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 “Win 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…….
Yes?
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

Stefanie De Velasco ‘Tiger Milk’

-When I go to jamilla’s I always cross the playground, the playground’s pretty big and right in the middle of it is a huge sandbox. img_0953Somebody drew an invisible line through the middle of the playground and the German and the Russian kids never go on the slide, and the Arab and the Bosnian kids never go on the swings. Back when Jamila and I skated around the playground there wasn’t yet an invisible line

This is a hot hot summer in Berlin, Nini and Jameelah, two fourteen year old girls prepare for the summer holiday break as Stephanie de Velasco presents to us here, in a refreshingly realistic style this coming of age tale, her first book, Tiger Milk, read for German lit month VI.

Nini and Jameelah live in apartments in the same housing complex in today’s multiracial Berlin, there are Muslim, Christian, and Orthodox children but going beyond this simple divide Jameela comes from Iraq, and there are kids from Bosnia and Serbia and they are all thrown together with their emotional ‘baggage’, scarred by the different war zones they have left behind them.

At fourteen Nini and Jameelah experiment with alcohol, their own cocktail called ‘Tiger Milk’, a mixture of milk, brandy and passion-fruit juice, they steal from shops and toy with prostitution. The story’s narrator is Nini (as in Stephanie?), whose home life is pretty much a wreck:

-Mama lays on the sofa basically all of the time, most of the time her eyes are closed, but when I come home she sometimes opens them and asks where were you. When she opens her eyes she always looks horribly tired like she’s just arrived from some far away place and then she’s flopped down in our living room here by blind luck, I don’t think she’s really looking for an answer to her question, me on the other hand I’d love to know where she was, where she always goes behind her shuttered eyelids all those hours she spends alone on the sofa. Mama’s sofa is like a remote island she lives on and even though that island is in the middle of our sitting room, a thick haze obscures it from view. You can’t dock on mama’s island.

The opening quote to this post tells us that the tensions in the housing complex in which they live haven’t always been there even during Nini’s short life. Amid the girls’ realisation that at fourteen life is changing around them, two major dramas occur, the first concerns their Bosnian school friend and neighbour, Amir and his family:

-Last night, said Amir After I had already fallen asleep, Jasna and Tariq had a fight, it woke me up, she told him that she wanted to marry Dragan
-Bullshit!
-It’s true Amir says, she even has a ring, a real engagement ring that he gave her
-Really?
-Really, the fight was so horrible that Tariq locked her in the living room, but this morning she was gone she’d broken the front door and gone to Dragan’s place.

This drama unfolds further leading towards a dramatic end, and in parallel, and unimaginably to Nini, her friend Jameela, who had come to Germany at a very young age with her mother, a nurse, after losing both her father and brother to events in Iraq is notified of a possible deportation order. She learns some of the hard truths of adult life, relentless enactment of laws by cold unfeeling burocracies. Jameelah’s mother had gone back to Iraq to attend her sister’s funeral, but if she could go back for this…….

The fresh youth’s telling of this story as, amidst all that happens around her she lets her worries and her doubts about her own life shine through, makes it particularly fascinating:

-Having kids sounds so strange, like some exotic country, Guatemala……and then suddenly I’m shitting myself with fear the way I’m standing on the stump pegs behind Nicco shitting myself about the idea of having kids and being lonely and getting old and dying young.

Stage versions of Tiger Milk have been produced in a number of German theatres.

First Published in German as “Tigermilch” by Kiepenheuer & Witsch in 2013
Translated into English by Tim Mohr as ‘Tiger Milk’ and published by Head of Zeus in 2014

Angelika Klüssendorf ‘Das Mädchen’

-young as I was, I hated the circumstances of my life. I hated the carrying of bundles of washing. I hated the turning of the mangle, and most of all I hated the close compression of a life that threw us all upon one another by day and night, img_0943and made us bite and snarl, and gave no one the chance to be alone.

I read this book in French titled ‘ La fille sans nom’ for German lit month VI, the subject is twofold, treating firstly the incredible energy of the protagonist, the young girl, to escape from her abusive mother and secondly bursting the myth of a caring socialist state in the former DDR, where there was no place for the problem child she was to become. The book begins by describing her abusive home life where her mother takes up with various men, including her father, the only continual thread is the drunkeness and sadism of her mother towards her and her younger brother, reminding me of a book cover by Reiser:

-Her mother gives her money and sends her to Jahn’s. The bistro owner carries the bag full of beer for her all the way to the door…Her father is thirsty, very thirsty. He quickly drinks all of the beer. That evening she is back and forth to Jahn’s several times, the bistro shuts well after midnight.***

Her mother beats her and her younger brother often, even playing games they can’t win to decide if they should be beaten,img_0942 and she learns to understand when the mother will lose control and understand that there is nothing they can do to avoid her punishments, the regularity of these is part of their life, for them it is normal. Is it any wonder that her favourite book at this time is The Count of Monte-Cristo:

-But that day her mother’s anger is concentrated entirely on her daughter. After receiving her beating, Alex has the task of taking her to the cellar. When he has double locked the door she can breath and takes in the familiar smell of coal dust and damp walls……She moves around the cellar, reads the inscriptions she has carved on the walls but can no longer remember what they mean.***

Firstly the state social services are sent by a teacher but notice nothing untoward; they had given notice of their visit. Then after several attempts to run away from home, where she is picked up by the police and taken back again, finally she is taken to the Hans and Sophie  Scholl hostel where the overtly socialist government propaganda is so at odds with her reality:

-The stairs leading up to the upper floors have a small landing where a glass fronted display panel can be found in which are hung the Ten Moral Commandments of Socialism. The second commandment says: “you should love your fatherland and be ready at all times to fully engage yourself to defend the power of the workers and the peasants.” How could she love a whole country, she asks herself, when she can’t even love her family?***

Klüssendorf presents us with the brutality and lack of care in the state system, amongst other things her name is placed on the list of “negative” children. Here too her treatment by adults is random, giving her no idea of justice, still not fourteen years old, she then runs away again to go back and see her brothers but is caught once more by the police and locked up over Christmas in a barred cell.

The girl reads and reads, and one day she discovers a book where she feels at once understood for the first time in her life, “My Son, My Son” by Howard Spring from which is taken the initial quote in this post. Then in her last year before leaving the hostel she begins duplicating her mother’s treatment of her on a younger girl:

-Poupi Never defends herself, she just crystal in silence when she has to hold out the two pillows one right and one left at waist height and woe betide her if the pillows lower. In which case she beats her or Poupi picks up some other punishment***

A successful picture of an abused youth in a DDR with no human place for social problems, but the sheer energy to survive shines through.

First Published in German as “Das Mädchen” by Kiepenheuer und Witsch Verlag in 2011
Translated into French by François et Régine Mathieu as ‘La fille sans nom’ and published by Presses de la Cité in 2015
*** my translation

Wulf Dorn ‘Cold Silence’

Wulf Dorn’s psyco-thrillers have been translated into French, Italian and Spanish amongst others but as yet not into English.image

This is a thriller whose dénouement is explained by one of its protagonists as a quote from Nietzsche “Normally he said I like so start my lectures with a quote, the words of Nietzsche Seem to me in this instance to be quite appropriate ‘history belongs to the living in three ways: it belongs to him because he is active and has ambition; because he preserves and he worships; because he suffers and needs release’.”***

1985: – Jan Forstner, 12 years old, witnesses the drowning of his 18 year old neighbour Alexandra who, scantily dressed and full of fear whilst escaping from the psychiatric clinic near his home in Fahlenberg falls through the thin ice covering the lake near his home.

Two days later, late at night, Jan slips out of his house with a tape recorder to try to capture the sound of the spirit of Alexandra, he is followed and then accompanied by his younger brother Sven. As Jan is caught short and needs to pee behind a tree his brother is abducted. The next day without explanation his father leaves the house in his car and dies in an accident. Jan is then sent away to study in a boarding school.

So begins this book!

2010: – Jan now a psychiatrist like his father returns to Fahlenberg for the first time in 20 tears to accept a position in the clinic where his father worked and Alexandra had been interned.

Dorn then leads us through this thriller as Jan, never completely recovered from his brother’s disappearance for which he feels guilty, seeks the answer to his hidden demons, against the background of numerous deaths from suicide in Fahlenberg. (It would seem an advantage not to know Jan!).

You will quickly guess that Jan is ‘he who suffers and needs release’, but who is ‘he who preserves and worships’

Wulf deserves a translation into English.

First published in German as Kalte Stille by Bertelsmann in 2010
Translated into French by Joel Falcoz as Nos Désirs et Nos Peurs and published by Cherche Midi in 2014
*** my translation