The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

21327200Fiction – Kindle edition. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Peirene Press, 2013. Originally published 1990. 112 pgs. Library copy.

At the start of Vanderbeke’s novella, a mother and her two teenage children sit down to enjoy a feast of mussels, a meal laboriously prepared for the husband who loves mussels and is expected to shortly arrive home with news of a promotion. The scene is set to be one of domestic tranquility, of the home that every German should aspire to have.

Yet, the father fails to arrive at the standard dinner time, and his family are paralyzed with fear. Fear that something might have happened to him; fear that leaving the table before dinner is over will incur his wrath. As the family continues to wait, the female narrator shares memories and observations of her family – a feast for the reader as they slowly learn about the father’s true nature.

“It’s astonishing how people react when the routine is disturbed, a tiny delay to the normal schedule and at once everything is different – and I mean everything: the moment a random event occurs, however insignificant, people who were once stuck together fall apart, all hell breaks loose and they tear each other’s heads off, still alive if possible; terrible violence and slaughter, the fiercest wars ensue because, by pure accident, not everything is normal.”

This novella slowly unfurls; the (sadly) typical portrait of an abusive marriage pulled apart to become an examination of repression, revolution, and the East-West divide in Germany. The father is a stand-in for the authoritarian East German government, intent on correcting what he sees as the failures of the past by subjecting his family to tyrannical rule.

As the daughter explains, “he had developed the most detailed notions of what a proper family should be like, and he could be extremely sensitive if you undermined these notions”. His notions were informed by the depravation he experienced – or, perceived himself as experiencing – as the only child of a poor, village woman. He insisted his family live up to his expectations or, at the very least, present a vision of perfection to the outside world, much like the government tried to present East Germany as a utopian.

Like the GDR/DDR with their Stazi organization, the father casts a shadow over the family’s behavior, affecting how and where they choose to rebel. People on the street might report their behavior back to him, so they limit their rebellions, which are small and seem incredibly innocent to an outsider, to the sanctuary of their home when the father is out of town. When he is late for dinner, the family still sits paralyzed by the idea that he could be standing outside the door, waiting for them to make a mistake.

Yet, the daughter’s slow confession of the truth becomes the ultimate rebellion because it starts a revolution within the family. Excuses for the father’s behavior are abandoned; the mother acts decisively when the phone finally rings.

This novella may sound depressing, and I admit that I wasn’t impressed when I first started it, seeing it as hardy a standout amid the other portraits of abusive marriages that I’ve read in the last few weeks.

But Vanderbeke’s use of a tyrannical father as a representation of the East German government is cleverly nuanced, balancing the dark and obvious with the subtle and humorous. There were several moments where I laughed aloud as the daughter pointed out the absurdity of the father’s behavior, reminding the reader she’s going to do whatever she wants as soon as she’s out of his grasp. A flame of revolution that neither her father nor the government will be able to extinguish.

‘The Mussel Feast’ was written in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It won the prestigious German-language literature award, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, in 1990.

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