A German Odyssey: Tschick, by Wolfgang Herrndorf, book review (English title:Why we took the car) (#AW80Books Germany)


I went to Germany (mainly) for the purpose of improving my German as I’ll have to start working in a German speaking town in a few months, and what better way to improve your language skills than reading in said language?
In any case, it was a great excuse to discover some of the German contemporary literature, and one of the books that took Germany “by Sturm” (on a storm) lately was Tschick, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. Herrndorf is a German writer who died in 2013, committing suicide while suffering from a malignant cerebral cancer. He published Tschick in 2010, which was universally acclaimed in Germany but, as many other things and books especially, never really crossed boundaries. At least in Switzerland – the French speaking part – I had never heard of it.

As google told me, it has apparently been translated in English under the title “Why we took the car” – nothing to do with the original title, which is short for Tschichatschow, one of the protagonists’ last name. So I’m not even raving about something you might never be able to read. Which is nice indeed.

So Tschick: Maik, a 14 year old student in  contemporary Berlin (very contemporary, get ready for a “mentioning-Beyonce” level of contemporary) is going through his usual underdog school routine, obsessed with a girl who doesn’t invite him to his birthday, stuck at home between an absent father and a relapsing alcoholic mother, and at first sees nothing worth of interest in “Tchick” who arrives in his class in the middle of the school year, an “asi” – asocial – rebellious and altogether strange figure, with tidings to the mafia – as rumours fly between his classmates.
But both of them still go on a unexpected journey, having stolen an old car, driving apparently without an objective – or the very loosely defined objective of reaching Walachia – which is more a symbolic destination than a real place in their minds – and they cross the countryside around Berlin, meeting a young hitch-hiking rebellious girl, a family apparently part of some strange religious community, and altogether forgetting about school and life to live as tramps for a while, avoiding the police.

The story, told from Maik’s perspective, is not packed with action – even when they try to avoid the police, paradoxically. It is not what it’s about, you might argue. It is – however – a brilliant rendering of a 14-year-old Berliner narrator style, both touching and ironic at times, with spot on expressions that where a joy to read for me in German. It would be interesting to see how it has been translated. It is also a delightfully warm novel, not in the plot, again, with its rather nostalgic ending, but in the obvious joy and love Herrndorf has for the two escaping teenagers and their dreams of wandering off.
So if anyone is looking for some contemporary German fiction, Tschick is a nice journey to go on, with a couple of teenagers that are as real as you might get them – short of actually having to nick a car with them in real life. A lovely read, then, made me want to look up the back list of Herrndorf’s work – sadly short, of course, as he died young. He also blogged through his disease, apparently from the moment of the diagnosis, and the decision taken shortly after that, to buy a gun as “an exit strategy”; a sum of articles that has been published as a book “Arbeit und Struktur”(Work and structure – don’t know if this one has been translated), which is now on my imaginary TBR. It must have been a fine spirit, and it is always a special kind of sadness to discover a great author and learn of his death at the same time. But still, we have Tschick, and Maik, and their rotten Lada. We are the lucky ones.


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