Marzhan, mon Amour by Katja Oskamp tr. Jo Heinrich

A totally delightful, kind-hearted, empathetic read.

Peirene Press German Literature Women in TranslationMarzhan Mon Amour is a memoir-ish novel, collective history and a character study of a group of people living in and around a multi-storied communist-era plattenbau prefab apartment building in the working class quarter of Marzahn, East Berlin, told through the eyes and ears of a woman facing her middle years.

The middle years, when you’re neither young nor old, are fuzzy years. You can no longer see the shore you started from, but you can’t yet get a clear enough view of the shore you’re heading for. You spend these years thrashing about in the middle of a big lake, out of breath, flagging from the tedium of swimming. You pause, at a loss, and turn around in circles, again and again. Fear sets in, the fear of sinking halfway, without a sound, without a cause.

The narrator is a 45 year old woman (referred to in some articles as the author herself), whose partner is ill, requiring her to abandon her career as a writer and take up something else. She retrains as a chiropodist and joins Tiffy who offers beauty treatments and massage and Flocke who does nails, in a salon at the foot of an eighteen storey building.

Katja Oskamp Peirene Press German literature

Photo XU CHENPexels.com

If the opening paragraph quoted above, sounds melancholy, it represents a turning point.  Leaving the writing studio for the salon, though initially motivated for financial reasons, provides both practitioner and patient an incredible sense of connection, community and perhaps even at some level, healing.

Many of the clients have lived there since the housing estate was built forty years ago,

…now bravely coming to the ends of their lives with their walking frames, their oxygen cylinders and their state pensions, sometimes spending whole days not speaking to another soul, pouring out their famished hearts to us when they come to the salon, gratefully absorbing every touch, happy for once not to be treated like imbeciles…

Fed up with rejections, she becomes part of this small team and larger community, seeing her regular clients, getting to know them, listening, observing, caring for them, being part of the fabric of a unique, idiosyncratic neighbourhood.

Marzhan mon amour chiropodist chiropody Katja Oskamp

Photo Nico BeckerPexels.com

In each chapter, we meet another client, another character, a life, shared in an engaging and often humorous way, as she participates in the ritual of what is something between a pedicure and reflexology, an hour long treatment of the feet, listening to or being silent with the person who occupies that quiet hour, a temporary escape from their day to day lives.

A chronicler of their personal histories, we witness the humanity behind the monolith structures of these housing estates, the connections created between the three women and the warmth and familiarity they provide to those who cross their threshold.

And that one day of the year, when they close the salon and go together on an outing, described in a way that will make you almost feel like you are experiencing it yourself.

Superbly translated, Jo Heinrich, had this to say about the experience:

There are poignant sections, but it’s an ultimately life-affirming book; it’s funny and warm-hearted, the characters (mostly) feel like good friends and Katja’s writing is so well crafted that it was always a joy to retreat to.

I absolutely loved it, Katja Oskam has penned an ode to an unappreciated, disparaged area, its ageing population and the power of touch. If you’re looking for an uplifting, life-affirming afternoon read, look no further.

Highly recommended.

Katja Oskamp, Author

German literature in translation ChiropodistKatja Oskamp was born in 1970 in Leipzig and grew up in Berlin. After completing her degree in theatre studies, she worked as a playwright at the Volkstheater Rostock and went on to study at the German Literature Institute in Leipzig.

Her debut collection of stories Halbschwimmer was published in 2003. In 2007 she published her first novel Die Staubfängerin. Her book Marzahn, Mon Amour, published by Hanser with the subtitle ‘Stories of a Chiropodist’, was selected for the ‘Berlin Reads One Book’ campaign and thus literally became the talk of the town.

She is a member of PEN Centre Germany. Marzahn, Mon Amour is her first work to be translated into English, published in Feb 2022 by Peirene Press.

Further Reading

Review: World Literature Today by Catherine Venner

N.B. Thank you kindly to the publisher Peirene Press for the Advance Review Copy.

15 thoughts on “Marzhan, mon Amour by Katja Oskamp tr. Jo Heinrich

    • I’ve read a lot of Peirene in the past when I had a subscription, but these days I prefer to pick and choose and I was really keen to read this, and with very good reason. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I did and one can never have too many of the beautifully written, uplifting type of book on the shelf.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Germany is our next door neighbor…and I rarely read ANY book by a German author.
    I may make an exception for this one! With a wicked storm ready to sweep above my house #Eunice…I could use an “uplifting, life-affirming afternoon read”.
    Really, I should make myself a personal challenge and read German authors for one month.
    I’ver read more Dutch, French and Irish authors…shame on me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know I’ve not read many German authors either and over the summer I had a client from Berlin who was a great reader who told me she got a lot of great recommendations from a podcast she regularly listened to, of course it was in German and it’s not easy to find out whether they are in English or not, but with publishers like Peirene there’s a good chance of finding something that might be to one’s taste.

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  2. #Eunice…NOT going outside anytime soon and only hope my roof tiles stay put!
    #German books…that is the problem…where to find some good reading suggestions. What is the name of the podcast you referred to? With my Dutch language …perhaps I can find some German books!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve not read very many German authors recently either and just recently was inspired to look at German shows/movies on NF (via clicking on a tag for a show I have been watching) and realise that although I’ve read little I’ve seen even less. Well, on the upside, there’s plenty yet to enjoy! The idea of the apartment building setting and the character’s age both appeal to me as well.

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    • It’s interesting you mention storytelling via film/series as I find myself exploring those in a similar way to reading, I particularly enjoy Italian and Turkish dramas, all so much more accessible now.
      I’m sure you will enjoy meeting the residents of Marzhan if you get the opportunity to read this book Marcie.

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