Tag Archives: Munich

The Snowman by Jörg Fauser

“You’re done for,” Blum told himself, “you’re all washed up here on Malta–with a dentist’s drunk wife on your arm, a left-luggage receipt from Munich Central in your pocket, stolen from a wig worn by a wop to whom you were planning to flog 200 porn magazines, and an Australian with one lung who can’t shake off his nightmares there among the palms in front of you.”

Continuing with German literature month cohosted by Caroline and Lizzy, I selected The Snowman by Jörg Fauser for my crime pick. There are three reasons for this 1) Caroline has recommended the book more than once 2) It’s published by Bitter Lemon Press and I’ve had good luck with their titles. The third reason? The blurb on the back of the book starts like this:

Blum is down on his luck. No one in Malta wants to buy the classy collection of Danish porn mags he’s trying to unload discreetly.

Now that got my attention…

So, the novel begins with Blum, a strange character in his late thirties stuck in Malta with very little cash, but with a collection of Danish porn magazines “like vintage wine” to sell. It’s not exactly clear how Blum ended up in Malta or where the magazines came from, but it’s screamingly clear that the police don’t want Blum around. Blum’s unsavoury shady past follows him like a lingering bad smell. His one-month tourist visa expires in just 3 days, and he’s told to get out or he’ll be picked up and carted off to jail. But Blum needs money, and that means he has to unload the magazines as soon as possible.

Blum is at that dangerous stage in life when his crimes and cons have become increasingly small-time, yet he still dreams of the big score. As fate would have it, a series of circumstances finds Blum holding 5lbs of uncut Peruvian flake–considered by some to be the very best cocaine in the world. It has a street value of about $600,000, but Blum learns that if you’re not a drug dealer with connections, it’s very hard to unload that much product. Sure, people want a free sample, and some will even spring for a gram or two but that doesn’t help Blum in his long-term plans to escape to some exotic location–say, the Bahamas:

He went back to the hotel, stuck the locker key to the inside of the lavatory cistern, stared at his money. He was going to be forty next week, and here he was in this room in a run-down hotel, unable to turn five pounds of cocaine into ready cash. And if he did, then what? He saw himself at forty-three, at forty-seven, at fifty-two, in other rooms, but all of them alike, with a shirt hanging on a dryer, a fly buzzing against the lamp, a radio playing “Spanish Eyes”, sirens howling, the level of whisky in the bottle going down, his heartbeats coming faster, and a telephone that didn’t ring.

The Snowman is heavy on atmosphere and character as the plot follows Blum’s inept and increasingly paranoid attempts to sell the cocaine. He travels from Malta to Munich, onto Frankfurt, and then Holland and Belgium, living in one dank, seedy hotel room after another and discovering that “by comparison, even the porn trade was a high-society occasion.” He has the urge to flee but lacks the funds to do so; he also fights the impulse to hide, but he can’t do that as he needs to unload the coke, so he’s caught in a dilemma: he has to take some risks to make a sale, but every time he lands a potential customer, he’s exposing himself to danger at the hands of the cocaine’s real owners. After one sordid deal after another, he eventually comes to some realizations about the drug trade:

Apparently with coke you didn’t lose your mind until you lost control over the dosage, but perhaps as a dealer you lost your mind if you lost control over your trade.

Blum strikes up a relationship of sorts with a grubby blonde named Cora who reminds him of Brigitte Bardot “gone to seed”:

You can’t hide with five pounds of coke, not if you want to make money out of it. And now he’d landed himself with a blonde too, a tarty pot-head, probably with the police after her, but she was what he wanted. At twenty he’d dreamed of such blondes and jerked himself off. Now at forty he finally had one, even if she was shop soiled and run-down. But it was never too late for blondes.

Cora claims to have connections in the drug trade, and so Blum takes her along for the ride.

 Author and journalist Jörg Fauser, according to the novel’s insert, kicked an addiction to heroin but was killed July 16, 1987 when he “wandered” out on the motorway. He’d been celebrating his forty-third birthday. The Snowman (which was made into the film Der Schneemann) is strongest in its depiction of the seedy underbelly of life –the cheap hotels, the filthy toilets– in every city Blum travels through, and there are some passages (including one about copulating cockroaches) that creates the urge for a good hot shower.  There’s an intense authenticity to these scenes, and a sour truth to Fred’s realization that he’s small-time for a reason.

Translated by Anthea Bell

“Stay happy on a small scale gentleman, because happiness is the most expensive drug of all.”


Filed under Fauser Jörg, Fiction

Where Do We Go From Here? by Doris Dörrie

As part of Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature month, I chose Doris Dörrie’s novel: Where Do We Go From Here? Dörrie is one of my favourite German filmmakers, but unfortunately not all the films she’s made or the books she’s written are available in English. If you are at all familiar with her films, you know that her off-kilter work sometimes includes Buddhism (Cherry Blossoms, Enlightenment Guaranteed).  I should mention that Dörrie is a buddhist, so she’s certainly qualified to set the novel Where Do We Go From Here? in a Buddhist retreat. I’ll admit that I had some concerns that perhaps Dörrie’s beliefs might weaken the novel as veiled attempts at ideological conversion can ruin a novel. My concerns, however, were not realised, and Where Do We Go From Here? is a warm, witty, and wise look at the frailties of the human condition told through the eyes of a middle-aged man in crisis.

The man in crisis is Fred Kaufmann. He and his eminently organised, admirable, and practical wife Claudia owned a chain of vegetarian restaurants which they’ve now sold. The void in their lives left by the sudden departure of business responsibilities reveals that they’ve grown apart, and their marriage is on the rocks. Claudia turns to Buddhism,  he has a wild affair, and a weekend in London to repair their relationship serves only to reveal just how bleak things are. Meanwhile their only child Franka has announced that she’s in love with a Buddhist lama named Pelge. When the book begins, Fred leaves Munich with 16-year-old Franka in order to deliver her to a Buddhist retreat in the south of France. There Franka is supposed to reunite with Pelge before they leave for India together. The plan is for Fred to monitor Franka and bring her back to Munich when she comes to her senses. Nothing goes as planned….

Before Fred and Franka get to the retreat, they find themselves reluctantly picking up a depressed passenger, middle-aged hen-pecked-husband Norbert who decides he needs some time at the retreat too. While Fred is initially annoyed by this turn of events, he finds it somewhat reassuring to be confronted with a peer who’s in an even worse state of mind.  As it turns out, the retreat is packed with dozens of similar people–middle-aged lost souls, haunted by lost dreams, broken by failed careers & wrecked by bad marriages. Everyone is there for answers or some sort of peace of mind. There’s a strange other-world atmosphere at the retreat: there are those who are unhappy with the spartan accommodations, and others who appear to thrive on the hours of meditation, vow of silence and the meagreness of a rice diet. Fred is one of those who’s horrified by the sight of what’s in store:

I know we’ve come to the right place, because we’re already passing some of them.

They’re worse than my wildest dreams. Men with long, sparse hair in pale green tracksuit bottoms, women with massive buttocks in baggy lilac pants, their pendulous, braless boobs wobbling beneath faded pink T-shirts, children with fringes in front and page-boys behind. So these are the Enlightened Ones–or the candidates for Enlightenment.

Since Claudia has managed to effectively tune out Fred through her Buddhist meditation, he arrives at the retreat ready to loathe the suckers who’ve lined up to receive wisdom from Lama Tubten Rinpoche, author of How to Transform Happiness and Suffering into the Path of Enlightenment: How to be Happy When You Aren’t. Fred and Norbert are given a daily schedule and shown to a bleak room which holds three smelly foam mattresses. Here’s the schedule and the rules:

5:00 Getting-up time

5:30 Meditation

7:00 Breakfast

9:00 Lectures

12:30 Lunch

14:00 Working Meditation

18:00 Supper

19:30 Meditation

21:30 Lights Out

Please observe noble silence. We request you, during your retreat, to abstain from tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and sex.

You won’t find that too hard, I say to Norbert.

Not where three out of the four are concerned, he replies with a grin, and this time I get a chance to put an admonitory finger to my lips. Norbert gives a start and peers around anxiously, as if scared of being arrested on the spot.

To give away too much of what happens would spoil the experience for any potential readers, but I am going to include a quote which captures some of this wonderful novel’s flavour:

After fifteen minutes the monk strikes the gong once more. Everyone jumps up at once, chattering, and goes to get a bit more brown rice.

I get up too, intending to take my plate over to the plastic sinks, when the telephone in the kitchen rings and something quite extraordinary happens. They all come to a halt in mid-movement and fall silent as though transfixed, as though the sound has put them into a Sleeping Beauty trance. I see Franka standing there with a broom in her hand, more erect than I’ve seen her for years, because she usually keeps her head down so her hair hides her face.

Nobody seems to be going to the phone. I don’t know what to do. Embarrassed to be the only one in motion, I also halt with the plate in my hand. At children’s birthday parties in the old days we used to play a game in which we had to freeze suddenly, whatever we were doing at the time. If someone in the big tent were fucking–which god forbid–would they have to stop short and wait?

After the phone has rung seven or eight times, everyone abruptly comes back to life and carries on as if nothing had happened. I make a beeline for Franka.

You might at least have explained the rules, I say reproachfully. I feel like an absolute idiot. What the devil happened just now?

You’ll find out, Dad, she whispers.

This eternal whispering is getting on my nerves, I say loudly. She simply laughs and turns on her heels.

It seems we each have to wash up our own plate at the series of sinks. We dip it in the malodorous, lukewarm broth and hand it to our neighbour, who dips it in some slightly less malodorous broth and hands it on in turn. Meantime, we go to the end of the washing-up queue, take our plate, and dry it on an already sodden and not particularly clean drying-up cloth. The local hygiene leaves a lot to be desired.In my bagel cafés I’d have had the health inspector breathing down my neck a long time ago.

A bacterial paradise, I mutter to myself.

The story is loosely divided into thirds–with the trip to and from the retreat framing the time spent in France. The book follows Fred’s struggles with the retreat’s rules as he sneaks off for cigarettes and food, tries to meditate and mingles with people he feels he has nothing in common with. Over time Fred discovers that he shares more with the other guests than he initially realised, and alone with his thoughts he must confront the truth about his failed film director career and his marriage to Claudia. With piercing wit and a generous view of human nature Where Do We Go From Here?  explores how the unrealised dreams of youth reappear to haunt us, how we try to imbibe our lives with meaning as we try to adjust our lives to what they’ve become, and just how easy it is to blame others for the choices we’ve made.

Translated by John Brownjohn


Filed under Dörrie Doris, Fiction