Bookthoughts: Die Entdeckung der Currywurst – Uwe Timm

Okay, it’s been A WHILE, and I’ve read SEVERAL BOOKS, but now it’s time to try to catch up. I was focused on writing at the end of last year, and this year I’ve been trying to submit things because I’m a glutton for rejection and disappointment, and that’s all been compounded by a rough January.

And now I come back to find that WordPress is totally different.

Whatever. On to the book. This is the first book I finished in 2019 – I’m going to catch up here and then go back to 2018, I think. It was given to us when we came to Germany, and until now has been a reminder of my less-than-great German. But I’ve been working on my German, and I finally decided it was time.

Warning, this won’t be a particularly long or insightful post, because the book is short and not in my native language, but let’s get stuck in.

The title of the novella translates to “The Discovery of Currywurst”, referring to the popular German street food of sausage in spicy ketchup-based sauce. There are tons of apocryphal origin stories for currywurst, and this one is decidedly fictional. The narrator is visiting the elderly Lena Brücker, self-styled creator of currywurst, in her nursing home to find out the story. She says quite early on that it was an accident, and if you’re wondering if one day curry powder accidentally falls into ketchup in a happy disaster, then, you know, congratulations, but that’s also not really the story.

Die Entdeckung der Currywurst spends a lot of time flashing back to the last days of World War 2, when the rusted out flasks and old bullet casings the narrator went hunting for as a child were still shiny and in use. During an air raid, young (or not that young) Lena meets a soldier briefly stationed in Hamburg, they end up at her flat, and she inadvertently finds herself hiding him as he inadvertently deserts.

It’s not a story filled with drama and action. It’s quiet and tense, evoking a small community under the immense pressure of a losing war, the shortages from that war, and the psychological control of the Nazis policing everyone’s behaviour so well that people police themselves effectively instead. It drifts from past to present, narration to dialogue with little fanfare. It’s slow and strangely immersive, all these mundane daily details beautifully invoked – and of course living in a world where you have to make coffee from acorns and trade potatoes off the back of a wagon for a flask of petrol isn’t mundane to me.

The love story at its heart is doomed, we know that. But for a while it’s in perfect balance. Right up until the war ends, and Lena doesn’t tell Bremer. Right up until Lena asks if Bremer’s married, and he says he isn’t. But for that short time…

My German is still not perfect – I had to look up a lot of the military words during the war – but even I could appreciate the way Lena’s voice was written, the way it shone through the text. It slowed my reading into her rhythms and made it feel like I was really being told a story. And not just a story about the creation of currywurst, but about luck and connection and what people need, about finding the means of survival and realising that they were inside you all along.

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