Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Women in Translation Month: "What You Can See from Here," by Mariana Leky


Mariana Leky's lovely novel, What You Can See from Here, translated from German by Tess Lewis, is one of the most charming books of the summer.  After reading half my free e-book copy, I rushed to the bookstore and purchased the book.  I am sure you've been there: you prefer turning the physical pages, or you intend to pass the book on to a friend. I love the colorful jacket, which depicts a pink okapi and a pink tree blooming with white flowers, against a pink and purple background. 

This gem-like novel, set in a village in Germany, is narrated by Luisa, whom we first meet at the age of 10.  Picture a group of quirky Anne Tyler characters, only not in Baltimore. In the first chapter, Luisa's grandmother, Selma, divulges her dream of an okapi the night before.  (The okapi belongs to the giraffe family and is known as the zebra giraffe.) 

 Leki's style is plain but smart and sure-handed.  Her simplicity accentuates a deep understanding of human connections.

Selma had dreamed of an okapi three times in her life, and each time someone has then died.  That's why we were convinced her dreams of an okapi were directly connected to death.  That's how the human mind works.  It can draw connections between completely unrelated things in an instant.  Coffeepots and shoelaces, for example, or deposit bottles and fir trees.

The dream, as well as other important events, is filtered through the reactions of Luisa's family, friends, and neighbors.  The optician, who has an incurable case of unrequited love for Selma, reassures them that death and the dream are not connected.  Luisa's father, a doctor, says it is utter nonsense.  The superstitious Elsbeth, Selma's sister-in-law, however, decides to warn the mayor's wife, and soon the news is all over town.

And now Leky moves from the individual to the collective consciousness. Nobody is predictable, and Leky is not sentimental.  Love and tragedy are the stuff of everyday life here.  Luisa's best friend dies in an accident and she never quite gets over it.  Her father decides to quit his medical practice and travel all over the world.  He leaves Luisa and her mother, the town florist, with almost no warning.  Just like that, people disappear.  Luisa's mother has an affair with the owner of the ice cream parlor and is seldom home.

And perhaps that is why Luisa stays close to Selma and home.  As an adult, she leaves the village only for the county seat, where she takes a job in a bookshop.  One afternoon, Luisa meets a handsome young Buddhist monk, Frederik, who helps her find her missing dog, Alaska, in the woods.  Luisa falls in love with Frederic, but he returns to Japan. They correspond, but the years roll by.

Will Luisa ever get her act together?  Will the monk come back?  Will the optician stop writing unsent letters to Selma?  The community supports these individuals, some sympathetically, others grumpily.  A fascinating book, in which individualism is nurtured not in a city, but in a small town.


  1. pretty strange... i got lost just reading your nice post!

  2. I'm actually about halfway through this (rushed out to get my copy after reading the Guardian's review). I agree that it's a charming book with a great cover (like you, I had to have both a digital and print copy!) and I'm enjoying Leky's dry (if not subversive) humor. Honesty compels me to admit, however, that I don't like it quite as much as you; I'm afraid I'm too much of a curmudgeon to fully submit to its many charms! As you point out, however, it's very well done, striking that difficult balance between acknowledging the dark side of things without getting bogged down with it.