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

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

Hertha Muller ‘The Appointment’

-It was just after I had separated from my first husband; white linen suits were being packed up for Italy. After we went on a ten-day business trip together, Nelu expected to keep on sleeping with me. But I’d made up my mind to marry a Westerner, and I slipped the same note into ten back pockets: Marry me, ti aspetto, signed with my name and address. imageThe first Italian who replied would be accepted.
-At the meeting, which I was not allowed to attend, my notes were judged to be prostitution in the workplace….
-The man in charge of ideological affairs personally delivered two written reprimands to my office. I had to sign the original for the records, the copy remained on my desk. I’ll frame it, I said. Nelu didn’t see what there was to joke about. He sat on his chair, sharpening a pencil.

In this book from my 2016 German literature targets and read for the German lit month VI, the Nobel prize winning Herta Müller gives us in this starkly realistic account of life in communist Romania an appreciation of the hopelessness of the period, where the state controls every aspect of your life.  On her way through Bucharest by tram to her appointment at 10h with the state interrogator the unnamed female narrator gives us an insite into her life. The opening quotes tell us of her original fault, putting the notes inside of suits bound for Italy, this is then compounded by the jealous Nelu who fakes her writing and puts notes into suits bound for Sweden and France which of course are found and lead to the series of state interrogations of which today’s appointment is one, but of course there is no way out:

-To clarify the facts of the case, I was supposed to write down every Italian I knew. I was sick and tired of the facts of the case, it was almost evening, I didn’t know any Italians and said so, in vain. He charged about and yelled: You’re lying…..
-And yet he acted as if he knew everything. A man like him must have realized I wasn’t lying…..
-Then he ran his hand into my hair above the temple, twisted my hair around his index finger, and yanked me, as if by a tassel, around the office, over to the window, and back to the chair. And when I was sitting down facing the paper, I wrote: Marcello. I was biting my lips, I couldn’t think of any other name apart from Mastroianni and Mussolini, and those were names he knew as well.

Müller at the same time describes the chaotic nature of life around the narrator, from her partner, Paul, who as all men in Romania, it would seem, has a state sponsored drinking problem with the Two Plums, (plumb schnapps) and who’s life is impacted by the narrator’s problems with the state interrogator, Albu:

-The last time I was summoned, Albu smiled a little as he was kissing my hand: You and your husband drive down to the river quite often, don’t you, and accidents do happen on the roads.

And then some time later true to form:

-As Paul was riding back from the shop, a gray truck had pulled up behind him, it never left his rearview mirror. Paul pulled over to let it pass. There wasn’t much traffic. He was driving quite slowly, the truck pulled up close to him, so close on the roundabout that it seemed the driver wanted to ram right into the Java. Then the motorbike flew up, and Paul went hurtling through the air, without his bike, and then came falling down like deadwood from a tree…..

This chaotic, even random life is further illustrated by her friend Lilli who in trying to get away from her current life, strikes up a friendship with an older miliatary man at the end of his career,  and first uses this as a way to explain the particular role of the miliatary in this Soviet satellite country:

-It had been a long time since the last war. Idleness threatened to erode military discipline, which had to be shored up with so-called precision work, namely, the conquest of beautiful women…….The old officer had thoroughly educated Lilli about the best tactics for combating idleness in peacetime. He too had been on constant maneuvers, Lilli said, until his wife died.

She then tells us that Lilli and her miliatary man meticulously plan their escape to the west but are betrayed by the man supposed to meet them on the western side of the border, who does not turn up  and where Lilli is first shot dead and then ravaged by the border dogs whilst he, in civilian clothes, is taken prisoner.

There is a dark satire in her descriptions, take for example Paul’s mother, a country woman who has the habit of saying what she thinks, which as we now know has not proven to be a very successful strategy in a communist dictatorship :

-Paul’s mother said: In this country you can be as smart as a whip but without a red book all you can do is stand on your beak and fart in the dust like a partridge. She was a village girl who’d left her turnips for a life in the city. She moved into heavy industry, where there were five times as many men as women. With the lower half of her body she joined the Party, learning the ABC’s of communism lying on her back in various beds.

The hopelessness of the situation felt by the woman protagonist and so well transmitted in this book after so many years of this régime can be summed up in my final quote:

-There are people who distinguish not only between objects and thoughts, but also between thoughts and feelings. I wonder how.

An all together grim story of a time gone by in a world that no longer exists (at least no longer in Romania).

First Published in German as “Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet” by Rowohlt Verlag in 1997
Translated into English by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm as ‘The Appointment ‘ and first published in the USA by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company in 2001, my edition published in the U.K. By Portobello books in 2010

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

Peter Stephan Jungk ‘The Snowflake Constant’

-I wanted to create order. I thought I could find some constant values. Over the course of fifteen winters, I have caught immaculate snowflake hexagons and put them in a polyvinyl ethylene solution and…..took pictures of them…..And then I counted for ninety six seconds that,img_0941 according to Tigor’s constant, yes gentlemen, to my constant, needed to elapse before an identical hexagon would appear  on an area of maximally ten square centimetres……But what happened? I was forced to see that what will prevail is chaos. Isomorphism, yes, constants, no. Fractal geometry, yes, Euclidian geometry, no

Peter Stéphan Jungk’s Snowflake Constant, read for German lit month VI, présents two sides to an age old philosophical contrast between determinism and free will, here represented on a first level as the contrast between Tigor’s work to date on his Constant which we learn initially is a representation of Euclidian geometry as opposed to Chaos theory. As the book opens Tigor arrives back in Trieste in a sorry state, we learn that he had uncharacteristically fled from a conference in Trieste his home town when he realised that his life’s work on this constant was wasted and he had taken off into an ancient forest to try to live from the fruits of the forest, a re-birth of sorts, and nearly starving to death in a short time period.

On a second level we learn that throughout his life his decisions had been those of others, he had only taken up the work on his constant because asked to take over his professor’s work, his life had been determined, and his flight to the forest was his first act of free will. A chance meeting with a taxi driver named Khoy later in the book who had during the years of terror in Cambodia actually survived a number of years in a forest, tells us how poor was his first attempt at free will. Tigor then in attempting to make decions for  himself repeatedly oscillates between the two positions.

After living and working in the Odeon theatre in Paris, of his own choice, and as he is to leave for Moscow, he changes his flight plans at the last minute and then is witness to a street accident. In his thoughts he is then drawn, once again, back to a deterministic view of events:

-He felt in some way responsible, that he had started the chain of events that had culminated in the accident. If he had been on the Moscow plane that morning, as had been his original intention, then Tigor believed everything subsequently would have transpired differently. Every individual was like a thread in the complicated weave of reality…….As he saw it, the consequences of the mild displacement he had caused had gone out, like echo waves to the periphery, and then bounced back to their starting point. The motorcyclist, if Tigor had indeed left as planned, would have reached the Place Claudel a split second sooner or later.

He leaves Paris when, after a dream, the doctor Chabanian persuades him that this dream was of Yerevan and that he therefore must visit it, where then he, an atheist, becomes linked with a group of creationists, the ultimate determinists, whose arguments explain the ridiculousness of evolution:

-so the little fish noticed, according to you believers in evolution, that there wasn’t all that much interesting food for him in the water. He spent the next two to four million years converting his fins into little feet. Then, because he wanted to eat still more, and also be better protected, he needed wings to get up into the treetops. So what did he do? He waited another five million years for his little feet to turn into fluffy colourful feathers. And a few million years later the wings had turned into a giraffe.

Tigor’s ultimate voyage, sent by the creationist Armenians in Yerevan, is to the deserted Mount Ararat, holy but inaccessible for the Armenians in neighbouring Turkey, to search for the remains of Noah’s Ark only to find that Mount Ararat is not deserted, quite the contrary there are large numbers of tourists who climb this mountain.

This is a rich novel which would yield more on re-reading.

First Published in German as “Tigor” by Fischer Verlag in 1991
Translated into English by Michael Hofmann as ‘The Snowflake Constant’ and published by Faber & Faber in 2002