Going Dutch with German Writers (5) : Narnia-like Adventures

Tuesday at Barbie Deinhoff’s is two-for-the-price-of-one night, a deal debut novelist Olga Grjasnowa knows how to make the most of. Katy Derbyshire talks to her about having babies, embarrassing parents, Azerbaijan, and mysterious long trips to the toilets.

The least awful photo: Katy Derbyshire pointing at Olga Grjasnowa.
The least awful photo: Katy Derbyshire pointing at Olga Grjasnowa.Foto: Privat


Olga Grjasnowa brought out her outstanding debut novel last spring, Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt. It’s a cleverly composed story about a young woman originally from Azerbaijan and now living in Germany and then in Israel, coping with the death of her boyfriend and also a tough case of post-traumatic stress syndrome caused by her experiences of civil war. The novel was longlisted for the German Book Prize. Olga originally comes from Baku and has lived in Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow, Leipzig, Göttingen and Israel. She’s not quite thirty.

She brought along her friend Primoz, a psychiatrist.


Barbie Deinhoff’s Bar, Kreuzberg, another bar I don’t know the name of, Kreuzberg


On Tuesday nights you get two drinks for the price of one at Barbie Deinhoff’s. Olga and Primoz were drinking white wine (they only had one kind on the menu) and I had Jever pilsener.

What did we talk about?

I get there a tiny bit late but so does Primoz, so poor Olga looks a bit wan when we arrive. Olga gets the first round while I’m rather distracted by Primoz, who is really very attractive. He tells me he advises Olga on psychiatry subjects for her writing – and on gay stuff. I assume I must have been ogling him and he thought he’d put me out of my misery early on. Olga tells us she’d been to watch ballet dancers practicing at the Staatsballett in Charlottenburg, as research for her next novel. They were all absolutely gorgeous, apparently, all under 35 and less than 45 kilos. I talk about my hippy dance teacher when I was a kid; Olga says she’d had five weeks of ballet classes but thankfully there’d been a coup d’état so she got to stop going. Actually, she’s officially studying Dance Studies at university but she only ever went to a few weeks’ worth of seminars. We wonder what kind of people do Dance Studies – which is about dance but isn’t supposed to involve actual dancing. Apparently it’s a mix of failed dancers and other people who couldn’t think of anything else to do.

The new novel is probably going to be about a married couple. The woman is a ballet dancer and a lesbian and her husband is a gay psychiatrist. Hence the advising. I think they both came from somewhere or other but I can’t remember where. And then the woman falls in love and the other woman moves in with them and things get hairy. Maybe they were from Russia – Olga says everyone involved in ballet is from Russia. My childhood literary diet of girls’ comics confirms this. There was always a very strict elderly Russian dance mistress. Olga says all teachers in the Soviet Union were incredibly strict so she didn’t notice anything special about her ballet teacher during those five weeks.

The music gets a bit loud; we move to the back room. Primoz gets rather mischievous and keeps raising topics Olga doesn’t want me to write about. I pretend not to notice. She tells me she wants to have his babies and she’s already told her mother. Her mother’s coming to visit soon. How shall we entertain her when we go out together? asks Primoz. “Alcohol. Lots of alcohol.” Primoz goes to the toilet and Olga tells me she’ll just start by having one baby with him and if it turns out ugly and dumb she’ll stop. I think it’s unlikely that Primoz’s babies would turn out ugly and dumb. Olga shows us photos on her phone of a Passover party she went to, where most of the guests were in drag as biblical characters. It looks like much fun was had. For some reason, I start telling stories about my wasted youth. I suspect I’m trying to compete with their hip youngster lifestyles. They both look at me like I’m a fascinating old lady. The nineties! You took what kind of drugs? Hmmm. Fascinating. I stop telling stories about my wasted youth because it’s making me feel old and uninteresting.

We switch to something more innocuous: our parents. It’s fine for me to write about her parents, Olga says, because they’ll never read it, especially if it’s in English. There are things we don’t want to know about our parents: Olga’s mother once started telling her what sex was like with her dad, and one of my dad’s ladyfriends once told my sister all the different drugs they’d taken. We all squirm at both of these thoughts. Before her first trip to Israel, Olga’s dad – who’s been married to a Jewish woman for thirty-odd years – took her aside and said, “Keep an eye out for those Jews.” Her mother is a piano teacher and once heard one of her pupils playing wrong notes from outside the building. She promptly took the lift up to the seventh floor, rang on the doorbell and berated the poor child, leaving little Olga on the pavement. My dad’s into music too; he sends me dub reggae CDs every now and then.

Primoz has to go – he’s getting up early. His leaving sort of upsets the balance for a while. Olga and I sit in our corner a little tongue-tied, watching the large group of people next to us celebrating someone’s birthday. They look very heterosexual for Barbie Deinhoff’s: very little facial hair, very tame outfits. We puzzle over it for a while. Look, those two girls are getting closer, Olga says excitedly. The two girls go to the toilet together, which makes matters much more interesting. Unfortunately the toilet is exactly where I want to go too and they’re taking an awfully long time in there. Olga’s pleased; I cross my legs. Olga makes about a hundred comments about why they’re taking so long. I suggest perhaps there’s a parallel world behind the toilet door and they’re having Narnia-like adventures. Olga says no, she’s been in there lots of times and it was just a very small toilet. She grins. Another woman from the birthday party goes in too. I groan in discomfort. We watch a woman and a man getting rather cosy together, interpreting their conversation at a distance until they start watching us back. I venture a trip to the toilet and find the three girls talking about babies. How disappointing.

The Blogger: Katy Derbyshire

Katy Derbyshire is a London-born translator who moved to Berlin in 1996. She has translated many contemporary German writers, including Felicitas Hoppe, Francis Nenik, Clemens Meyer, Inka Parei, Dorothee Elmiger, Simon Urban, Sibylle Lewitscharoff and Christa Wolf. She likes talking about books.