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Karen Duve: Dies ist kein Liebeslied (This is Not a Love Song)

Aficionados of John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten will recognise the English-language title of this book as the title of a song by Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band, Public Image Ltd. This is relevant in several ways. Firstly popular music very much plays a role in this book. Secondly the song is featured in the book, though sung by a woman. Our narrator comments Yes, all right! For heaven’s sake, I’d got the point already as the singer repeats the title line incessantly. Thirdly we can extend the message of the song to this book, which is definitely not a love story.

We first meet Anne Strelau on a plane from Hamburg to London. It would seem that things have not been going well for her. However, on an impulse she has decided this had to come to an end one way or another, either a bad end or one that I couldn’t really imagine, “this” being And the hit songs still carried on about love. And men and women kept on having babies and going to marriage counsellors and therapists and getting divorced. Personally I never felt that any of this had anything to do with me. However she thinks she is still in love with Peter Hemstedt, a former boyfriend whom she has not seen for six years and is now living in London and she is going to make one last effort to get together with him. He has agreed that she can stay at his flat. Since she has last seen him she has changed. She now weighs 107 kilos which, for British readers is somewhat over sixteen stone and, for US readers, 236 pounds. On their previous meeting, she weighed 65 kilos (just over ten stone/143 pounds)

Anne is a fairly negative person so she thinks negative thoughts, such as the possibility of a plane crash (Twenty-eight per cent of all air accidents happen while the plane is gaining height. But she also thinks of her past.

She was born in a new suburb of Hamburg. She has an older sister and a younger brother. She did not get on with either. Her father had a mysterious job which allows him to come home at lunch time. After lunch he likes to nap in his hammock but, to his disgust, the neighbours like to mow their lawn at that time. Anne has set up a little animal hospital for the poor frogs that get sliced by the lawnmower and the birds that crash into the ubiquitous picture windows, aided by her first boyfriend (she is seven), called Axel. Axel does not last long though he will reappear.

Anne does not get on well with other children and has no friends of either sex. As she does not get on with her siblings nor, on the whole, with her parents, she spends much time with her grandmother who obsessively watches TV. As we have seen above weight is an issue. She is the second heaviest girl in her class and will be the tallest. The decision to go on your first diet is an important, if not the most important, moment in a girl’s life. At least, it’s more significant than the greatly over-rated experience of losing your virginity. She will diet throughout the book, with a limited amount of success.

We follow her school career. For secondary school she manages to go to a school where only one person from her previous school is also going. She is elected class representative and almost immediately unelected. She makes no friends at the school.

Her mother, whom she describes as lacklustre, anxious, and tired all the time and adds the only problem was that to us children my mother was just someone who cleaned, cooked, washed and cleared up after us and her father will not let her have a dog or a horse (though they will later buy a dog for her younger brother). At school things are not going well. why couldn’t I finally accept that I was useless, totally useless, a complete idiot?

We continue to follow her growing-up, her messy (literally!) sex life, her
failed suicide attempt, her playing truant from school to work in a factory, her therapy, her unsuccessful running away and her general depression . My bed was the only place in the world where I couldn’t fail and couldn’t be hurt, or at least not while I was alone there. and Nothing in my life went easily or of its own accord. Except eating. Eventually, on the advice of friend she tries Recatol, an appetite suppressant which helps. She also meets Peter Hemstedt but their relationship is on/off and not much happens when it is on. When school finishes, everyone else has plans except for Anne. Not only does she have no plans she has no idea what she should do if she did have plans. When finally she finds a job she could do, she studies, takes the exam and fails.

And so she has been getting nowhere when she turns up in London but will Peter welcome her with open arms or will he want to go to a football match?

In many ways, you cannot be too sympathetic with Anne’s plight as many of her problems are self-imposed. However she does have a dark sense of humour about her failings which make her more interesting than a gloomy depressive and you also keep wondering, as she briefly seems to get something going, how she is going to fail again which may be because of her own failings or because of what others do and do not do or simply because bad things happen to all of us in life. As with Leon Ulbricht in Duve’s Regenroman (Rain), it would appear that if you are the lead character in a Duve novel, life is not going to treat you well.

Publishing history

First published in 2002 by Eichborn
First English translation in 2005 by Bloomsbury
Translated by Anthea Bell