bundled into a car, tied up and taken in darkness to an old mill in the thick of a forest, she has been flung into a bunker. It is only now, as time passes and she sees her attacker in the light, that she notices the startling resemblance to someone from her very dark and buried past. Someone she never wanted to see again.

Andrea Maria Schenkel entered the literary crime scene with a big bang when her first novel  The Murder FarmTannöd was published in Germany. Based on a true story it described a crime which wiped out a whole family. While there were many glowing reviews there were also a lot who predicted she would be a one hit wonder. Fact is, she has written three more novels, two very different ones, Ice Cold – Kalteis and Bunker – Bunker, and a fourth one which hasn’t been translated yet – Finsterau -, which is written in the vein of Tannöd, but none has had the success of the first.

Bunker is a very unusual crime novel. It takes a long time to figure out what is going on as the POV occasionally changes two to three times per page. If the different points of view were not printed in different type, it would be nearly impossible to know who is telling the story. If you are an impatient person you might give up after a few pages. I decided to read until the end and must say, I don’t regret it. Instead of passively reading about the confusion of the victim, we share this confusion which was an interesting experience.

Monika is abducted from her work place, tied up, thrown into a car and driven to a mill in a dark forest. A bunker belongs to the mill and she is held captive there. The man hits and mishandles her but what he really wants is not clear.

After some time she feels she knows him. It seems to be someone she never wanted to see again and who was tied to the disappearance of her brother when she was still a teenager.

The relationship between Monika and her attacker changes constantly. While he hits her one moment, he takes care of her the next. At one point she has a chance to escape but she stays.

At the end of the book a murder has been committed, a person has been severely injured and another one escapes. That’s all I’m telling you.

I liked this puzzle approach, I found it interesting to only ever get a few snippets of information which only formed a whole after I had finished the book. The main story line ends in a satisfying way but there is a lot of back story which is never really sorted out. There are too many open questions at the end. I don’t aways mind being left with unanswered questions if I think, the author withheld answers despite the fact that he/she had them. When I feel it was an easy way out for the author, I’m not impressed. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this is what happened here.

Bunker is a quick read, offers an interesting narrative technique but I’m still not sure whether it is not rather a gimmick than a great book.

Ferdinand von Schirach: Guilt – Schuld (2010)

After having read Ferdinand von Schirach’s excellent first collection CrimeVerbrechen (here is my review), I had to have his second collection Guilt – Schuld and his novel Der Fall Collini right away. The novel isn’t out in English yet but it is due end of 2012.

Any which way you want to look at von Schirach’s books, “literary”, “true story”, whatever, they make for pretty addictive reading. I finished this in a sitting or two.

The angle in this collection is a bit different but some of the striking features of the first are present here as well. Most of the crimes are astonishing, many go wrong, often the perpetrator ends up being the victim and not everybody gets punished.

The focus is less the tipping point than the question of guilt. Interestingly not only the criminal’s guilt but to a certain degree even the lawyer’s guilt. There are a few cases, some date back to von Schirach’s early days as a criminal defense lawyer, where at the end I had the feeling that he felt guilty. Guilty because someone walked who shouldn’t have.

Like in the first collection, we get a close look at the German criminal system. I find it interesting how important it is for the lawyer to follow the law 100% even if the punishment doesn’t sound just. I always find it fascinating how a definition can alter the sentence completely. There is one case in which it is crucial to establish whether if someone kills a sleeping man it can ever be anything else than murder. Can it be manslaughter or even self-defence when the person is asleep? Or let’s say someone tries to kill someone, hurts the person badly but then stops before he is dead. That changes everything as well. These details were the best parts in this collection.

There are cases in which you even wonder whether there is not some superior justice at work, for example when a perpetrator gets run over by a car before being even able to commit the gruesome murder he had planned in many details and written down in his diary.

The tone is close to the first book, laconic, brief, to the point. There is no judging of people, no pointing the finger, just a very factual account of what happened.

All in all I liked this collection but not as much as the first. Whether there is a difference – I felt the cases in the first collection were more astonishing as a whole – or whether they are too alike, I’m not sure but I found it a bit less original and not as touching but still well worth reading. I’m really looking forward to read the novel and as I know it will be published soon in English, I will review it in a couple of weeks. If you don’t have any of the two collections yet it may be worth waiting as they will be released together in September Crime and Guilt.

If you are interested in hearing Ferdinand von Schirach talking about crime, punishment, guilt and his very special laconic writing style you might enjoy watching this interview (English and German with translation).

Matthias Politycki: Next World Novella (2011) aka Jenseitsnovelle (2009)

Hinrich takes his existence at face value. His wife, on the other hand, has always been more interested in the after-life. Or so it seemed. When she dies of a stroke, Hinrich goes through her papers, only to discover a totally different perspective on their marriage. Thus commences, a dazzling intellectual game of shifting realities.

How do you picture the afterlife? Like a cold dark lake you have to cross? Do you picture how you will be surrounded by loneliness and obscurity and that you will know before you even start to dip into those icy waters that you will never make it across and that you will die a second time while attempting to reach the other shore?

Probably this is not your idea of the next world but it is Doro’s. The thought of it terrifies her and when she confides in Hinrich, telling him of her terrors, they form a bond and eventually become a couple. Before she reveals herself, Hinrich, a professor of sinology, secretly pines after Doro the young specialist of the I Ging who occupies a room on the same floor of the department of sinology. While he is very much in love and provides her with a pot of green tea every afternoon, she doesn’t seem to care for him at all. But suddenly one afternoon, to show Hinrich what her idea of the after world looks like, she takes him to an art museum and shows him a painting. The painting isn’t named but from the detailed description it seems they stand in front of Böcklin’s Toteninsel. Of course Hinrich doesn’t take her fears seriously. This is as much mystical rubbish to him as the I Ging. Still he promises her that he will wait for her on the other shore.

However these days are long gone and the memory of the beginning of their story provides only one part of the things Hinrich will remember on a beautiful autumn morning on which, like every day, he gets up late only to find Doro already sitting at a table and correcting what he has written the day before. The moment he enters the room he realizes something is wrong. The room is filled by an overpowering smell and the fact that Doro sits here correcting something is a little strange as well as he hasn’t written anything in a long time.

What we finally discover through Hinrich’s eyes is the fact that Doro has died inexplicably and that the text she not only corrected and annotated but tried to finish as well is an old fragment of a novel that Hinrich has written some thirty years ago. It is the story of Marek the drunkard who gets involved and hurt by a beautiful waitress. Marek is as opposed to Hinrich as can be imagined.

From the moment of the discovery of her body until the very end of the novel the book takes a few very surprising twists and turns.

Hinrich and Doro’s story alternates with the parts of the fragments of the novel that Hinrich rereads. The tone of the interwoven texts is very different. The novel uses outdated slang, the other parts are written in a very polished and literary German.

Hinrich, a man who had extremely bad eyesight and could hardly see a thing, decided late in life to have a laser operation. To be able to see clearly has transformed him into a completely different person. Before his opperation he was dedicated to Doro, content with a life filled with books that took place either at the university or at home. Since he can see he goes out in the evenings with his students, chats up waitresses and discovers a completely new side to himself.

What he didn’t know and discovers now through reading the annotations and the letter that Doro has left for him is not only that she knew about his affairs but also that she hated and despised him and that she has taken revenge.

I did absolutely not like this novel at first as I found Hinrich Schepp to be such a boring and narrow-minded character. But I should have known better when embarking on reading a book whose main character has such a name.  Surely no one would choose a name like that for his protagonist if he wasn’t poking fun at him. All the infuriating and annoying bits about Hinrich’s charcter and his actions fall into place at the end and their meaning changes one’s view of Hinrich. One could even say that Hinrich becomes endearing.


As said before, the book has a few extremely surprising twists and turns to offer and from page to page we see things and people in a new light until, at the end, everything changes again.

There are a few painful moments in which Hinrich’s mask is ripped off and he finds himself exposed and ridiculed. Shame is one of the strong feelings that pervades the whole novella.


Next World Novella is a quirky book that touches on a lot of different things. It explores the fear of dying and death as well as marriage, love and self-deception. The most interesting aspect for me was the exploring of the ideas of an after life and the dimension added by the references to the I Ging, a text that I find highly fascinating. But also the discovery of how much “unlived” life there is hidden in an ordinary life is interesting. Every human being has a potential that would allow him or her to live many lives that would maybe look very different from the one chosen.

I have read the German book and insofar I cannot say much about the translation. I thought for a long time about the title and if Next World Novella is really how I would have translated Jenseitsnovelle. For different reasons I don’t think so. The sense is the same but I had a feeling “Jenseits” sounds more poetical than “Next Life”. The word “next” contains a very hard consonant whereas “Jenseits” has a soft and flowing sound. That is why I would have tended towards a title containing hereafter or after life. I’m sure Anthea Bell who is a renowned translator had her reasons. As for the rest of the text, I got the impression the German is more old-fashioned and mannered than the English translation.

All in all I can only recommend this book. It’s very different, surprising and intelligent.