Gilgi: One of Us

First book of the year sets the tone for the rest of the annual avalanche of books, I hope. A stunning 1931 novel by Irmgard Keun, translated from the German by Geoff Wilkes, tells of life in the Weimar Republic (Cologne, specifically) for an independent 20-something woman who discovers on her 21st birthday that she’s adopted. Her methodical life is perfect—secretarial work in an office during the day, language classes at the Berlitz at night (English/French/Spanish so she can work anywhere and be a translator), impassioned discussions with friends Olga and Pit. She seeks out her birth mother, mistakenly thinking it was the woman who handed her over to her adopted mother but instead of this poverty-stricken seamstress it’s some upper class woman who paid the seamstress to get rid of the child. This is helpful later when Gilgi’s life is unraveling and she needs money fast for a friend (who ends up gassing himself, his wife, and 2 kids). Her perfect life also includes a separate studio where she listens to a phonograph and practices her translations. Then she meets Olga’s friend Martin and falls in love with him, slowly abandoning her precise life for a slovenly one that racks up debts and an unwanted pregnancy. In the end she flees on a train to Berlin, still pregnant, in hopes of restarting life.

When her cousins come to visit, the family all huddles in one small apartment. “Gilgi borrowed a travel book from the library that morning—she’d like to read, but that would be considered impolite. Everyone is getting on everyone else’s nerves a little, everyone would like to do something other than what she’s doing just now. But everyone keeps smiling, preserving the impression that they have lots and lots in common.”

Olga wants to travel to Majorca where it’s cheap and warm and people speak a language she doesn’t understand. “Can you imagine how magical it is to hear just a melody of words, without understanding all the nonsense that lies behind them?”

Another great untranslatable German word: Weltschmerz (depression,  apathy, weariness caused the state of the world).

Irmgard Keun’s books were banned and burned by the Nazis, she fled into exile, then faked a suicide in 1940 in order to sneak back into Germany under a different name.