Я means I
In recent years, origin has been a frequently explored theme in German-language literature. Now, in her new book, Lena Gorelik explores her past in literary form.
By Holger Moos
Lena Gorelik begins her novel Wer wir sind (Who We Are) with the Russian word for “I”. In Russian, “I” consists of the letter Я, pronounced “ya”. That sounds very life-affirming to German ears. But it is the last letter in the Russian alphabet – and that’s also how they were raised, Gorelik says. In other words, their own desires are the last things they can consider.
No longer certain how and when she became the person she is today, she begins to recall her history: the first eleven years of her life in St Petersburg, emigration, then her family’s arrival in Germany as Jewish quota refugees in 1992, their difficult initial years in a new homeland and the recent past – always aware of the risk that the past can be very dominant: “How memory sometimes drowns out the now.”
SWabian HOCHDEUTSCHThe family initially lives in refugee accommodations in Ludwigsburg, so at first young Lena believes that the Swabian dialect is proper German. She wonders about the strange German spoken on the daily news.
The first-person narrator looks back at her life and that of her family very associatively, with many leaps in time and intentional repetitions. Many a maternal complaint is fed by reproaches to the daughter; over and over her mother asks and bemoans, “Don’t you remember? You’ve forgotten what family is.”
Foreignness manifests itself both in life and in language. Gorelik regularly uses Russian words and phrases in the book. Russian migrates into German, while the Lena in the novel does all she can to acquire German so she no longer awkwardly stands out. Lena’s mother constantly hears the words “Why don’t you learn German first?” She, of all people, who graduated summa cum laude with a degree in engineering in Russia, but now has to beg for cleaning jobs in Germany.
language as a criteria for exclusionLena doesn’t want to experience that: the disdain, the exclusion just because of language deficits. She is ashamed of her parents’ awkwardness. She is intelligent and ambitious, skips a class, but that also teaches her about the phenomenon of envy: she is considered an overachiever. “The word overachiever doesn’t translate into Russian.”
Memory, however, is unreliable. Lena’s mother, who demands remembrance, does so to compensate for the fragility of the present with stability sought in the past. Lena, by contrast, questions it: “As if there were a truth in remembering.”
Ultimately, the book closes with a declaration of love for her mother, even though Lena cannot express how important she was for her growth. “I don’t tell her that it is her strength that I carry inside me.” The protagonist recognises that shame is an expression of helplessness and is ashamed of this feeling. Writing, after all, means self-assurance and reconciliation for her. “That’s your story,” Lena’s mother states.
Berlin: Rowohlt Berlin, 2021. 320 S.