I’m fairly sure I haven’t read a novel that is, in its entirety, a monologue. For that reason alone, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke and translated from German by Jamie Bulloch was an interesting reading experience.
It’s billed as the “…German book that has shaped an entire generation” – I guess if you’re going to make a statement, make it a big one.
The Mussel Feast is the story of a mother and her two teenage children, who are sitting at the kitchen table waiting for their father to return from work. They have prepared a large pot of mussels for dinner – the mussels are a ‘special occasion’ dish for the family and they’re anticipating news of the father’s promotion. But at the usual hour, their father has not returned home and the mussels go cold. What has happened to him?
The story is told from the daughter’s perspective – the mussels, the dinner and waiting for their father merely sets the scene for her commentary on everything from her piano practice and her grandmother to holiday destinations and nail polish. By delivering a monolgue, the story moves seamlessly from one topic to another – one sequence, spanning three or four pages, begins with the ugliness of the living room wall unit and moves to stamp collections and then to the failing of the education system. Just as one’s mind wanders, so does the story. Dialogue would get in the way.
But from all of these apparently inconsequential details emerges a very clear picture of the father – he is a bully, he is a tyrant and he is mean.
“Having to get to the bottom of the truth in the evenings – even if he could see and enjoy the beauty of logical conclusions – as well as meting out punishments and restoring order in his family, spoiled my father’s mood until long after the news.”
Apparently Vanderbeke wrote The Mussel Feast just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, in attempt to show how revolutions start. In this case, the fictional family are East German refugees living in the West, but the story is actually far more subtle than that and one that I suspect will linger.
There’s nothing to be had with this book except mussels of course. Despite having had the worst food poisoning of my life, courtesy of a mussel, I still eat them. My favourite mussel dish? Mussels in saffron sauce.