What a joy it is to newly discover small publisher Peirene Press that produces beautifully designed and carefully-chosen European literature in translation. They put out three books a year and each title is under two hundred words. Perfect for a morning or afternoon of really delving into a book and reading it in one go. That was my experience reading “The Mussel Feast” and I believe the all-in-one reading session enhanced the experience as it allowed me to really sink into the intensity of this story and Vanderbeke’s densely-packed narrative method. Set in Berlin before the fall of the Wall, it’s the story of a family that has moved from the east to the west side of the city. A mother waits with her son and daughter for the father to return with a specially prepared celebratory pot of cooked mussels – even though the father is the only one that enjoys this seafood. Narrated from the perspective of the daughter, she describes the tension of waiting as he’s very late returning home and the circumstances of their strained family life.
This nameless family has a dynamic which is sadly typical for many families and transcends the particular setting of the novel. The father is a tyrant who has visions of having a “proper family” and, when his actual family doesn’t quite fit the mould of this ideal, he becomes domineering and violent. Focused very much on appearances, he dresses impeccably and looks down upon his wife who thriftily buys discount clothes after the father squanders all their money on what he imagines are future investments of a stamp collection and shares that inevitably go bad. Ignoring their other obvious talents, he wants his son to be an excellent footballer and his daughter to be pretty. When neither meet his standards, they are punished. Vanderbeke shows great psychological insight when the narrator remarks “The more insistently he harangued me, the more stubborn I became, refusing to say a word, all speech abandoning me in one fell swoop.” When a child is forced to go against their natural passions and limits language often fails them – especially if they are a thoughtful introverted child like the girl narrator. Although it’s nothing like my own family dynamic, I connected with and understood the family strife as the father was continuously frustrated that they couldn’t embody his ideals. The children understandably resent him and it’s with a great deal of tragedy that the mother finds it necessary to defend him remarking “there are so many good sides to him.” I found myself hoping that he wouldn’t return at all, but there is a troubling sense that this would only lead to the total collapse of the family.
Alongside this personal tale of family life, there is a tension in the story particular to the time and place where this novel is set. A feeling hovers in the background that the battling family represents something of the mindset in Germany in this post-war period where there was a great split in the society’s ideology. The story explores how the smallest disruptions like a father not arriving home on time to eat the mussels he cherishes can quickly lead to catastrophe. Vanderbeke writes: “It’s astonishing how people react when the routine is disturbed, a tiny delay to the normal schedule and at once everything is different – and I mean everything: the moment a random event occurs, however insignificant, people who were once stuck together fall apart, all hell breaks loose and they tear each other’s heads off, still alive if possible; terrible violence and slaughter, the fiercest of wars ensue because, by pure accident, not everything is normal.” This quote wonderfully embodies the nervy sensation throughout the text that at any moment everything can fall apart. This includes both the micro level of family life and the macro level of government. It only takes a small change to a known and understood order to make the rules collapse and everything is chaos. The meaning and end of the story remain tantalizing ambiguous making this a haunting and thought-provoking tale.
For a story about a small moment in domestic life with the book lasting only just over one hundred pages, “The Mussel Feast” makes a big impression. I hope to read more of Peirene Press’ original and intriguing offerings.