One From the Archive: ‘The Mussel Feast’ by Birgit Vanderbeke ****

Peirene Press are making waves in the publishing industry and, like me, many look forward to the European gems which they publish in English – often for the first time – every year. The Mussel Feast, which is regarded as ‘a modern German classic that has shaped an entire generation’, is the first of their offerings for 2013. First published as Das Muschelessen in 1990, The Mussel Feast was Vanderbeke’s first novel, and provided the foundation which established her as one of Germany’s most successful authors. Part of the ‘Turning Point Revolutionary Moments’ series, it has been faultlessly translated by Jamie Bulloch, who has taken the original and made a masterpiece of it. It is a wonderful addition to Peirene’s literary canon.

The Mussel Feast is a slim book, coming in at just 105 pages, and it covers a single monumental night in the life of a German family. The story begins in an interesting and rather original manner: ‘It was neither a sign nor a coincidence that we were going to have mussels that evening’. The narrator goes on to tell us that ‘we would always have mussels to celebrate a special occasion, and this was a special occasion, although in a very different way from what we’d had in mind’. The ‘mussel feast’ of the novella’s title is being given in honour of the narrator’s father upon his return from a business trip: ‘he preferred to stay at home with the family, so his return was always a special occasion’, she tells us.

Elements of the past creep in immediately: ‘he’d often request it [the mussel feast] for nostalgic reasons’, the narrator says, before stating details about the shrouded past lives of her parents; they sing a worker’s song together ‘which they’d learned over there and were forced to sing’. We never learn where ‘over there’ is, but we are drip-fed more information about their life as refugees, and their escape into West Berlin before the Wall came down.

‘The Mussel Feast’ by Birgit Vanderbeke

On the evening in question, our narrator gets a shock when a rattling noise begins to emanate from the mussel pot in which her mother has placed that evening’s supper: ‘the noise was driving me mad, and the hair on my arms stood on end. This always happens when I get a creepy feeling… I was kind of angry at the mussels for opening instead of lying silently in a heap… The mussels had created a morbid atmosphere in the room’.

Although father is expected at the stroke of half past five, he does not return, and the hours creep ever onward. ‘Afterwards,’ says our narrator, ‘we wondered whether by then we already knew what was up, but of course we couldn’t have known; we talked the whole time in hushed tones, as we still imagined that the door might open at any moment and he’d be standing there and catch us talking about him, and that really wouldn’t be right’. She confides in us throughout: ‘… soon it turned out that both my brother and I would prefer him not to come home; we no longer liked being a proper family, as he called it’.

The first person perspective of our unnamed female narrator is engaging, and the story intrigues from the outset. Several of the narrative elements are repeated throughout, but this just adds to the simultaneous charm and darkness of the novella. The style which Vanderbeke has adopted is that of a stream of consciousness, and it works incredibly well with the story as it unfolds. Such a sense of atmosphere is masterfully built up.

The characters in The Mussel Feast are intricately crafted, and although we never learn their names, they feel incredibly realistic. The mother of the narrator, a schoolteacher, inhabits two personas – a kind and easy to get on with woman whilst her husband is away on business, but one who complains about all the children have ‘done wrong’ during the day whenever he is at home. The narrator calls this her slip into ‘wifey mode’: ‘I didn’t like it when Mum switched; I found it embarrassing… I preferred it 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’. The narrator and her younger brother are united in their sadness, often say to their father that they ‘ruined his whole life, and he said it too, this endless disappointment with my family is ruining my life’.

One of the key themes in The Mussel Feast is violence and cruelty in all its many guises. Although she can be incredibly compassionate, the mother is also exceedingly cruel, telling her daughter out of the blue that she ‘won’t find a husband anyway… She was seriously worried that nobody would ever marry me, unlikeable as I was, and unappealingly stubborn since early childhood’. The father is a constant tyranny, shrouding the family in a cloud of fear which descends whenever he is present in the house. He physically abuses his children: ‘He tried to use violence to knock the stubbornness out of me, just as he tried to use violence to knock the wimpishness out of my brother.’

Vanderbeke wrote the novella because she ‘wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical,’ she tells us, ‘to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga’. It is an incredible piece of literature in both its power and its story – rich, dark, engaging and elegant in its telling.

The book becomes darker as it progresses, and the sense of foreboding builds to a tense crescendo. It is filled with horrors for our matter-of-fact narrator and is not an easy book to read due to its subject matter, but it does all that a piece of literature should – it intrigues, it startles, it unsettles, it shocks, it causes a flurry of thoughts to stir up in the mind of the reader and, above all, it pulls the reader in and refuses to let go.

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