Angelika Klüssendorf

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Angelika Klüssendorf was born in 1958 in Ahrensburg, in the former East Germany. She lived in Leipzig from 1961 to 1985, when she moved to West Germany. Today she lives in Berlin. She has written three novels, three collections of stories as well as work for the theatre.

Featured Reading Group Title

Das Mädchen (The Girl) — shortlisted for the 2011 German Book Prize

When we first meet the girl, she’s throwing her own faeces from the window of her apartment — she and her little brother have been locked inside without a toilet for six days and something has to be done. The dwindling food and interminable boredom are a positive idyll though compared to when their mother returns.

The East German society the girl encounters outside of her home is generally indifferent, hostile, and incomprehensible — so much for socialistic solidarity. She’s an outcast at school, a thief, a sometimes-runaway, and she senses that she doesn’t belong. Books and days spent in movie theatres are her respite.

The girl is sent to a children’s home. She learns how to have relationships with her peers, develops interests and something like a sense of self. Sometimes she frightens the other teenagers with her angry outbursts, at times she wins their respect with her self-reliance. Though it would be difficult to call the girl’s story an optimistic one, it is certainly one of survival.

The narration keeps close to her perspective and is inflected with her attitudes. Klüssendorf’s style is often called ‘laconic’, which both increases this detachment and prevents the novel from sounding moralising or lurid. Reviews of The Girl often took special note of its setting in the former East Germany, but the book’s roots are deep and cosmopolitan. The story of the wretched is common to many cultures.

First recommended by Deborah Langton

More Information

  • Das Mädchen is featured in our German-language reading group for Spring/Summer 2012.
  • Sample translated into English by Deborah Langton (available to download on New Books in German).
  • If you’ve read the book or translated extract, let us know what you think by commenting below.

3 Comments

  1. Deborah Langton says:

    I feel particularly close to the girl in the novel having studied her experiences and surroundings to translate a 5 chapter extract last summer for both NBG and KiWi. By autumn the author was already working on the sequel and planning a trilogy. For all keen readers, I hope that is still the plan. We leave the girl at the age of 17 in this book. She is resilient, inventive and no victim. The book deserves a wider audience in the English-speaking world for several reasons. Firstly, we admire her fortitude and want to know what she does with her life. I deliberately avoid saying ‘We want to know what happens to her’ because the novel is about how she proactively deals with hardship and misfortune. She does not merely let things happen to her but looks for ways out, ways of getting the upper hand and surviving one situation in order to move on to another. Secondly, she is an encouraging example of the naturally inquisitive, self-taught but financially and emotionally disadvantaged young person who, on conquering difficulties, can be a role model for others. Thirdly, there is, for some, a debate to be had about the wisdom of taking young people into care or leaving them with a natural parent. When sitting at my desk, I loved having her tough, yet delicate facial features looking back at me from the book’s dust-jacket. I want to see her grow up and get on her feet. Do you? From Deborah Langton

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  2. Simon Pare says:

    I found this book very impressive, not only as a representation of what the life of a young person growing up in the GDR might have been like, but also as an illustration of the repetitive, cyclical nature of abuse and of the effort required to break that pattern.
    The descriptions of the physical symptoms of the girl’s suffering and unease (particularly when she feels as if spikes are sticking through her flesh, turning her into a kind of gigantic, unapproachable hedgehog) are striking and give, I think, a useful, and truthful, of the boiling anger, incomprehension and resistance of a young, pubescent girl to overwhelming circumstances.
    There is, of course, something predictable about her path from abusive family situation to runaway to children’s home, theft and violence turned on others in the novel. Although I found the girl’s to-ing and fro-ing between mother and father initially annoying (i.e. when is this going to end?), it is utterly believable and you can sense the narrative straining to break this pattern, just as the girl seeks to break free from her background and forge an identity for herself. What is breathtaking though, however often you read it (and here Klüssendorf handles it well, without exaggeration, almost detachedly) is the almost automatic nature of the reproduction of abuse, Rippchen’s unavoidable sadism to counter the acts of meanness she suffers herself. Towards her brother Alex (waking him up in the night, the chillis, etc. – her shifting allegiances depending on what state her mother is in), towards her schoolmates: the heightened flair for detecting weakness and exploiting it.
    And of course the setting in the GDR adds to the drama, first of all because it is so different and yet so similar, but also because her struggle to make sense of her own life is doubled by a wider questioning of the nature of the society she lives in (cf. the teacher’s reaction in chapter 20 when she asks why she can’t leave her country and what she’s done wrong to not be allowed to see the rest of the world).
    Above all though, there’s the girl’s appetite (for food, for literature) that drives the book forwards – even if you guess it’s all going to end badly and come full circle.

    Reply
    • Deborah Langton says:

      It’s interesting to hear your thoughts, Simon, and I wish I could be in the London or Berlin meetings to join in live. As I sit here in Munich, I’d like to add to your comments on the cyclical nature of the abuse. Yes, we see her ambivalent attitude to Alex, and this is worryingly reinforced in her treatment of the improbably named Elvis, the new baby. She adores him and at times seems so ready to take some responsibility for him, and yet we also see her starting to maltreat him, too. The GDR aspect is one to explore, yes. In many respects it is not ‘a GDR book’ in that we do not see overt political references. Maybe the heavy-handed intervention of the state with regard to her removal from the home is a message/statement and the whole GDR background is more covert than overt. Good to hear of others who find the book impressive. I’m looking forward to the sequel…..

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