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Yannic Han Biao Federer
A Spacey Odyssey

Yannic Han Biao Federer's debut novel about coming of age dares to tackle the grand themes of growing up and yet manages to do so without grandiose words. Almost laconically, it tells of loneliness, death and the desire for belonging and closeness.

By Manon Hopf

Federer: Und alles wie aus Pappmaché © Suhrkamp It's summer 2001 in Baden. The towers of the World Trade Center, collapsing as if in an aside, serve the novel not only as a subtly rumbling starting point for its narrative, but also as a symbol of a masculinity that is being called into question. Jan is 16 and is actually named Jian, and he is actually in love with Sarah, but is sleeping with Anna, who has separated from Frank. He also kisses Georg on the mouth: Jian doesn't seem to know quite what he wants. He means everything “perhaps” or “a bit” – not taking a stand, narrating almost ironically is the novel’s programme. Sometimes Und alles wie aus Pappmaché (i.e. and everything is like paper mâché) gives the impression that it concerns itself with all current topics all at once: the war in Syria, the AfD, homosexuality and poly-amory are touched on, but never actually negotiated. This is programmatic and can be interpreted as the novel's strength, which aims solely to describe everything, but not to make value judgements.

Growing-up and excess

But in many places the novel very much conveys the zeitgeist in a pointed fashion, deciphers it and clearly portrays Jian's generation. For example, when it comes to omissions such as: “[...] and for sure they push the woman onto the back seat right away and take her somewhere damp and dark and full of cockroaches, and if she can't pay, the uniformed men open their trousers and – ”.“Between the lines it flashes out, the truth, hangs in traces on filler words and omissions, and gives rise to that ambivalent everyday feeling of both participating in a proper, genuine, emotionally charged life, and of being alone with these feelings and thus outside.” In this way, the novel captures the mood of growing up in the 2000s surprisingly well: digressing, intoxicated, then prosaically swallowing it all up once again.

For excess too cannot be left out of this exemplary piece of German pop literature: in 2014, Jian, Thorsten, Georg's little brother, and a Syrian kiosk owner are on the road on Germany's autobahns, totally wasted. They shoot up anything and everything, collapse in each others' arms, venture on taking revenge – boys together with boys. The real issue is mainly kept quiet, even if it repeatedly bursts out of Jian: men don't talk, they do – but what? For although at first glance the novel does not make value judgements, it does tell a story: that of hetero-normal, happy teenage love, and that of tyrannical homosexuals who have to be got rid of. Jian has emerged from a terrible relationship with Aron.

Longing for contact

The novel sometimes runs the risk of reproducing the clichés it actually aims to brush aside. And the chronologically fragmented narrative, which diversifies the structure of the novel, also raises the question of why certain aspects and characters have been so closely examined where others would have been more accessible and interesting. The chapter “Zurück”, on Mascha, who lives in a three-way relationship with Anna and Bobby, seems to serve only as a disquisition on the typical AfD voter from the East, her father. Presumably it is intended to depict a time and the lifestyle of a generation.

Everything comes together almost too clearly in the end, no narrative ends up going nowhere. But then one wishes for the provocation that would have left one with the big question mark that is so wonderfully drawn in the chapter “Mutter”. In 2017, Jian is now working and visits his Indonesian mother in Bali, and he seems to have gotten somewhere. Growing up also entails opening one's mouth, bringing matters up, making contact and taking risks. This Jian at least tries to do at the end of his journey, which significantly leads back to its source: his mother. All in all he has dared something, perhaps even understood something, at least he has attempted it: “and perhaps that is also why Mother gives so little away, I am thinking now, because then she would not only have to talk about herself with me, but also with herself, and somehow I feel as if I could suddenly understand her all of a sudden, and in fact, now she’s also opening her mouth, and she says, ‘Jian, in life – ‘ and her door is torn open, a uniformed man is standing there and shouting, ‘tiket?’ ”

This chapter tells brilliantly of loneliness and the longing for contact, of Jian's perhaps futile attempt to connect with people and things. Finding a way to talk your way into this world. His question – “but are you happy?” – goes nowhere. The answer, which would be the answer to everything, remains swallowed up, disappears in the rumbling of communication.

Cherry Picker Yannic Han Biao Federer: Und alles wie aus Pappmaché
Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2019. 206 S.
ISBN: 978-3-518-46939-2

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