Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 18, 2019

The Mussel Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated by Jamie Bulloch

With the world holding its breath over the Hong Kong protests, Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast has a contemporary resonance that she probably didn’t expect when she wrote it in 1990.  There were ‘velvet revolutions’ all over the globe, but the Tiananmen Square massacre had snuffed out the brief hope of democracy in China.

‘I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  I wanted to understand how revolutions start.  It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.’

So in this brief novella of only 105 pages in the ‘Turning Point Series’ published by Peirene Press the author depicts the process by which a family bullied into years of submission finds the courage to rebel.  The occasion for the mussel feast is a long-anticipated promotion for father, who has been away on his usual business trip and will be expecting his favourite meal, that actually, his wife doesn’t like at all.  She says so, on the quiet to her daughter, but she would never dare articulate her own desires to her husband, because that is not what happens in what he calls a ‘proper family’.

Though the fact that everything has changed is acknowledged, the narration begins tentatively, as the daughter traces back the events of this remarkable night.  The catalyst for change is father’s unexpectedly extended absence: there is a break in the routine and he is not at home to enforce his rule at the expected time.  Mother, brother and sister are in the habit of relaxing a bit when he’s away, but they are always constrained in what they say and do because of his impending return.  Performing their compulsory roles, they ‘blab’ to him about each other in a domestic version of East German Stasi surveillance; none of them are capable of resisting the pressure to inform on each other when he demands it.  (As the story progresses, we learn that he enforces his demands with punishments that include shocking violence).

So, with the mussels and potatoes all prepped, the family, are adopting their ‘modes’ in anticipation of father’s return.  Mother who has a full-time job but still does all the domestic labour, has a number of modes and wifey mode entails the hasty application of some liptstick to her after-work face.

Luckily I never regarded my ultimate aim in life as being to switch to wifey mode at half past five every evening.  I didn’t like it when Mum switched; I found it embarrassing, and when we did it, too.  I preferred us when my father was away on business.  You see we all had to switch for my father, to become a proper family, as he called it, because he hadn’t had a family, but he had developed the most detailed notions of what a proper family should be like, and could be extremely sensitive if you undermined these notions.

But now, as it was already seven o’clock and he still hadn’t arrived, my father was undermining his own notions.  Mum’s after-work face seemed a complete waste of time, and the mussels started making that noise in the pot again. My brother was the only one of us who was still looking forward to his mussels and chips.  Mum and I had lost our appetites and were both edgy.  It was the waiting.  If my father had come back at six we wouldn’t have noticed how silly and pointless it was for us to switch, Mum to wifey mode, we to child mode. Shortly after seven Mum said, I do hope nothing’s happened; and out of pure spite I retorted, what if it has, because all of  sudden my father was a spoilsport in my eyes, or to be more precise, a mood wrecker. (p.22)

Crucially, this flash of rebellion is shared.  At first, only tentatively:

Mum looked at me, not as horrified as I’d expected, but with her head to one side, and then she smiled and said, well, we’ll see, and she didn’t sound as if she’d find it surprising or even terrible if he didn’t come home. (p.22-23)

In all the revolutions that have occurred over my lifetime, from the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia to the People Power Revolution in the Philippines and the Arab Spring, there must have been brief moments like this when people braved surveillance and betrayal to articulate the forbidden.  From those first tentative moments of trust, movements grew in strength, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Fall of the Berlin Wall amongst other remarkable non-violent revolutions.  (Not all of them succeeded, of course. The Middle East continues to oppress its citizens in ways the rest of us would never tolerate).

As the narrator’s courage grows and the truth unfolds, readers of The Mussel Feast can see the multiple ways in which a domestic dictatorship operates.  As a record of the overthrow of domestic tyranny and violence, the book is also a metaphor for a chilling bigger picture, offering not just hope but also, surprisingly, flashes of laugh-out-loud laughter as the edifice falls.

I’ve had this book since I read the review at Jacqui Wine’s Journal in 2014 but it’s also been reviewed by almost everyone I know, including some who comment on how long it took for this perceptive book to be translated into English, so I am hanging my head in shame at how long I’ve taken to read it when it took only just over an hour to read!

Stu at Winston’s Dad comments on the style:

This is in the classic vein of central European writing, that feeling of being full on, comma after comma, giving an almost breathless feel to the narrative and […] making you feel the tension at the table, the shadow of this father falls off the page over you as the reader.

See also the review by Kim at Reading Matters.

The Mussel Feast was shortlisted for the 2014 International Foreign Fiction Prize, which merged in 2015 with the Man Booker International Prize.

Author: Brigit Vanderbeke
Title: The Mussel Feast (Das Muschelessen)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Publisher: ‘Turning Point’ Series, Peirene Press, 2013, first published 1990, 105 pages
ISBN: 9781908670083
Source: Personal copy

Available from Fishpond: The Mussel Feast $17.54


Responses

  1. I read this in 2014, and rated it very highly.

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    • I think what happened to me was that I bought a whole heap of WIT books when #WITMonth first came to my attention and I’m still working my way through reading them all. I’ve read 81 WIT, 72 of them C20th and C21st, but I’ve still got 14 on the TBR.

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  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed this! It’s very well structured, isn’t it? Five years on, I can still remember something of the rhythm of this book, that breathless passage in the middle as all the emotions spill out. No wonder it is considered to be a modern classic.

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    • Yes, the narration is superb, Do you know if she’s written anything else that’s been translated?

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      • I don’t think I’ve seen anything else by her. It might be worth checking with Peirene, just to see?

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        • There’s something at Goodreads called Sweet Sixteen but there are no reviews in English…

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  3. This sounds fantastic Lisa – the narrative sounds like it has a real dramatic pull.

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    • Well, #NoSpoilers, but towards the end everyone (reader included!) is startled by a phone call…

      Liked by 1 person

      • See, that sounds fantastic. I must check this out.

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  4. One of my favourite peirene just read her latest they brought out this year

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    • So there is a new one! What’s it called? Did you review it? I think I’ve missed a couple of your posts in the last week or so…

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  5. Beautiful review, Lisa! I have wanted to read this book for a long time! Now after reading your review, I want to read it soon. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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    • I’m sure you’ll like it too:)

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  6. So glad you liked this, Lisa. I’ve read it twice … which says a lot because I think life is too short to reread books.

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    • That is quite an endorsement then!

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  7. […] The Mussel Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated by Jamie Bulloch – Written shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog finds this German novella “has a contemporary resonance [the author] probably didn’t expect when she wrote it in 1990”. It is also, she says, “a record of the overthrow of domestic tyranny and violence”. […]

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