The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke
trans. Jamie Bulloch
Review by Alex Mee
I studied chemistry for a while, the subject that I imagined would most quickly lead me into mad science and thence world domination and battles of wit with an alcoholic misogynist in a nice suit. One element of the syllabus that was extremely perplexing, which has stuck with me longer than any of the information that my teacher’s tried to impart, was the beneficial untruth. Every time I leveled up, from GCSE to As and then A Level, it was revealed that everything that I had been told up until this point was simply a useful but utterly inaccurate approximation of reality. Remember how we convinced you that the electrons were little balls that shot around the nucleus, how we made you draw that innumerable times and then you took an exam that tested your knowledge of those little balls? Well you can forget it now.
All of it.
Go on, I’ll wait. You scrub two years of study from your brain.
Done? Well electrons are really shells not balls, at least until you get to university when we’ll do this all over again. We cool?
I found this deliberate deception rather charming. My school system was supposedly founded on honesty, and yet I was routinely punished for my honesty (I didn’t do my homework, Sir, I couldn’t be bothered), or my honesty was ignored (Isn’t an army cadet force a little hypocritical for a christian school? Do we really need an afternoon of military masturbation?). With Chemistry, I was routinely and smilingly lied to, and it really helped me to get a grip on the subject.
I couldn’t get this out of my mind as I thought about the The Mussel Feast, a book translated from German. Despite a few years of living there, and several years of german GCSE, I don’t speak or read more than a few words. I wondered how much I would be missing out on, could I even review a work that I couldn’t understand?
I worried my understanding would be corrupt, and I couldn’t help but pass on that false understanding. What if I were to trash it, as is often my wont, because I lacked the perspective to even perceive all its facets?
Then I fell in love with this book and decided that it didn’t matter. I’m a zealot, and thus my opinion is already tainted by passion. So, I give you my flawed and warped love of a great work.
Birgit Vanderbeke’s narrative is almost stream of consciousness, a young narrator burbles and gushes forth the events of the day and of her life, piecemeal at times and then punishingly elaborate. It can take some time to get used to the style which routinely circles a point, or an event, looking at it from each possible angle, considering and weighing merits, even if its a relatively minor point; before plunging on and through, giddily, to the next. At first, I found it disorientating, but if you relax and surrender to the ebb and swell of the narrative, you’ll be swept into a rhythm. It becomes a rather sing song outpouring, a harmonised catharsis of a young, troubled protagonist.
Vanderbeke is also a master of information, drip feeding enough to form exactly the perspective she desires. At times, I would receive a single, almost thrown away, tidbit that would not only change my entire understanding of a character, but would also make me feel uncomfortably complicit. I would regret the opinions I had held just two sentences earlier and want to apologise to the characters for my ignorance.
The Mussels Feast is an explosive and compelling drama where nothing really happens. It is the genesis of revolution and civil strife; a portrayal of the instant a nation moves from decline to fall, epic history condensed and refined until it can fit around a kitchen table. If the rest of the new series from Peirene Press as exquisitely captures transition, then the collection’s name, ‘Turning Points’ is well chosen.
My Dad spent years living in Germany too. He often claims that he only learned to say “ein bier, bitte” and as a follow up, “noch ein bier, bitte”. He engaged with the aspect of German culture that most intrigued him just enough to fall heartily in love with it. I cannot comment on the translation, the native significance of this book, nor its original beauty; I cannot see those colours. I have fallen for this simulacra, this potentially monochromatic remake, this smiling lie, and I think I understand enough to fall in love with it.
The Mussel Feast is by Birgit Vanderbeke and is published by Peirene Press.
Alex Mee is an Annexe writer and co-producer.