Alaa El Aswany ‘j’ai couru vers le Nil’


—You know, I deserve a citation of excellence , but of course they are only open to sons of paschas.
His father did’t understand and Khaled explained to him that the university administration awarded citations of excellence to children of the teaching staff and to those of high officials in order to ensure their nomination as assistants. This angered Madani.
—But this is unjust.
—But of course it’s unjust
—you must lodge a complaint.
Khaled broke out laughing:
—What complaint? Haj Madani. We’re in Egypt. injustice is the rule.***


This is El Aswany’s novel treating the Egyptian spring, how the revolution came to remove Mubarak and how the military were able to stop the threatened revolution and to keep power, with the will of the people. This book is still banned in Egypt and when you read it you will understand why. The book begins with the movement in Tahrir Square already underway and treats a microcosm of Egyptian society. There are two students, Khaled the son of a chauffeur who explains to his father in the opening quote how the system is stacked against him and Dania the free thinking daughter of the head of state security, general Alouani. The following conversation between Dania and her father shows how an age old religion, here Islam, can be interpreted to justify almost anything as she has been protesting for justice for a dead protestor:


—We ask that his assassins are brought to justice.
—Who is we?
—My fellow students from university and I.
—I don’t understand are you a lawyer or a law student?
—I’m a muslim
—We’re all muslims
—Islam requires us to defend what is just.
—Islam says that sedition is worst than murder.
—Islam sanctifies man and forbids humiliation and torture.
—These are the words of human rights groups payed for by the european union. Who told you that Islam forbids torture? the lash, stoning, hands cut off, these aren’t torture? Islam permits torture of certain individuals and even killing them to ensure the stability of a country. Have you heard of taazir? According to taazir he who governs has the right to judge alone a crime and to decide on the accused’s punishment.***


This book is told through the stories these and of the other members of this microcosm, Asma a teacher, Mazen a unionist, Aschraf a rich Copt and his servant Akram as well as Nourhane a television presenter. We learn of the extreme violence of the army against their own people, including murders, torture and running over protestors at speed in narrow streets with their tanks, of the enforced and humiliating virginity tests carried out on the female protestors with soldiers watching on, these told through individual testimonies.

We are told of how State security, organises for rich private Egyptians within the media to set up a successful smear campaign against the young protestors persuading the average Egyptian that their is a plot against order and the army, financed from abroad, as in this excerpt concerning Nourhane:


Every evening the Egyptians watch Nourhane. She invites university professors, intellectuals, specialists in strategic affairs. All confirm with proof that the Egyptian revolution had only ever been a conspiracy financed and planned by the American secret services and their counterparts in Mossad. Each time, you could read the emotion on Nourhane’s beautiful face as she ended her program calling the almighty in a humble voice as the camera gives a closeup of her face:
—Oh God, make Egypt safe and free her from traitors and those that wish her ill.***


This is a deeply disturbing book mixing manipulation with religion and the underlying influence of Wahabism, the power of the rich arab states, to explain how Egypt’s present day has been shaped. I suspect this book is not going to be available in Egypt in the forseeable future.

First Published in Arabic as “Al-Joumhouriyya Ka’anna” in 2018 by Dar Al-Adab
Translated into french byGilles Gauthier and published by Actes Sud in 2018
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

—Nous demandons que ses assassins soient soumis à un proces juste.
—C’est qui, vous?
—Mes condisciples de l’université et moi.
—Je ne comprends pas: tu es avocate ou étudiante en droit?
—Je suis musulmane
—Nous sommes tous musulmans
—L’islam nous ordonne de défendre ce qui est juste.
—L’islam dit que la sédition est pire que le meurtre.
—L’islam a sanctifié l’homme et interdit de l’humilier et de le torturer.
—Ce sont là les propos des associations des droits de l’homme financés par l’Union européenne. Qui t’as dit que L’Islam interdit la torture? Le fouet, la lapidation, les mains coupées ne sont ils pas des torture? L’islam permet de torturer certains individus, et même de les tuer pour assurer la stabilité du pays. As–tu entendu parler du taazir? Selon le taazir, celui qui gouverne à le droit de juger seul le crime et de décider du châtiment de l’accusé.

—Tu sais, je mérite une mention d’excellence mais, bien sûr, elle est réservée aux fils de Pacha
Son père ne comprenait pas et Khaled lui expliqua que l’administration de la faculté accordait la mention d’excellence aux enfants des professeurs et des hauts responsables, de façon à assurer leur nomination comme assistants. Cela mit Madani en colère.
—Mais c’est une injustice.
—Bien sûr que c’est une injustice.
—Il faut que tu déposes plainte.
Khaled éclata de rire:
—Quelle plainte? Hadj Madani. Nous sommes en Égypte. L’injustice est la règle.

Tous les soirs les Égyptiens regardaient Nourhane. Elle invitait des professeurs d’université, des penseurs, des spécialistes des affaires stratégiques. Tous confirmaient avec preuves à l’appui que la révolution en Égypte n’avait été qu’un complot financé et planifié par les services secrets américains aidés par leurs confrères israéliens du Mossad. Chaque fois, l’émotion se lisait sur le beau visage de Nourhane, qui terminait son émission par une invocation qu’elle prononçait d’une voix humble tandis que la caméra faisait un gros plan sur son visage:
—Mon Dieu, donne la sécurité à l’Égypte et délivre-la des traîtres et de ceux qui lui veulent du mal.

Mahir Guven ‘Big Brother’


Finally they took us to a Greek that nobody knew. “Here it’s 100 percent Halal” said the red head. I felt like answering: “because it’s only 97 percent elsewhere?” But ok, I kept my joke to myself. It wasn’t the right time to ruin the atmosphere, I was too hungry and the risk of my sandwich disappearing due to a bad joke was too high, seeing how unfriendly he seemed. Even for the sauce they fucked us around. Ketchup, mayonnaise and the rest he decreed haram. Only the harissa was allowed. Fuck… I don’t mind harissa, but it gives me ring sting, and afterwards it’s like Palestine in the toilet for two days.***


Mahir Guven’s first novel, ‘Big Brother’, winner of the Goncourt prize in the first novel category is a breath of fresh air. The story told by two narrators, for the most part the big brother and occasionally the kid brother is a story about nuances, about lives in the difficult suburban towns on the wrong side of the périphérique in greater Paris. The story is told in the language of the streets and an 8 page glossary of words and phrases is given at the end of the book. The family at the centre of the story came to France with their French mother and Syrian communist father in the 80’s. After their mother’s early death they were raised by their father, a taxi driver brought alive by Guven both in the language, broken French and in the authoritarian, communist, anti-clerical character.

The boys however lived in a mostly poor neighbourhood populated largely by North African and African Muslims, and undergo pressures from the integrist part of this population as described here, on their way back home from football practice:


Two huge blokes appeared. Like the genie from Alladin’s lamp. Six and a half feet tall, with enormous hands, and enormous stomachs and beards as well. A white djellaba on one, a beige kamis for the other and a book under their arms.***


The two men persuade them to come over to the mosque at Aubervilliers. The Pharos’. The Egyptian immam where the kid brother discusses religion with them whilst the older brother can only think of food as shown in the opening quote until they are taken to a cafe.

In the present day, the big brother tells us of his life as he tries to survive, working as a driver for one of the platforms in competition with Uber, about their relationship with the existing taxis, epitomised by his father, how they were well paid in the early days and how this turned to exploitation afterwards:


To keep your steak, you need an advantage over the others. Either you are more discreet, or you have a certificate or a skill. In my case I have nothing to protect my job. All tou need to do is to buy a whistle and flute, a phone, then to obtain a quick certificate to get behind the wheel…. Obviously all the desperate cases flooded into the sector. The most extreme examples are the bros just out of slammer. An electronic bracelet doesn’t stop you getting behind the wheel. It’s the only job possible, no need for a CV. The platforms don’t give a damn about your past.***


We slowly learn of the story’s drama as the kid brother, the clever brother who has trained to be a male nurse disappears, after trying to go to Syria to help the wounded and the poor with Doctors Without Borders, he eventually leaves with a Muslim organisation where he slowly learns that the border between aid worker and active fighter is thin. But the story is that of his decision’s effect on those that stay behind as his brother is pressed into service for the interior ministry:


Ever since Charlie and the 13****, we were living a new love story with the pigs. Drugs, burglaries, car theft weren’t sexy enough for them.***
**** Charlie Hebdo and the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali


But what would happen should the kid brother come back, which he does? The older brother goes to see a lawyer to understand what are the implications, of course not telling the lawyer, the brother of Younès the convert, that he was actually already back:


For my brother, it was complicated, to begin with the cops have to catch him. And to arrest him, they first need to suspect my kid brother of going to Syria, then they have to find him. After, so that he goes to prison, the courts would need to prove he took part in a jihadist or terrorist organisation. That’s under normal conditions. But today, one single proof of a trip out and back from Syria is enough to lock him up. Because except for journalists and some humanitarians, nobody goes to Syria by accident.***


This was my second exceptional book in one month! But it will certainly be a difficult book to translate.

First Published in French as “Grand Frère” in 2017 by Editions Philippe Rey
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

À la fin ils nous ont emmenés dans un grec que personne connaissait. “Ici c’est 100 pour cent halal” a dit le rouquin. J’avais envie de répondre: “Parce que ailleurs’ c’est 97 pour cent?” Mais bon, j’ai gardé ma vanne pour moi. Pas le moment de plomber l’ambiance, j’avais trop faim et le risque que le sandwich s’envole à cause d’une mauvaise blague était très élevé, vu l’antipathie du gars. Même pour la sauce, il nous a cassé les couilles. Ketchup, mayonnaise et toute les autres, il les a décrétés haram. Seule la harissa était autorisée. Putain… J’aime bien la harissa, mais ça m’arrache le trou du cul, et après c’est la Palestine dans la cuvette pendant deux jours

Deux types immenses sont apparus. Comme des génies d’Alladin. Un mètre quatre vingt dix chacun. Des mains énormes. Leurs ventres et leurs barbes aussi. Djellaba blanche pour l’un, kamis beige pour l’autre un livre sous le bras

Pour garder son steak, il faut avoir un avantage par rapport aux autres. Soit être plus discret, soit avoir un diplôme ou une compétence. Dans mon cas, y avait rien pour protéger ce job. Suffisait de s’acheter un starco****, un téléphone, de passer un petit diplôme et de prendre le volant….Forcément tous les morts de faim se sont engouffrés dans le secteur. L’exemple ultime c’est les rheys**** sortis de taule.Le bracelet électronique, ça empêche pas de pousser la pédale. C’est le seule job possible, pas besoin de CV. La plate-forme en a rien à foutre de ton passé.

**** french slang (verlan) for costard, itself slang for costume, i.e. suit

**** french slang (from Arabic) for brothers

Depuis Charlie et le 13, on vivait avec les keufs**** une nouvelle histoire d’amour. La drogue, les cambriolages, les vols de voitures c’était pas assez bandant pour eux.

**** Charlie Hebdo and the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali

**** french slang (verlan) for flics, itself slang for cops or pigs

Pour mon frère, c’était compliqué. Déjà, il fallait que la volaille l’attrape. Et pour le serrer, fallait d’abord que les flics aient des soupçons sur un séjour en Syrie du petit, puis qu’ils le trouvent. Après, pour qu’il aille en prison, la justice aurait à prouver sa participation à un mouvement djihadiste ou terroriste. Ça c’est dans les conditions normales. Mais aujourd’hui, une seule preuve d’un départ et d’un retour de Syrie suffisait à le faire mettre en cabane. Parce que, à part les journalistes et certains humanitaires, on allait plus au Cham**** par hasard.

**** Cham: Syria. The ancient name of Syria is Bilad-el-Cham, which means Country of Cham, Noah’s son.

Laurent Binet ‘Civilizations’


The sight puzzled the Quitonians. Atahualpa himself, known and admired for his ability to keep imperially calm, even before the most surprising of situations, was unable to hide a slight expression of curiosity.
At the centre of the square, as if locked in a cage, stood some men and women wearing pointed hoods and dressed in robes, sometimes yellow sometimes black on which red crosses and flames were painted. On the yellow robes the flames were turned to the ground. Certain of them had knotted ropes around their knecks. Each of them held in his or her hands a long unlit candle. next to them were placed black chests and human sized dolls….
Human sacrifices were nothing unusual for the Incas. Although we know that Atahualpa, even if he didn’t want to let anythind show, was shocked by the sight of the bodies twisting as they burned and by their screams.***


Welcome to Laurent Binet’s uchronia, where rather than the Spanish invading and conquering South America, he tells us the opposing story of Europe being invaded by the Incas, a far fetched idea? or is it? Binet’s three what ifs are simple, what if at the time of Columbus’s trip the South Americans were immune to the European diseases, what if they had equivalent iron forging abilities and if they had horses, could things have happened differently?

In this four part book, Binet begins with the story of Freydis, The daughter of Erik the red, the Norse explorer and settler who set up a colony on the south coast of Greenland around 970 AD and for which there are traces of their long houses in Newfoundland. In this first section Binet tells us of her trip sailing south along the American coast, of the people’s they meet:


The small colony settled near a Skraeling village and, not just content with coexisting without incident, the two groups help each other. The Greenlanders teach the Skraelings to look for iron in the peat and how to work it to make axes, spears and arrow heads…..
But eventually the Skraelings fell ill.***


He tells us how they adventure further and further south and of how they stop first in Cuba and then further South on the mainland, mixing with the local ‘Skraelings’ and raising horses.

At the end of the first section they are now better ready for Columbus. The second part of the book is Columbus’s diary, which tells of Columbus being taken prisoner and never making it back to Europe, of his boats which are taken and of the Cuban’s learning to sail in them, of Columbus teaching the little Higuénamota, the Cuban princess, to speak castillan.

The third and by far the longest part of the book concerns the conquest, the chronicles of Atahualpa. Before this book my knowledge of the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire was limited to my ‘O’ level English Literature studies of Peter Schaffers ‘Royal Hunt of the Sun’. But in a few words, how less than two hundred Spanish invaders were able to conquer the Inca kingdom of up to 10 million people, with Pablo Pissaro arriving during the war between the two brothers, Atahualpa and Huáscar for the throne.

Here, Atahualpa and his faithful generals, Chalcuchimac, Quizquiz, and Ruminawi and several hundred soldiers and families are beaten back and flee to Cuba where Atahualpa meets the now adult queen Higuénamota. They are then able to sail east in the direction of Higuénamotta’s memories of Columbus’s tales.

But how would they conquer Europe? Binet models the events on mirror images of the actual events. The Inca empire was divided and ruled peoples that wanted freedom and that Pablo Pissaro was able to use against the Incas.

The Incas arrive first in Portugal after a massive earthquake and are able to gain a foothold and move on to Spain where a large sweep of European history shows us the Spanish empire ruling over peoples that wanted their freedom. Atahualpa reads and becomes a disciple of Machievelli ‘Your enemy’s enemies are your allies’. After seeing the Inquisition and their treatment of the ‘Conversos’, the Jews who had been forced to convert but were now being judged and burnt in Toledo, illustrated in the opening quote, Atahualpa, in a manoeuvre mirroring that of Pissaro, seizes Charles V the holy Roman emperor.

Binet takes us on a voyage around 16th century Europe and its divisions as he illustrates, using diplomacy and strategy in the deeply divided state of Europe, with religious wars, Martin Luther and the beginning of capitalism, Atahualpa uses gold from South America and money lenders to finance an army.

This was a thoughroughly enjoyable book with a number of amusing details, such as Higuénamota meeting Paulo Pizzaro in Toledo where they witness the inquisition in work and where she saves Pizzaro’s life and he becomes her page, or the building of a pyramid in the Louvre! Of the Mexicans landing on the Normandy beaches on the 6th June!

If you can read this in French then go out of your way to get it, if not then queue up for the inevitable English translation.

First Published in French as “Civilizations” in 2019 by Grasset
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Le spectacle intrigue les Quinétiens. Atahualpa lui-mème, connu et admiré pour sa capacité à ne jamais se départir de son calme impérial, y compris devant les choses et les situations les plus surprenantes, ne put dissimuler une légère expression de curiosité.
Au centre de la place, comme enfermés dans une cage, se tenaient des hommes et des femmes coiffés d’un bonnet pointu et vêtu d’une robe, tantôt jaune tantôt noire, sur laquelle étaient peintes des croix rouges et des flammes. Sur les robes jaunes, les flammes étaient tournées vers le bas. Certains avaient des cordes à nœuds passés autour du cou. Tous tenaient à la main une longue bougie éteinte. Posés à côté d’eux, des coffres noirs et des poupées de taille humaine….
Les sacrifices humaines n’étaient pas étrangers aux Incas. Pourtant nous savons qu’Atahualpa, même s’il n’en voulut rien laisser paraître, fut choqué par le spectacle des corps qui se tordaient en se consumant, et par les cris des suppliciés.

La petite colonie s’installa dans la voisinage du village Skraeling et non contents de cohabiter sans incidents, les deux groupes s’entraidèrent. Les Groenlandais enseignèrent aux Skraelings à chercher du fer dans la tourbe et à le travailler pour en faire des haches, des lances ou des pointes de flèche…
Or il arriva que les Skraelings tombèrent malades

Juli Zeh ‘Unterleuten’


“The land rent for ten wind turbines is fifty thousand euros a year. You work it out for a hundred turbines. Just to see what sort of a retirement that pays.”….
“Gombrowski’s going to wind up Ökologica. He doesn’t need it any more. Finished, over.”
The effect was immediate. Kron cut short all muttering with a movement of his hand.
“Think a bit. Ökologica hasn’t been profitable in a long time. Why is Gombrowski so set on the wind park? To pay himself a tidy pension.”
This time he let them mutter. Except for Ulrich, they all had family that worked at Ökologica: daughters, nephews, sons and sons in law; Björn’s grand-daughter had just begun an apprenticeship in agronomy. In Unterleuten to lose your job was the equivalent of a professional death sentence.***


Juli Zeh takes the time to set the scene in this delicious rural thriller, where the events that take place are blurred by the form, they are seen from the viewpoints of each of the many protagonists living in the village of Unterleuten in Brandebourg about fifty kilometres from Berlin, there are no truths only different perspectives. There are the new arrivals, moving in from the city and the villagers who have lived the tumultuous times of the twentieth century, the disenfranchisement of the land owners, the collectivisation of the land followed by targets set in Berlin that didn’t take account of the seasons and the capability of the land, the flight of villagers to the West, The Stasi’s spying of the people, the wall falling and coming to terms with Capitalism. The villagers all know each other or are related and old contentions run deep. Each of the protagonists, as the events unfold, is persuaded to be acting justly as the village’s fine balance is knocked out of equilibrium.

There is the mayor, Arne Seidel, who best represents the arbitrariness of the past fifty years, once the vet trained in The DDR, but whose training was no longer recognised after re-unification. Arne is then left a broken man when his beloved wife dies of a short illness only to discover that she had been a Stasi informer, writing page after page about him every week, before he is then coaxed by Rudolph Gombrowski into becoming Mayor.

There are the two long term enemies, Kron, a one time convinced communist who regrets the passing of the DDR and the privatisation of the collective farm, and whose wife ran away to the West years during the Cold War leaving him with a young daughter to bring up. There is Gombrowski the man who had taken the collective farm in hand after unification and created a private company, guaranteeing employment for a large part of the the local population but making himself rich at the same time. We soon learn that problems are handled locally without outside interference, police or lawyers as opposed to the West, Gombrowski and Kron had opposed each other as Gombrowski tried to take over the collective farm and had a meeting in the forest during a storm from which one person died and Kron suffered broken legs as Gombrowski was then able to take over the farm. But what really happened that day? Whose interest is it to leave a doubt?

For many years Seidel and Gombrowski have acted in tandem, both believing this is the best for the community with the excesses from Gombrowski’s company Ökologica GmbH, more or less subsidising the village.

Then there are the newcomers, of which two stand out, the highly manipulative, stop at nothing Linda Franzen, who wants to set up a ranch for sick horses but needs money and land, and there is “The Bird Protector”, Gerhard Fließ, who wants to restrict any human activity that will threaten the presence of the Ruffs that feed in the region during their annual migration, Gerhard uses his power to prevent Linda from building an enclosure for the horses. Neither of which understand the old antagonisms present in the community.

To this state of affairs, set in 2010, Juli Zeh throws in a private company, Vento Direct with a project to install a wind turbines park in the local countryside, where no single land owner has quite a large enough patch of land without the small patch which Linda Franzen discovers she owns….
This was a magnificent read which I highly recommend.

First Published in German as “Unterleuten” in 2016 by Random House GmbH.
Translated into French by
Rose Labourie and published as “Brandebourg ” in 2017 by Actes Sud
*** My translation

The quote as read in French

“Le fermage pour Dix éoliennes, c’est cinquante Mille euros par an. Á vous de faire le calcul pour cent éoliennes. Histoires de voir quelle retraite ça donne.”….
“Gombrowski va fermer l’Ökologica. Il n’en a plus besoin. Fini, terminé.”
L’effet fut immédiat. Kron coupa court aux murmures qui s’élevaient d’un geste de la main.
“Réfléchisez un peu. Ça fait longtemps que l’Ökologica n’est plus rentable. Pourquoi est-ce que Gombrowski tient tellement au parc éolien? Pour se faire une jolie pension de retraite.”
Cette fois, il les laissa murmurer. Á part Ulrich, ils avaient tous de la famille qui travaillait á l’Ökologica: fille, neveu, fils et gendre; la petite fille de Björn venait de commencer un apprentissage d’agronomie. Á Unterleuten, perdre son travaille était l’équivalent d’un arrêt de mort professionnel.

Volker Kutscher ‘Goldstein’


“Abraham Goldstein was right about one thing, Berlin was a crazy city and it’s getting crazier and crazier”


It’s 1931 and an American Jewish hitman arrives in Berlin, Goldstein, who has never once been convicted for a serious crime. Gereon Rath is asked to let Goldstein know the police have theirs eyes on him with orders not to let him out of his sight. So begins Goldstein, Kutscher’s third book in the Geron Rath series read for German lit month

The series has moved on in time, to 1931 and the banking crisis as Gereon wants to pay Charlie, Charlotte Ritter, his on – off girlfriend’s rent, he learns that the government had been forced to guarantee all deposits at the Danatbank and that all banks will not be opening for several days.


Even so, all bank counters would remain closed for the next few days. Arrogant bastards Rath thought. He didn’t have much time for the financial industry, which he had never understood anyway. He knew even less about the financial crisis which now seemed to have pulled the banks into its maelstrom. Only two years ago, any number of shares on the New York stock exchange had fallen through the floor and speculators had jumped out of the windows of the city’s skyscrapers. Why enterprises that had nothing to do with New York should be affected, honest German companies for example, even public servants such as himself, who had seen their salaries cut was a mystery to him.


What would a police thriller be without bodies piling up, here key figures from two major Berlin gangs, “Ringvereins”, the Berolina lead by Rath’s contact Johann Marlow and their competitors, the Nordpiraten, dissapear and are later found dead. As Marlow tells Rath, it may not be the Nordpiraten behind the killing of their number two but as people think it is, Marlow cannot be seen to be weak and must act.

There are Brown shirts, and throughout the book their anti-semitism and violence, at first shown to be cowardly by an intervention by Goldstein, becomes more and more asphyxiating as the book progresses. At one point their protestations against hunger seem real enough until Rath sees they are being moved and lead along, in the background, as a military unit. Doubtlessly hunger is a pressure on the people.

Back to the beginning, Goldstein gives Rath the slip with the help of a girl from room service who Rath later traces back to his days in vice. Goldstein is then linked to the killing of a Brown shirt and soon a city wide manhunt is underway.

A second story runs in parallel to this, concerning Charlotte Ritter who as a student prosecutor is involved in a case of the murder of a young department store thief by a policeman, who stamps on his hands as he hangs from a window ledge

Police politics force “Charlie” not to speak of this to Gereon, straining their relationship, and of course the cases are linked.

As a final stone in the Weimar wall, as the political unrest begins to seize the city, Gereon seeks out a club where people want to drink and have fun to forget what is happening.

A tidy police thriller, with the recurring characters shown against the historical background of the end of the Weimar Republic, the escape of key felons ensure the continuity of the series.

First Published in German as “Goldstein” in 2010 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH.
Translated into English by Niall Sellar and published as “Goldstein” in 2018 by Sandstone Press

Lukas Bärfuß “One Hundred Days”


They weren’t just shoemakers, farmers, doctors, drivers, sons, mothers, daughters, or whatever. First and foremost, you were either one of the Longs or one of the Shorts. Expats avoided these local terms–they were forbidden words, associated with calamity, with murder, expulsion, revolution, and war. And we never asked anyone their affiliation, as we called it, because we didn’t know what exactly these groups were, whether they were tribes, ethnicities, or castes. But Short or Long, they all spoke the same language and we didn’t have a foolproof way of telling them apart.


I’ve chosen Lucas Bärfuß, the 2019 winner of the Georg Büchner for my last book to be read for this year’s German lit month. With this his 2008 book about a young Swiss aid worker caught up in the Rwandan Genocide, David an idealistic young man, who four years previously has gone to Rwanda, The Switzerland of Africa, “not just because of the mountains and the cows, but also because of the discipline that ruled every aspect of daily life”, as part of The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The intersection between David’s personal life, as he falls for an open, free young Rwandan, Agathe, who causes him to stay behind, hiding in his villa for one hundred days after the last Europeans leave the country, the duration of the Rwandan genocide.

As the opening quote leads us to believe, the Europeans in general but the Swiss agency in particular, who had been present since the independance in the 60’s, had no real window to or comprehension of the complex ethnic situation in this up to then well run country. Bärfuß, through David, tells us of the pressures on the country, first economic, as the Americans ended the international export agreement on coffee, the almost single export matter of Rwanda, putting a sharp slide on the price of coffee, then population, as there was no longer enough land to support an agricultural based society:


The country was overpopulated and the situation in Butare province was especially dire. For every dead person there were three newborns, more mouths that had to be fed somehow. If the country’s population continued to grow at the same rate, it would double in fifteen years. Already the demand for land could not be met. The hills were cultivated all the way to their summits. Even the dead were begrudged their graves. Since no one wanted the land to lie fallow, goats were allowed to graze in the graveyard. After ten years the graves were dug up….


Having told us of the pressures he then tells us of the two other necessary ingredients, firstly political historical, of the changes in the country when the Belgians took over the colony from the Germans at the end of the Great War and the subsequent decline of Kigali the erstwhile capital and the Belgian’s working with the Longs, of many of the Longs then being forced to flee to Uganda at the independance of Rwanda and of the subsequent instability caused by their being expelled from Uganda:


But then the monster rose again and repressed history rose again in the guise of the expelled Longs, returning home from their Ugandan exile, and because the Shorts had never allowed them to cross the border freely, the Longs sent their sons armed with rifles.


And secondly, organisational, as David explains that the relative stability of Rwanda up until this point can be linked to its organisation, where everyone knows his place in society, as in his own country Switzerland, but that here in Rwanda everything is controlled centrally, a prerequisite he surmises for a genocide:


Like all of Rwanda’s 840 mayors, he had been personally appointed to his office by the President. In theory, the local council held authority, but since most of the councilors had only gone to primary school, the mayor led the council like a bull with a nose ring. Each community was divided into ten sections, and these in turn were divided up into cells. The cells were not just administrative units, but were divisions of the political party. There were no independent structures and even the lowest-level leaders were controlled by the administration in Kigali. Each citizen knew his place and his superiors and followed orders that came directly from the capital.


As David lays out this backdrop he tells us his personal story, of his slowly losing his idealism in favour of the realism needed for his mission, epitomised by a story he tells of letting his house keeper, a Long, grow vegetables in his garden which helped to support her family of eight only to find that that the agencies project for a much needed orphanage was turned down because of this and that he then ripped out the garden. David tells us of how the people in Rwanda changed through the story of his girlfriend, Agathe, a Short and how she changes from a proud and independant woman to a rabble rouser and of his own confusion in his relationship with her, leading to his staying behind when the other Europeans fled in the hope of seeing her again even though he knew of her actions.

David tries to analyse the work carried out by his agency, for instance when they arranged for the radio broadcasters to be trained into making their programs more interesting:


They had learned the lesson. The broadcasts were entertaining. They played music, performed short sketches in which two shrewd farmers discussed the stupidity of the inkotanyi, as they called the members of the rebel army. Fine, it wasn’t our intention to teach the génocidaires how to do their work, and it was certainly not our fault if they used the radio as a murder weapon, but somehow I could never shake the feeling that I was observing one of the agency’s more successful projects.


Finally he tells us of the West’s missreading of the situation through the voice if Missland, an old hand aid worker who had long since come to terms with the situation:


This country’s history is one giant lie, Missland had said, and he made fun of the experts whose report demanded that the President take measures against the death squads. The man from whom they demand action is himself commanding the death squads..


This is a powerful story that I would recommend to anyone, my first encounter with Bärfuß’s work but certainly not my last.

First Published in German as “Hundert Tage” in 2008 by Wallstein.
Translated into English by Tess Lewis and published as “One Hundred Days” in 2013 by Granta Books

Sten Nadolny ‘The Discovery of Slowness’


“John’s eyes and ears,” Dr. Orme wrote to the captain, “retain every impression for a peculiarly long time. His apparent slowness of mind and his inertia are nothing but the result of exaggerated care taken by his brain in contemplating every kind of detail. His enormous patience…”


This book by Sten Nadolny published in 1983 about the polar explorer John Franklin, read for German lit month follows Franklin throughout his life from a young schoolboy to his death and studies how a particularly slow child could slowly develop and in adulthood turn this diadvantage to his favour. He is at first taken for and treated as an imbecile, the first person to see anything else in him is his teacher Dr. Orme who tries to explain his condition to a ships captain as John’s dream is to go to sea, illustrated in the opening quote.

The writing follows John’s developing thought process and is initially quite disjointed, becoming more and more clear as John slowly builds his theories regarding slowness, and its role compared to fastness. John lives through extraordinary times, taking part as a young midshipsman in the battle of Trafalgar realising that his inability to act quickly could be a dissadvantage in a wartime situation as a midshipsman but countering this by an ability to learn vast quantities of information about boats and by showing great braveness. Following this battle he obtains the opportunity to sail on a scientific voyage of discovery in the south seas which circumnavigated Tasmania. This voyage was of huge importance for him as he very slowly managed to persuade the crew of his capability, terminating in the sinking of the ship off of the coast of Australia and the stranding of the crew on a narrow and shallow sandbank where two events were to shape his future. Firstly the captain, rather than rushing took the time to get exacy bearings of the sandbank before rowing the more than 100 miles to the main land and coming back with help, thus a man in responsibility should not act precipitously and a captain should always bring back his crew. Secondly whilst the others were hurrying around the sandbank he thought carefully and after a day decided to put their food safely high above the sea, this was swiftly followed by a storm which wasshed away everything except the food which permitted them to hold out until rescued.

On the trip back to Europe with a boat with a number of others from the East Indies company and after an act of bravour by the captain when faced with an overwhelming force of French men of war John’s reputation now went before him as the captain proclaimed:


“Scrutinize three times; act once. Young people don’t always grasp this. Being slow and faultless is better than being quick and final. Isn’t that so, Mr. Franklin?”


But it was the North West Passage that was to make his fame, where he was chosen as captain and set off believing that after the ice there was open sea at the north pole, they were totally unprepared for the trip and as illustrated when they began to get caught in the ice:


Above 81 degrees latitude the ice floes turned into platforms, and those into islands. At one point, under the most favorable transverse wind, the Trent simply stood still and didn’t budge. “Why don’t we go on?” Reid called from below, and a few minutes later the second mate, Kirby, came on deck: “Why aren’t we moving?”


Once again Franklin’s slowness comes to their rescue as all around is panic and he appears to do nothing until his observstion saves them:


The critical moment had arrived; even Beechey became nervous: with their slow captain the whole ship would be wrecked. But why did Franklin stay so calm? What did he actually believe? Why did he stare at the shore; what did he look for with his telescope? “There!” John shouted. “We’ve got to get there, Mr. Beechey!” What did he mean? Into the pack ice? Voluntarily?


This experience caused him to think that command required two people, a first officer to handle the quick work and a captain to reflect completely and to act slowly.

So, onto the voyage that would make his legend, “The man Who ate his shoes”. He was to lead a land expedition to find the North West Passage, for this his nature and his intuition were to prove useful in his first meeting with the indians necessary to help him fulfill his mission, amongst the whites they recognised him at once as the leader:


John saw the Indians approach across the lake in a long line of canoes. Behind him, a tent had been erected at the fort. The flag was waving, and next to him the uniformed officers and Hepburn were lined up in formation. Upon John’s command they had put on their decorations. He wore none himself. His instinct for dignity told him that as the highest chief, he should be able to do without them. Akaitcho climbed out of the first canoe and strode slowly up to the Englishmen without looking right or left, so that John had to take him most seriously. This was no man who would let his warriors fall upon Eskimos and chop off their hands and feet. Whoever walked this way kept his word. In contrast to his warriors, the chief wore no feather headdress; he was dressed in mocassins, long blue trousers, and a wide shirt with crossed shoulder straps hanging loose over his trousers, belt, and powder horn; a beaver cloak hung from his shoulders to the ground.


Few of the original group made it back alive, those that did owed it in part to the decisions of their captain, in part due to a solid young sailor who went on ahead to fetch help and in part to the impression that Franklin had made on the indian chief, causing him at great risk to his life to come to resue them. This event, back in England, was perceived as a fiasco until John, slowly wrote a book about the trip, omitting nothing including that he had eaten the leather of his shoes in hunger. Thus book became a best seller and redeemed him to the public, strenghthening his belief in slowness.

Then came his later life, his knighthood, his years as governor general of Tasmania, a mostly penal colony and his final fatal mission to the North West Passage. Throughout all of this, the people that came to know him were fiercely loyal to him as he was to them.

First Published in German as “Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit” in 1983 by Piper.
Translated into English by Ralph Freedman and published as “The Discovery of Slowness” in 1987 by Viking Penguin