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


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

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

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
-It’s true Amir says, she even has a ring, a real engagement ring that he gave her
-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

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

Eva Zeller ‘The Manuscript’

Can you measure and compare grief?  Bea, whose parents died in the last days of the war when her mother tried to join her father in the military hospital in Stolp in Hinterpommern, was brought up by her grand parents.image At their death, whilst cleaning out the house, she discovers a manuscript which her grandfather had left for her to find. The contents which she then reads has a profound emotional effect on her.

This manuscript was written as part of a psychotherapy by a Frau Hiller who was a survivor of the Russian labour camps in Siberia. Bea’s world is shaken when she learns that her mother did not die in Stolp as she had been told but had been captured by the Russians in 1945 And deported with Frau Hiller to the labour camp in Siberia where nearly all of the deportees died of a combination of illness, malnutrition and starvation, described in detail by Frau Hiller who as a convinced National Socialist and in her total belief, wished that the first l in her name had been a t.

Zeller describes the horror of the siege of Leningrad where Bea’s father had fought and gives some perspective of the revenge motive in the Russian treatment of their German prisoners. Bea is unable to talk about what she has discovered, perhaps the difficult subject  of guilt by procuration interfering with her need for mourning and closure.

After an initial short encounter, she meets up, some five years later with Jacob an atheist, who as a Jewish child had survived the war hidden in a hot house. And so begins a difficult relationship between these two emotionally scarred people. Jacob eventually organises a winter trip to Saint Petersburg for them and finally confides in her, telling her his story, painful but socially acceptable. We feel Bea’s need to confide bur also her even greater reserve.

‘As they approach St Petersburg she would like to rest her head against his shoulders. But she sits as one is supposed to sit, quiet and numbed in her upright seat…..the nose of the plane starts to dip. But it is still a long time until the panorama of the city in winter appears on the horizon, a picture-postcard skyline behind a curtain of snow, a scene that Bea’s father, as part of the advanced guard, saw through his binocular periscope. St Petersburg, still called Leningradat that time, of course, was besieged and starved for eight hundred and eighty days. According to Hitler’s vision, the city was to be wiped off the map.
If Bea cannot tell Jacob about her father here, then when will she ever be able to? How will he take it? Will he listen to her or will he interrupt and shame her:’Your father was at the siege of Leningrad? I don’t believe it!’

These two extremely sensitive people, her sensitivity worn on her sleeve and his hidden behind protective layers eventually come close as she, towards the end of the book, on the flight back from St Petersburg,  unable to tell him, leaves him the manuscript to read. He makes no comment on the contents but his feelings are illustrated by the following quote:

‘In a voice that sounds strangely choked, Jacob asks whether Bea has fastened her seatbelt properly. She feels his hand at the back of her neck, supporting her head. He is waiting for her tears, so that he can dry them…. He reaches for her wrist….After that he does not let go of her hand.’

Jacob until now was unable to show this level of tenderness towards Bea.

Zeller’s solution is that the two griefs need not compete nor be measured one to the other but may co-exist.

First Published in German as”Das Versiegelte Manuscript” by DVA in 1998
Translated into English by Nadia Lawrence and published as “The Manuscript” by Vintage in 2001

Stefan Zweig ‘Twenty four Hours in the Life of a Woman’

Can you trust a drug addict who promises he will stop of his own accord? Should you let him overdose if you think you can save him? What is Zweig’s answer?image

Zweig’s novel set in the French Riviera in the years leading up to the First World War is a book in two parts, the first part, unthinkable in polite society, when in a smart hotel a group of people who meet each evening for their meal and discussions note one day the arrival of a charming young man

‘If a lady went to the cloakroom, he hurried ahead to fetch her coat, for each child he had a friendly smile or an easy word, he was at the same time social yet discreet. In short he seemed to be one of the privileged few who’s fresh gracefulness, by seeming agreeable to those around him, with a smile and youthful charm was a stimulant for the other guests of ‘Le Palais”***

But, of course, he was too good to be true and within a day Henriette, the wife of a rich industrialist had disappeared with him.

‘After all , at a first glance, it was easy to understand that this small ‘Madame Bovary’ should swap her provincial English husband for a handsome distinguished looking young man. But that which most surprised the guests was that neither the industrialist nor his daughters nor his wife had ever seen the man before and that hence an evening conversation of two hours on the terrace and a coffee taken together for one hour in the garden was enough to lead an irreproachable woman, about thirty three years old, to abandon her husband and two children from one day to the next to follow a young beau that she didn’t know.’***

The guests then get into a heated discussion with the narrator defending the woman’s right to follow her instincts, even crossing social norms, against  all of the other guests.

‘For my part I find it far more honest that a woman should follow freely and passionately her instinct rather than, as is generally the case, cheating on her husband by closing her eyes when she is in his arms’***

As the conversation was boiling out of control the oldest and most respected of the guests, an English lady, calms the situation and eventually asks what the narrator would do if she should meet Henritte in society, would she shun her or would she talk to her to which the narrator replies that she hoped she would talk to her. After a great deal of thought the English woman asks if she could see the narrator in private.

Thus ends the first part of the book, the hors d’œuvre , and begins the true subject of the book, the English Lady’s confession.

She tells us how’ many years ago when she was younger’ her life was shaken up in a twenty four hour period. Her husband had died and she found herself bored in Monte Carlo, as her husband had done she went to the casino and at first finding no interest she remembered her husbands tale of watching the gamblers hands and not their faces. Here Zweig treats us to some wonderful descriptions, this one leading up to her meeting with a young man:

‘But then a terrible moment arrived, a moment I had myself feared during this whole time, a moment which was suspended as a storm above my tense and which suddenly caused them to break. Once again the ball had come to rest after a short thud in its round pit. Again that short second beat during which two hundred lips held their breath until the croupier’s voice this time announced zero whilst his rake was already reaching the tinkling coins and the crisp paper on every side. At exactly that moment, the two tensed hands made a particularly frightening movement, they pounced as if to seize something which wasn’t there and then fell away agonisingly to the table being no more than an inert mass, then suddenly coming to life once again running feverishly from there to the body to which they belonged climbed the torso like wildcats, nervously searching in all the pockets, top, bottom, left and right to see if there wasn’t still somewhere a last crumb, a forgotten coin, but always coming back empty, they kept renewing with increased fervour their search for a useful friend whilst the roulette wheel had begun to turn, the game of the others continued.’***

Enough of this example of his descriptive writing and onto the story.

The English lady relates her story of long ago, a story she has not dared to tell anyone to date, she becomes persuaded the man with the hands has fallen into deep despair she follows him as he leaves the casino, she sees he has a revolver and thinks he will kill himself. She watches him and is torn between intervening to save him and her social position:

‘Five times, ten times already I had summoned all my force and I had gone towards him, but my modesty held me back or maybe it was that instinct that deep seated intuition that tells us that someone who is falling often drags down with them those that try to help. In the middle of this hesitation I felt the foolishness and the absurdity of my position.’***

She ends up spending the night with him, in all propriety we are told, he is revealed to be a gambling addict and she eventually talks him into leaving the riviera to get away from temptation and to save his life, she even gives him money for the train. In the mix of her own feelings she even considers leaving and running away with him, but should you trust a gambler to whom you give money?

First Published in German as “Vierundzwanzig Stunden aus dem Leben einer Frau” by Leipzig Insel Verlag in 1927
Translated into English by Anthea Bell and published as “Twenty four Hours in the Life of a Woman” by Pushkin Press in 2003
***Read in French, my translation