Marzahn, Mon Amour

A podiatrist’s story. She stopped writing to start looking after other people’s feet. She needed to make a living. Her fellow authors were not impressed. But from that experience, she crafted some impressive portraits of people and place.

When many Germans think of Marzahn, they think of the original cover of this book. Plattenbau (tall tower blocks = social problems). Grey. Faceless windows. East (= left behind, still racist/Nazi). This book shows how wrong that caricature is.

She worked on the ground floor of one of those blocks, invited to join the business by a friend who did massage. She talked to her clients, her colleagues, and the people passing by and bursting in. Like the local lesbians with their dogs, rushing to report that the Russian woman had jumped from her balcony – again. The women surrounded her in a protective ring, warding off curious strangers until the ambulance arrived.

She grew up in the East. So she could sing pioneer songs to that old man who still expected to be treated like a party bigwig. She could feel the frustration of the medical professional working way below her pay grade in her new job in the “deep West” of Berlin. “Oh, we didn’t realize you had so much experience!” her boss said, years down the line, when it was too late. She knew what people had lost, as well as what they had gained.

Some of the stories the podiatrist hears are tragic. The widow worried about paying for her husband’s false teeth, that finally arrived just after he died. I won’t forget her or him. But many of the stories are funny. This is a warm, tender book.

Katja Oskamp herself said in a podcast interview that “people from the GDR are always talked about – we don’t have conversations with them.” Oskamp’s book has changed that. No wonder Marzahn, Mon Amour (Hanser, of course) is a bestseller in Germany. Jo Heinrich’s translation for Peirene Press has rightly received great reviews and is now a BBC Book at Bedtime.

One of the podiatrist’s clients talks about getting an annual pass for the local Gardens of the World park. This is my strongest memory of Marzahn: green, spacious, fabulous views back into the city centre and out into Brandenburg. Connected to a world it hadn’t been possible to travel to. Not what you expect. Nor are podiatrists. Next time someone’s providing a service for you, ask them about the novel they’re writing…

I read this and discussed it with the translator at our ITI German Network Book Club, which gave us a fascinating glimpse into how the book was born in English. If you translate between German and English, join us!

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