3 April 2009 0 Comments

This is the life, Part 1: Germany


You’ll find a lot of writers’ blogs complaining about book tours. Not here. When I find one of my publishers around the world is happy to present me to hundreds of people who want to hear me talk about myself in fascinating places, I sign up right away.

That’s how I found myself in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich with very squeaky shoes.

More on that later…. I spent two weeks in March traveling Germany to promote the translation of my second Palestinian detective novel “A Grave in Gaza,” which is published there by C.H. Beck Verlag as “Ein Grab in Gaza”. It’s a family-owned publisher in business since the 1700s in Munich, run by a charming, shy man named Wolfgang Beck. In a world of megapublishers, there’s something wonderfully intimate about Beck’s office in the Schwabing district of Munich.

I began my tour at Lehmkuhl, a bookshop in Munich. The name means “Mudhole” in German and no one was able to offer an explanation for why anybody had chosen it. But there was a big crowd and a reading by myself and a local German actor. Unlike in other countries, where the audience gets fidgety the moment an author begins to read, Germans will happily listen to three chapters – including one read in English. It makes for long readings. Once you add in questions and banter and signing, they’re at least 90 minutes.

I had a day off in Munich after that and went to the Alte Pinakothek, where I disturbed the peace of the beautiful, airy galleries with a particularly squeaky pair of shoes. Entire school groups turned to see what the disturbance was… I wanted to see the famous self-portrait by Albrecht Duerer. In that portrait, the books all describe Duerer as gazing directly at the viewer, and that’s how it looks in photographs. Interestingly when you stand in front of the painting, it’s clear that he’s actually looking right through you, as though he were staring into some visionary future, focused absolutely on his art.

Or maybe he just couldn’t look me in the eye because of my squeaky shoes.

Thence to the enormous Leipzig Book Fair, held in a series of massive halls outside the historic town in eastern Germany. It’s lovely to see so many readers wandering the stalls, though anyone under the age of 26 appeared to be dressed as a Japanese cartoon character. My reading was hosted by Klaus Modick, a prominent German author who’s also my translator. At dinner in the old quarter of Leipzig in the Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum restaurant, Klaus and I had a long talk about the job of the translator. It was fascinating to hear the kinds of language choices a translator has to make. It’s notable, too, that even though I’ve been translated into 22 languages, Klaus is the only translator who sent me any questions about my original text. (My Danish translator, Jan Hansen, says that’s because I write such clear prose, there’s nothing to clarify. How do you say “You’re too kind” in Danish?)

Klaus also introduced me to “quark,” which is some kind of curd. It turns out Germans are obsessed with it the way Brits love Marmite.

Late that night there was a big publishers’ party in an old storage space beneath the medieval bastions of the city. The band: four German girls doing ABBA songs. Lots of happy German people. Very unhip, very nerdy. Really great!

Also at Leipzig I had coffee at the next table to Gunther Grass. He’s shorter than you’d expect…

How’s that for literary insight?

I went on to the Ruesselsheim area. South of Frankfurt, this is where Opel cars are manufactured – for the time being. Opel’s owned by GM and people are worried it’ll all be gone soon. In a town of 60,000, you can imagine what would happen if the 25,000 jobs at Opel disappeared.

The bookshop in Ruesselsheim is run by Hans-Juergen Jansen and his wife Monika, a charming pair who’ve created quite a cultural scene in this industrial town. So successful, in fact, that my first reading in the area inaugurated the opening of their new bookshop in nearby Gustavsburg. Imagine that: a new independent bookstore. There’s still hope for the world in these dark times, eh?

I also had an excellent pork dish at a restaurant overlooking the fast-flowing River Main in Ruesselsheim. They call the region “Rhine-Main” because of the confluence of the two great rivers. I dubbed the dish “Rhine-Main-Schwein,” and I think it might catch on….

I continued through Marburg, a historic university town on a mountain in the very center of Germany, where I spoke at the Roter Stern bookshop. (That means “Red Star,” and it started out as a communist collective in the 1960s. Nowadays, it’s still a collective, though no longer communist. At least I’m not naming names.)

The final pleasure of the trip was my stop at Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian Alps near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. It’s a gorgeous spa with a heated outdoor infinity pool on the roof. With my eyes on the snowy mountains all around, I swam a few laps with a big smile on my face.

A room at Elmau is 550 Euros a night. The delightful lady from Beck who accompanied me around Germany, Miriam Froitzheim, declared that she wanted to return to Elmau for her honeymoon. Men of Germany, Achtung!: you get an intelligent, beautiful wife AND a few nights at the most lovely hotel you’ll ever experience. Sounds like a deal. Macht schnell!

My reading at Elmau was organized by the wonderful Frau Ingeborg Praeger, who runs the extensive bookshop there. Frau Praeger spends about 40 days at Elmau in between her “outs” at her apartment in Munich. She helps put together the nightly cultural events at the spa – readings and musical performances mostly. When I was there Junot Diaz had just cancelled his appearance because he couldn’t be bothered to come from Cologne all the way up into the mountains to the spa. Which just shows you can win a Pulitzer and still not know which side your bread is buttered (as we say in Britain).

At Leipzig I had met Denis Scheck, a prominent literary critic on German tv and radio. He hosted my reading at Elmau and managed to ask questions no one else had asked, while also translating a summary of my answers into German without notes. At dinner, Herr Scheck proved himself to be quite the bon vivant. He’s writing a book about German wines. Did you know there’s no difference in taste between red and white wine? According to Denis, it’s all a matter of the serving temperature. Serve white wine at room temperature, it’ll taste like red wine. Chill red wine and you’ve got a white wine taste.

I’m teetotal. So it’s good to know that I’m only missing out on one taste experience.

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