Marzahn, Mon Amour

Katja Oskamp

Translated by Jo Heinrich

Published by Peirene Press 11 February 2022

144pp, hardback, £12.00

Reviewed by Alison Burns


Here’s an idea for jaded writers. Katja Oskamp, dillusioned by a long sequence of rejections and aware of being marooned in the invisibility of middle age, decided to retrain as a chiropodist and thereby changed her life.

First published in German with the subtitle ‘Stories of a Chiropodist’, Marzahn, Mon Amour tells the stories of a dozen or so clients of a small beauty salon at the foot of an 18-storey tower block in a housing estate on the eastern outskirts of Berlin.  Katja’s customers are mostly pensioners, their preoccupations mostly humdrum (smoked fish for sale at the market, new false teeth to get used to, erection problems, partners with oxygen cylinders); many of them are retired factory workers.  Flocke, the salon owner, has a client-centred ethos and a passion for sanitizing.  Arthritic Tiffy, the nail beautician, is a retired barmaid who has to watch her language.  On their annual works outing to thermal baths, the three women let their hair down and Katja sings the praises of the brave inhabitants of Marzahn, who moved there forty years ago and now pour out their elderly, famished hearts to these listening carers.

Part memoir, part collective history, this slim volume shares the life stories of a memorable sequence of oddballs: Frau Blumeier (‘the queen of affirmation’), an elderly widow with an electric wheelchair and a lover; bossy Herr Pretsch, a retired Communist Party official, who can’t find a sexual partner; bewildered old Erwin Fritsche, with his soft spot for chorus girls; nun-like Gerlinker Bonkat, a tough old refugee from East Prussia, with her sore feet, her weak bones, her dislike of authority; Fritz, whose parents owned a travelling circus. Oskamp relays the histories of her clients with non-judgmental amusement and celebratory warmth, prizing their quiet heroism.  By the end, we find that she has restored the balance in her own life, enjoying a daily routine which includes early-morning hours at her writing desk and twice-daily walks through the cemetery, either side of immersion in the slapstick, ordinariness and tragedy of a neighbourhood she admires.

Marzahn, Mon Amour was selected for the ‘Berlin Reads One Book Campaign’.

This is Jo Heinrich’s first literary translation, and very good it is too.

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