Sunday, 1 January 2012

German authors: Markolf Hoffmann

This is the first of (hopefully) many articles about some of my favourite authors writing in German; most of them haven't been translated into English (yet), so if you don't speak German an feel that you absolutely have to read one of the books im writing about, you'll just have to find a publisher who's willing to translate them!

Further entries will (probably) be about Walter Moers, Gero Reimann, Karla Schmidt, Marcus Hammerschmitt and Jasper Nicolaisen.

I would like to say that I am a longtime fan of Markolf Hoffmanns books, but I actually only discovered him two or three years ago. His first Quadrilogy of fantasy novels is Das Zeitalter der Wandlung (The Age of Transformation), which comes across as one of many pseudo-medieval fantasies about a Chosen One who has to save the world from an Invasion of fearsome lizard creatures, but quickly becomes a complex tale about politics (think Game of Thrones), about the authoritarian core of the myth of the chosen (think China Mieville), about the malleability of mythological truth and about the double-edged human capacity to dominate nature. Even though The Age of Transformation is flawed (it is a first novel, or a first four novels, after all), I would still rate it the best work of post-tolkienesque High Fantasy written in the German language. Due to a somewhat troubled publishing history, however, the later volumes went pretty much unnoticed. It probably didn't help these are "difficult" books with complex and not always smpathetic main characters.

A few years ago, I got to know Markolf Hoffmann and 2011, I had the opportunity to publish a collection of his fantasy short fiction, Das Flüstern zwischen den Zweigen (The Whispering Between the Twigs). Most of these stories are about the problematic relationship between man and nature, and at the same time quite romantic as they are critical of pastoral romanticism. They are post-Tolkien in the truest sense, respectfully picking up Tolkiens ecological argument and turning it from it's head to it's feet. Their protagonists tend to end up in pretty gruesome moral dilemmas. Most of the stories are set in pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds with subtle, but noticeable elements of magic, with something bizarre bubbling up here and there and a good helping of dark and occassionally grisly humor. The best comparision might be Witcher stories by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Hoffmann's new novel, Ines öffnet die Tür (Ines Opens the Door), is a YA book about a girl that inherits a secret room from her grandmother, the door of which, unseen by others, follows her everywhere. Once appropriated, the room grants certain types of wishes. However, not only is it situated within an impenetrable fog which is said to hide dangerous secrets, there's also an old magician who has been collecting rooms like this for centuries and who is now on Ines heels ...
Ines öffnet die Tür is an old-fashioned YA-book: There is an element of suspense, but it does not have the frantic pace or over-the-top violence and action elements of The Hunger Games or The Knife of Never Letting Go (the latter of which I consider one of the best YA books in recent years). There also is a teenage romance, but it has nothing in common with the hystericism of Twilight - it is firmly situated within the mundane world and has nothing to do with Ines' discovery of the magical room beyond the door, and when romance and magic finally intermingle, it means nothing but trouble and disappointment. The romance aspect is handled quite believable, because first love plays an important role in the life of 13-years old Ines, but certainly not the most important role. Her relationship to her parents, the sudden disappearance of her grandmother, her best friend Sonja - in the end, all of this means much more to Ines than one good-looking guy.
While all of this gives Hoffmann's characters a pleasant sense of authenticity and believability, it also makes the book feel a little tame. The story and the mystery of Ines öffnet die Tür are well thought-through, the characters easy to grasp and yet not flat, and there is a good dose of quirky humor, but in the end, it feels as if Hoffmann was holding back. Maybe there will be a sequel (the ending would allow for it) that delivers that little something that seems to be missing.

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