German novelist Juli Zeh takes on the larger literary world in a new English translation
Juli Zeh Translated by Christine Slenczka.

There’s a scene in German literary dynamo Juli Zeh’s novel Eagles and Angels in which the narrator answers a question about why Germany tends to side with Ghana at the UN and Austria tends to side with Australia.

“It’s all to do with the seating order at the meetings and working groups of the international organizations, I said. Germany always sits next to Ghana and Austria next to Australia, so the delegates know each other. They borrow pens from each other and bring each other coffee.”

On the phone from her home in Leipzig, the 29-year-old author explains that she drew the observation from her own work in international law. “In the book it’s a bit of a joke, but I worked at the United Nations observing and watching how the delegates talk to each other and work with each other and, really, it’s important that they know each other personally. It’s natural. It’s just human.”

The same logic, she says, illustrates why events such as the International Festival of Authors (running Oct. 22-Nov. 1 at Harbourfront) are so important. “Working in international politics and international law I’ve realized that what we call politics is of no use if you don’t have, underneath, this background of cultural exchange or cultural understanding,” Zeh says. “Literature is the best instrument to export your culture.”

If Zeh’s first published novel, Eagles and Angels (available in Canada from House of Anansi Press), provides an understanding of German culture, then the state of the Deutsch Republic is bleak. The literature, however, is apparently thriving.

Max is an international lawyer working to negotiate EU treaties in Vienna when Jessie, a simpleton friend from his reform-school years (and the object of his longstanding unrequited affection) with a drug kingpin for a father, comes to him for help. When she kills herself in the middle of a phone conversation with Max, he begins a cocaine-induced descent into madness. Which brings us to page one.

Reading the book is like going on a 329-page bender, as Max tells Jessie’s story, all the while bent on committing suicide himself (preferably by hitman, if necessary by drug abuse). Along the way there’s a couple of murder mysteries, two sort-of love stories and a thrill-ride plot involving the international drug trade and European integration.

“I wanted to create a mixture between genres and write a book which is not purely a thriller and not purely a love story and not purely a psychological investigation,” Zeh says. “I wanted it to be right at the meeting point between the genres.”

That meeting point is a place that plays with our expectations: a thriller that resists addressing the crime; a love story without romance; a political drama that skips over the temptations of polemic and the boardrooms of power.

Using clipped sentences and a disturbingly precise eye for detail that recall the straightforward realism of Raymond Carver, Zeh takes readers deep into the disorienting psychology of addiction and self-destruction. Under this realist language is a juggled chronology and a stories-within-stories structure that stands up to David Foster Wallace, a blunt forward-rush into subject matter tackled less ably by Virginie Despentes (Baise-Moi) and the most accurate portrayal of jumpy, drug-fuelled paranoia since Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama.

If there’s a problem here, it’s in the conclusion that ties up a little too neatly the loose ends of the plot that flail so ambiguously throughout the preceeding 300 pages. But the journey there is astounding, more so because it comes from the pen of a first-time author who wrote the book during breaks between her study of law and her work at the UN.

When it was published in Germany in 2001, Eagles and Angels was an immediate success. After hysterically favourable reviews, her small family-run publisher (Schöffling & Co.) sent the book into a second printing 10 days after its release date. It later won the Deutscher Bücherpreis for most successful debut novel, and has since been translated into 13 languages.

For Zeh, who says she’d been writing since she was seven years old and had finished three books that went unpublished prior to Eagles and Angels, the success was sudden and unexpected. “I was really not prepared for this. I was not even thinking about publishing, and when I realized it was going to be published, I was not prepared for this kind of success. So it was really a shock for me in the beginning,” Zeh says.

Zeh is “puzzled” by the Canadian interest in her book, but Anansi is betting on a similar surprise success in Canada. The newly independent publishing house (liberated by force during Stoddart’s collapse last year) is making Eagles and Angels the inaugural title of a new commitment to publishing the best books it can find from around the world. To make the cost of printing and translating affordable, it arranged with Granta (which is publishing the book simultaneously in the UK) to share a print run (on an Italian press — international circles within circles). So English and Canadian readers will get books that are identical except for the imprint and copyright pages. It’s the type of arrangement that makes publishing books from abroad affordable for smaller Canadian houses.

With Eagles and Angels, Juli Zeh serves notice that she’s ready to punch with the heavyweights. Anansi, in bringing her to Canada, shows that it’s ready to get into the ring. They’ve thrown down the gauntlet to the CanLit industry: tight budgets are no longer an excuse to ignore international excellence.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on October 16, 2003.