A review of Das Gartenzimmer (The Garden Room) by Andreas Schäfer
I was intrigued as soon as I heard about it: Andreas Schäfer’s new novel, Das Gartenzimmer. Set in Berlin’s Dahlem neighbourhood, it sweeps right across the twentieth century, charting the rise and fall of several characters associated with one of the villas for which the district is famous. The house has a mystery at its heart that drives much of the narrative, yet even without this the building is imbued with a strange power, variously described as a curse (‘Solche Häuser sind ein Fluch’) and a siren call. Almost a character in its own right, the villa forces people together and apart, and also asks the reader complex questions about history and memory: can a place ever be separated from its past, regardless of the stories we tell ourselves? A thoroughly absorbing novel with an eclectic cast and beautiful use of descriptive language, Das Gartenzimmer is a work of literary fiction that succeeds on many levels.
If it were told chronologically, the storyline would be relatively straightforward. Villa Rosen is designed and built in the early twentieth century by young architect Max Taubert, commissioned by a wealthy couple, the Rosens, who subsequently take him under their wing and help to launch his career. Then come the wars – not to mention the difficult period in between, in which Taubert struggles to keep his personal and professional life on track – and the decline of the house following the Rosens’ deaths. The years that follow, in which the house serves as a university building, are largely skipped over, bringing us up to the turn of the millennium when Frieder and Hannah Lekebusch acquire the villa and move in along with their teenage son, Luis. Hannah becomes obsessed with her new home, renovating it with period details so that it comes to resemble a museum; she regularly conducts tours and invites all manner of journalists and architecture experts to visit. At the same time as the house begins to drive a wedge between Frieder and Hannah, it brings together Luis and Ana, representatives of the next generation who are given access to the villa’s dark secret in the form of an archived letter. Although hinted at repeatedly, this secret is only fully revealed towards the end of the book: a narrative device that keeps the reader hooked but is really only a sideshow to the main act.
In actual fact, the novel flits back and forth in time and between the viewpoints of different characters – a complicated style of narration that could easily become difficult to keep up with. It is thus a credit to Schäfer’s clear-sighted storytelling that I never found myself lost when reading Das Gartenzimmer: besides obvious pointers like the dates given at the beginning of each chapter, he has succeeded in separating timeframes, adopting a coherent language that shifts ever so slightly to reflect changing ways of speech and thought. The characters, too, are clearly drawn, enabling the reader to relate to some more than others, and each comes with his or her attendant faults – believable shortcomings that have a knock-on effect on their relationships. Character development is a pleasingly tangible process, though maybe a little uneven: a few of the female characters could have been fleshed out further, while some of the supporting cast – most notably cultural journalist Julius Sander – are interesting enough to warrant a novel of their own.
Characters are at the heart of this novel: while Das Gartenzimmer is ostensibly an exploration of how the past can never be erased, it is chiefly about relationships and identity. From Hannah, who defines herself by her house, to Ana, a second-generation immigrant who feels under intense pressure to fulfil her mother’s expectations and defy those of society, Schäfer explores how we use stories to present ourselves to the world at large and the people we love best. His writing constantly circles back to the idea that ‘jeder sah nur das, was er sehen wollte’ (‘each saw only what they wanted to see’), an all-too-human characteristic that can apply in the context of a new relationship between two young people just as much as it can to Germany’s past. And here we are again at the secret of Villa Rosen. In interviews Schäfer is keen for the mystery not to be revealed, but it should be said that it involves the garden room of the title and Nazism (what else?), adopting an unexpected and chilling approach to this oft-visited theme. While the entire novel appears to be driving towards it, the revelation when it comes is fairly understated: a refreshing way of dealing with the darkness of the past that allows it to be present but doesn’t put Das Gartenzimmer solely in a Second World War box.
As well as being a keen observer of people, Schäfer is something of an expert on architecture – he has written for specialist publications and demonstrates his thorough knowledge in detailed descriptions of the villa. Although some of the more technical terms did go over my head (in German as well as their English translation), the overall effect is one of extraordinary vividness: the house really does come alive on the page, and I found myself wishing it existed to visit. At times controlled, at others lush, Schäfer’s language has a consistent richness and a pleasing rhythm that ensures the novel’s flow. He also excels at imbuing the story with an air of melancholy, which stems from empty rooms or seasonal changes in the landscape as well as the sad events that all too often overtake his characters. ‘Vor dem Wort war der Rhythmus,’ Professor Rosen proclaims in a discussion about art, and in reading Schäfer’s graceful prose I couldn’t help but feel this is a notion he has internalised: ‘Before words, there was rhythm.’
For many of us, place can be extremely powerful. It can anchor us or give us the sense of being adrift, can provide a sense of belonging or turn us into strangers. Our associations with certain places can also change dramatically. Once he has discovered its secret, Luis no longer feels the same about his former home; in a particularly poignant scene, Max Taubert returns from the First World War to find he hates the house he once designed: ‘Aus solchen Häusern sind sie an die Front gezogen,’ he explains – ‘It was from houses like this that they went to the Front.’ Consequently, a sense of place and its related emotions can be difficult to transport to the page, but Schäfer appears to have mastered this particular art. With more than a hint of the past being a foreign country, he combines time and place in a novel that is stylistically accomplished and compelling in substance.
A good candidate for translation into English by a publisher of approachable literary fiction, Das Gartenzimmer looks obliquely at a significant period of history while exploring universal themes such as personal identity and the spaces we choose to occupy in the world. To conclude with the words of Professor Rosen: ‘Kunst sei, wie alle großen Dinge, nicht zu unserem Vergnügen da’ – ‘Art, like all great things, isn’t there for our pleasure’. Literature should certainly exist for pleasure, but also to make us think; with Das Gartenzimmer, Schäfer has fulfilled both these aims.
Das Gartenzimmer by Andreas Schäfer is published by DuMont and available in German. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.