Wolfgang Herrndorf: ′Why We Took the Car′ | 100 German Must-Reads - a unique list of 100 works of German literature published in English | DW | 08.10.2018
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100 German Must-Reads

Wolfgang Herrndorf: 'Why We Took the Car'

Two pubescent boys decide to take the plunge and head out on a big adventure. A novel about wanderlust, friendship and emotional confusion, the novel will also inspire adults.

Why We Took the Car is both a road-trip novel and a wonderfully tender coming-of-age story of two pubescent runaways that is set in the back blocks of the former East Berlin.

Maik Klingenberg is a prosperous, but neglected middle-class son who is ridiculed by his school peers. Still, he makes friends with Andrej Tschichatschow, a petty criminal also known as "Tschick" whose parents hail from Russia. They are two outsiders whom nobody finds cool and no one invites to parties — especially the beautiful girl that Maik has a crush on.

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'Why We Took the Car' by Wolfgang Herrndorf

But then the summer holidays arrive and the two plunge into the adventure of a lifetime after Tschick arrives to pick up Maik in a badly beaten-up Lada Niva that he stole. They are soon heading east without a plan.

The duo leave alcoholic parents, prefab high rises and love sickness behind them as they travel through fields of wheat, landfills and lunar landscapes. They dance in the rain and meet people as odd as the alienated landscapes through which they journey.

"I had hung my arm out the window and put my head down on it. We were driving at a leisurely pace through pastures and fields as the sun slowly rose somewhere beyond Rahnsdorf. It was the weirdest and most beautiful thing I'd ever experienced," describes the narrator, Maik. 

Film Still Tschick (Studiocanal GmbH)

Maik and Tschick drive east through corn fields in their old Lada, a scene portrayed in "Tschick," the 2016 film adaptation of the novel directed by Fatih Akin

Finding good in the world

With Why We Took the Car, Wolfgang Herrndorf created a literary dreamscape and let two boys escape to Romania and find their own lives. It's romantic, but never sentimental. There are tumultuous scenes, and yet it is more about inner yearning, about the beauty of every little moment.

"The world is bad and people are bad. Don't trust anyone, don't talk to strangers, all of that," says Maik. "My parents drilled that into me, my teachers drilled that into me, even TV drilled that into me...People were bad. And maybe it was true, maybe ninety-nine percent of people were bad. But the strange thing was that on this trip, Tschick and I had run into almost only people from the one percent who weren't bad."

A parting literary gift

Sure, it's a novel about wanderlust, searching for support and friendship, but Herrndorf had the rare gift of infusing his writing with authentic youth slang without it coming across as forced or artificial. As Herrndorf packed his key themes into fast-paced dialogues that are seasoned with smart situation comedy, he created once of the best books ever written in German for young people.

Wolfgang Herrndorf wrote the novel during the most difficult period of his life. He was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor in 2010 and ultimately died from suicide in August 2013. 

It was after the first operation for the tumor that Herrndorf first began writing his bildungsroman while also conceptualizing the extremely funny political thriller, Sand, which awarded the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2012. He thus completed writing two breathtaking masterpieces while simultaneously fighting a likely fatal brain disease.

Film Still Tschick (Studiocanal GmbH)

This time the Lada isn't going anywhere

Critics compared Herrndorf's coming-of-age story to the great works of Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger. The story was inevitably a best-seller, with over a million copies sold following the author's death, a film adaptation was finally made by star director Fatih Akin in 2016, and the story has been performed as a play on dozens of stages.

This is the power of fiction, with the novel destined to live on long after Wolfgang Herrndorf's untimely death aged 48.


Wolfgang Herrndorf: Why We Took the Car, Andersen Press (German title: Tschick, 2010). English translation: Tim Mohr.

Before Wolfgang Herrndorf became a writer, he studied painting and worked as an illustrator, especially for the satirical magazine, Titanic. Having been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 2010, Herrndorf maintained an online blog, "Work and Structure," in which he shared the experience of living with the deadly disease. It was published posthumously as a book in 2013 by Rowohlt Verlag. His last novel, Pictures of a Great Love, a sequel to Why We Took The Car, remained unfinished. Wolfgang Herrndorf died in 2013.

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