Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated by Jen Calleja: Peirene Press, 2017
Dance by the Canal, or Tanz am Kanal, as Peirene promises, can be read in a single two-hour sitting. The category of the ‘single-sitting’ novel is one Dance by the Canal fulfils in all aspects; engaging, complicated and addictive. This novel in translation is a haunting reminder of German history and of the all too familiar challenges unresolved in our current world. Kerstin Hensel, born in Karl-Marx Stadt in the German Democratic Republic, is a prize-winning poet. She also studied in Leipzig, the basis for the fictional industrial town of Leibnitz in East Germany, where the bulk of the story occurs. This is probably why the sense of place that surrounds the novel is so strong and not at all lost in the translation:
‘Katka knew a place under the Green Bridge for forbidden things and other thrills.
Goldenrod and something that looked like giant rhubarb grew on the embankment.’
The story begins in 1994 with the protagonist and narrator, Gabriela von Haßlau, feeling joy for the first time in years because she has decided to write a book, an autobiography on whatever blank scraps, she can find to write on. The reasons she has not felt joy for so long soon become abundantly clear, starting with the fact revealed on page one that she lives under a canal bridge, which is very definitively her bridge, with only the comfort of a thin, grey blanket (two in the winter months) from the homeless shelter to keep her warm. From then on, we are flung into two narratives, the one of her writing, living under her bridge, and the one of what she has already written, and how she ended up there. The switch in time flows beautifully, answering questions from the present through the past with just enough room for the reader to speculate.
Her memories begin with five-year old Gabriela being presented with a violin, ‘-Repeat after me! Vi-o- lin! Vi-o- lin!’ Her father, a successful vascular surgeon, tells her. Because language and words, words which belong to certain people, are so important to this story. A particular focus throughout being the ffffon in Gabriel von Haßlau that every character besides her mother and father take note of. They take note because von is a symbol of wealth; something which Gabriela, along with the rest of Eastern Germany in the 1960s, do not have. The von Haßlaus are living under communist rule and there is no place for their von any longer. Combined with the ‘I’ marked next to Gabriela’s name on the register for Intelligent it would appear she would be at an advantage, but her von and her ‘I’ are only the beginning of her downfall.
Being unfamiliar with the history of the GDR, there were observations, I am sure, that
were lost on me. The general consensus seems to be that us younger Brits do not
have enough knowledge of this particular period of German history to fully grasp the
extent of the truth underlying this story. It would possibly be helpful to read up on the subject before embarking on this book, for example knowing more about the huge
social, economic and political differences between East and West Germany, and
how they became unified, what the longer term consequences were for people living
in the East. However, not knowing the history does not impinge on the overall impact of the novel. Since the number of people sleeping rough in Britain has more than doubled in the last two years, and has risen by 134% since 2010, this is a novel not only about the past, but about the present, and how it doesn’t take much change for someone to lose everything. In the brief foreword that founder of Peirene, Meike Ziervogal, writes in every Peirene novel, she states “This book will make you think.” It certainly has.
Click here to order Dance by the Canal from Peirene Press.
About the publisher:
Peirene Press is a boutique small press publishing house, specializing in contemporary
European novellas and short novels in English translation. Peirene Press publishes its
translated European novellas in trios and Dance by the Canal is the final instalment of the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series.
Review Laurie Robertson
Laurie Robertson is a recent Literature and Creative Writing graduate from the University of Westminster, currently working at Penguin, DK in non-fiction works, craving the kind of fiction that the Contemporary Small Press reviews!