The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift    

Last night I went to my first Peirene evening.  Peirene Press is an inspired small publishing house who have successfully captured a market with a specific identity:

  • They publish three books a year
  • The books are translations of short published books by contemporary European authors
  • If you subscribe, Pereine post each book to you (snail mail)
  • Each set of three books has a loose theme
  • The books are in a small paperback format and beautifully produced
  • Peirene host readers’ evenings which the authors and translators attend

I was given a subscription to this year’s three books which Pereine have loosely themed as Fairy Tales and the last of the three, around which last evening revolved, is The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift.

It’s a disturbing read, and a book which can be read on many levels.  As a reader you can interpret it as you wish, but I think the book is too rich for any single interpretation.  It is a hard book to write about.  Superficially it is an easy read once you are immersed in its world, with a compelling plot.  It is horrible and funny.  And I have to say it is quite shocking.  I can understand people not liking it but I was drawn into it and could not shake myself loose.  Some people compared it to Kafka, but for me it reminded me of a couple of German language plays I studied: The Fire Raisers (Biedermann und die Brandstifter) by Max Frisch, and The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame) by Friedrich Durrenmatt.  Both these plays are hard to categorise.  In the former play a man lets a group of arsonists into his attic, giving them petrol, a fuse and matches, convinced that compromising will keep him safe.  In The Visit a woman returns to the town where a man got her pregnant and persuades the townspeople to kill him in exchange for donating a huge amount of money to the town and its people.

This book and these plays can be seen as parables and metaphors, they are all blackly funny, and they are set in a world that is recognisable but becomes increasingly sinister.  The Fire Raisers has a type of Greek chorus made up of fireman, commenting on the action, and in The Empress and the Cake there is a secondary narrative voice which is out of time with the main plot.

I’ve deliberately avoided describing the plot.  That’s up to the new reader to discover.  My only small criticism is that for me the translated title is misleading – which is not to say I believe titles should be translated literally.

I have read four Peirene titles.  All have been totally different and despite – no because they are short books, I have found them all complex and thought-provoking.  Even if this book does not appeal, I really recommend looking through their catalogue and choosing a title.

Many thanks (in no particular order) to Linda Stift, Jamie Bulloch, Meike Ziervogel, James Tookey

Now never mind the book, sit back relax and have some cake