Brigitte Magazine *Special*
October 8, 2008
Her sentences rock consciousness like hammer blows and the pace of this her debut novel leaves one gasping for breath. Alina Bronsky is from Russia, speaks and writes perfect German, and has worked as an ad writer and a courtroom reporter. “I always wanted a lot from life,” she says. “Preferably all at once.”
There are many good stories in the publishing business, some of them are so good that you would take them for fiction. One of these stories goes like this: A woman under 30, born in Yekaterinburg, living in Germany for many years, sends an email to three German publishers and offers them her debut novel. All three editors are immediately interested, the author sends out her manuscript, and three weeks later has a contract in her pocket.
“That’s really how it happened,” says Alina Bronsky during our interview in Frankfurt, “and I was very happy. It has always been my dream to become a writer, but I never did much to make this dream come true, apart from a couple of vampire stories I wrote when I was fifteen and actually sent out to a publisher. Naturally, they were mailed back to me.” Alina Bronsky laughs, something she does frequently. She likes stories with a happy ending, and the story of her debut novel—unlike her experiments with bloodsuckers—appears to be such a story. Broken Glass Park has filled vast numbers of booksellers with enthusiasm; weeks before the novel’s publication Bronsky was tipped as the “most exciting newcomer of the season.” A critic reckoned that she would be declared “the new immigrant Fräuleinwunder” this fall. A native of Russia, who effortlessly writes in German, speaks without a Russian accent, but with a slight Hessian dialect—that is hard to beat.
Broken Glass Park is not for tender hearts—there is a double murder, a suicide, a young woman flips out and smashes reams of windows, blood flows freely. Anything else? Yes, an amazingly dauntless heroine, Sascha, seventeen, of Russian descent, resident in a German ghetto. The family is in ruins: Of her father Sascha knows only “that he had multiple doctorates and a bad character.” Her mother and her mother’s boyfriend have been murdered by Sascha’s jealous stepfather Vadim, and now the girl is thinking about doing Vadim in. The problem is, “the monster with the drooping mouth is in jail.” Maria, a relative, has been swiftly imported from Russia to look after Sascha and her two younger siblings to ensure that the youth welfare service keeps its hands off them. Strictly speaking it is not Maria who is running the show at home, but Sascha, who declares both her hatred of men and her intention to write a book for her beloved mother.
The entire story is written from the perspective of a feisty, disarming, and humorous brat—indeed, while reading, one cannot help smiling, again and again, even when the author indulges in unlikely coincidences—which she does occasionally—and pat clichés—ditto.
That Alina Bronsky received an invitation to participate in the renowned Ingeborg-Bachmann-Competition—a Süddeutsche Zeitung book critic had recommended her—is another one of those slightly crazy stories. Unlike her 13 competitors Alina Bronsky had nothing to show for herself, no fellowship, no award, no book publication, she practically came from nowhere. The invitation baffled her (“I write entertainment, not texts that take themselves too seriously while circling around themselves”) and she took a talisman with her: a little reindeer. It was sitting next to her manuscript while she was reading, and the TV-camera focused it repeatedly. She fingered it while the jury, five men, two women, tore apart her text. And from time to time she smiled ironically about the literary showcasing on Wörther Lake.
The outsider did not win in Klagenfurt, but beyond the criticism there was praise for her “masterful narration,” Alina Bronsky was even compared to Zadie Smith. “I did not expect to win the award anyway and was relived when it was over,” said the author. “For days my adrenaline levels were heightened. Someone wrote about my performance in an internet-blog that I looked cute but had a shrill voice.” Ha!
Alina Bronsky still has to get used to being a public figure. Where possible she shields her private life. The melodic name on the cover of the book, for example, is a pseudonym: “My real name is similar but will remain my secret,” says the author steadfastly. She has three kids, the oldest daughter is nine, her partner works in the media industry and is, according to her, a very committed father. Alina Bronsky’s parents also took care of their grandchildren, now they have moved to eastern Germany though. “I probably have a downright archaic sense of family—that may be my Russian side. But I don’t want to be the Ursula von der Leyen of the literary scene and pose for pictures with my kids,” she says.
Alina Bronsky is an only child. She was twelve years old when her family moved to Germany. Her father, a physicist, had found a job at a German University. Alina greedily absorbed her new environment in Marburg, learned German in record time and, almost effortlessly, became a good high school student—like Sascha. Unlike Sascha, Alina had a comfortable, middle-class upbringing. “I’m not a ghetto girl,” Bronsky points out. Later she went to medical school, subsequently dropped out (“I was too lazy, medical school is hard work”) then started at an advertising agency, cooking up snazzy slogans for champagne and chocolate. The art of concise, witty expression suits her; her novel, too, benefits from that. Afterwards she worked as a journalist, her specialty being courtroom reports.
Sascha’s story was flitting around in Bronsky’s imagination before the action-packed plot took shape. “The story developed slowly as if on its own accord. I cannot even tell in detail where the material came from. Some parts probably from my courtroom reports. I was confronted again and again with cases of women killed by their jealous ex-partners.” Bronsky wrote the beginning on her laptop, on the guest bed while visiting her parents. Later she worked during the night, after the kids had gone to sleep, sometimes until three in the morning. She tolerated the weariness and dark circles under the eyes. Half a year later the book was finished. A pretty swift sprint. The novel’s rhythm is accordingly breathless.
She does not suffer from a lack of confidence: She would send out Scherbenpark even to the arch-critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki. “I have a feeling that he might like the book.” … She herself loves clichés: “the important thing is that they are well crafted, maybe funny too.” A clear acknowledgement that you would not hear from most authors. She likes modern Russian romantic novels, but reads Tolstoy too, though she flips through the battle scenes in War and Peace.
For over ten years Alina Bronsky has not been back to Russia. Even though she is on the phone with her grandparents almost every day. Why not? The author shrugs her shoulders. “Probably I’d just feel like a tourist there. I live here, my family is here.” However, she does not want to hear about homelessness or cultural dislocation. She is not inwardly torn, but appears to be anchored in her life and has opted for a “best of both worlds” approach: What she likes about Russian culture she adopts into her German life. Her kids have gruel for breakfast, as is common in Russia (“It’s healthy”). In Broken Glass Park she intersperses proverbs from her homeland, on her German website (www.scherbenpark.de) you can listen to Russian wartime songs and nursery rhymes. She also explains some Russian terms from the novel on the site, for example Nautilus pompilius: “One of the first Russian pop bands ever. NP look depressive and make depressive music. Popular with depressive people and those who aspire to become depressive.”
If Broken Glass Park was a pop song, it would be fast, well composed, rebellious and in parts ear-splittingly loud. Definitely not a piece to make you feel melancholy. When she speaks, Alina Bronsky sets a brisk pace too, and even while thinking she never hits the pause button. Patience, the author admits, was never one of her strong points. “I know that I can be quite demanding. I always wanted a lot from life—preferably all at once.”
By Franzika Wolffheim