Translated Fiction Book Club: ‘The Mussel Feast’

The last few weeks have been incredibly strange, for reasons we all know too well. I don’t want to dwell on this, as at the moment, this subject seems to be all we are receiving in our newsfeeds and the only topic of conversations with friends. I will say that I have been feeling quite anxious in these isolating times, for the same reason everyone else is feeling out of sorts. However, one thing that is getting my spirits up is seeing the translation and literature communities pulling together to make this time a little more enjoyable for everyone, and this translated book club is just one example of that!

Last week Peirene Press announced that they were joining up with Charco Press, Tilted Axis Press, Comma Press, Nordisk Books, and Istros Books to set up an online Translated Fiction Book Club, free for anyone to join. I for one could not pass on this wonderful opportunity to engage with people from around the world, all in the name of brilliant translated literature from independent publishers.

Peirene Press kicked things off this week with a discussion on one of their books published in 2013 (original German publication 1990), The Mussel Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. (WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!)

This short novella (100 pages) is written from the point of view of a nameless teenage girl in the form of a continuous monologue. The girl, her mother and her brother are preparing a special celebratory dinner in time for the arrival of their father from his business trip, certain that he will have gained the promotion he has been working towards and expecting for a long while now, hence the special dish of mussels, which, despite lovingly preparing them for her husband, the girl’s mother ‘does not care for’. As the three prepare the mussels and the chips to go alongside them, the narrator recounts scenes from her past, including the family’s exodus from East to West Germany and interactions with her two very different grandmothers. The most important points of the girl’s childhood however, are those in which we get to know her father. We soon learn that he imposes patriarchal ideals onto the girl, her mother, and her brother, all as part of his desire to be a ‘proper family’. The mother submits to this, and as the monologue develops, the father’s actions in the flashbacks become more violent, both mentally and psysically. We slowly discover that neither the girl nor her mother and brother enjoy being part of this make-believe ‘proper family’ and are much happier during the times that the father is away on business trips. Without his presence, the mother lets her hair down, relaxes and doesn’t comply with the normal schedule put in place by the father, however, as soon as he is back, the mother reverts to ‘wifey mode’. Back in the present, and the mussels are ready for the celebratory dinner, as they are placed in the middle of the table, the girl, her mother, and her brother sit down together, contemplating the mussels and waiting for their normally prompt father. Where is he? Why is he so late? As time goes on, the three slowly admit to each other that actually, they are glad that he hasn’t yet come back, in fact, they all tell each other, they prefer it like this. They begin to speculate on where he could be, about what could have happened. This is something that the reader never gets to find out, as, hours after 6 pm (the time of his scheduled arrival) the mother chooses not to answer the ringing phone, instead, she takes the mussels, which have slowly turned ‘poisonous’ and throws them away. The Mussel Feast was written just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and this is clear to see through the narrative, as the ‘mussel feast’ itself mimics an actual revolution, a realisation that the father is imposing a regime that the rest of the family no longer want to submit to.

I read this incredible monologue in one sitting, and although not a lot necessarily ‘moves’ in the narrative, the novella is incredibly fast-paced, weaved with repeated words and phrases, and unnervingly light-hearted and jovial in its descriptions of quite distressing scenes. The Mussel Feast explores themes of submission, patriarchal ideals, and suffering, yet it is not until you have put the book down, that you begin to consider the weight of what you have just read.

To open the book club Maddie Rogers (Peirene) and Jamie Bulloch discussed the translation of the novella. Bulloch explained that there were sometimes difficulties in translating the long and winding monologue form, as whilst ‘German lends itself to this breathless style’, English does not. Therefore, in order to tackle this, Bulloch had to make the decision to break up some sentences or use more ‘definite’ punctuation.

During the ‘discussion’ section of the book club, we talked about what might have happened to the father, and what the mussels represented. There were so many wonderful ideas and it was great to hear everyone’s different takes on these topics. Some ideas were that the mussels represented the wall, the ‘poisonous’ father, or the willingness to submit to suffering. In terms of what had happened to the father, there were some really interesting thoughts – maybe he didn’t get that promotion after all and was too ashamed to return to his family, or perhaps he was in the next room all along, listening to his family’s slow realsisation that they hated him and the ideals he imposed on them…

I thoroughly enjoyed the first online Translated Book Club, and will definitely be back to discuss Where the Wild Ladies Are from Tilted Axis Press next week! Huge thanks to Maddie Rogers at Peirene for putting this together and taking our minds off what is going on out there for an hour!

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