Stefanie de Velasco
Tim Mohr, Translator
(Head of Zeus)
Tiger milk - - - at least there in Berlin - - - is made of ordinary milk, Mariacron brandy and maracuja juice, all mixed up in a Müller chocolate milk container as disguise, for convenient carrying without trouble. ("We dump the chocolate milk down the toilet, chocolate milk is for children" Nini explains). Tiger milk lubricates the peripatetic days of Jameelan and Nini who are BFF.
They are fourteen years old and live in Germany. Jameelan originally comes from Iraq, is waiting possible deportation back to Iraq because of her expired visa. And according to one of the men they hustle on the streets, her name means "beauty" in Arabic. We never get to see Nini because she is telling the story. And telling it well.
Beside hustle, the two of them do what all the gangs of that age do in Berlin: go to school, loathe their teacher, get stoned and drunk with their friends, fight with their families, talk their own language with each other, fall in love (for a while, at least) with some of their school-mates.
If you are going to write a book, a whole one (and a good one), about a couple of fourteen-year-olds, you have to get the right rhythm, one faithful to the way they move and talk and think. Since research has proven that the brains of fourteen-year-olds are not unlike the brains of the certifiably mad, you have to subtly incorporate that madness into your narrative, and make it all believable. De Velasco pulls it off, plus building a believable story.
These two girls are survivors; they and the reader are in the midst of a very hot summer in Berlin. Nini spends too much time with a regular, plump and befogged stoner by the name of Nico. Jameelan is trying to get it on with Lukas, a young beauty with "Bambi eyes."
I have to tell you something, she says looking at Lukas, I dreamed about you, I dream that you captured some kind of mythical beast. It was see-through with two heads. It was like a cross between a dragon and a kangaroo but it lived in the water and could purr like a cat.
You should write that down he says, that's poetic imagery.
I already did, says Jameelah.
It is this poetry that begins to catch the reader. And the story line. Jameelah has decided she has to put a spell on Lukas, and drags Nini into it. They are to go to the park at midnight and dance naked and throw rose petals that they steal from the Tiergarten. Jameelah will be dancing for Lukas, and Nini for her rather stolid Nico. Once there, they make sure no one is about and strip and "Jameelah hops around the playground doing pirouettes and the rose petals flutter around her like confetti." Nini says that she "feels like an idiot running around the playground naked like that, tossing rose petals as I go."
The grass is sunburned and rustles beneath my feet , and as I watch the rose petals fall past my legs to the ground I suddenly feel tiny. I don't know if it it has something to do with the darkness or it's just because I don't have anything on, but for whatever reason, here on this playground, where I learned to walk and to ride a bike and to roller skate, all of a sudden I feel too small for this world, like you could just stick me anywhere, the same way you shove a vacuum cleaner in a dark corner and nobody notices it, like you could just make my naked body disappear because its so small and unimportant.
Perhaps it is this simple, almost stark language; perhaps it is that de Velasco knows how to build plot. But something here gets under the reader's skin, won't leave you alone. Perhaps it is that Tiger Milk may be a prototype in a way for Ferrante's Story of a New Name, because what goes on between Jameelah and Nini reminds us of the semi-sweet semi-mad-making back-and-forth between Lenú and Lila.
Another draw here is de Velasco's - - - what should I say? - - - delicacy; no, apparent delicacy. For the two girls occasionally drift down to Kurfürstenstrassse to turn a trick or two and reap some Euros. Midway through Tiger Milk the two end up with a couple of men in a hotel room, ostensibly there to strip and give head. Nini's partner is in a wheelchair, missing both legs. Jameelah's? "There's a long blond hair tangled around his ear, probably from his wife of daughter," thinks Nini.
Maybe his wife or daughter hugged him right before he drove off to Kurfürsten and the hair got caught, I think, and maybe I should become a detective except for that you must need a degree.
The whole scene is sketched so briefly, so organically, so impressionistically - - - turning neither gross nor exciting nor pornographic but emblazoned with rich detail that hits the reader blindsidedly. While Nini is servicing her man she absently puts on a cowboy hat, thinks "It's actually good that the guy in the wheelchair doesn't have any legs because at least that way he can't get on top of me, in fact he can barely move around at all, which is good." The television is going, running a nature program Terra X and she remembers watching an episode with her father about a circumcision ritual that takes place in "the rainforest where aboriginal boys about the same age as me and Jameelah had to wait in line."
They had their hands in front of their balls like in a soccer game when there's a free kick, except that they were all naked and instead of standing in front of a goal they were outside a little tent. Crying boys kept emerging from the tent with blood on their cocks.
Writing like this ain't penny ante stuff . . . and with all the added touches we have here a Hope Diamond stuck smack dab in the middle of the book, a book that can be confusing, confounding, sometimes too much - - - but in the end damn near impossible to put down.
Ask me. I know. I tried several times.
Finally had to finish the son-of-a-bitch at four a.m. with me crawling out of bed at some ungodly hour to pretend to go to work the next day.--- Pamela Wylie