Thursday, 6 March 2014

Why We Took the Car, by Wolfgang Herrndorf

“I was overcome with a strange feeling. It was a feeling of bliss, a feeling of invincibility. No accident, no authority, no law of nature could stop us. We were on the road and we would always be on the road.”

When Mike Klingenberg decides to abandon his boring, shy, embarrassed life and take to the open road in a stolen Lada with his new friend, Tschick, a slightly odd kid from the wrong side of the tracks, he embarks upon the best and weirdest two weeks of his fourteen long years of life.

“ ‘I have to tell you a secret.’ I said. ‘I’m the biggest coward in the world. The most boring person on the planet and the biggest coward.’
    ‘Why would you possibly say you were boring?’ asked Tschick.”

Why We Took the Car is a perfect road trip story that ticks all the boxes and has plenty of ‘Oh My God’ moments. Mike has no friends and his parents have basically abandoned him for the summer; he’s bored and lonely. So when Tschick waltzes into his life and starts challenging him, it’s hard – no, impossible -  for Mike to say no. From the moment Tschick first joins Mike’s school class – clearly drunk – to when he turns up on Mike’s doorstep driving a stolen Lada, their meandering, rambling drive across East Germany and the disastrous end to their fun, this is the story not only of their road trip, but also their friendship and of two young people’s awakening to the world around them.

It's easy to draw comparisons between Wolfgang Herrndorf and the masterful John Green: both writers achieve similar things with their stories, seeing life through the eyes of teenaged boys, weaving in all sorts of references to external things, adventure and intrigue. Referencing John Green may be what everybody seems to do these days, but I don't choose to make this comparison lightly, it's simply the clearest way to indicate the quality and substance of this book. Herrndorf is not “the next John Green”; rather, he’s Wolfgang Herrndorf, another great author doing a thing a bit like what John Green does and doing it equally well. So if you like John Green, you will like Why We Took the Car.

Perhaps the most interesting for me, as a British reader, is the fact that Why We Took the Car is set in Germany – winner of the German Teen Literature Prize, it’s been translated from the German by Tim Mohr. So many of the books I read today are set in America, so it’s not only refreshing to read about people in a different country, especially when they’re people living in a area of the world with a contrasting political historical background, but interesting and extremely thought provoking. I found myself googling maps of Germany’s post war separation and asking my mum for a history lesson.

Essentially Mike and Tschick are exactly the same kind of teenage boys as you’d find in an American young adult novel, but they’re living in a country with a huge immigrant population, studying texts at school that I’ve never heard of, and driving through a landscape which just twenty-five years ago was a communist regime. Thus it’s inevitable that they, on occasion, find the strangest things: a village with signposts in an unknown language, a moonscape, roads that peter out into cornfields, an abandoned village with a sole occupant that at first shoots at them, then invites them in for tea.

They get themselves in all kinds of situations, often with hilarious consequences. Although Tschick is sure no-one will miss the Lada he’s stolen, they both get a little on edge about whether the police are looking for them. They change the plates at one point, paint it black at another. One of the more bizarre events, though, is their attempt to refuel. Stopping at the petrol station they suddenly realize how odd it’ll look for two fourteen year old boys to try and buy fuel, which leads to some crazy strategizing on how to get the fuel they need, which leads to a five kilometre hike along the side of the autobahn (motorway) to reach a dump where they can look for a piece of hose which they can then use to siphon petrol out of another car and into theirs. For an adult, it’s all kinds of ridiculous, but the whole trek makes total sense for these two boys.

We know right from the beginning, though, that at some point their journey is going to come to a rather unceremonious end. The question is how, exactly? Why is Mike covered in blood at the beginning of the story? Are the police really after them? And what will the consequences be?

Why is Mike friendless? Because he’s self-absorbed? Or is he just shy? And who exactly is Tschick? Is he for real? There are probably a few German cultural references that went over my head, but I didn’t really notice them so as far as I’m concerned it certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story. Sadly, Wolfgang Herrndorf died last year, but he wrote two other novels which perhaps might make it into an English translation at some point – I hope.

While some might deem the road trip as a failure – they don’t, after all, make it to their intended destination of Wallachia – it’s nonetheless a transformative experience. Mike returns empowered, with some cards to play at school, more than one friend to call his own, and no longer lets his father’s bullying tactics control his actions. Because, like his says, driving down a country road at a hundred kilometres an hour gives you a certain feeling of invincibility. Like you can do anything.


  1. Very nice review! I'm german, and it was hugely interesting to me to read about the way a reader from a different country experienced this book. Some of the things you mentioned, especially the absurdities one might encounter in former East Germany, played a totally different role for me, because, although living in an other part of Germany, it was totally normal for me to read about them. As a german, you just... know there are a little weird things over there.
    The comparison with John Green was originally what brought me here, because- believe it or not- I googled "john green vs wolfgang herrndorf". You're certainly not the only one who's noticed parallels to the works of John Green, and I was trying to find a comparison between them. A review of "Tschick" (that's the original german name of the book) was not what I was hoping to find, but I ended up enjoing it. (By the way, I prefer Wolfgang Herrndorf over John Green personally for various reasons, although he can be very hard to read.)

  2. Hello! Glad you liked my review - it's really interesting to hear the different experience that a UK reader and a German reader has with this book. I guess every country has it's little absurdities, and that's one of the many reasons why I liked this book - because it gives me, as a British person, a new view of another country and it's histories. I really hope that more of Wolfgang Herrndorf's books will made available in English (I'm afraid my German is nowhere as good as your English) as I'd definitely like to read more. I think it's easy for us in the UK to hold John Green's writing on a high pedestal as there doesn't seem to be very many UK YA writers who are publishing writing at his level - or, at least, at the level of his writing in The Fault in Our Stars - but there are certainly lots of writers out there who do write at the same level - or higher. I think it's just a question of discovering them - and Herrndorf, for me at least, definitely falls into this category. A German friend of mine actually recommended Tschick to me, so when I saw the English translation I snapped it up.