Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Irmtraud Morgner, The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by Her Minstrel Laura: A Novel in Thirteen Books and Seven Intermezzos (1974)


If you're like me, you have this image in your head of the German Democratic Republic as this grimly functionalist places consisting mainly of concrete and barbed wire, with everything in shades of gray and NO FUN ALLOWED. And you've also messed around with Poly Play--the GDR's effort at an arcade game--in MAME, which humorously confirmed your impressions. And along with this impression, you assume, naturally, that the only art and literature to be produced is going to be some pretty intense socialist realism.

But--again, if you're like me! And why are you trying to be like me all the time???--then you'll read Trobadora Beatrice, and your impressions will be challenged. It seems that the official state policy of socialist realism was more of a suggestion than a rule, per se, because this novel is kind of the opposite of that: it's not about glorifying the proletariat, and it's not even a tiny bit realistic. Just goes to show how much I know.

The story is that there's a medieval troubadour, Beatrice de Dia, who gets sick of society's treatment of women and gets the goddess Persephone to grant her eight hundred years of sleep. She wakes up in modern-times (1968) and eventually winds up in East Germany, which has been recommended to her as the best place for women's rights. There she meets a trolly driver, Laura Salman, who becomes her friend and minstrel. And YES, it's clearly no coincidence that our protagonists share the names of Dante's and Petrarch's respective muses. WELL SPOTTED. They are also helped out by the magical interventions of Beatrice's sister-in-law, the Beautiful Melusine (as she's habitually known), who is half-dragon.

Beyond that, it's a little hard to describe this book. There isn't really much plot. Beatrice tries to figure out how to deal with the modern world, and goes on a quest for a unicorn (though not for any reason you'd think someone would do such a thing). Laura deals with being a single mother. They both have various romances. There are a bunch of weird little stories interspersed. There are the "intermezzos," which are actually excerpts of Morgner's previous novel, Rumba for an Autumn, that she was unable to get published (they're not total non-sequiturs; they concern secondary characters from this novel). And there you have it.

So the thing is, I am well aware that the opening of this review was blatantly setting up a thing where I go "you THINK East Germany is nothing but oppression, but look, miraculously, wild, great art can flourish even under such conditions! Triumph of the human spirit! Blah!" The only problem is that, while Trobadora Beatrice IS a super-weird novel, that doesn't mean that it's actually particularly, uh, good. To give it its due, I really was enjoying it for the first hundred-fifty-ish pages. And some of the mini-stories throughout are bizarrely entertaining, or entertainingly bizarre, like an idiosyncratic retelling of the Book of Jonah or an anecdote about a zoo that gets a king for one of its exhibits. But boy. A very large percentage of it can best be described as an interminable slog, where you wonder ARGH WHAT'S THE POINT. Certainly, the characters themselves make little impression. To be fair, I'm sure there ARE points I missed. Perhaps part of the problem is not being German and thus lacking the relevant cultural touchstones, and perhaps part of it is that translator Jeanette Clausen doesn't really gloss it very well. But there was just WAY too much WHAT am I reading and WHY am I reading it? here for me.

And you know, I think Clausen must've been aware of this on some level. In the introduction, she characterizes the novel as "a unique artistic creation that can be enjoyed on many levels, from a purely entertaining, often hilarious, and fantastic adventure to an incisive feminist critique of political ideology, science, history, and aesthetic theory;" this statement is echoed by the back cover, which calls it "a highly entertaining adventure story as well as a feminist critique of GDR socialism, science, history, and aesthetic theory." Leave aside the second halves of these quotes, and concentrate on her insistence that this in some way qualifies as an "adventure story." There's a word for that, and that word is Kuhschei├če.  In spite of its fantastic premise, this is not in any sense an adventure novel. And I don't blame Morgner for that! That obviously wasn't her aim, title notwithstanding! But the fact that Clausen insists on this flatly counterfactual notion suggests that she knew damn well that many readers were going to find the book hard going and wanted to provide some encouragement. No, c'mon back, folks! It's a fun adventure! Really! However, I do not think this strategy is likely to be very effective. I know what I read, and it wasn't that.

Morgner actually wrote a sequel to this book, which hasn't been translated into English (it was intended to be a trilogy, but her premature death from cancer prevented that). While in theory I'd like to see as much non-English literature translated as possible, I think that if a translation did exist, the chances of my reading it would be slim. And it really is a huge damn shame. From the description, Trobadora Beatrice sounded fascinating, my thing exactly. But somehow, it did not work out like that.

But to end on a positive note, here is "Dancing on the Berlin Wall," a great obscure bit of synthpop from the Canadian band Rational Youth.

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