Two novellas for German Literature Month XI & #NovNov

Yet again, I can combine two reading months into one post. German Literature Month is now into its second decade, hosted by LIzzy and Caroline, and Novellas in November was taken over last year by Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746 Books. I chose two very different novellas, one with a true crime feel, and one set in the Scottish Highlands that felt so authentically Scottish that I was amazed that its author could be German at all…

The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel

Translated by Anthea Bell

Schenkel’s debut novel is based on a real cold case from the 1920s in which six people were murdered at a remote Bavarian farmstead. Schenkel updates it to the 1950s, and tells the story through the eyes of an unnamed narrator returning to the village of Tannöd after some years away.

The people I met there were very willing to tell me about the crime. To talk to a stranger who was nonetheless familiar with the place. Someone who wouldn’t stay, would listen, then go away again.

It begins with the Danner family taking on a new maidservant. Marie’s sister had heard they needed help, her husband doesn’t want Marie, who is thought of as a little simple, continuing to lodge with them, so the sisters head up to the Danner farm, where Marie unwittingly becomes another victim of the vicious attack to come.

A neighbour finds the shocking scene a few days later when he realises he hasn’t seen old Danner about, when he bumps into the engineer who had serviced the Danner’s milk pump and found it odd that the farm was so quiet.

All six were murdered with a pickaxe: Danner, his wife, his daughter Barbara who had been abandoned by her husband Vincenz, a former worker on the farm, Barbara’s children Marianne and little Joseph, plus Marie. Speculation is that they were murdered for Danner’s money – he boasted of a fortune hidden under the floorboards. It’s fair to say that no-one liked Danner, he was mean and miserly to his workers and overbearing to his family, and subject of various familial rumours, but to be murdered in this cold-blooded way, especially the children.

Schenkel’s novel continues to tell the story very much in a true crime manner. She changes viewpoints between the narrator, the murderer and statements from the village’s inhabitants throughout, with some Interruptions into the text of occasional desperate prayers, which bring home the terror in the village. Most interesting are the sections told from the murderer’s PoV as they remain at the farm after the attack for a few days, seeing to the livestock, keeping the illusion of normality going.

The crime is never solved by the police or the narrator. Only the reader can work it whodunnit and why! Cleverly done indeed. Atmospheric and chilling, this was a one session read for me, finging myself totally immersed in this bleak scenario. The ever-reliable Anthea Bell’s translation never jars. I’m glad to have Schenkel’s next novel, Ice Cold which is again based on real events, and once more translated by Bell on my shelves, as The Murder Farm was a super debut indeed. (9/10)

Source: Own copy. Riverrun, 2009, paperback, 181 pages.

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The Peacock by Isabel Bogdan

Translated by Annie Rutherford

Why would a German author choose to write a sparkling comedy novel about a group of bankers on a work retreat in the Scottish Highlands? I was pondering this as I read this hilarious novel which was a bestseller in Germany. Then I remembered that the Germans rather love British comedy, and indeed watch an old British sketch from the 1960s called Dinner For One every year on New Year’s Eve–and then it began to make more sense.

Imagine the scene: A stately home in the Highlands that needs some TLC. Lord and Lady McIntosh are doing their best, renting out the cottages on their estate which they manage with the help of housekeeper extraordinaire Aileen and handyman-gamekeeper Ryszard. Occasionally, the chance for a bigger let comes along, and they’re preparing the West Wing to house a group of bankers on a team-building trip run by a psychologist, and are bringing their own chef. Lady Fiona, an engineer, is crossing her fingers that the house’s old electrics and plumbing will survive the visit, especially since she’s on overtime as Aileen has broken her arm and is limited to dog-walking duties. And will the visitors survive too in these tech-free environs, policed by the McIntoshes’ pet goose and the peacocks, which the Laird had bought on a whim and were now breeding wildly in the woods. Moreover…

One of the peacocks had gone mad. Or maybe he just couldn’t see very well. At any rate, he suddenly regarded anything blue and shiny as competition on the marriage market.

The opening sentences above don’t bode well, do they? You just know that there will be numerous blue, shiny things to get attacked by this bird.

The four male bankers fulfil their stereotypes perfectly and could do without their highly strung female boss, who has brought her dog Mervyn with her, joining in the fun and games that psychologist Rachel, a late replacement for the original trainer, has planned. But chef Helen knows that the men should be putty in her hands given the right food.

Things begin to unravel with the discovery of a dead peacock in the woods, which they assume that Mervyn has dispatched, as he brought it to his mistress. They plan to bury it, but chef Helen has other plans, which you can probably guess but require large amounts of subterfuge.

Only the reader ever knows the full picture of what’s happening in this deliciously funny story. Everyone else only knows a little part of things and thus misunderstandings abound and cover-ups complicate things yet further, then they get snowed in. It’s amazing how the author and translator have produced something so authentically Scottish between them, and managed to build in an air of ancient and modern coming together too. It’s doubly amazing that this book is really very chucklesome indeed, I giggled my way through it.

I feel I haven’t done justice to this novel in my review, but it is so good, I’ll happily read it again, and long to read more by this author/translator combo. Superb comic novels are very rare things, but this is one. Don’t just take my word for it, read Lizzy’s review here too. (10/10)

Source: Review copy – Thank you! V&Q Books, 2020, flapped paperback, 203 pages.

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16 thoughts on “Two novellas for German Literature Month XI & #NovNov

  1. Anokatony says:

    This is a nice pairing of two German novellas.
    Since I’m rather a slow reader, I have never combined reviews of two fictions, even two novellas, in one post. For the long, long novels I usually stretch them into two posts for a single novel.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      In the end, my reviews were long enough that they could have been single posts. But I have plenty in the pipeline so kept them together. 🙂

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    Both of these sound superb and I’m only hampered by my wish to read them in the original… although Anthea Bell has made even lesser works in German sound better when translated.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The Schenkel / Bell combo is a bit of a find, so I hope the other of hers I have is also good. V&Q’s list is so interesting, but I’d love to read more by Bogdan if it gets translated.

  3. A Life in Books says:

    I have a copy of The Peacock languishing on my shelves and must read it although I have to confess to watching Dinner for One a few years ago and being mystified by its appeal.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The Peacock is a hundred times better than Dinner for One (which I watched the other day – only the tiger rug was funny really). I thought it might explain why a German author was inspired to pick such a British setting for her novel though.

  4. Caroline says:

    I liked Murder Farm very much. It is chilling. Sadly, not all of her later books are as good.
    I haven’t read Bogdan’s book but I like the sound of it.

  5. thecontentreader says:

    Another two good novellas. I think I read The Murder Farm years ago. Chilling indeed. The Peacock sounds like great fun, so will try to find it here.
    As for humour, Dinner for One is shown every New Year’s Eve on Swedish Television. I have seen it numerous times and love it.

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