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‘Crossing languages and collecting butterflies’ [book review]

Putin’s Postbox by Marcel Beyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

German writer Marcel Beyer is a man of many talents. For the past three decades he has been publishing poetry, fiction and essays, translating poetry by Gertrude Stein and Michael Hofmann, and helping to shape the German-speaking literary scene in his roles as editor, publisher and member of numerous cultural institutions. As might be expected to go along with such an illustrious CV, Beyer seems to have a curious mind and to pursue his interests avidly, reading widely and amassing a stockpile of knowledge in the fields of art, music, literature, languages, politics and history – his novels in particular are known for grappling with National Socialism in Germany – plus an eclectic array of altogether more niche subjects: ornithology, for example. What results from such broad intellectual roaming is essays of great depth and creativity, eight of which are collected in Putin’s Postbox, newly translated into English by Katy Derbyshire.

Putin's Postbox cover image

Originally published in 2012, it seemed frighteningly timely that Putin’s Postbox should be released in English in spring 2022, though aside from the opening essay, the volume has nothing to do with the Russian president. This first essay (all eight are merely numbered, not titled) concerns Beyer’s trip to ‘a certain originally maize-yellow but now moss-green postbox’ on a housing estate in Dresden that did indeed once belong to Vladimir Putin, during his stint as a KGB officer in East Germany in the 1980s. Beyer himself has lived in Dresden since 1996, and while the city is often mentioned in his work, never again does it appear quite like this: both a very real panorama of gloomy prefab housing and generous parks, and a gateway to the author’s mind, a landscape of ideas in which the spectral figure of Putin finds space alongside Gogol and Dostoevsky, and where an imaginary linguistic border between the northern and southern halves of Dresden’s Grosser Garten inspires a meditation on language, ‘the untameable lion’, and how it changes us depending on where and with whom we speak it.

Language as a kind of territory – familiar and unfamiliar – is a particular preoccupation of Beyer’s, and it is explored throughout the essays in Putin’s Postbox with unbridled delight. ‘Language broadens the world,’ he writes at the beginning of the collection’s penultimate piece, going on to discuss the Stasi, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and how history is experienced and remembered, in an essay that also takes in dogs’ names, Samuel Beckett, personal memories and the work of Wilhelm Müller. Beyer’s own use of language to convey his wandering ideas and pass on specific details about his chosen subjects most certainly broadens the world for us, even as he succeeds each time in creating a cohesive whole.

This vignette-style approach to writing non-fiction is referenced in the quote selected for the back cover of the book, in which Beyer writes, ‘I work from the margins . . . I am drawn to the outliers’. Each essay takes as its impulse a seemingly random reference point – Putin’s postbox, say, or a book about beekeeping, a VW Phaeton, a stray cat, a walk around Brixton – and mines it for inspiration, moving butterfly-like from one topic to the next, almost entirely by association but always arriving at a central truth. Perhaps the best example of this is the fifth essay, which begins with that walk in Brixton and moves through Beyer’s own poetry; the names of birds in various languages; translation as a practice, necessity and unconscious act; the work of Joseph Conrad and Paul Celan; and a wonderful comparison between ornithology and writing, ultimately leading us into ‘the space between languages’, the beautiful impossibility of capturing one’s personal experience in words. As a meditation on writing, translation and communication in general, it is characteristically meandering, its meaning not always immediately obvious, but somehow satisfyingly logical in the thoughts and – most importantly – emotions it ultimately transports.

Much of Beyer’s work seems to find its footing in these in-between spaces, the places where ideas commingle and give rise to new ways of thinking. The memories he weaves into his essays are often shadowy, too: an unscheduled late-night stop at a petrol station, tours around foggy foreign cities, a wait for food in an empty small-town restaurant. The hazy impressions these scenes leave with the reader are, however, an essential part of the overall effect: while individual details may be unambiguous, they create a background that seems always slightly blurred, providing ample space for mental leaps. The freedoms Beyer takes when making connections between apparently unrelated subjects come as a breath of fresh air and, though at times I needed to go back over a passage to understand fully the point being made (and, sometimes, not even then), reading Putin’s Postbox I could sense my mind expanding.

Complex as they are, Katy Derbyshire has done an outstanding job of translating these essays into English, transporting not just the most evocative elements of Beyer’s prose, but also burrowing deep into archives in search of precise terminology and older translations that better match the essence of the ideas they are employed to convey. V&Q Books makes a point of including a translator’s note in each of its books, illuminating the challenges of working on a particular text and adding an extra dimension to our understanding of it. Echoing the essay on Putin’s postbox, Derbyshire concludes that she is ‘simply a translator’; yet in a book that is so concerned with languages and how we shift between them, the translator’s voice is crucial. Here, it is calm, meticulous in its choice of words, and fully engaged with the intellectual acrobatics and ‘playful spirit’ of the source text.

A valuable addition to V&Q’s list, which aims to create a rich portrait of contemporary Germany through literature, Putin’s Postbox returns repeatedly to the country’s history, one of the threads that runs throughout Beyer’s entire body of work. Yet these essays are, too, a more universally applicable exploration of an individual’s place in the world, an attempt to make sense of how we communicate, an imaginative look at how language is used to shape history, and how we might try to understand what gets left behind.


Putin’s Postbox by Marcel Beyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire, is published by V&Q Books. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

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