Sibylle Lewitsaroff

Sibylle Lewitscharoff, Blumenberg, Trans. by Wieland Hoban, Seagull Books, 2016.

One night, German philosopher Hans Blumenberg returns to his study to find a shocking sight—a lion lying on the floor as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. The lion stretches comfortably on the Turkmen rug, eyes resting on Blumenberg. The philosopher with some effort retains his composure, even when the next day during his lecture the lion makes another appearance, ambling slowly down the center aisle. Blumenberg glances around; the seats are full, but none of his students seem to see the lion. What is going on here?
Blumenberg is the captivating and witty fictional tale of this likable philosopher and the handful of students who come under the spell of the supernatural lion—including skinny Gerhard Optatus Baur, a promising young Blumenbergian, and the delicate, haughty Isa, who falls head over heels in love with the wrong man. Written by Sibylle Lewitscharoff, whom Die Welt called the “most dazzling stylist of contemporary German literature,” Blumenberg will delight English readers.

The Blumenberg of the title is indeed German philosopher Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996) -- biographically and otherwise clearly recognizable as such. Still, Blumenberg is nowhere near traditional fictionalized biography, as is clear from its opening scene, in 1982, the Münster professor looking up from his work in his study to find a lion there. It is a creature that remains a presence for most of the rest of his life -- "One even gets used to something as extraordinary as a lion, he thought contently" soon enough --, unseen by (almost all) others, but entirely real to him. At his death there's a: "trace of lion's smell in the room", and some: "short, dull, yellowish hairs that could hardly have come from a human head" (but no one really notices either).
       How real is the lion ? Real enough. Blumenberg accepts -- and welcomes -- his presence, and rationalizes:
     The lion has come to me because I am the last philosopher who can appreciate it.
       As to its nature:
     The lion did not function as Wittgenstein had believed. 'If a lion could speak, we would not understand it.' Blumenberg certainly understood it. The lion acted as a confidence generator that lightly smoothed down the hairs of protest that kept standing up in Blumenberg's thought.
       It's a good influence on him, too. So, for example, Blumenberg finds he's now less envious -- no longer jealous of, say, colleague Habermas' popularity. And:
The lion helped establish clarity and trust, in the small personal things as well as the larger ones.
       But this isn't entirely a philosopher-and-his-new-animal-best-friend novel. The lion is a presence, but an almost spectral one -- and even more so in the significant chunks of the book in which attention turns to others, especially several of Blumenberg's students.
       This isn't a continuous, flowing narrative. The chapters are discrete pieces, some continuing the story from one to the next, others going entirely elsewhere. While the novel as a whole progresses more or less chronologically, even the Blumenberg-chapters include retrospective pieces, such as one that recounts an extended 1956 trip to Egypt. Others focus on the (more or less tragic) fates of several of his students -- while there are even some in which the narrator steps forward, questioning the entire narrative undertaking: 'A Brief Interlude about Where the Narrator's Responsibility Ends' is the title of one of them.
       One of Blumenberg's students -- though he is almost entirely unaware of her -- is Elisabeth, called Isa, whose out-of-nowhere suicide and its aftermath make up a significant part of the story. Another is Richard, who abandons his studies to go traveling in South America and meets a grisly fate. Another mutual friend of Isa and Richard's, Gerhard, also figures significantly -- and survives longer, though Lewitscharoff doesn't let him off the hook either, offering a quick preview of his death in 1997, age thirty-nine (adding that he left behind: "a wife, an eight-year-old daughter, boy of one and a half, and an extremely cheerful, not yet fully-housetrained terrier he had given his children for Christmas").
       Yes, Blumenberg is full of disparate elements and threads. Blumenberg, his philosophy, and his own life-experiences, including during the Second World War, inform the text, yet Lewitscharoff uses them very freely -- creatively, even; to repeat, this is nothing like standard fictional-biography fare, and the biographical aspect, the use of Blumenberg-as-protagonist, shouldn't overshadow Lewitscharoff's much larger intentions. Even as much is presented soberly-realistically, there's also a mystical feel to the novel -- even beyond the lion-figure.
       It is all decidedly odd, too -- with Isa, for example, "hopelessly bound to a novel", as:
     Everything that happened in Her Lover (Belle du Seigneur) by Albert Cohen was about her, with Blumenberg in tow. 
       Lewitscharoff dangles such intriguing pieces all over, without expanding on them in the ways one might usually expect. Readers are left to make their own inferences and draw their own conclusions, to connect the pieces (or accept that they don't connect ...).
       Even on the surface, the novel is a puzzle: the meaning of, say, one chapter-title -- 'No. 255431800' -- only clarified (in an incidental mention) three chapters later (it is the number on Isa's ID card, found with her mangled body after her suicide).
       All this (and more ...) makes Blumenberg dreamy and bewitching on the one hand -- and annoying on the other. It offers 'story' -- and, indeed, some good, conventional stories and episodes along the way -- but repeatedly twists itself into very different kinds of narratives. It requires readers to be open to its unusual approaches -- which can be asking a lot, here -- offering uncertain (in all the meanings of the word) rewards.
       Accessible on some levels, this isn't any easy book; it can be frustrating (especially to the reader wanting or expecting something different from it). Lewitscharoff definitely goes her own ways; for those willing to follow, it's a heady, interesting experience. - M.A.Orthofer

Not a word is wasted by Lewitscharoff in this superbly written novel where everything is significant. Themes and style alike contribute to the overall effect: a clever blend of poetry, philosophy and comedy by an author who is a master of her craft.
The novel centres on a fictionalised version of the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg, most famous for his concept of ‘metaphorology’, who died in 1996. Suhrkamp has recently reissued Löwen, a volume of notes on ancient and modern stories about lions taken from Blumenberg’s unpublished papers, and Lewitscharoff’s narrative gives the philosopher an actual lion, which turns up in his study one evening in 1982, and becomes his silent companion for the rest of his life. The lion is an ontological puzzle: is he real, tangible, or simply a lengthy hallucination? When Blumenberg’s wife eventually finds him dead in 1996, there is a smell of lions in the room, and a few yellow hairs cling to his clothes. 
Running parallel to the philosopher’s narrative are those of a handful of his students in the year the lion appears. Isa is in love with Blumenberg, though he doesn’t know it, and in despair she throws herself off a motorway bridge. Richard imagines Blumenberg reading his dissertation, and is so crippled by the professor’s imagined disdain that he cannot complete it. He travels to South America, where he is brutally murdered in an alleyway. Hansi, an oddball who torments his fellow students and the general public by relentlessly reading poems at them in bars and restaurants, becomes even more eccentric after leaving university, and eventually drops dead whilst being arrested for creating a public nuisance with his aggressive philosophising. Only Gerhard, a dedicated ‘Blumenbergian’, manages an academic career, and even he turns up in the book’s final chapter, set in a kind of waiting room in the afterlife, where Blumenberg and his lion are reunited with his dead students.
Interesting stylistic twists make Blumenberg difficult to pigeonhole. The lion takes the narrative into the territory of magic realism, and the final chapter in the afterlife goes beyond this. There are also interventions from the narrator, who, for example, having told us what is going through Isa’s mind in the seconds before her death, muses on whether it’s actually possible for a narrator to know this, and how much of it is plausible. A highly original work. -

Sibylle Lewitscharoff's Blumenberg is a novel with a rather Kafkaesque beginning.  We're in the north-western German city of Münster in 1982, and philosopher Hans Blumenberg is working at his desk one evening.  Suddenly, he looks up from his work, only to see an unusual object lying on the floor of his study - a lion...
The unexpected visitor is placid, unmoved - as, strangely enough (after the initial surprise), is Blumenberg.  He begins to think about the creature's provenance, wondering how best to approach his guest:

"Mit einem Löwen zu konversieren, das hatte Blumenberg nicht geübt.  Bisher hatte es ja keine Gelegenheit gegeben, solches zu tun."p.11 (Suhrkamp, 2013)
"Conversing with a lion wasn't something Blumenberg had ever practiced.  To this point the opportunity to do so hadn't really presented itself."
*** (my translation)

This is the start of a strange relationship, one in which the lion has a calming influence on the old man.
While the lion generally stays in Blumenberg's study, he does venture out occasionally.  On one excursion, he's seen by a sharp-eyed nun, the only person apart from Blumenberg to do so.  Shortly after his arrival, he ventures into Blumenberg's lecture, and while he isn't visible, four of the students sense something unusual in the room.  Like the philosopher, the reader is perplexed by the lion's presence - what on earth is going on?
Don't expect me to come up with many answers here: Blumenberg is a rather tricky book to work out.  It's based on the figure of a real-life philosopher, and it's a story that plays with the metaphor (or the reality?) of the lion to explore the themes the writer is interested in.  There's another similarity to Kafka here - this is a book with an obvious metaphor that defies unravelling...
An easier place to start is with the four students, the only ones in the crowded lecture hall who seem to sense the presence of the lion.  There's the nervy Isa, a beautiful middle-class girl with a crush on the elderly professor; her boyfriend Gerhard, a brilliant student with a troubled past; Richard, a lazy ladies' man with an urge to travel; and Hansi, handsome, unusual and obsessed with poetry.
The longer the story goes on, the more we learn about the four, and leaving Münster, we follow their fates after the near-encounter with the professor's mysterious companion.  It's perhaps no coincidence that they were able to sense the lion.  You see, the four are connected by their future more than their past - all are in for a tough time.
Blumenberg is a gentle, amusing book to begin with, and the reader will enjoy the bizarre appearance of the lion and Blumenberg's grumpy old man, very quick to accept the appearance of his new companion.  Lewitscharoff starts off with a gentle sarcastic tone, half mocking, half smiling at Blumenberg, and the other characters are introduced similarly.  Isa's intended gift of flowers to Blumenberg is one example of a humorous, farcical misadventure.
Gradually, however, the story becomes darker, allowing us to see a pattern emerging.  The past starts to intrude, specifically the Second World War, with the setting of the early eighties beginning to impose its weight on how the characters act and react to events.  Richard, for example, is shown to be running away from the burden of a German past, but his experiences overseas make him reconsider his beliefs:

"Die moralische Rigorismus seiner eigenen Generation, die verbockte Kampflust gegenüber den Eltern, eine Haltung, die wenig davon wissen wollte, wie es sich im einzelnen unter dem Faschismus gelebt hatte, wurde ihm allmählich suspekt." (p.162)
"The moralistic dogmatism of his own generation, the pigheaded confrontational attitude towards their parents, a position that didn't really want to know how individuals actually lived under fascism, gradually began to seem suspicious." ***

Perhaps the past isn't quite as black and white as he'd thought after all...
While the students are trying to find their way in the bleak Cold-War atmosphere, Blumenberg puts all his energies into his work.  However, with the arrival of the lion, he begins to reconsider his way of life, wondering whether his academic endeavours are merely a distraction:

"Für den Moment wußte er nicht, was er tun sollte.  Sein Produktionseifer, der enorme Fleiß, der ihn immer ausgezeichnet hatte, all das war ein Kampf gegen die Leere.  Ein Kampf, der nicht zu gewinnen war, wie er im geheimen wußte, ein Abwehrzauber, ähnlich dem Singen von Kindern im finsteren Walde." (pp.151/2)
"For the moment, he didn't know what to do.  His enthusiasm for work, the great industriousness which had always distinguished him, it was all a struggle against the void.  A struggle which couldn't be won, as he secretly knew, a kind of defensive charm similar to the songs children sing in the middle of a dark wood." ***

After a lifetime spent grappling with philosophical matters, the arrival of the mysterious lion might be the biggest conundrum of all.  It's not giving much away to say that the novel ends in a much darker manner than the one in which it began.
Blumenberg is a book which is both intriguing and puzzling, and it really takes a while to see where Lewitscharoff is going (I'm still not sure I got it completely).  More than with most of the books I've read for German Literature Month, there was a distinct culture gap here, with the writer assuming shared knowledge of Blumenberg himself and the prevalent mental state of Germany in the early 1980s.  I frequently had the feeling I was missing something hinted at between the lines.  In addition, the narrative was interrupted twice by the intrusion of the narrator, foreshadowing events from the characters' later lives.  It all makes for a confusing read.
Despite all this, it's certainly a very good book.  If I had to define the lion at all, I'd mix my metaphors and say that it's the elephant in the room, forcing the characters to think about something they'd rather just ignore (what exactly that might be is probably best left to other reviewers...).  In 2013, Lewitscharoff won the Georg-Büchner Prize, one of the most prestigious German-language career awards, and I can see why after reading Blumenberg.  I'm definitely keen to try another of her books - I just hope there are no lions next time ;) - Tony Malone

Sibylle Lewitsaroff, Apostoloff, Trans. by Katy Derbyshire, Seagull Books, 2013.

Gone, finito, The End, I say. A father who puts an end to it all before he wears down the whole family deserves more praise than damnation.' 
Two sisters travel to Sofia—in a convoy of luxury limousines arranged by a fellow Bulgarian exile—to bury their less-than-beloved father. Like tourists, they are chauffeured by the ever-charming Ruben Apostoloff—one sister in the back seat, one in the passenger seat, one sharp-tongued and aggressive, the other polite and considerate. In a caustic voice, Apostoloff shows them the treasures of his beloved country: the peacock-eye pottery (which contains poisonous dye), the Black Sea coast (which is utterly destroyed), the architecture (a twentieth-century crime). His attempts to win them over seem doomed to fail, as the sisters’ Bulgarian heritage is a heavy burden—their father, a successful doctor and melancholy immigrant, appears in their dreams still dragging the rope with which he hanged himself.
An account of a daughter’s bitterly funny reckoning with her father and his country, laden with linguistic wit and black humor, Apostoloff will introduce the unique voice of Sibylle Lewitscharoff to a new and eager audience.

Greeted with howls of protest when it was published in 2009 (while also earning the Leipzig Book Fair Prize that same year), German novelist and playwright Lewitscharoff’s English-language debut digs into the histories of a troubled family and a shattered nation and comes up with nothing but outrage and contempt. An unnamed narrator—who misses nothing and hates everything—and her infinitely more sociable sister are being escorted through Bulgaria by Rumen Apostoloff, an old family acquaintance, on the return trip home to Berlin from their father’s burial. As they travel, Rumen bravely attempts to share with these women some of the sights of his homeland while regaling them with stories of local history, most of them regrettably violent and grim. As they roll along, Lewitscharoff’s narrator contemplates her father’s suicide, her mother’s unhappiness, and her sister’s unsinkable attitude, while fiendishly riffing on Bulgaria’s dreary landscapes, horrid food, and mafia-controlled culture. Lewitscharoff’s caustic prose can be occasionally overbearing but it’s her sharp-eyed, unsentimental, and even lyrical musings that make this novel a spiky, pungent pleasure. - Publishers Weekly

Enormous paternal eyes penetrate the roof of the number 6 tram. The woman riding inside cowers at her dead father’s gaze. She tells us about her teenage LSD trips and the “Christian thunderstorms” that would flare up overhead. Other times, her voice lacquered in sarcasm, this narrator depicts her Bulgarian homeland. She spits out lyricisms about its garbage-strewn streets, inedible cuisine, and population of “blonde bombshells.” At the height of her moods, she swerves into tangents on Bulgarian angels whose wings would be “ceaselessly colliding, getting tangled…crackling and crunching.”
This narrator breathes an unlikely mix of fear, mania, humor, and spirituality into Apostoloff, the first novel by Büchner prizewinner Sybille Lewitscharoff to be translated into English (translation by Katy Derbyshire). The story begins when the narrator and her sister, two grown women living in Germany, agree to a grand scheme. A rich neighbor from their childhood community reveals his desire to salvage his circle of deceased Bulgarian friends by uniting their remains in a communal Bulgarian grave. He offers the sisters a large sum of money to allow for the excavation of their father, who committed suicide when they were children. They assent. Their father’s skeleton undergoes cryoengineering, a Russian technique that turns his bones to crumbs, and their wealthy friend invites them to join the grandest funeral procession that Bulgaria has ever seen. On the way they meet Rumen Apostoloff, the Bulgarian patriot who chauffeurs them on the post-funeral tour that comprises the rest of the plot.
But Apostoloff’s storyline is merely the vehicle for its thematic cargo. The events of the sisters’ journey are far less intriguing than the fierce brew of questions they stimulate: What is salvation, what is damnation, and how do we respond to the divine? As the narrator moves from one Bulgarian site to the next, she contends with the death of her father and the afterlife of her post-communist fatherland. Through a series of encounters and breaks with divinity, the narrator begins to churn out some complex answers.
At the novel’s highest thematic lies strange, nationalistic salvation. Every day of the sisters’ trip presents a new bid for Bulgaria’s undecided fate. Rumen takes it upon himself to portray his post-communist country with heavenly merit. He drives the sisters to monasteries, churches, and monuments, recalling the holy sites’ histories with gusto. He points out the hills and the sea and relishes each chance to adorn the Bulgarian landscape with praise. Rumen’s national loyalty is no act of self-indulgence. When they arrive at the monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria, Rumen trembles with emotion to describe the meaning of the mosaics: “It was remarkable, more than remarkable,” he begs his companions to understand, “that the communist party…wanted to mark Bulgarian history, and not only the history of communist Bulgaria as was usually the case, but the history of Christian Bulgaria.” Bulgaria, for him, is a country of tiny miracles.
The narrator has none of it. If Rumen is Bulgaria’s angelic advocate, she is its devilish detractor. She sees the same monument Rumen praises and unleashes an inner diatribe: “Rough filth, miscreant filth, insidious filth, repugnant, extortionate filth—yes and yes again, but this monster cannot be stormed with words.” She hopes that Bulgarian artists will be forbidden from so much as touching mosaics that could become future shrines. Throughout the novel, the narrator continually finds occasion to point out the decay left over from communism’s absolution. The cities, the countryside, the churches, the people inside of them—anything Bulgarian-bred has little worth. Each divine encounter that Rumen cultivates, the narrator strikes down. Even her narrative method seems calculated to her cause. With lyrical streams of consciousness, she costumes her ugly surroundings in beautiful language and then disrobes them. Her thoughts speed through images in poetic cadence—but each beat checks another box on the list of Bulgaria’s shortcomings.
Parallel to the national issue of Bulgaria’s redemption, the narrator contends with the individual issue of her father’s suicide. He too faces judgment. Many times, the narrator is kinder to her father than she is to her country. She recounts his Orphic voice, his prized gynecology practice, and his willingness to listen to made-up newspaper stories read aloud by his young daughter. When the narrator imagines her father in various forms of afterlife, divinity starts to shimmer. Angels become a refrain in her thoughts. She compares her father’s impeccable hearing to spirits who “pick up even the tiniest grains of messages in the words floating, drifting, fluttering on the draughts.” She pictures his voice among the angelic choirs and one day launches into a frenzied and elaborate portrayal of Bulgarian heaven. She shocks Rumen and her sister with descriptions of celestial choruses so powerful they “echo incessantly.” Angels crowd into her mind and speech as she propels her attention upwards toward the empyrean.
Her ascent only lasts a few hundred feet. She brushes up against the divine only to jerk away. Her references to angels are cut short by qualifications (“A terribly silly example, I know”) and demoralizing digs (“Just eat your angel salad and be quiet for a while”). When the angels retreat, her father enters her mind with a noose draped around his neck. She speaks of him time and again as a miserly creature, a man who attempted multiple suicides before landing on the right technique. She criticizes her father’s parenting skills and pointedly counts him among St. Augustine’s massa damnata, those undeserving of salvation. She memorializes him with her sardonic lyricism as “that large, ugly thing in the evening sky, drawn like a smudge of dirt,” and she assures us that “worms have gnawed away all the hirsute Bulgarian flesh on his bones.” Ultimately, her father cannot escape the bond that ties him to deplorable Bulgaria. The journey only begins once his bones have been dug up and reburied with his compatriots’ corpses. They undergo judgment together.
Toward the end of the novel, Rumen Apostoloff delivers a striking quote. He professes to the narrator, “I understand the difference between our lives and the consequences.” Unlike his companions, he sees the distinction between Bulgaria’s pain and the wounds the country incurred on its residents. He knows the difference between a pile bone-powder and the haunting spirit of dead father. Amidst the narrator’s divine struggle, Rumen pulls salvation from his life like a dirty bedsheet. He rejects the narrator’s evaluative system—and his choice paradoxically saves us. If not for Rumen, the story would straddle a line of cynicism all too entertaining and all too easy to dismiss. The chauffeur keeps the wheels in check. He is the constant alternative to the narrator and the reality she gives to us. There is good reason the novel is titled Apostoloff. - Stephanie Newman

I was sent a German edition of one of Sibylle other books.When it was on the German book prize list, I only got a few pages in before hold my hands up and admit it was maybe too much for me. Since then I have wanted to try that book, Blumenberg. But when I saw this at a price I could afford I went for this first.Is one of the most successful German writers of recent years. Born to a Bulgarian doctor and German woman.She grew up a socialist. Spent time in France and Argentina. She is known for being outspoken at times.
Alexander Ivailo Tabakoff married a woman with Hollywood qualties, a cross between Marylin Monroe and the alleged murderess Vera Bruhne, albeit with the flaw of a broad Swabian accent,marking her out for those in the know as a child of East Stuttgart. This origin, and the thick ankles from which she suffered all her life, prevented Lilo Wehrle from trying her luck in Hollywood.Instead she married a very promising Bulgarian and gave birth to his son. We can barely remember that sone,Only that he died of meningitis at the age of six.There were nasty rumours that he had died of exhaustion because his parents, ragingly in love with him and raginly ambitous, had sucked the very life out of him, The subsquent birth was an unfortunate one, at any rat,and did not make up for the damage – a daughter .
A son was first then the two sisters maybe explains there relationships to there father.
Now, this is a simple story on the surface a pair of sisters are returning to there fathers homeland Bulgaria in a convoy of cars with their father’s body as he had chosen to be frozen back in his homeland. The sisters are being driven by Rumen Apostoloff. The two sisters are very different One is polite well spoken older sister.The younger sister is outspoken and caustic at times. This is a tale of two sisters remembering their father who took his own life at a young age. The book is about fathers, visiting the homeland that they don’t really k part coming of age and also has a lot of dark humour in it now.AS the driver tries to open there eyes that only see the grey dark side of the country and its post-soviet world. A story of a father and his daughters coming home but maybe finding a home.
As so often, the bulgarian have constricted a huge theory around a single detail, in this case a complicated murder theory – the king had gone to Berlin in civilian clothing rather than in uniform, wanting to demonstrate at first hand his political tactic of keeping his soldiers out of the war as far as possible, Hitler , they say had received him in a black mood and dismissed him in just as black a mood,that may well be the case but it’s not enough for a murder, And the Bulgarians are all too eager to forget how highly Hitler regarder Boris.
A view at anglo Bulgarian german relations in the war and the allaince they had .
I can see why I wanted to try her books. She has been on the German book prize list and is described as a writer that is very unique this book mix so many things it is in part travel book, part memoir, part coming of age and comic at times. But the main themes of the book are fatherhood how his living in Germany affected his life. It is worth noting, he was also a doctor like Sibylle’s  own father. Then there is Bulgaria as a character in the book.As seen through three peoples eyes the sisters both don’t really get their fathers homeland but their driver draws them in. But even after his funeral. They decided to go with Apolostoff to the Black sea coast. He has spoken so highly about. This is the story of a man Rumen trying to get two sisters to open there eyes to the place they are Bulgaria but maybe also learn more about their father. An intriguing if difficult book another from Seagull books. -

Apostoloff is a road-trip book, two sisters from Germany being chauffeured through contemporary Bulgaria by the eponymous, local Apostoloff -- Rumen ("Rumen is our Hermes"). Their main reason or excuse for coming to Bulgaria is already behind them -- "It ended last Sunday in Sofia, although not for my sister and me, because we decided to spend a few extra days in the country" -- but it also continues to haunt the narrator (the younger sister), as the novel is also one down memory lane -- little of which is visible en route, but rather unfolds in her mind and recollection.
       Alexander Tabakoff is the one who got them here in the first place: the last survivor (and, financially, by far the most successful) of twenty Bulgarians who came to Germany at the end of World War II (Bulgaria was an ally of Germany in both World Wars ...), he wanted to now, quite literally, "bring home his one-time companions" and (re-)inter them in Bulgaria. The two sisters' father was one of the original twenty, and they take a handsome pay-off in order to go along with this crackpot scheme. Still, all the others can also be convinced (or bought) and so there was a convoy of luxury limousines transporting everyone, dead and alive, from Germany to Bulgaria.
       The sisters' father, a successful doctor, was actually the first of the nineteen to die, a suicide at age forty-three, when the girls were still young. Naturally, his death -- and this transporting-his-remains reminder of it -- weighs heavily on them, especially since, as the narrator admits:
     We don't know much. So what ? It's clear enough -- even if we'd majored in Bulgarian Studies, Feta Cheese Production and Indo-German Suicide with a focus on the psychopathology of male gynaecologists -- we'd still be out of the question to serve as magistrates on the matter of our father.
       It's not surprising the sisters have daddy-issues. They also have Bulgaria issues -- "We've had enough of Bulgaria before we even get to know it properly" -- and Apostoloff is no happy sightseeing tour, as the narrator complains and picks at pretty much everything they see and encounter in this "ridiculous and bad country". From the dangerous driving conditions and indifferent (and possibly tainted) food and service to the mafiosi they meet, they're not really having the trip-of-a-lifetime. That's part of the fun of the novel -- Lewitscharoff's impressive way with words includes an enjoyably wicked side, too, and what she takes down she takes down hard yet with the finest of pin-pricks, too -- but it also makes for some heavy and somewhat dreary going. And this is a novel dealing with death, too, after all, so there's already that .....
       The narrator is a bookish sort (reading Amis' Koba the Dread for ... enjoyment (?) on the trip) and among the few things that connected her with her older sister in youth was their love of books (even as they had very different preferences). This added literary element to the narrative is rather enjoyable -- right down to the narrator comparing Tabakoff's limousine (as opposed to Apostoloff's Daihatsu) to Raymond Roussel's fancy vehicle, suggesting:
     In principle, Roussel was right -- being driven around the world with the curtain closed and never getting out to look at anything is well worth emulating. 
       Yes, she isn't the world's most enthusiastic tourist -- and the attitude of course also reflects the carefully walled-off world she's made for herself in not quite dealing with her father and his death (even as he haunts her in her dreams), among other things.
       There's a sense of Apostoloff being part of a larger narrative, from the obviously autobiographical aspects of the text (it seems to hit and sit way too close to home) to allusions to some of Lewitscharoff's other work (Hans Blumenberg's lion already appears here -- an idea that she went on to turn into the full-fledged novel Blumenberg (2011)). The novel does come nicely full circle, the narrator even closing her eyes on the ride to the airport ("not wanting to take this hideous image of Sofia onto the plane with me"), but it is still only a partial resolution of what seems a much larger picture.
       Lewitscharoff writes crisply, dryly, stylishly -- it's simply good reading, regardless of what is actually happening (though note that I did read this in German, comparing every now and then with Katy Derbyshire's valiant efforts to recreate the prose in English: it says a lot that it still reads well in English, but that version pales beside the sparkle of the original). But even as there's some appeal to the moaning about all things Bulgarian, and the reflections on the long-dead father and the sisters' own paths there's not quite enough story to it all. Perhaps because of the constant travel -- they're always going somewhere -- the fact that the story doesn't really get anywhere beyond laying dad to rest wears it down a bit. Dealing with the deceased might be story enough, but it doesn't feel that way here -- it doesn't feel like that that's the whole story (or, indeed, that we get the whole story).
       Impressive, in many ways, but also a bit hard to like. - M.A.Orthofer

When we meet the narrator of Apostoloff, she and her sister are travelling to Sofia, Bulgaria from Germany in order to (re)bury their father as part of a plan hatched by a fellow Bulgarian exile. Their father, who killed himself at 43, is part of a group of 19 Bulgarian exiles who emigrated from Sofia to Stuttgart sometime in the '40s. An old friend of their father’s, Tabakoff, wants to bring these exiles—“scattered across the graveyards of Stuttgart”—literally back home.
Tabakoff, with a first-class business plan in cryoengineering (the Bulgarians had, after all, provided mummified foodstuff for the Russians while they were in space), had enough money to spare to tempt the family members of the deceased to accompany the exiled bodies back home in a convoy of limousines. The person in charge of ferrying the narrator and her sister to and fro while they’re in Bulgaria is Rumen Apostoloff.
The narrator and her sister, whose names we never learn, are the product of what the narrator calls a Bulgarian-German friendship: Bulgarian father, German mother. The narrator considers this Bulgarian-German connection as dubious as the Bulgarian-Soviet connection. The weight of their father’s overburdened life hangs over the sisters’ present lives; but while her sister has grown up to become a well-adjusted adult who knows how to make nice and maintain the peace, the narrator herself is contentious, opinionated, verbally-aggressive, and absolutely laden with irony.
While Apostoloff chauffeurs them around the country, the reader only sees Bulgaria through the narrator’s eyes, and she’s less-than-charmed by what Bulgaria has to offer. Bulgaria, after all, stands for her father. And her father, as she tells us, “usually has his noose” with him when he appears in her dreams. It comes as no surprise, then, that Bulgaria also appears equally tragic and absurd in the narrator’s estimation.
Sibylle Lewitscharoff, who has won a string of awards for her previous books, has given us an absolutely unlikeable and completely beguiling and whip-smart narrator whose dark and morbid musings on both her father and her father’s nation are funny but acerbic, occasionally even unpleasant, but always compelling and disturbing (or usually both). Her “patriphobia”, as she calls it, is bleak, but full of affection, so that even when she’s telling us of her father’s inability to find a mood and stick with it, we get the sense of a full character: a displaced, depressive exile who formed strong friendships, someone who was charming and well-liked and who sang beautifully and thought that fishermen made the best philosophers.
Meanwhile, Apostoloff is a Bulgarian stalwart who glowers and fidgets as she showers the country’s food, people, customs, culture, and architecture with contempt. He is, of course, much more enamoured with her sister, who smiles placatingly and listens carefully as Apostoloff waxes lyrical on the Bulgarian National Revival. Apostoloff acts as their Hermes, crossing boundaries and bringing Bulgaria into full view for the sisters, but the narrator is determined to look askance at the fruits of this nation, unable to separate the noose around her father’s neck from the fragments with which Bulgaria is puts itself together in the 21st century.
The narrator clearly sees Bulgaria with prejudiced eyes, and while she's self-conscious and astute enough to know when she’s projecting her family history onto a country, it’s never quite clear if she’s aware enough to know when she’s simply being a Eurocentric snob. She finds Bulgaria’s food, architecture, and people wanting by standards she’s used to in Germany. Bulgaria always comes up short by Swabian-infused calculation—its buildings too crude, its food too oily, its women too blonde, its men too thuggish.
When she finally approves of a Bulgarian entity—a house in Plovdiv—she notes the delightful salons with frescoes that tell of a “longing for Versailles and French customs”, it’s hard not to read the narrator of Apostoloff as an exile in search of her perfect Europe. It probably should come as no surprise that Lewitscharoff’s narrator adores the novels of Martin Amis, and she does in fact come off like an irreverent Amis character, if Amis had the knack for writing brainy, funny women.
As Apostoloff progresses it might seem that while Lewitscharoff’s narrator is grappling with a prickly family history, the novel is making a wider political comment. The German aversion to the Soviet Union seems to live on in the narrator’s indictment of Soviet communism.
In Bulgaria, she sees proof of its past ugliness and depravity everywhere, in remnants of Stalinesque apartment blocks and dreary “mummified communist teabags”. And although the narrator describes herself as a leftist, she’s committed to bourgeois comforts and values, and is certain that if beauty is to be found in Bulgaria, it would have had to come by way of Western Europe. This is no mere casual disgust for a country and a culture that makes up half of her DNA—this is hate, it’s the kind of hate that keeps the narrator going through tourist sight after tourist sight.
By the time we get to the end, we discover that the narrator does indeed enjoy hating Bulgaria as much as she enjoys hating her deceased father (or what he said, did, and stood for). What Lewitscharoff has done admirably—aided by Katy Derbyshire's sharp translation—is to base an entire novel on this hate and the troubled fascination it so often breeds, showing us how it cannot but invite an engagement: that hate cannot exist without love entering the equation at some point, whether in the past, present, or as yet-uncertain future.
Love, however, is not a word that the narrator throws around lightly. She might even scoff at it. But as surely as she loved her complex and perplexing father, the reader thinks, it might be possible for her to come to love Bulgaria in the same reserved and hesitant way.
In this charming and frustrating novel, the ugly feelings are the only ones that receive the most attention from the narrator and the author. Hate seems to provide a way in for the narrator to reckon with the two big things that frustrate her: Bulgaria and her father. It’s important to good-naturedly indulge in hate, she tells us at the end, if only to keep the dead in check. And, we might add, to keep those alive in hope. -

It’s taken me a long time to post this review. That’s because I was savouring the book. Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s novel Apostoloff won the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair back in March – and deservedly so, if you ask me.
It’s a road movie of sorts, of the slow-moving kind; no car chases or police sirens here. Two sisters are being driven around Bulgaria by the Apostoloff of the title. The younger of the two, the narrator, hates everything about the country, pouring scorn on the greasy food, the ugly architecture, the tasteless hairstyles, the despotic history; you name it, she criticises it. Everywhere they go turns out to be a disappointment, feeding the narrator’s glee at finding fault. For Bulgaria is the sisters’ father-land; their father left the country for Stuttgart in the mid-1940s and married their blonde German mother. A popular gynaecologist with all the outward signs of success, he committed suicide when the girls were young.
All this is revealed early on; what the novel explores is the sisters’ childhood in Stuttgart’s tiny Bulgarian-German community, their lives since then and of course their relationship to Bulgaria and their father. The plot is held together by a slightly farcical framework – the last of Stuttgart’s post-war Bulgarians has gathered the next generation together on a luxurious trip to the homeland to rebury their dead. The final act is a symbolic burial, as it turns out part of an elaborate PR campaign for the organiser’s new business venture.
There are two things I particularly liked about the novel. The first is the precise and sardonic language, neatly expressing the narrator’s almost malevolent public character: “The wind rose of patriphobia swirls up many a spark of patriphilia, I say inaudibly to my sister as we leave behind us the red dust clouds of the Kremikovsky metallurgy combine, once a child of Bulgarian-Soviet friendship.”
And the other is the fact that there is no saccharine closure; the sisters do not come to terms with their father’s suicide. True, they do unearth some unknown sides of their family history and find a genuine Bulgarian beauty spot in Plovdiv. Yet there is no forgiveness – the last emotion in the book is still hate.
This is a book to be read slowly, a book that shows the ugliest side of a post-communist country from an outsider’s point of view. There are various well-drawn minor characters, including the terribly likeable eponymous driver, and the two sisters come across as very credible as they struggle with their emotions. And yet there were times it made me laugh out loud, often at the sheer wickedness of the narrator’s commentary.
Interestingly, I note the translation rights have been sold to Bulgaria. -

The National


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