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The Unbearable Cat

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There’s this nice series of books published by German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung this year. Basically they selected 52 ‘well known’ books, reprinted them and publish one of them each week for a year. The nice thing is that they’re OK-looking hardcovers (cover font looks like Meta, text font like Garamond or Sabon) which sell for €5 a piece.

I wouldn’t want to get all of them as I’ve read a few already and I prefer buying English books in English rather than their translations into German. But apart from that, it’s always nice to be able to buy a nice book for little money. And the scheme seems to work rather well. At least you see other papers coming up with similar schemes (more tacky books like the bible for the yellow press or DVD series with operas for the conservative press) trying to get some share of the success.

Cover of Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being So far I have only bought three volumes of the series, mostly to get over amazon’s €20 limit for free shipping. And I haven’t been disappointed. The first volume they published and which I bought was Czech author Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The story is about a couple, Tomas and Teresa, a doctor and a waitress/photographer in Czechoslovakia at the time of the Russian occupation there. While that part of history plays a role in the book which lives quite naturally in it – with the couple emigrating to Switzerland just to return later and live under the supressive regime which forces Tomas to give up his job or his convictions.

Yet the story that is told is about the couple: Teresa who falls in love with Tomas and is happy that he loves her as well, taking her from the village she came from and her mom to Prague. On the other hand, Tomas – while insisting that he loves Teresa – still maintains and exercises a keen interest in other women, leading to a conflict or two. But, at the end of the book when both move back to the countryside and Tomas gives up the other women, it’s not clear whether happier or less happy than they would’ve been had they stayed in Zürich and doing the jobs they liked.

Apart from the subtle ambiguity, I really liked the way in which the book is written. While the story isn’t told in a strictly linear with small time shifts back and forth happening all the way through the book, it’s very well structured into seven chapters with many short sections each. I always find this kind of structuring very reader friendly as you can easily start and stop reading at many places.

Regular readers may have guessed by now that this book also answers the question I recently asked.

The second book of the series is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which I didn’t buy because it’s so thick and I wasn’t in the mood for that kind of book. But next up was Günter Grass’ Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse), a book that Grass who was awarded the literature Nobel prize in 1999 and is one of the best known current German authors wrote in the 1960s.

The book is very short, 140 pages in 13 handy chapters, but yet very different from Kundera’s book. To begin with, the language seems to be much more complicated in places. Long sentences and so on that took a bit more concentration to read than other books. The setting is Poland during the second world war, the protagonists go to high school. They’re fascninated by war ships and their power and while the war is lurking around it doesn’t seem to be a bad thing to them. They’re diving into sunk boat in their spare time.

The book’s narrator tells a story about his classmate Mahlke who’s a shy guy, keeping to himself and pushing himself hard to excel in diving. The narrator refers to him as the ‘Great Mahlke’ later on as Mahlke turns into a war hero who destroyed many enemy tanks. It’s a strange story. About growing up perhaps. And one in which the war looks quite harmless. And the narrative style is strange as well: quite a bit of duplication, short notes and so on.

Bookmark: 20-09-2003 flight LH 4535 Birmingham to Frankfurt, seat 22A.

The next volume in the series, number 4, is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby which I didn’t buy because I already had the English version. And the following volume is Thomas Bernhard’s Der Untergeher which I shall write about shortly.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

November 28, 2004, 18:03

Tagged as book, günter grass, katz und maus, lang:de, milan kundera, sz bibliothek, unbearable lightness of being.

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