by Fong Min Hun
Marzahn, Mon Amour, the Dublin Literary Award 2023 winner by Katja Oskamp (translated by Jo Heinrich), brims with warmth. Part memoir and part collective history, Marzahn is a portrait of the eponymous Berlin district, its inhabitants and Oskamp’s relationships with them. It is therefore perplexing that the publisher had unwisely included the all-too-familiar “This book is a work of fiction” caveat in the edition notice of the book when this is clearly not the case.
On the one hand, this is typical fare: an attempt by the publisher to dissemble and taichi legal liability away. But from a reader’s perspective, it is impossible and unjust to read Marzahn as a pure work of fiction. In doing so, we do great disservice to the writer, the book and the book’s subjects. Especially in Marzahn where the author’s intention is clear throughout the book: Here are these people and here are their stories. Read and bear witness, for these stories and these lives matter! Clearly, it wouldn’t matter so much if these stories and lives were merely “coincidental” as the caveat would have us believe.
This issue aside, Marzahn, Mon Amour is a splendid book that is touching without falling into the pitfalls of whimsy and over-sentimentality. The narrator of the book (read: Oskamp) is a former professional writer who has retrained as a chiropodist and is working at a beauty salon in Marzahn, a Berlin district which was part of the former German Democratic Republic. The book begins with her decision to change careers in her middle-age, a decision, she says, that was partly due to a setback with her writing career, but also by the changing seasons of her life:
I was forty-four years old when I reached the middle of the big lake. My life had grown stale: my offspring had flown the nest, my other half was ill and my writing, which had kept me busy until then, was more than a little iffy. I was carrying something bitter within me, completing the invisibility that befalls women over forty.
This struggle against invisibility is a central theme of the book. Marzahn, for one, is an overlooked district that would not be regarded as an ‘iconic’ German district or a must-see for tourists to Berlin. Developed as a model socialist city in the 1970s, Marzahn once held the dubious honour of being the largest expanse of plattenbau prefabricated tower blocks (read: concrete jungle) in Europe. The district was meant to be one of the shining examples of the central planning prowess of the German Democratic Republic, but the fall of the Berlin Wall saw an exodus of young, progressive people to pastures greener. Marzahn subsequently became home to socialist die-hards, and is today still regarded as a bastion for the German far-right.
Oskamp does not judge. Chapter by chapter, Oskamp tells the stories of her clients, her co-workers and her city with affection without glossing over the sharper corners. Her clients are mainly elderly Marzahnites, former East Germans whose identities were crystallised before German reunification. Despite some of their unique foibles — Herr Pietsch was a right-leaning party organiser in his prime and whose laser-eyed focus on efficiency and order has carried over to his 70s, to the chagrin of his hiking group — these are ordinary people who have lived through the transition from communism to capitalism. There are those among them who have lived admirable lives of sacrifice and duty, but whose status as residents of a district past its prime have consigned them to invisibility.
Having spent time in marginalised cities such as Marzahn, Oskamp’s book tugs firmly at my heartstrings. As a former journalist working in such communities, I can tell you first-hand that these inhabitants are generally closely drawn together and fiercely protective of theirs and their stories. It takes patience and a great deal of empathy before the walls start to come down brick by brick, but the stories and friendships made are usually worth the effort. Chiropody is probably an ideal way of building such relationships; after all, it’s probably quite difficult to hold anyone’s feet for an extended period of time without some chat.
Marzahn is also a book about personal epiphany, the virtues of the small, and the gratification of work dedicated to the service of others. In an interview with The Irish Times, Oskamp said she “saw how people dealt with loneliness, with children leaving, losing their flat, their job, disappointment, and I got a lot out of this on a daily basis. It was really important for me to understand that you can always rely on that: these people supported me, they helped me, and in that moment of my life I was very open to these small, friendly, warm gestures.”
In the book, she describes how her decision to switch from writing to chiropody — a “comedown” of sorts — is greeted by those around her with revulsion, incomprehension and, “worst of all, sympathy.” And yet, this career switch would fundamentally change her life for the better. The bitterness disappears, and she finds that her world is significantly enlarged by her new role in the service of others. Seldom emerges the thought that a small, ordinary life can be more gratifying than one of a higher calling, but it can be so.
“It was very important to me at the time that I wasn’t stuck in the intellectual writing experience, a writer in this writing tower,” Oskamp said in the interview. “If you are in front of your screen all day long you don’t know in the evening what actually made you tired, what we achieved or did not achieve. In chiropody I know every evening what I have done. I know I had 13 or 16 pairs of feet, everybody was happy, everybody was satisfied, everybody left in a better mood than they entered the room, and this is something very satisfying.”
As Voltaire says in Candide, we must cultivate our garden.
Marzahn, Mon Amour is available in-store and on our online shop.