Book review: Carla Maliandi – The German Room

by Thomas Blake

Exile is in some ways a return to ignorance, or to innocence. A foreigner in a new country must start from the beginning, learn the rules all over again. Where can I buy bread? What do these buttons do? When does the recycling get collected? How do I get hold of a pregnancy test? But a new start promises certain freedoms, second chances. The exile has licence to create herself anew, to show off a new and improved human being to a new and improved world.

Or at least that’s what the narrator of The German Room thinks when she comes to Heidelberg. Her goal, if she has one, is to put some space between her and her past. This is a physical task as much as an existential one: she wants to move away from what her own body was, what it did in Buenos Aires. In concrete terms, she wants to escape the fallout of a broken relationship.

But exile, even a seemingly simple self-exile-as-self-help, is always subtler than it appears. We soon learn that Heidelberg is not entirely new to the narrator: she lived there for the first few years of her life, as part of a wholly different kind of exile, a political one. So her escape is really a return. Why then does she choose Heidelberg over all the other cities in the world? It might simply be because we rarely know exactly what we want in life, and it is good, sometimes, to rely on the admittedly well-worn safety-net of history.

History often catches up with you, or comes around to meet you face to face. Very early, we learn that the narrator is pregnant, and that the father could be one of two men, both in Buenos Aires. Maliandi is excellent on the emotions of the mother-to-be: pregnancies in literature are usually either wanted or unwanted, but in this case a whole spectrum of feeling is explored. The situation is both complex and simple, real and surreal. And crucially, while pregnancy always exists in the narrative, this is not necessarily a book about pregnancy. Maliandi reminds us that there are other things a woman can do while being pregnant, that women don’t stop being women.

One of the first people the narrator meets is Argentine student, Miguel Javier. Their friendship, though never entirely equal, develops quickly, as is often the case when two people with shared cultural backgrounds meet in a new place. We are introduced to Marta Paula, Miguel Javier’s troubled sister back in Tucumán, and through her we come to know a clairvoyant, a modern-day witch called Feli. Although she never appears physically and her words are always related through the telephone conversations between Marta Paula and the narrator, Feli casts a strange light over the novel. She might be the spirit of Argentina, full of religiosity and superstition, in comparison with modern, enlightened, secular Germany. Is it too much to suggest that she might even represent the Eurocentric view that South American literature has little to offer other than magic realism?

If that is the case, then perhaps the novel’s German setting is a reference to the works – almost a sub-genre – of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which certain European cities and towns became places of rest and repair for writers. Katherine Mansfield’s first collection, In A German Pension, springs to mind (and not just because of the similarity between the titles), but there was a distinct trend for this kind of literature. It could be argued that this trend was still going strong when Anita Brookner won the 1984 Booker for Hotel Du Lac.

One of the things Maliandi does so well is to combine those disparate cultures, both thematically and stylistically: her prose balances passion and lucidity, it is informed by history (or several histories) but is never too self-consciously literary. Her sense of place is highly attuned and she is able to pin down a whole nation’s contradictions in one terse, unforgiving phrase (Germany is a ‘repulsively perfect country’). It is a new, uncompromising kind of writing, even down to its treatment of contemporary technology. Indeed, the technology of communication is almost a character in itself – the narrative wouldn’t be possible without the phone calls between Germany and Argentina, conducted on a phone that had been owned by a Japanese student who committed suicide earlier in the story.

The German Room is a quiet masterpiece of unconventionality, but that’s not to say Maliandi doesn’t do the conventional stuff brilliantly. She draws her characters expertly: the damaged, fierce, brittle Mrs Takahashi is particularly vivid. And her handling of human relationships – most of all those between men and women – is subtle and illuminating. The narrator’s friendship with Miguel Javier ebbs and flows; at first their connection is one of necessity – two Spanish speakers in a German world – but it becomes something much more nuanced, a relationship fraught with ambiguity, unrequited attraction and cruelty tempered by genuine affection and moments of reconciliation.

The novel’s strange, striking last few pages have the effect of making the reader question the veracity of everything the narrator has said, but also raise the possibility of happiness, or at least closure. This section begins with the delightfully misleading statement, ‘My last few days in Heidelberg were uneventful.’ It is typical of Maliandi’s ability to wrong-foot you with the most straightforward language, to combine reality and fantasy with enviable ease.

The German Room is the tenth book to be published by Edinburgh’s Charco Press (who publish Latin American fiction in translation), and the fifth I have read. They have all been excellent. Their work is a timely reminder that writing from that corner of the world is so much more than Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.