Review: Dietland by Sarai Walker

img_4524Dietland is a progressive, angry book about a feminist guerrilla group called “Jennifer”. Their plan is to change the sexist society we live in by taking pretty drastic measures. Rapists are being thrown off overpasses or out of airplanes. They want the public to wake up.

The novel however starts off at a very different place. It begins with 29-year-old Plum Kettle, a fat and lonely woman who works as a ghost-writer for a teen magazine. She spends her days in her friend’s café or at Waist Watcher [sic!] meetings, eating unappetizing and little meals while shopping for her soon to be thin self. She weighs 300 pounds but is scheduled for gastric bypass surgery so that she can begin the (thin) life she has always dreamed of. Dinner parties, dating, making friends, everything is postponed to her imaginary future as her thinner self. But things are about to change when she is being followed and recruited by “Jennifer”. Little by little she gets drawn into a different world and she ends up on quite a different quest to self-love. The women she encounters confront her with her ideas of beauty and perfection. They shatter the world she used to live in.

But the novel is not only focused on Plum, it’s also a very dark portrayal of today’s society. Half way through the book, the story switches from Plum to “Jennifer” and through her/their eyes we see a world that is shockingly hostile, sexist and violent. At this point the novel takes a completely different course: Gang raped teenagers are being avenged, media moguls are being kidnapped and stark naked men are replacing the infamous page 3 models.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard you look, the description of Plum’s and Jennifer’s world does not read as a satire. The instances of everyday sexism and misogyny that are being described are not at all unrealistic. What I was reading was not a description of a dystopian world but ultimately the world you live in as a women. “Jennifer’s” reactions however, the violence, the anger and bloodshed is depicted as over top and absurd. It can be interpreted as a contrast to the powerlessness that most women feel.

Sarai Walker radically questions society’s double standards and obsessions with beauty and thinness. Plum, the book’s main character, realizes that there is a freedom in not caring about the judgement of others:

“We’re different in a way that everyone can see. We can’t hide it or fake it. We’ll never fit society’s idea for how women should look and behave, but why is that a tragedy? We’re free to live how we want. It’s liberating if you choose to see it that way.”

Throughout the novel Plum radically transforms herself. Her struggle with self-love, looks (and weight) and the expectations to be perfect are, what Dietland really focuses on. Yes it is also about a feminist terrorist group, but it is mainly about how the mere existence of such a group affects the women who come in contact with them. In that way Dietland is a call to arms:

“The police and the “justice” system don’t take violence against women and girls seriously. If you’ve been assaulted or harassed, take the law into your own hands. Form vigilante groups with other girls. Sign up for self-defense classes, but don’t just use the skills defensively. Go on the offensive!”

The novel has a lot of different influences, ranging from Foucault to Fight Club. Women in the novel are exercising extreme control over themselves and their bodies; they have created strict regiments to fit a social norm, which was only created to keep them down in the first place. When Plum breaks free, starts to eat, enjoy her life and be herself, she sheds this self-imposed regimen of rules and deprivation:

“[…] Dietland, which meant control, constriction—paralysis, even—but above all it meant obedience. I was tired of being obedient.”

As it mocks the less violent and certainly less angry chic lit that preceded it, Dietland transcends the genre itself. It will also be turned in to a TV show by no other than the genius Marti Noxon from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a TV show that was also well known for it’s feminist and empowering approach.

Also, here’s a little snippet from npr about Sarai Walker and Dietland including an article she wrote for the New York Times. And finally the blog post that made me aware of Walker and her book.

Review: The Nazi and the Barber

IMG_4307The Nazi and the Barber is the novel about Max Schulz, barber, SS man, mass murderer and later a fighter for the Jewish state of Israel. If you think this sounds pretty bizarre you are not mistaken, it really is.

The novel describes the course of Max Schulz’s life: his childhood friendship with his Jewish friend Itzig Finkelstein, the beginning of the Second World War and his active involvement in the SS and how he assumes his dead friends identity to avoid punishment. The plot of the novel is definitely very absurd, moving from hair salons to concentration camps and later to a new life in Israel.

The German author Edgar Hilsenrath, who wrote the novel, was a Holocaust survivor. Even though the book was originally written in German, it was first published in many different countries. In Germany, publishing houses had a hard time with the content and were worried how the German readers would react to the novel. It did get published eventually and it is of great importance that it did. The book forces the reader to look at the Second World War through the eyes of an active participant in the holocaust and a committed National Socialist. The story often takes very extreme turns, Schulz does not seem to have a sense of how absolutely horrific his crimes are, especially at the times when he is still in the middle of committing them. I felt that this, in its absurdity and unparalleled cruelty was actually a very accurate picture of the mindset of many people during the Second World War.

Max Schulz is continually trying to blame other people for his behaviour. It was the state, his mother, his stepfather, whoever it is, he never truly claims responsibility but continues to hide behind other people. So when Schulz talks about his horrific crimes, he hides behind orders without showing any feelings of remorse, isn’t that exactly what happened far too many times?

I thought this novel was difficult to read. It was unpleasant to be with this opportunistic and spineless, yet absolutely devoted Nazi who is also “just a normal guy”. Also I was questioning the reactions I had to the content and the book’s often satirical form. Is this funny? What is it, he is really saying? A lot of times it was not easy to see clearly. I felt that because of the form of the novel, I, as the reader. was asked to engage with it even more. Somehow a satire often requires more reflective thinking because it makes you question the relationship of fiction and reality. Hilsenrath presented a scale of moral and amoral decisions the protagonist is taking and through those actions he speaks to the reader. Where should Schulz have stopped? Where is Schulz crossing the line? The novel in that sense can be seen as a meditation on the banality of evil (to quote Hannah Arendt), the “normality” of the perpetrators and the cold rationality and bureaucratic thought they put into building a machine of repression and death. It is an important piece of literature that should be read and reread as an effort to contribute to some form of understanding of the crimes that happened during the Second World War.

I was also very fortunate to see the novel adopted into a theatre play in Cologne. The whole play was performed by only two actors, which set a strong focus on the theme of identity. Both actors performed both the role of Schulz and Finkelstein, taking turns being the oppressor and the victim, the Nazi and the Jewish friend. On stage the moral issues that the book raises came to life in a very uncomfortable way. It was a very small theatre and everyone in the audience was very moved by the play. In one scene the two actors debate what punishment Schulz should hypothetically get. He killed thousands of people after all. The two actors debate what form of death would be just. Schulz replies something like, “No matter how I die I can only die once. And even if I were to die ten thousand times this would not help either. I can not take their deaths, can not take their fear and can not bring back the lives they could not live.” The other actor replies: “In that case: you are acquitted.” They laugh.