by Zaia Alexander
What do you consider normal?
Antje Rávik Strubel doesn’t make much of the fact that she has always been a prescient voice in the German speaking literary world. Already from her earliest novels, she focused on marginalized characters, on the agonistic relationship between the two Germanys—before and after the fall of the wall—often through the lens of lovers socialized on both sides of the divide, queer and otherwise; and she did so long before queer identities, post-Wall literature, or nomadic writing became fashionable. Strubel also has never shied away from controversial, even taboo subjects: an unwittingly incestuous love story between a mother and son, consequence of a little known and inhumane adoption policy of the GDR Sturz der Tage in die Nacht (2011); or a nomadic queer novel of interconnected short stories In den Wäldern des Menschlichen Herzens (2016). I mention this impressive body of work in light of Strubel’s latest novel: Blaue Frau (2021), which deals with trauma—historical and personal—and which she began writing in 2012, while on a fellowship in Helsinki, long before the Weinstein affair that grew into the #MeToo movement, and long before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine which began last month.
During her stay in Helsinki, Strubel grew curious about a character, Adina, from her earliest novel Unter Schnee, which was set in a small Czech ski resort during the chaotic period following the fall of the wall. What had become of Adina in the intervening 10 years? she asked. The answer came rather reluctantly. While on an internship at a cultural institution at the Polish-German border, Adina was raped by a cultural promoter. After the traumatizing sexual assault, and a long odyssey through Europe, she ends up stranded in Helsinki, where she works illegally at a hotel. There she meets Leonides, an Estonian professor, and member of the European Parliament, who, according to Strubel, is a visionary, an advocate for a just remembrance culture of the historical traumas of the 20th century, one that recognizes the atrocities of both Stalinism and Fascism. Yet, in Leonides’s inability to see Adina’s personal trauma, his vision proves tragically nearsighted.
Strubel here reveals the intertwined failures of judicial systems that fail to protect victims and prosecute rapists, and reflects on the West’s failure, yoked as it is to the free market and appeasement policies, to break with war criminals and dictators like Putin, as we are witnessing today.
Apart from the political dimensions of this broadly European novel, there is another, quieter dimension to the book that reveals the musicality and lyricism Strubel is best known for. The passages with the eponymous “Blue Woman” offer interludes of extraordinary beauty, descriptions of nature, the northern light, all the blues surrounding Helsinki, in air and water, the forests, not to mention the enigmatic Blue Woman herself, who belongs within the literary tradition of characters, made of air and water. These poetic fragments also delve into deeper, existential questions about a world that accepts so much injustice, while also reflecting on Strubel’s subject position as a writer and the poetics of writing.
These are the themes that make “Blue Woman” so timely today, yet as in all great literature, this novel is timeless.
Adina grew up as the last teenager of her village in the Czech Giant Mountains and longed to travel faraway even as a child. With her, Antje Rávik Strubel revisits a character from her early novel: “Unter Schnee,” which was translated into English as Snowed Under (Red Ben Press, 2007).
Now 20 years old, Adina meets the photographer Rickie at a language course in Berlin, who arranges an internship for her in a newly developing cultural center at the German-Polish border in the Uckermark. Rendered invisible by a sexual assault that nobody takes seriously, Adina goes on an odyssey through Europe and ends up stranded in Helsinki. In the hotel where she is working illegally, she meets the Estonian Professor Leonides, a member of the European Parliament, who falls in love with her. While he campaigns for human rights, Adina seeks justice and a way out of her inner exile.
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Awarded the German Book Prize 2021—Spiegel Bestseller —over 100,000 copies sold.