Sherko Fatah ‘Un Voleur de Bagdad’

—The Versailles treaty, that shameful text, the Grand Mufti said one day to those around him, made Germany into a pariah. It’s because of that they have taken the side of the Arabs, the eternal pariahs. IMG_1077May God stop them from losing this war, because then we would lose Palestine to the Jews.***

Sherko Fatah brings us the story of Anouar, a boy from the streets of Bagdad who is swept up in the movements of his epoch, initially moving towards an involvement in an anti-Semitic movement in which he does not really believe. Fatah First paints us a story of prewar Bagdad, Of the growing tensions Anouar slowly discovers between the people and their British rulers and, through an involvement with the Black shirts, the growing hatred towards the Jews living in Bagdad:

—The Black shirts were grouped in front of the building waiting for Fadil’s orders. When I joined them I was accepted as a comrade, and was asked to carry one of the large paint containers…i thus learnt  that the operation we were about to begin was of great importance for the fatherland, that it was aimed at the internal enemy who in association with the British was about to bring down the country’s  rightful gouvernement….Fadil regrouped us around him.
—we will mark all of the shops owned by Jews. You know which ones are concerned. If you have any doubts ask me. Lets go!***

Anouar finds himself, through his links with the Black shirts, a factotum of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who is in political exile in Bagdad and is part of the team of people who accompany him to Berlin in 1941 when after a failed insurrection Bagdad is brought under control by the British:

He wanted to be an Arab partner alongside the Germans and not the lackey without hope that the French see in every Arab, nor the easily manipulated imbecile that the English took him for.***

Anouar describes their time in Berlin where their rallying to Hitler is used as propaganda, here in this second part of the story he is brought into contact with the day to day anti Semitic behaviour and expectations around him and where they spend most of their time just waiting as the war goes from euphoria to despair as illustrated  in the opening quote.

The book then moves into the third and little known phase, where towards the end of the war Anouar is enrolled into the Muslim Legion of the Waffen SS, sent to fight on the eastern front where, during the retreat without hope from the Russian army, the Legion is used for the most dangerous work in the suppression of the Warsaw uprising as the Russian Army halt their advance to allow the SS the time to finish the job.

This book throws open a new window on the events of the twentieth century, seen from an unusual perspective including the tensions in the Middle East at the time. This was a thoughtful read.

First Published in German as “Ein weisses Land” in 2011 by Luchterhand Literatur Verlag.
Translated into French by Olivier Mannoni as ‘Un Voleur de Bagdad’ and published by Métailié in 2014
*** My translation


Gert Hofmann ‘The Film Explainer’

-Oh said Fräulein Fritsche for the last time, who if she’d given up her ‘aldulterous relationship with a married grandfather’ (Grandmother) could easily have become deputy director of the firm of ……img_0973‘The Woman should finally realise the old man won’t marry her, at least not in this life’ (Mother). So the affair dragged on. Grandmother would ‘never ever’ forgive him, but that was all she could do. She had reconciled herself to the fact that he occasionally ‘dropped in on Fräulein Fritsche and gave her a little bit of a shaking’.

This book read for German lit month VI is a true family endeavour, written by Gert about his Grandfather Karl and translated by his son Michael. The picture on the cover depicts  Karl and the young Gert and this is a work of love. The period from the hyperinflation to the rise of Hitler in Germany was a precarious time for many Germans and the first half of this book illustrates this seen through the prism of a young provincial boy brought up in his Grandparents home. Karl’s passion was the cinema and during the silent film era he was a poorly payed artist, a film explainer, he played the piano in The Apollo cinema in a small town in Saxony and explained the film to the audience in his coat tails and his artist’s hat. But in difficult times he earned little and  thus had a strained relationship with his wife:

-He’s not just an artist without any bread, he’s an artist without any art, said grandmother heartlessly. She meant: An art like his can never come to anything. He had the expressive gift of an artist but no particular gift. Or, as grandmother said, So that everyone would understand: It seems something wants to get out of him but there’s nothing inside!

And as the opening quote leads us to understand Karl has a long standing relationship with Fräulein Fritsche and as he takes the young Gert everywhere with him, this includes his regular daytime visits to the Fräulein. In this precarious world, the advent of the talking movie had a devastating effect on Karl who lost his job and Herr Teilhaber eventually replaces as an usher by a young cripple:

-By the time the blossoms were gone from our two apple trees, the sound film had established itself in Limbach…..Now instead of grandfather, you could see Herr Teilhaber at the door counting the audience, but that didn’t make them any more numerous. After ‘a few weeks of sound’, the Apollo was as empty as before.

Karl does not look for work and seems to fall into a drastic state of depression for a long period of time, he only pulls out of this thanks to two other men of his age, Herr Götze and Herr Friedrich who take him drinking  at the Deutches Haus and who like him are poor and have time on their hands and Karl with his WW1 medals is a target for them in this small town:

-Herr Götze and Herr Friedrich…spoke in unison: Our task is to. bring new members into the party. But each of them had to do that on his own. I asked: How many this week Herr Götze, and he said: Two!…
A couple of weeks later I asked again…
Herr Götze said:A half….Actually I haven’t got anyone yet. I’m still looking.

Gert as a boy discovers in a naive way things that the grown ups know and take for granted through throw away phrases such as for instance when he learns about the young cripple who is no longer in town:

-On the other hand, he said, some young ladies were…….
Delectable, said Grandfather and smacked his lips. Then they disappeared from our lives. Just like the young cripple who replaced me disappeared too, to Bautzen , apparently.
And why Bautzen, I asked.
I suppose there was a vacancy there for him in the cosmic scheme of things, said Grandfather.

Bautzen was a concentration camp. Or when Herr Teilhaber, a Jew, disappears and his businesses are taken over by a Herr Kunze as Grandmother says:

-There’s no no need to worry about him overreaching himself, Grandmother said to me, he gets it all cheap. Because Herr Teilhaber had been in such a hurry to get out, he let him have the shop for next to nothing, and the Apollo too. F L Kunze took it all over for next to nothing. ‘He should be ashamed of himself’ (Grandmother)

A slow but interesting book of innocence being wound in by history.

First Published in German as “Der Kinoerzähler” in 1990 by Hanser
Translated into English by Michael Hofmann as ‘The Film Explainer’ and published by Secker and Warburg in 1995

Sebastian Fitzek ‘Amok’

-Salty, the barrel of the gun in her mouth tasted surprisingly salty strange she thought, until now she would never have dreamed of putting her duty weapon in her mouth, img_0965not even as a joke…this should have been the last day of her life.

For German lit month VI, I chose to read two different books with the same title, here Fitzek’s Amok and in a separate post, Zweig’s Amok, both authors treat the title of their book, Zweig explaining the meaning of the word to people maybe unfamiliar with it and Fitzek more precisely giving a recognised definition.

-A deliberate seemingly unprovoked episode of homicidal or incredibly destructive behaviour towards others where the act of violence in question endangers injures or even kills a number of people

As the story opens Jan May, a psychiatrist, is at home when he receives a call from his partner Leonie who was, as he lovingly described her to others, quiet and secretive. Less well meaning people would have called her cagey or even just weird:

-yes I’ve been crying but that’s not important, just listen to me now please
-has something happened
-yes but don’t believe them
-Don’t believe what they tell you ok no matter what it is you have to……

At that moment the door bell rings:

-Please excuse me for disturbing you are you Jan May?
-I’m very sorry but are you aquatinted with Leoni Gregor?
-I came as quickly as possible so that you don’t have to hear about it in the evening news.
-Hear about what?
-Your partner, well she had a serious car accident about an hour ago
-What is this supposed to be some sort of joke she’s on the phone to me right now…
-I’m very very sorry… I regret to inform you that your partner, Leoni Gregor came off the road in her vehicle an hour ago on her way to see you, she crashed into a traffic light and a house wall, we don’t know the specific details yet but it seems that the car immediately caught fire. I’m sorry but there was nothing the doctors could do she died at the scene.

Six months later the psychiatrist, Yann May, decided he must find Leoni, with no thought for his own life. At gun point he takes over a trashy radio station in Berlin, 101.5, which emits:

-An asinine mix of bad music, lame gags and irrelevant news

And which runs a competition called cash call he takes a number of hostages and, changing the rules, he will phone someone at random every hour whilst on air and if they don’t answer with the correct phrase:

-I listen to 101.5 now set a hostage free

He will kill a hostage.

In an echo to Zweig’s Amok the police negotiator Ira Samin is a psychiatrist who will try to get Yann to tell his story during the negotiation but in a twist, as she is asked to drag out the negotiations, the hostage taker slowly gets her to tell her own story  over the radio for millions to hear where we learn why, as illustrated in the opening quote, she wanted to take her own life that very morning.

Gangs, witness protection,  suicides, betrayals, sadistic murders, government involvement, all of this and more are presented to is in this effective thriller taken here on a well dramatised audiobook.

First Published in German as “Amokspiel” in 2007 by Droemer Knaur
Adapted into English by Johannes Steiner as ‘Amok’ and published by Audible in 2015

Tom Stoppard ‘On The Razzle’

Melchior: Madame Knorr is not just another hausfrau. Fashion is her middle name
Zangler: More or Less. Knorr Fashion House. I think I see what you mean….The Imperial Gardens Cafè is a fashionable place, is it?img_0963
Melchior: It’s the only place for the quality at the moment.
Zangler: The quality…Are you sure it is quite refined?
Melchior: Refined?! The ploughman’s lunch is six oysters and a crème de menthe frappé.

I read Tom Stoppard adaptation of Johann Nestroy’s ‘Einen Jux will er sich machen’ for German lit month VI, and learned in the process that a previous adaptation, Thornton Wilder’s ‘The Matchmaker’ existed which itself was adapted to make ‘Hello Dolly’. Stoppard’s comedy ‘On The Razzle’, which I saw on stage back in the early 80’s, has kept the Viennese setting.

The first act of this two act play sets up the three situations that will be exploited in the second act of this play with the pompous country grocery shop owner Zangler and his quick witted servant Melchior at the centre of the action with, as the opening quote illustrates, Zangler due to go up to Vienna to meet his possible future wife, Madame Knorr.  The first antagonising situation is that of Zangler’s ward Marie whom he attempts to keep apart from her suitor, Sonders. An example of the double entendres around this situation is given as they think they have been discovered by Zangler (a case of mistaken identity):

Marie: Oh my uncle!
Sonders: Oh my God–Herr Zangler!
Marie: Don’t be angry, dear Uncle, I meant no harm
Sonders : She’s blameless, sir, intact I swear, I mean in fact I swear she did it against her will
Marie : I didn’t do it
Sonders : No she didn’t –I haven’t– Oh, sir, it was love that drove us to deceive you!

The third situation is that of the two employees of Zangler, Weinberl and Christopher (who incidentally was played by Felicity Kendal in the opening production) who, deciding to go on the razzle, shut up shop in Zangler’s absence and head for the big city in order to get a ‘past’ before it’s too late, as they see Zangler approaching they hide in a shop Knorr Fashion House where Weinberl pretends to be a Mr Fischer, unfortunately for him the widow Fischer is in the shop but she plays along with his subterfuge.

Mme Knorr : …It is such an honour to meet you. I think it is so romantic–you must have swept her off her feet. Tell me, how long have you known each other?
Mrs Fischer : Not long at all
Weinberl : No, not long.
Mme Knorr : You must have been married with your head in a whirl!
Mrs Fischer : You couldn’t say I went into it with my eyes open
Mme Knorr : Of course you did, and I am sure you have not been disappointed.
Mrs Fischer : Surprised more than disappointed. My husband has a very individual way of dealing with the banalities of ordinary time–I expect we’ll be engaged next week and exchange cards the week after.
Mme Knorr : Isn’t she priceless
Weinberl : I expect you think I’m rather presumptuous.
Mrs Fischer : No, I wouldn’t say you were presumptuous. Presumption one has encountered before.

The act ends as we learn that Zangler and Madame Knorr, Marie and Sonders as well as Weinberl and Mrs Fischer all are to be at The Imperial Gardens Café at the same time. In the second act there are more misunderstandings than you can point a stick at before as in always in comedy, all ends happily. Should you get a chance to see this play you will spend a fine evening and leave the theatre smiling.

First Published in German as “Einen Jux will er sich machen” More than 150 years ago
Adapted into English by Tom Stoppard after a close literal translation by Neville and Stephen plaice as ‘On the Razzle’ and published by Faber and Faber in 1981

Martin Suter ‘The Chef’

-The world outside was looking pretty ugly. The day of reckoning had finally come for the financial markets, who had been dealing for years in fool’s gold. Unsinkable banks were now sending out SOS calls as they listed heavily. Every day, more and more sectors of the economy were getting sucked into the vortex of the financial crisis……img_0964
And, as if it could survive this imminent hurricane by retreating under its diving bell, the small Alpine country started to shut itself off again. It had barely opened up.

This is the first book I have read by the Swiss author Martin Suter, read here for the German lit month VI, the way he manages here to blend the local, personal story of the Sri Lankan chef living in exile in Switzerland, with the global situation in 2008 to 2009, using the former to illustrate the latter is to me more reminiscent of world literature, often written in English, than of my experience to date of the currents I have discovered from German language writers, hardly surprising then that it is marketed as an international best seller.

The local story is that of Maravan, a Sri Lankan exile and exceptionally good cook trying to survive in Switzerland where his status does not let him work as a chef. The global story is that of the Sri Lankan civil war which coming to its climax can find no place in the press due to world events that year, centred mostly around the world financial meltdown illustrated in my opening quote.

As Maravan and his business partner, Andrea, set up and run a two person catering services with their successful concept of’Love meals’ at private residences, based on Maravan’s mastering of Ayurvedic (aphrodisiac) cuisine, Maravan, against his will, gets sucked via blackmail, in order to prevent his nephew still in Sri Lanka from becoming a boy soldier, into financing the LTTE the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in their civil war with Sri Lanka. He is however unable to stop the inevitable and after his nephew’s death learns that one of ‘Love meals’ customers, Dalman was a middle man in bending Swiss law to allow arms to be sold to both sides in the Sri Lankan civil war.

-So it was true, Dalman was involved with people supplying arms to the army and the Liberation Tigers, why would he have anything to do with them if he was not caught up in their deals. Sambalar was right, the money he was sending his family may have been coming from the profits made by someone helping one of Maravan’s compatriots to kill each other and the money he sent to the LTTE possibly came from the LTTE who in turn were getting it from people like Maravan.

So, provided with an opportunity to eliminate Dalman, a small fish, but as is pointed out, their small fish, what should the peace minded Maravan do? Well if you want to know you will have to read the book!

First Published in German as “Der Koch” by Diogenes Verlag in 2010
Translated into English by Jamie Bulloch as ‘The Chef’ and published by Atlantic Books in 2013

Thomas Glavinic ‘The Camera Killer’

-We pricked up our ears when a German commercial station broadcast some dramatic news, it had obtained a leaked copy of the film that the criminal had made of his victims. img_0962After much internal discussion the editorial board had decided to televise excepts from them at some still to be determined time but in the very near future in order to give the world a graphic description of the enormity of the crime in question.

In this book by Thomas Glavinic read for the German lit month VI, and more specifically for, Lizzy’s crime week, a heinous crime is committed at the beginning of the book, followed by a layered study of a group of friends and their reaction to this crime, where two young boys are enticed to jump to their death from trees by a sadistic kidnapper who films the whole event on videotape which is later discovered and there follows a debate as to whether this should be shown on television.

In this book, there are a number of particularities,  firstly we discover the murders of the two young boys through the reaction of a group of friends, the narrator, the narrator’s partner, and their friends Eva and Heinrich and in particular through the compulsive  interest of Heinrich.

-The silence that followed this account was broken by Heinrich’s injunction to watch the special broadcast, Eva refused and remained in the kitchen, the rest of us seated ourselves on a sofa and in an armchair in the living room…….the presenter gave a brief summary of what had happened, largely repeating what Heinrich had already told us, he added that the crime had invoked an incredible response as viewers would shortly be able to see for themselves.

The second particularity is in the language used by the narrator, it is precise and, using a wording of a previous era, maybe even precious, the translator has produced a formidable piece of work in rendering this,  I’ll give here one example:

-Eva immediately betook herself to the bathroom. My partner and Heinrich pushed their way into the living room where they jocularly contested a comfortable seat on the sofa, Heinrich argued that it was his regular place, my partner countered that she was a guest and that her wishes must be duly respected, she wanted to lie down for a brief rest being afflicted with the fatigue which regularly beset her after an ample meal

Where we see the use of words such as betook, jocularly contested, countered, duly, afflicted, beset and ample. This I think, works to make the style impersonal or detached.

The third particularities are the layers, epitomised when a German commercial television channel decides to broadcast the video, we find ourselves analysing the reactions of the group of friends, whose reactions are themselves related by the narrator, the group of friends  are questioning the motives for the television station to broadcast the video which itself shows the murderer manipulating the children that he persuades to jump to their death from high trees in order, in part, to spare their parents from the torture promised by this camera killer.

Austria itself and its reactions to events comes in for a certain amount of ironical criticism, either through Heinrich and his hate for the church and of the pope, the earthly representative of a mythical being, or for instance the friend’s relative view of their country and why a murder should be of importance there:

-My partner objected to that…. injuring robbing and murdering other people was commonplace in the United States so those whose actions transgressed the socially accepted bounds of brutality could not expect to attract much attention there. In a civilised central European country by contrast, any murder was of importance and one such as had occurred in West Styria was correspondingly sensational.

All of the mechanisms in the narrative have their importance in the denouement of the mystery as we are lead down a path by the author so as to be better surprised at the end. I will read more Glavinic.

First Published in German as “Der Kameramörder” by Volk une Welt in 2001
Translated into English by John Brownjohn as ‘The Camera Killer’ and published by Amazon publishing in 2012

Elfriede Jelinek ‘Greed’

-Who wouldn’t like to have at least one little house for themselves alone…..The son of the present country policeman…..In order to consolidate and shield his permanent job the son goes every week without fail to his bank on the main square as if his determination would bring in more than his securities justifyimg_0931….to the bank which gives him credit until he will have lost every security….to be rich depends on a precise knowledge of what one has and what one could still get.

In this book by Nobel prize winning author Elfriede Jelinek read for the German lit month VI, and more specifically and maybe tenuously (well there is a crime), Lizzy’s crime week. Jelinek studies both “sinnliche und weltliche Gier”, that is both material and sexual craving or greed. In this book her characters exist for what they are and not who they are, she uses them to paint a scathing vision of her country, Austria and continually digresses from the “story” to the subject of her book, Austrian society. So in revealing the story in this article the subject of the book remains. Although her characters have names, she chooses to avoid them, for example, Kurt Janisch, the male protagonist, is mostly referred to simply as the country policeman as illustrated in the opening quote.

The story as such is relatively simple, and centres on the mixed desires and greed of the country policeman, she describes him as tall, blond, blue eyes who, through his job has the opportunity to get to know and exploit lonely middle aged women who are drawn physically to him:

-he prefers to note where the supposedly, presumably lowered eyes of the women are wandering from the country policeman’s penetratingly blue irises down to his fly, direct connection these greedy grasping eyes of women.

Janisch’s interest in these women is in the property they own and that they may sign over to him in the event of their death. His real interest is not really with women at all:

-There he is, take a look at how as if by accident he rubs himself up against this younger colleague, stands as if unintentionally close behind him when they’re undressing, his colleague has his shirt halfway over his head and can’t see anything and can’t resist for a moment, which is over all too quickly, he is caught up in his clothes like a fish in a net, his arms are raised, his narrow hips are, Well they’re there and feature some red acne I call something like that flesh precisely in it’s imperfection. Such a pleasure to press the somewhat swollen cock as if unintentionally against the left hip of the younger man 

But I fear that I digress, back to the story, poor old Janisch doesn’t really know what he wants and exasperated by the demands of his current middle aged woman, Gerti, who oblivious to the spiralling violence of their sex, wants more from him than he is capable of, love and marriage. One day he brings back to her house a sixteen year old girl he has been seeing in his car, this is more for the sadistic relationship with the woman than for the girl herself:

-Now he has thrown the older woman in whom he places some hope out of her own living room just because of the girl, she had become quite unbearable with her constant demands for more without even knowing everything she’s got, she doesn’t even have all her wits about her, one is always missing she should go and rub her gusset herself with her own hand so that she sees what that’s like. But when she’s supposed to whack off in front of him then it only makes her all the greedier for him precisely because he wants to watch her, it is one of many variants of the heightening of pleasure all of which she would like to get to know later at her leisure.

Janisch then during sex appears to casually kill the girl and to dispose of her body in a sterile man made lake. Further along in the book Jelinek gives an insight into how this could have happened in today’s society:

-That one can buy dolls in a sex shop whose bodies look in a way unappetising, Well the head’s ok, that while masturbating one can pull a plastic bag over ones head and tighten it at the throat till one almost pops off and then one pops up again the bag abruptly suddenly open, please don’t forget that, and there’s our orgasm which we once had and have missed for some time now, there it is again stronger than ever before, stronger than with any woman, stronger than any arm, we had begun to believe that we won’t get one at all any more but the shelves are full. Every poor man wants to be rich that is just as natural a phenomenon as the fact that one can introduce all kinds of things into one’s ass hole both small and surprisingly large objects that however one has to do with the other hand, one hand is supposed to tighten the bag so one hand always knows what the other is doing

Finally the country policeman is then part of the search team looking for the murderer of the girl and then,he woman, without hope takes her own life.

This chilling examination of  modern society concerns of course more than just Austria, Jelinek presents a vision of the incompatibility of men and women, and the flame of the impersonal at the heart of this book has since been fanned by the Internet era.

First Published in German as “Gier” by Rowohlt Verlag in 2000
Translated into English by Martin Chalmers as ‘Greed’ and published by Serpent’s Tail in 2006