Roads to nowhere
The latest novel by Manfred Maurenbrecher, a German singer-songwriter and writer, takes us straight into the heart of provincial Brandenburg, where local yokels and recent transplants from the big city get tangled up in intrigues great and small.
By Eva Fritsch
This narrative formula proved quite effective in a 2016 novel by Juli Zeh called Unterleuten: you take a make-believe small town or village in Brandenburg, give it a particularly strange, ambiguous name (Unterleuten means “among people”, “socializing” or “mingling with the crowd”; Grünmantel means literally “green coat”, so it sounds idyllic), and throw in a few newcomers – ideally, dropouts from the nearby moloch of Berlin intent on making a fresh start in the country, with a penchant for, say, horses (Zeh) or underage girls (Maurenbrecher) – to create a combustible mix with the long-time residents. Around them you weave intrigues involving national parks, windmills or old family feuds, add a little local colour, e.g. rural dialect, and there you are!
Another such “village novel” is Saša Stanišić’s Vor dem Fest (Before the Feast, Random House, 2014), which is set in Fürstenfelde, a fictitious village based on a real place called Fürstenwerder
To know what it's like, just do itThree years after the publication of Zeh's Unterleuten, Maurenbrecher's village novel now adds some new and charming nuances to the genre. The various strands of Grünmantel are easy to follow because the book is divided up into brief chapters, each of which focuses on a different denizen of this made-up village in the Uckermark region of northeastern Germany. In addition, an appendix provides an overview of the dramatis personae and all their amorous and family entanglements as well as their political bents. For Germany’s lurch to the right has not spared this Brandenburg idyll, whose residents include not only credulous old ladies and dropouts from Berlin, but also “Faschos”, as the villagers call them, i.e. “fascist pigs”, who rage against asylum seekers and spout an ominous mantra: “To know what it's like, just do it...”
Almost like on TVAll this certainly bodes ill, but evil lurks in Grünmantel above all in a more fetching form: “wild belle” Lena Wiesebau and her little sister Dagmar, whose scheme to wreak revenge on Lena’s ex-husband roils the village. Cunning Lena eventually cosies up to Ibo John, a writer who has “fled” Berlin, banking on the liaison to boost her own career. Ibo used to write for the TV programme “Strassen ins Nirgendwo” (“Roads to Nowhere”), for which Lena suggests using her own vengeful scheme for a script. And this is just one of the plot’s many twists. Almost everyone in the village literally has a skeleton in the closet and they’re continually hatching new schemes. “Whether good or evil, at some point all that counts is the energy released by a given act. Then nobody asks how it happened, they merely experience how the new power evolves. Energy means change, which is what a village like Grünmantel dreads – and consequently longs for – most of all.”
If you had fun reading Zeh's Unterleuten and relish a plunge into the dark abysses of provincial Germany, you’re likely to enjoy Maurenbrecher's extremely entertaining novel. So if you want to know what it's really like, read it!
Maurenbrecher, Manfred: Grünmantel
Berlin: bebra Verlag, 2019. 224 S.