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

Martin Suter ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’

‘Dr. Fluri was no more under the illusion for this point than the other participants. img_1412-1His only thought was to save face, the same one Urs Blank would have happily slapped that same afternoon.***

Welcome back to the Swiss author, Martin Suter, once again read for German lit month VIII. Urs Blank is a successful corporate lawyer specialising in mergers and acquisitions, we discover him at the beginning as he prepares and helps to negotiate a deal that is a merger only in name, Dr. Fluri’s company is to be taken over. The narrator lets us know of Urs’ frustration at the pompous Dr. Fluri as illustrated in the opening quote. As then Urs is given the opportunity to ruin Fluri and takes it we understand that Urs has a surpressed “dark side”. We are not the only ones to see this, Pius Ott, A multimillionaire and hunter (he hunts both rare and dangerous wild animals including both a rare lynx early in the story and had at one time hunted and killed a man eating lion) who is the money behind the takeover of Fluri’s business, appreciates Urs’ killer instinct and thinks he recognises a kindred spirit. Ott is the character Urs could become, Ott was never interested in Fluri’s business, only in destroying the man which Urs did for him.

But Urs is dissatisfied with his well ordered life, lunch same time, same place each week with his friend, the psychiatrist, Alfred Wenger, his life without love with his companion, Evelyne Vogt and wants to change something, and so he does. What at first seems a banale middle-age crisis as Urs takes up with a young hippy girl, Lucille, swings out of control when she persuades him to come to the countryside with some friends and to try some psychedelic mushrooms. Urs has a severe reaction to the mushrooms which release his dark side, he no longer feels guilt which we discover as he kills Lucille’s cat with his bare hands and puts it in his briefcase or as he causes the death of a random impatient motorist who wants to overtake him:

‘The car behind was  bumper to bumper with his Jaguar, lights on full beam. Blank showed no reaction, coming out of the next curve the car set to overtake him…. it was a two seater sports car….it wasn’t a match for his twelve cylinders. The more the other accelerated, the more Blank accelerated….the lights of the car coming in the opposite direction shone on the sports car next to Blank….Blank accelerated. Behind him he heard the impact, like an explosion.
Then there was silence, he could only hear the hum of the air conditioning. Blank turned on the radio. A classical music channel, Haydn..***

After talking to his friend Wenger and thinking back to his experience with the mushrooms Blank realises that there was a mushroom different than the others in those he took, he then sets out to search for this mushroom. Blank retreats into the forest over several months, the only place he feels really safe, where he learns to live in total self sufficiency in the wild. An incident with Pius Ott, finishing with Blank punching him and walking away leads to the hunter detesting him, soon after, to escape from the police (there were other murders), Blank successfuly fakes his own suicide, living then entirely hidden in the forest. When Ott discovers that Blank is still alive and could thus be killed without being missed then the hunt begins between the hunter with no concience and the proficient forest dweller with no concience and builds up to the final crescendo.

This was really a fun book, a well written psycological thriller for which a 2016 film by Stephan Rick exists, a shame that it hasn’t been translated into English yet.

First Published in German as “Die Dunkle Seite des Mondes” in 2000 by Diogenes Verlag.
Translated into French by Olivier Mannoni and published in 2000 by Christian Bourgeois
***My translation

Simone Buchholz ‘Blue Night’

The main protagonist in this crime thriller read for German lit month VIII is the hamburg state prosecutor Chastity Riley, in this book which I too learnt afterwards was the sixth in a series, maybe why there were so many characters around her (well Simone Buchholtz had had five books to develop them), Chastity is a city girl, a Hamburg girl, what is she thinking of? Driving into the countryside. After she breaks down somewhere between“Mecklenberg and wherethehellever” we learn from her friend Faller“Why do you do these things Chastity? Just head off out of town? you need your concrete” I guess she really is a city girl.

Chastity has been relegated to witness protection for a sombre story including gunshot wounds to a criminals testicles and launching a corruption case against her bosses. As the story opens her next protection case is being prepared for her in the back streets of Hamburg:

“Then they whip the coshes out from under their jackets. Three jackets, three coshes. Left leg, right leg. Left arm, right arm. And six feet for twelve pairs of ribs. Your very own many-headed demon. Tailor-made to order. Then out come the pliers. Right index finger. A clean crack. But you’re left-handed; they don’t know everything.”

Well as I skipped through the opening chapter and the man being beat to a pulp was able to congratulate himself on his attackers not knowing everything (that he was right handed) I thought to myself : “well he’ll still be able to write” and then later in the book I felt like Marylyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot: Not very bright he needed his trigger finger for something other than writing

Chastity is a right and ready street girl, used to working the shadier areas of Hamburg and can hold her own in any drink and cigarette contest, after gaining her witness’ confidence, she gets out of Hamburg for the day, following a lead, I get to feeling that Leipzig really isn’t like Hamburg, that said I’ve never been to Leipzig, I like the nail scissors.

“Leipzig looks like any other medium sized German city, only a bit better, tidy in a Bavarian kind of way, pretty, old, picture book, listed buildings everywhere, we come to a tree lined square that looks like it was smartened up with nail scissors.”

As the story moves on we find ourselves in the drug business with two unlikely drugs in the same operation, Croc and Crystal meth, Unlikely I said:

“Croc, codeine tablets cooked up with Formic acid and match heads is meth’s cousin from hell, dead in six months… with meth you can hold it together for years, Croc kills quickly, it doesn’t quite fit the business model”

Throughout the story there are many references to Hamburg, as here for instance as the story draws to an end:

“Faller and me on the erholung promenade in St. Pauli we’re smoking and drinking coffee from paper cups the jetties are below us, a few ships, a few tourists, a lot of gold, no sun in the sky.”

She’s a Saint Pauli girl alright, wait for the football match, everybody standing, no one in the boxes.

First Published in German as “Blaue Nacht” in 2017 by Suhrkamp Verlag.
Translated into English by Rachel Ward and published in 2017 by Orenda Books

Readalong with Caroline: Blue Night – Simone Buchholz comment 5

Readalong with Caroline.

“Faller and me on the erholung promenade in St. Pauli we’re smoking and drinking coffee from paper cups the jetties are below us, a few ships, a few tourists, a lot of gold, no sun in the sky.”

She’s a Saint Pauli girl alright, wait for the football match, everybody standing, no one in the boxes.

Readalong with Caroline: Blue Night – Simone Buchholz comment 4

Readalong with Caroline.

As the story moves on and it starts to get nasty its back to business school:

“Croc, codeine tablets cooked up with Formic acid and match heads is meth’s cousin from hell, dead in six months… with meth you can hold it together for years, Croc kills quickly, it doesn’t quite fit the business model”

Wolfgang Herrndorf ‘Sand’

Each year we send a ship to Africa—sparing neither lives nor money—to seek answers to the questions: img_1394Who are you? What are your laws? What language do you speak? They, however, never send a ship to us


Herrndorf’s “Sand”, read for German Lit month VIII is about as disjointed a novel as you are ever likely to meet. The main protagonist wakes up, a few chapters in, on the first floor of a grange and doesnt know who he is, well nor do we. Herrndorf introduces a large number of characters into this book with some wonderfull descriptions such as for this American secret service agent:

There are not many people who can be described in a single sentence. Normally one needs several, and even for ordinary people an entire novel is not enough. Helen Gliese, who was leaning on the rail of the MS Kungsholm in white shorts, a white blouse, a white sunhat and giant sunglasses, chewing gum with a half open mouth, looking at the swarm of people on the nearing shore, could be described in two words: pretty and stupid. With these two words one could send a stranger to the port and be sure that he would pick up the correct person among hundreds of travelers.

At the beginning of the book There is a Swedish character called Lundgren who has a meeting set up in the desert with someone he doesn’t know. Lundgren has been around and has a low view of Arabs which Herrndorf puts across with thick sticky paint strokes such as here when as he rents a room for a week his landlady wants to make money:

The old woman was unimpressed. In the kitchen she offered Lundgren food, he declined gratefully. She pulled a bottle of home-distilled schnapps from beneath her apron, he contended not to drink alcohol on religious grounds. She proceeded to offer him coffee, a pure coffee, a rental car, a prostitute, and her ten year old granddaughter. A small girl, guaranteed not over ten!.

We know we are in north western Africa at the start of the seventies but not much else. Herrndorf punctuates his short chapters by a myriad of quotes some of them quite humorous but I gave up pretty quickly trying to find the link between the quotes and the story, quotes such as the opening quote where I felt a little like Herodotus trying to grasp the book chapter after chapter but the book didn’t send me any ships. As Lundgren finds out something about C3 hitting upon oil and then dissapearing from the story, our main protagonist wakes up in a grange with a sore head having lost his memory and escapes from three Arabs dressed in white Djellabas whom he hears talking about Cetrois and is picked up on the desert road by Helen Gliese who plays the unconcerned tourist rather well and since he doesn’t know his name she calls him Carl. Somebody knows something and the different people in the story after either money or secrets are peruaded that the somebody is Carl and that he knows but won’t tell. So as Carl hunts down his identity they hunt down what he won’t tell them. Got it?

An interesting story but it gets no clearer right up to the end. As the Daily Telegraph says “A masterpiece culminating in one of the greatest twists I’ve ever read” well I’ve now read the ending a number of times and the twist is as difficult to find as Carl’s memory. I would give this one a miss.

First Published in German as “Sand” in 2011 by Rowohlt.
Translated into English by Tim Mohr and published in 2017 by Pushkin Press

Marc Elsberg ‘Zero’

‘Over thirty years ago, a computer manufacturer launched an ad campaign for its latest model featuring the slogan “On January 24th Apple will introduce Macintosh. 58418F37-2053-4C65-A6A4-DAAF3A399111And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” That’s the same computer manufacturer whose iPhones and iPads now log where we’re standing or walking at every instant. Whose apps search and pass on our address lists. Which bans apps from its App Store when they show, say or do something that Uncle Sam doesn’t like….’

Marc Elsberg’s world here in “Zero” read for German lit month VIII is so very close to ours, as the future technology giants embrace the available technology to offer us a better present, why give away your data to Google or Facebook when Freemee will pay you for it, all of it. Ok so you will have to wear a smart watch which in real time sends in your actual physical data, but with this and your profile which Freemee picks up from all of your online information, Freemee Act apps can tell you how to act to meet your goals and you may find that  Freemee can define your individual goals better than you because with the data and probability analysis they know you better than you know yourself. So this is the opening gambit as illustrated by the opening quote.

The story revolves around Cynthia Bonsant, a dinosour really, Cynthia is an investigative journalist in a world of instant news, anyone with a camera can be a journalist. One day Cyn is given a pair of on line video glasses to test by her newspaper, which hardly interests her but this is where the trouble begins, she lends the glasses to her daughter Vi who decides to test out the glasses with her friends, the glasses use facial recognition software and almost instantly in a crowd you can know everything about everyone:

The low afternoon sun picks out strands of hair, spectacles and earrings sparkle and cast sharp shadows over a sea of heads, these heads are streaming in all directions, slowly hastily with gritted teeth or relaxed expressions chatting laughing talking and phoning there are red and green squares around the faces of passers by bigger or smaller depending on how far away the person is, they move along with the people occasionally overlapping for a second whilst others vanish and new ones appear, a psychedelic pattern of abstract patterns, within seconds the red squares turn green.

As Vi and her friends each use the glasses, one of the boys sees a face that is almost instantly recognised as a violent criminal and begins to chase him, in spite of his friend’s warnings and those of Freemee through the glasses he continues his chase and is eventually shot dead. Six months before he had been a quiet young boy but since he had started using Freemee Act apps his whole character had changed, girls liked him, he had improved at school etc.

In parallel to this story, initially at first is the story of the internet activist Zero who warns against the power of the people hoarding personal data and who crosses paths with and helps Bonsant:

You’re paying the world’s data oligarchs to spy on you. That, right there, is consummate surveillance. Please let me give you money so you can locate me and use my data! They could sure teach international spy agencies a thing or two …’ Zero lowers his voice, his tone more biting. ‘Here they come with their Trojan horses, offering you search results, friends, maps, love, success, fitness tips, discounts on your shopping and who knows what else –but all the while, armed warriors sit lurking in their bellies, waiting for an opportunity to pounce! Their arrows strike you right in the heart and the head. They know more about you than any intelligence service. They know you better than you know yourself.

As the story progresses Bonsant discovers the insidiousness of the technology, even her daughters seeming rapid maturing and changing for “the better” is due to her use of Act apps. The on line video glasses rapidly ammass much more data more quickly. There is however a secret closely hidden by the head of Freemee, Vi’s friend is not the only youth to have taken inordinate risks and died. Bonsant circles around before finding the story and when eventually after chases and deaths Cyn brings the truth to light, the head of Freemee cynically plans the next phase.

Ok, he says to Joaquim and Henry as unobtrusively as possible the story’s out I see two alternatives: one, we undermine Bonsant’s and Bricle’s credibility and deny everything. We’ll need to undermine more than their credibility says Joaquin, people conform to Julius Caesar’s old adage, I love treason but hate a traitor, we must challenge their character and motives and their integrity, the same way the US administration and their allies did to Edward Snowden by attacking his motives, his escape to China, his asylum bid in Russia and a few tactless statements he made they got people to reassess his other actions as treason this played perfectly with many members of the public.

First Published in German as “Zero” in 2014 by Blanvalet Verlag.
Translated into English by Simon Pare and published in 2018 by Doubleday

Michael Köhlmeier ‘Two Gentlemen on the Beach’

Michael Köhlmeier artfully mixes fact and fiction in this comparative life of Churchill and Chaplin, tying them together by their dark secret, depression.image

Two Gentlemen on the Beach is my last post for the fifth German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

Chaplin and Churchill meet at a party given in California and Churchill immediately recognises the depressed state of Chaplin and proposes to him that they walk a little along the beach where they discover a strong empathy toward each other and discover amongst other things that

“they shared Nietzche’s opinion that the very idea of suicide was a strong comforter which helped them over many a difficult night”.***

Chaplin explains during this walk that

“I suddenly saw myself as a man moving forward as best as I could over the last twenty eight years launching thousands of projects just not to hang myself from the first tree or jump from the nearest bridge or even buy a revolver”***

Churchill in turn explains that when Samuel Johnson described his own illness which he called the Black Dog, Churchill recognised himself in the description. There and then they agree that wherever they are or whenever they are called they will hurry to the other to save him from the Black Dog. So begins the book.

Köhlmeier uses the correspondence between the narrators father and William Knott a “« very private Private Secretary to a very prime Prime Minister » ” as his source of material for the book. The narrators father had met Chaplin as a child when Chaplin had visited his town’s school for clowns and later wondered if the man accompanying him for the visit was not Churchill who had been in Germany on a family holiday at the time.

The story takes us through key events for each of the protagonists at the time leading to meetings in L.A., New York, London and Biarritz, events such as the first talking movie and Churchill’s being run over in New York. The story naturally funnels towards the war years with an initial discovery

“Chaplin relates that an English statesman had told him that at the beginning of the 1930’s, a friend of Hitler’s had told him that Hitler had been tempted to commit suicide when he was six years old. Chaplin then answered his friend – I quote : “Winston, unfortunately we can’t choose the members of our club.””***

Both Churchill and Chaplin had to struggle to be able to fight against Hitler with their respective arms,

“Charlie playing two roles, that was the idea of genius behind the film –Charlie as the ridiculous dictator and, at the same time, as the Jewish barber, that was the blow dealt to the monster. One man hit back as hard, but not with the weapons of a clown: Winston Churchill.”***

Finally we learn the true role of William Knott, but I will leave that to you!

First published in German as Zwei  Herren an Strand by Hanser Verlag in 2014
Translated into French by Stéphanie Lux as Deux Messieurs sur la Plage and published by Actes Sud in 2015
Translated into English by Ruth Martin as Two Gentlemen on the Beach and to be published by Haus Publishing in 2016
*** my translation

Ursula Krechel ‘Landgericht’

It took me 20 minutes of Ursula Kretchel’s 2012 German book prize novel ‘Landgericht’, read in French as ‘Terminus Allemagne’, to feel my eyes moisten for the first time.

Krechel won the German book prize with this fiction investigating post war Germany. She came upon a war reparations file for a “victim of Fascism”,  the claim ultimately failed with the victim receiving nothing.


From a few pieces of biographical information Krechel Imagines the life of this Richard Kornitzer, a German Jew who had had his nationality revoked, had sent his children away for safety to England and who then had later fled to Cuba. The book begins with him arriving back in Germany as the train pulls into Lindau, sent back by the Red Cross after relentless work by his wife to locate him, and then meeting his wife who he has not seen or heard of for ten years.

When he first tries to reintegrate society he goes through the German authorities but is told that they only treat German victims of fascism and as he is not German…….

He is then given a job via the French occupying force in his old profession as judge at the high court in Mainz taking on the unpopular job no one else wants handling the denazification process. We have to imagine that this involves millions of people and so nothing can really be done in detail, no one will testify against anyone as they all need the positive testimony of the people around them. He watches powerless as the previous Nazi’s reintegrate their jobs after a couple of months suspension. Examples include He the demonstrations in the courts during the ‘Auerbach case’ of these former Nazi’s continuing anti-Semitic activities (no one can imagine that the previous endemic situation was changed or wiped out over night).

When they finally get to visit their children, they find young adults who no longer speak a word of German.

A section of the book handles the escape from Germany, all of his wealth is confiscated yet he must still find money to bribe a crossing and then on arrival in Cuba these displaced people need then to bribe their way into Cuba and out of the camps, as well as a study of the industry grown around fleecing the displaced persons.

The book then looks at the impossibility to receive reparations, an example is given of an “Aryan” woman who had followed her husband working for a resistance movement (her husband died in a concentration camp) the judgement said “The plaintiff recognises that she was not personally exposed to National Socialist Violence and that she could have quite simply have separated from her husband, but that she nonetheless followed him into illegality, it was thus due to her free will and not caused by any National Socialist measure carried out against her.”*** Full details are also given of Kornitzer’s own catch 22 situation.

The last portion of this book handles the degradation in healthy of both of the Kornitzers due to the all of the previous events up to Kornitzer coming back to Germany from Cuba, but also due to his isolation and continual battle with bureaucracy to gain reparations over a 15 year period (and he is pushed to reply, the Nazis did not give them receipts when they seized his worldly goods)

This book covers the difficult subject of the impossible return. In order to properly understand the effect of time as a wearing medium some sections of this book are long and required perseverance from my part.

First published in Germany as Landgericht by Jung und Jung in 2012
Translated into French by Barbara Fontaine and published as Terminus Allemagne in 2014 by Carnets Nord
***My translation