Streulicht – a German novel looks at class society with fresh eyes

Deniz Ohda’s debut novel Glory (Streulicht), published in August 2020, provides an innovative, original look at German class society and its discontents.

The novel was received by the television network ZDF Aspects Prize for Literature 2020, as well as the Jürgen Ponto Foundation Prize for Literature. Ohde’s work was also shortlisted for a prestigious German literary award, translated into five languages ​​and staged as a play last year. (Sample English translation here.)

Glory (Streulicht), Deniz Ohde

Glory it is part of a literary trend that is refocusing on the lives and experiences of workers.

Deniz Ohde, born in Frankfurt am Main in 1988, the daughter of a chemical worker and a Turkish mother, brings the first-person narrator back to her father’s house for a brief visit at the beginning of the novel, which is clearly semi-autobiographical.

Fragmentary memories are evoked in a very immediate, sensual way as soon as she arrives in the area where she grew up. “The air changes when you enter the city.” One can smell the immediate vicinity of the giant chemical industry facility, which German readers will easily recognize as the Höchst industrial park on the site of the former Farbwerke Hoechst AG in Frankfurt.

It is not only the sour smell, constant hum and diffused light that the industrial area (home to dozens of chemical and pharmaceutical companies) casts on its surroundings at night, that leaves its mark on the people who live in the neighborhood. It’s not just repetitive drills for chemical accidents, the vouchers that the industrial park issues to the population when the air is too polluted, or the stench of its waste incineration plant…

Feelings of discrimination and oppression, shame and helplessness erupt with a vengeance. “My face also changes,” the narrator explains, “on the town sign, hardening into the expression my father taught me, the expression of anxious indifference he wears whenever he goes outside—a look that prevents anyone from noticing you.”

Nominally, Ohde narrates a suffocating journey through the institutions of “education” and his failure on the official path of education. But from the very beginning, this experience connects to a picture of contemporary society on a deeper level, which Ohde hints at through rich images that are sometimes poetically picturesque, sometimes fast-paced or enigmatically humorous.

The narrator’s two childhood and then teenage friends, Sophia and Pikka, move effortlessly from grade to grade, but her poor performance prevents her from moving up. The verdict without appeal, “I have to leave this kind of school!”, banishes her from the circle of friends forever. Failure initially leads to shock, breakdown, and depression—but gradually to understanding and confident resistance.

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