I Remember Abbu by Bangladeshi writer Humayun Azad is a short novel about a loving father-daughter relationship, but also a book about loss and memory.
The narrator, a girl or young adult woman remembers her early childhood, and especially her Abbu (father) and the special bond they shared. There is also an Ammu (mother), but in the light of the future events that are revealed later on in the book, the narrator is telling mainly her father’s story.
There is nothing spectacular in the first chapters of the novel; father, mother and daughter form an average family that obviously belongs to the educated middle class (the father teaches in University as we learn later on). In short chapters that are written from the perspective of a small child, we see how the girl learns to walk and to speak, how it sleeps in the same bed with her parents, how her father invents names and little stories for his daughter and so on. The first painful experience comes with the arrival of some kittens that are later thrown out again out of fear for the child’s health. The father, driven by a bad conscience, returns later to the place where he released the cats, but they are gone.
The averageness of the family and the experiences are underlined by the fact that there are only three protagonists (and a few passing figures without real importance for the novel), and none of them has a name. It is an archetypical small family, where the only child receives much attention and love from both her parents.
But there is a certain moment when things change. The father is absent more frequently from home, becomes less talkative and starts to get more serious and concerned about things that the child doesn’t understand. Only much later, when she is already grown up and reads her father’s diary from that period, things fall into place for the narrator and the reasons for her father’s change become clear.
Political tension is growing in the late 1960s and early 1970s in what was then known as East Pakistan and became later Bangladesh. The fight about the recognition of Bengali (Bangla) as a second official language in Pakistan, the non-recognition of the election results in Pakistan that would have made East Pakistan’s politician Mujibur Rahman President, the declaration of independence of Bangladesh, and the bloody genocidal war of Pakistan’s army in Bangladesh, it is all reflected in its consequences on the family in the novel. Abbu, as an intellectual and potential political leader has to hide from the army, the family flees to the village, on the way there they witness atrocities committed by the Pakistani army and finally Abbu leaves the family to join the underground fight against the oppressors.
From history books we know the result of the political struggle for freedom and political independence: Bangladesh became an internationally recognized independent country after much bloodshed and the military support of the neighbor India. Millions of people perished as a result of the fights and the starvation that followed. And while the victory over the demons (this is how Pakistan’s forces are called by Abbu) in this fight is welcomed by the people, Abbu’s family is waiting in vain for his return…
At a mere 123 pages, this is a small novel, written mostly in a rather simple language. The simplicity of the child’s thoughts, her struggle to understand why her beloved Abbu changed so much, and why he disappeared, are evoking strong emotions in the narrator, and also in the reader. The diary part, written by Abbu himself, is of course much more reflected and elaborated. It is indeed heartbreaking to see how historical events destroy the lives of otherwise perfectly happy families. But for the narrator, reading her Abbu’s diary may help her to come to terms with her tragic loss.
This was the first book by a contemporary Bengali writer I read. It was also the first book published by Amazon Crossing I read; the imprint used to be rather active for some years to get books from “smaller” languages translated into English. The translation by Arunava Sinha seems flawless.
The author Humayun Azad was a lifelong advocate of the Bengali language and one of the most important intellectuals in East Pakistan. His critical voice against radical Islamism and against the suppression of women made him a target of terrorists. In 2004, there was an assassination attempt of several men who stabbed him a few times in the neck and jaw. Against all odds, he survived; but some months later he died in Munich, where he was spending time as a researcher at the University of Munich.
Since I will be relocating to Dhaka soon, you can expect more reviews of South Asian, especially Bengali/Bangla literature in the future.
Humayun Azad: I Remember Abbu, translated by Arunava Sinha, Amazon Crossing, Seattle 2019
The novel “The Price of Freedom” by the French-speaking author Matéo Maximoff recounts the life of a group of Roma in Moldova in the first half of the 19th century, at a time when this ethnic group was still living as slaves in what is today Romania. As the title of the book already indicates, the struggle for the freedom of the Roma – as shown by the example of the characters in the novel – is the central theme of the book.
Young Istvan, the main character of the book, works as a clerk and librarian in the court of the rich landowner Andrei. He owes this position, which is unusual for a Rom, to the fact that Andrei, who is ruling his estate as a mostly benevolent patriarch, recognized the intelligence of the young Istvan early on and promoted him. Istvan grew up together with Andrei’s sons of about the same age and thus, compared to the situation of his family and the other Roma who work for Andrei, achieved a “privileged” position. This, however, has no legal effect on his status as a slave and personal property of the landowner; as a slave, he is always at the mercy of his owner. This special position isolates him both from his own community, where on the one hand he is respected but also viewed with suspicion, and also from the community of free people with which he lives on a daily basis.
Another outsider in this environment is Yon, who is not only the landlord’s energetic right-hand man, but also his illegitimate son – a secret that is known to Istvan. Yon’s competent and energetic work distinguishes him from the legitimate sons of the landowner. While the Roma fear him as the powerful and sometimes ruthless representative of Andrei – he can impose severe punishment at any time -, Yon knows very well that he can never achieve a position that would be in line with his great energy and ambition; this position will be reserved for Andrei’s legitimate sons. The two outsiders Istvan and Yon have an occasionally conflict-ridden relationship, but one that is also based on mutual respect. Since they have known each other since childhood, a strange friendship, characterized at the same time by rivalry, has developed over the course of time. The role that both have to play as outstanding representatives of their respective social groups is simply too contradictory to get along without the tensions that become more and more apparent as the book progresses.
Maximoff chooses a clever introduction to his story: the book starts with the big market day in springtime. During this occasion, slaves are also sold and bought. Yon buys a group of Roma, including Lena, a girl that he obviously intends to turn into his lover. To protect Lena from Yon’s stalking, Istvan, who got Andrei’s blessing for this, gets engaged to Lena – which not only annoys Yon very much, but also fills Istvan’s lover Rayka with great jealousy. She had hoped that her relationship with Istvan would lead to marriage and sees her prospects threatened. Rayka’s jealousy is at the beginning of a fateful and dramatic chain of actions that culminate in the flight of Istvan, his family and a few other Roma; an escape that is of course not simply accepted by Andrei and his people, who suspect that Istvan murdered one of Andrei’s sons.
During their flight, the Roma group around Istvan faces an outlawed group of Roma who live in the remote mountains and who have realized their dream of a free life without oppressors. After initial reluctance, they accept Istvan and his group because of his honesty, courage and cleverness and let them join their community.
In the looming “showdown” between Yon – supported by the military, which is involved in the search for those who have fled – and Istvan and his Roma, a fight with great severity and brutality takes place, which will lead as a result to many victims on both sides. But violence is not the last word in this novel. In 1855, the political leader of the country, Alexander Ghika finally abolishes slavery in all of Romania (Moldova and Wallachia). And the story of Istvan comes to a resolution during a later court case that ties all the loose ends of the story together, giving it a last surprising twist. I don’t want to reveal more here in order not to spoil this very exciting story unnecessarily for readers.
I liked the book. It introduces the reader to the life of the Roma in the 19th century and I find it very embarrassing that although the slavery of the African Americans in the south of the USA is well known and explored, while at the same time, the fact that the Roma in Moldova and Wallachia were living in very similar conditions during the same period, is largely unknown in Europe and elsewhere. The book is shedding light on the plight of the Roma, and the reader has to be grateful to the author for this. The story itself is told with a lot of tempo and a feeling for dialogue, and even if not all characters are drawn without clichés, this story is definitely worth reading. It is also interesting that the author at least in passing mentions the fall in prices on the market for slaves; this is another parallel to slavery in the American South. Slavery disappeared in the end because it couldn’t survive in the changing economic and technical conditions.
The author, Matéo Maximoff, was born in Spain to a Kalderash Rom father from Russia – hence the Slavic family name – and a Manouche Sinto mother from France (she was a cousin of Django Reinhardt). At the age of eighteen or nineteen – his exact birthday is unknown – he moved to France with his family during the Spanish Civil War. Maximoff was the first one of his clan who had learned to read and write early on. While he was in prison – three people were killed in an argument within his clan, whereupon the police arrested indiscriminately everyone from his family – he began to write his first novel, which was later to be followed by ten more. After the end of World War II, Maximoff, who survived internment in a Nazi concentration camp himself but had lost many family members, began his successful career as the first Roma writer ever. Over several decades he was also an activist and fighter for the equality of his ethnic group in France. He also translated big parts of the Bible into the Kalderash Romanes language.
I read the book in the German translation that was published in 1955. It seems that none of his books are in print at this moment, neither in the French original, nor in English or German translation.
There is a very interesting award-winning Romanian film that also deals with Roma slavery: Aferim!. I can highly recommend the film; you can watch a trailer here.
Matéo Maximoff: Le prix de la liberté. Wallada, 1996; Der Preis der Freiheit. Morgarten Verlag Conzett & Huber, Zurich 1955 (tr. Bernhard Jolles)
Moritz Daniel Oppenheim was an important German painter of the 19th century. He was probably the first Jewish visual artist to gain world renown. At an advanced age, he wrote an autobiography intended as a memoir for his family; it was not published during his lifetime. In 1924, his grandson Alfred Oppenheim, who was also a painter, published the manuscript as a book; it was reprinted in 1999 and 2013.
According to family memories, Oppenheim was born in late December 1799 in Hanau, a town east of Frankfurt am Main. (Wikipedia and other sources report a date of birth at the beginning of January 1800.) His Jewish family lived in economically relatively secure conditions, even though the Hanau Jews still had to live in the ghetto at that time and had to face a variety of discriminations. Although the legal betterment of the Jews in Germany at this time made progress in the wake of the emancipatory efforts of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing or Moses Mendelssohn, and especially after the French Revolution, it should nevertheless take decades before the legal equality of Jews in Germany was realized. Oppenheim’s autobiography is so interesting because it not only traces an individual artist’s life, but because it is also a practical example of how this process of Jewish emancipation in Germany in the 19th Century progressed: slowly and characterized by numerous setbacks.
A relatively big part of Oppenheim’s autobiography is devoted to his childhood and youth. Loving and caring parents who focused on providing their children witha good education evidently laid the foundation for his well-balanced character and for being knowledgeable about many subjects, not only about those necessary for a later career. Oppenheim attended the local Talmud Torah school, but received also private lessons. Later he went to a regular high school, together with Christian students. In addition, he and one of his brothers received permission from the father to attend the local drawing academy, where his artistic talent showed early; but young Moritz Daniel didn’t initially plan a professional future as an artist – he originally wanted to become a doctor. From his mother, the young Oppenheim inherited his love for literature and theater – the mother read for example Goethe’s Hermann and Dorothea and attended sometimes theater performances together with her son; these visits inspired Moritz Daniel to set up a puppet theater in the attic of their home (this feels a bit reminiscent of Wilhelm Meister).
What follows are the years at the Hanau and later at the Munich Academy, in which Oppenheim trains his talent as a draftsman and in oil painting. In retrospect, Oppenheim remembers his teachers and supporters of that period with warmth and gratitude, but he also peppers his memoirs with a few humorous anecdotes. The self-portrait, which he created as a 16-year-old, is already proof of his considerable talent and self-confidence.
To broaden his horizons Oppenheim studied afterwards in Paris and later in Italy, the country for which so many German artists of his time were yearning. In Paris, he seems to have been a frequent visitor of the legendary Café de la Régence; in his biography he mentions the meeting with Aaron Alexandre there, a rabbi born in Germany, who emigrated to France during the French Revolution and who is remembered today mainly as the author of the monumental chess problem book Collection des plus beaux Problèmes d’Echecs. Alexandre was considered to be one of the world’s best chess players of his time.
More productive in artistic terms was for Oppenheim his subsequent longer stay in Italy. He attached himself looseley to the circle of the Nazarenes, an art movement that exercised a certain influence on him, but which he quickly outgrew. Particularly valuable was in addition to his contacts with Friedrich Overbeck in Rome especially the friendship with the then already famous Bertel Thorvaldsen. The senior Danish sculptor and draftsman was in Rome something like Oppenheim’s artistic mentor, and he provided artistic guidance as well as contacts with potential customers who would be interested to buy Oppenheim’s works.
If Oppenheim had expected that he would not experience any anti-Jewish resentment among fellow artists in his Italian environment, he was wrong. Both among his colleagues and among Italian acquaintances, he experienced frequently more or less open exclusion as soon as he was recognized as a Jew. In order to avoid this exclusion, several painters of Jewish origin converted to Christianity at that time (as did also the writers Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Börne). Oppenheim, who was obviously much more deeply rooted in Judaism than many others, did not follow this path. He managed to gain broad recognition and success in his later life as a Jewish painter in Germany.
One can attest Oppenheim an excellent sense of the social position of his clients and other people important for his advancement. He almost effortlessly won major Jewish art collectors, such as those from the Rothschild family, as buyers for portraits. When the still rather young Oppenheim visited Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Weimar in 1827 – the visit was preceded by an exchange of letters in which Goethe apparently obtained a positive impression of the young man’s talent and character -, he was awarded at Goethe’s request with an order and a paid professorship with no teaching commitments. From that moment on, Oppenheim was a man who became known in important circles also outside the Jewish community.
What followed was a very successful life as an artist; Oppenheim presents himself as a man for whom a fulfilled family life was very important and he also seems to have lived in great harmony as a husband (after the early death of his first wife, he married a second time) and father of six children. I found this second part of the autobiography – apart from the sections on the 1848/49 revolution – a little less interesting, although all in all this brief autobiography is an important and instructive document.
Here are a few more of Oppenheim’s works. He was particularly popular as a portrait painter, as the following three portraits of writers illustrate:
Scenes from Jewish life in Germany were another frequent subject of Oppenheim’s artworks. Prints based on Oppenheim’s paintings were a frequent adornment of many Jewish homes in the 19th and 20th centuries. They not only showed the everyday life of Jewish families who succeeded to leave the ghetto behind, but would also provide a clear message – particularly in the next painting -: that it is possible to be a Jew, following the religious norms of the forefathers, and at the same time to be a German patriot, fighting as a volunteer in the War of Liberation:
While Oppenheim’s autobiography seems to be untranslated, the following bi-lingual catalogue contains not only a detailed biography and essays about his art, but also reproductions of most of his works and is therefore highly recommended for anyone with an interest in this important German-Jewish artist.
Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Erinnerungen eines deutsch-jüdischen Maler (Memoirs of a German-Jewish Painter), Manutius, Heidelberg 1999
Georg Heuberger / Anton Merk (eds.), Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Die Entdeckung des jüdischen Selbstbewußtseins in der Kunst /Jewish Identity in 19th Century Art, Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt am Main 1999 (bi-lingual German/English)
Nachdem zwei frühere Auswahlbände mit Gedichten von Paul Celan aus den Jahren 1998 und 2002 längst vergriffen sind, ist es ein erfreuliches Ereignis, dass Ende 2019 erneut ein Band mit ausgewählten Gedichten Celans in bulgarischer Übersetzung vorliegt. Grund genug für mich, mir diese Ausgabe anzuschaffen. Ein paar Gedanken zu diesem Buch:
Zunächst einige Äußerlichkeiten, die mir allerdings bei einem Werk gerade eines mir so kostbaren Autors wie Celan wichtig sind. Der vorliegende Band ist handwerklich offenbar gut gemacht und hat eine ansprechende Einbandgestaltung (unter Verwendung eines Gemäldes des Dichters Roman Kissiov). Sehr erfreulich ist die Tatsache, dass es sich um eine zweisprachige Ausgabe handelt; der des Deutschen kundige Leser kann hier jeweils direkt das Original und die Übersetzung, die sich im Druckbild gegenüberstehen, miteinander vergleichen. Für die Entscheidung, die Gedichte auch im deutschen Original zu bringen, ist der Verlag sehr zu loben. Ich würde mir derartige zweisprachige Ausgaben auch in anderen vergleichbaren Fällen wünschen.
Auch die Auswahl der in den Band aufgenommenen Gedichte erscheint mir im allgemeinen gelungen; es versteht sich von selbst, dass jeder Celan-Leser seine Lieblingsgedichte hat, die er gerne in einem solchen Band sehen möchte. Und es versteht sich ebenfalls von selbst, dass jede Auswahl subjektiv ist und daher auch der neue Band ein paar aus meiner Sicht bedauerliche Lücken hat. Vor allem das Fehlen des Gedichts „Todtnauberg“, das auf Celans sehr wichtige Begegnung mit Martin Heidegger anspielt und in seinem Werk eine Schlüsselstellung einnimmt, erscheint mir allerdings als ein wirkliches Manko. Ein grosses Plus wiederum ist die Tatsache, dass Celans einzige längere programmatische Äußerung zu seiner eigenen Lyrik, die „Meridian“-Rede, die er 1960 in Darmstadt anlässlich der Verleihung des Georg-Büchner-Preises hielt, in den Band aufgenommen wurde.
Celan ist für jeden Übersetzer, der sich an seinem Werk versucht, eine Herausforderung. Er ist aus verschiedenen Gründen schwer zu übersetzen bzw. nachzudichten. Das gilt besonders für seine späten Gedichte, in denen die Syntax und die Sprache allgemein immer stärker „aufgebrochen“ wird und die bei Celan ohnehin vorhandene Tendenz zu grosser Ambiguität hinsichtlich der Aussage und des Inhalts der Gedichte oft so weit getrieben wird, dass der Leser vor großen Herausforderungen steht. Dass die Übersetzerin Maria Slavcheva sich trotzdem an das Werk dieses sehr komplexen Dichters gewagt hat, verrät Mut und eine gute Portion Selbstbewusstsein.
Literarisches Übersetzen, zumal von Lyrik, erfordert vom Übersetzer viele zum Teil schwierige Entscheidungen zu treffen. Bei der Besprechung der Übersetzung eines Lyrikbandes sollte es daher auch darum gehen, ob die vom Übersetzer getroffenen Entscheidungen in der Regel plausibel oder nicht plausibel sind. (Es gibt hier oft kein klares „richtig oder falsch“; von groben sinnentstellenden Fehlern einmal abgesehen.) Mein persönliches Urteil ist hier überwiegend positiv: in vielen der übersetzten Gedichte trifft die Übersetzerin den Sinngehalt und auch die Form, die Celans Original vorweist. Einige kritische Anmerkungen sollen allerdings an dieser Stelle nicht verschwiegen werden.
Celans wohl berühmtestes Gedicht „Todesfuge“ ist wahrscheinlich auch sein am häufigsten übersetztes. Auf bulgarisch kenne ich ein halbes Dutzend verschiedene Übersetzungen dieses Gedichts, von denen mir die Version von Emanuil Vidinski als die mit Abstand gelungenste erscheint. Im Original finden sich diese Zeilen:
„… der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau / er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau…“
Die Tatsache, dass Celan hier – aber eben auch nur hier – einen Endreim in diesem Gedicht verwendet, deutet auf die geradezu zentrale Rolle dieser beiden Zeilen im Gedicht hin. Der Endreim ist kein Zufall – wie ja auch sonst nichts in den Gedichten Celans Zufall ist.
In der vorliegenden Ausgabe werden diese Zeilen wie folgt übersetzt:
“…смъртта е майстор от Германия със сини очи / той те улучва с оловен куршум улучва те точно…”
Im Vergleich dazu heißt es bei Vidinski:
„…смъртта е германски маестро окото му е синьо / улучва те с оловен куршум улучва те точно…“
Die zweite Variante ist sowohl sprachlich näher beim Original, als auch hinsichtlich Reim und Rhythmus des Gedichts eindeutig vorzuziehen.
Neben einigen weiteren für mich schwer nachvollziehbaren Entscheidungen gerade bei diesem Gedicht, hat die Übersetzerin unglücklicherweise einen meiner Meinung nach ausgesprochen schweren Lapsus in der bulgarischen Fassung der „Todesfuge“ begangen, der durchaus in den Sinngehalt des Gedichts eingreift und welcher Leser, die mit Celan und seiner Geisteswelt nicht oder wenig vertraut sind, auf eine vollkommen falsche Spur führt.
Wenn Celan in dem Gedicht
„dein goldenes Haar Margarete / dein aschenes Haar Sulamith“
schreibt, evoziert er damit eben nicht nur irgendeine blonde (deutsche) Margarete und irgendeine (jüdische) Sulamith mit aschfarbenem Haar, sondern er spielt natürlich auf Margarete aus Goethes „Faust“ und Sulamith aus dem Hohen Lied Salomos an, zwei emblematische Dichtungen für das deutsche und das jüdische Volk – wie ja überhaupt, das Deutsche und das Jüdische bei diesem Dichter geradezu schicksalhaft miteinander verwoben waren.
Celan, der die Möglichkeiten deutscher Dichtung nach dem Holocaust erneuert und erweitert hat wie kein Zweiter, beherrschte die deutsche Sprache virtuos; zu den Schuldgefühlen, die er wegen des Todes seiner Eltern hatte, gesellten sich gerade deshalb die Schuldgefühle, in der Sprache der Mörder seiner Eltern zu dichten und seine meisten Leser im Land der Täter zu haben. Wenn die Übersetzerin in ihrer Fassung aus Margarete eine Margarita macht (твоята златна коса Маргарита / твоята пепелива коса Суламит), verfälscht sie die Aussage des Gedichts vollkommen; der Leser wird vielleicht an Bulgakov denken, aber mit der offensichtlichen Autorintention von Celan hat das absolut nichts zu tun. Ein wirklich unnötiger und sehr schwerer Fehler in meinen Augen (den auch Tekla Sugareva und Edvin Sugarev in ihrer Version seinerzeit gemacht haben), der die Vermutung nahelegt, dass die Übersetzerin wohl mit den Hintergründen von Celans Dichtung verhältnismäßig wenig vertraut ist.
Gestolpert bin auch über eine Fußnote zu einem der zentralen Gedichte Celans, „Mandorla“. In der Fußnote erfährt der Leser, dass Mandorla die „mandelförmige Aureole, die in der christlichen Ikonographie verwendet wird“ sei. Zwar ist es zutreffend, dass der Heiligenschein christlicher Heiligenbilder als Mandorla bezeichnet wird; trotzdem ist die Fußnote irreführend, da eben nicht nur in der christlichen Ikonographie eine solches mandelförmiges Halo verwendet wird. Es findet sich unter anderem auch im Buddhismus und – für Celan sicher sehr wichtig – in der Kabbala, der jüdischen Mystik.
Das Gedicht „Mandorla“ gehört wohl zu den am schwersten zu deutenden Gedichten Celans und ich will mich hier keineswegs an einer weiteren Deutung versuchen. Eine Anmerkung, die den Eindruck erweckt als habe sich Celan hier eindeutig auf die christliche Ikonographie bezogen, führt den Leser aber in die Irre. Eine solche Eindeutigkeit ist der Dichtung Celans wesensfremd; darauf hat zu Recht Hermann Detering in seinem Aufsatz „Religionsgeschichtliche Anmerkungen zu Paul Celans Gedicht „Mandorla““ hingewiesen – aus dem Gedicht selbst lässt sich die in der Fußnote der Buchausgabe suggerierte Eindeutigkeit keineswegs ableiten. Anmerkungen sollen dem Verständnis des Lesers dienen; die hier angesprochene Fußnote tut dies nicht, sie führt im Gegenteil den Leser zu einer abwegigen und verengenden Lektüre des Gedichts.
Überhaupt, die Fußnoten. Nach meinem Eindruck sind sie manchmal überflüssig, an anderen Stellen, wo sie auf bestimmte Bezüge von Celans Dichtung erklärend hinweisen könnten, die den meisten bulgarischen Lesern nicht geläufig sind, fehlen sie. Dazu ein Beispiel aus dem Nachwort des Bandes, das wie folgt beginnt:
„Jedem Text bleibt sein „20. Jänner“ eingeschrieben. Wenn auch an einem 23. April begonnen trägt auch diese Übersetzung einen „20. Jänner“ in sich, von dem Celan sich herschrieb.“
In einer Fußnote erläutert die Übersetzerin, dass der 23. April der Welttag des Buches sei. Inwieweit dies für das Verständnis von Celan bzw. für den Leser von Interesse ist, ist mir schleierhaft. Viel wichtiger wäre eine Anmerkung gewesen, die den Bezug zu der Behauptung der Übersetzerin erläutert, dass sich Celan von einem „20. Jänner herschrieb“. Ich vermute stark, dass den bulgarischen Lesern in der Regel vollkommen unverständlich ist, was es mit diesem 20. Jänner im Zusammenhang mit Celans Dichtung auf sich hat. Zwar steht als Motto über dem Nachwort ein Zitat aus Celans Meridian-Rede in der er fragt
„Vielleicht darf man sagen, dass jedem Gedicht sein „20. Jänner“ eingeschrieben bleibt?“,
allerdings ist dies nicht dasselbe wie die Behauptung, Celan habe sich „von einem „20. Jänner“ hergeschrieben“.
Was also hat es mit diesem 20. Jänner auf sich (Celan verwendet sowohl in der Meridian-Rede als auch im Gedicht „Tübingen, Jänner“ diese eher ungewöhnliche regionaltypische Form des Monatsnamens Januar, was allein schon ein deutlicher Hinweis ist)? Eine Fußnote hätte hier deutlich mehr Nutzen gestiftet als das später im Nachwort folgende Namedropping – Szondi, Gadamer, Derrida, Hamburger (die Hinweise auf Ingeborg Bachmann und Bertolt Brecht sind dagegen angebracht, da es einen konkreten Bezug von im Band abgedruckten Gedichten gibt).
Dass der „20. Jänner“ sich auf den Anfang von Georg Büchners Erzählung „Lenz“ bezieht – wie viele bulgarische Leser wissen das? Und dass das Gedicht „Tübingen, Jänner“ auch darauf anspielt (Hölderlin war ein interessierter Leser von Lenz und erlebte ähnliche lebensgeschichtlich bedeutsame Enttäuschungen mit den Weimarer Titanen Schiller und Goethe) und dies ebenso wie die programmatische Rede Celans als Auseinandersetzung mit den Klassikern der deutschen Dichtung und als Gegenposition zu deren Dichtungsverständnis gesehen werden muss, gegen das sich die Lenz, Hölderlin, Büchner gewandt haben – auch dies hätte man gerne in einem solchen Nachwort, das leider sehr an der Oberfläche bleibt, gelesen.
Mein Urteil über diese Ausgabe ist – daran möchte trotz der oben angeführten Kritik keinen Zweifel lassen – insgesamt eher positiv. Eine überwiegend respektable Übersetzerleistung, die aber nicht in jedem Gedicht das hohe Niveau hält. Das Beiwerk (Fußnoten und Nachwort) finde ich fast ein wenig ärgerlich. Eine Ausgabe, die ganz darauf verzichtet hätte, wäre aus meiner Sicht vorzuziehen gewesen.
Wie ich gehört habe, soll eine weitere bulgarische Celan-Ausgabe in Vorbereitung sein. Eine gute Nachricht, denn ein solch anspruchsvoller und wichtiger Dichter sollte noch mehr Aufmerksamkeit beim Lesepublikum finden; und der Vergleich der verschiedenen Übersetzungen wird sicherlich zu weiteren interessanten Diskussionen führen. Ich bin jedenfalls gespannt.
Паул Целан: Избрани стихотворения, Gutenberg, Veliko Tarnovo 2019 (Übersetzerin Maria Slavcheva)
“Wie glücklich bin ich, daß ich in mir nichts Achtens- und Sehenswertes zu erblicken vermag! Klein sein und bleiben. Und höbe und trüge mich eine Hand, ein Umstand, eine Welle bis hinauf, wo Macht und Einfluß gebieten, ich würde die Verhältnisse, die mich bevorzugten, zerschlagen, und mich selber würde ich hinabwerfen ins niedrige, nichtssagende Dunkel. Ich kann nur in den untern Regionen atmen. “
The plays by Ernst Toller are occasionally still performed on stage, his poetry, however, is little read today. In the years after the end of WWI he was a celebrity and not just for literary reasons. The best-known book by him today is his autobiographical I was a German (Eine Jugend in Deutschland), which I discuss here. It was originally published in 1933 by Querido, one of the most important publishing houses for exiled German authors; one year later an English-language edition was printed by Paragon in New York.
Toller was born in 1893 in Samochin (today Samoczin), a small town north of Poznan, which belongs since 1921 to Poland. This region was characterized by a centuries-long coexistence of Germans, Poles and Jews. At the time of Toller’s birth, the city was already marked by a strong antagonism between mostly Protestant Germans and Catholic Poles; the Jews in the region were predominantly pro-German and usually identified very strongly with Prussia and with German culture. In the description of his childhood, Toller mentions that even as a child he was aware of this division of local society – the Poles were usually very poor and often did the physically hardest work. Among the Polish boys of his age, he had only one friend; he writes how he often had lunch at the family of this friend, where he noticed the poor diet; nevertheless the big family always shared without hesitation the little they had with an additional eater. This early experience of class differences and correspondingly divergent life perspectives should later become very important for Toller.
Toller, who showed already in school literary and poetic talent, was interested in French culture at an early age, an interest that was also reinforced by a French exchange teacher whom most other teachers at his school suspected of being a French spy, without reason as we can assume.
Despite the early death of his father Toller could complete his school education and he started to study in France, shortly before the beginning of WWI. However, he took little interest in attending lessons and spent most of his time in the circle of other German-speaking students. If you want to get an idea of what an average student life of a foreigner at a French university looked like before the First World War, you will read the corresponding chapter with great interest. Particularly interesting is the description of rising tensions immediately before the outbreak of war, the strange atmosphere in which the majority of Germans in France considered a war to be very unlikely.
If one speaks of a key experience for Toller, one which shaped his future life and work, this was undoubtedly WWI, more precisely, the trench warfare on the Western Front in France. Like many others, Toller volunteered with some enthusiasm and optimism, but the terrible experiences in the trenches changed his attitude very quickly. He describes as particularly repugnant the inhumane propaganda of the domestic media, which denies the French enemy any humanity; At the same time he sees this as an insult and a degradation of the German frontline soldiers, who share the same experiences in the trenches with their French counterparts. One day, when repairing a ditch, he stumbles upon the remains of a human body, of which he does not know whether he was once a Frenchman or a German; and it does not really matter. The remains belong in any case to a man whose life was ended much too early by a war that Toller now finds pointless and completely wrong. Toller, who slowly admits his opposition to the war, wants to get away from the trenches and volunteers for the Air Force. Finally, a serious illness leads to his dismissal as unfit for military service and he can resume his university studies.
At the university, he encounters war cripples, a surprisingly big number of female students and professors, who are torn between national chauvinism and skepticism. By now most people realize that Germany can not win the war; the nutrition situation is getting from bad to worse. Turnip becomes a major food source. In this slowly changing atmosphere, a large conference organized by leading scientists and intellectuals, is held at Lauenstein Castle; Toller takes part in this event alongside many other students, but also professors, intellectuals, poets and supporters of the Lebensreform movement. The participants discuss their vision of Germany’s future. It quickly becomes clear that the restorative forces have the upper hand in this event. Romantic and backward-looking ideas of state far from a democratic society are preferred by the majority of participants; a real signal of departure for which Toller is waiting, is not coming. Toller is severely disappointed, but receives encouragement by the famous sociologist and economist Max Weber and the poet Richard Dehmel, who seek a real change in Germany and work towards the abolition of the authoritarian state and the monarchy.
The same period sees also an increased productivity of the author Toller and meetings with prominent colleagues, such as Rilke or Thomas Mann. Mann invites the by then almost unknown Toller to his home and is helping him editing texts. He is also providing valuable advice for his writing, something very encouraging for Toller. He mentions it in his autobiographical book with great gratitude.
Toller is tired of talking and wants to see actions that are geared towards ending the war. He joins the war opponent Kurt Eisner, who is trying to organize a strike of workers in the armaments industry. Toller is briefly arrested and locked up in a lunatic asylum.
The end of the war finally comes in November 1918. The sailors in Kiel and other port cities mutiny and refuse to follow orders, within a short time large parts of the army join, the emperor flees, the whole system is collapsing, the war is over. In this confusion Kurt Eisner proclaims in Munich the People’s State of Bavaria, a socialist Republic, supported by the leftist Independent Socialists (USPD), and the anarchists, who are traditionally very strong in the Bavarian capital. (The Communists refuse to join the revolution!) Eisner is elected Prime Minister, Toller is his right-hand man.
What follows in the next few weeks, is one of the most turbulent episodes of German history of the 20th century. While the government led by Social Democrats in Berlin enters into a pact with right-wing Freikorps to forcefully overthrow the Bavarian government in Munich, the writers, bohemians and anarchists (including the Freigeld theorist Silvio Gesell) prove to be largely ineffective to form an orderly cabinet. One example: the first action of one of the newly appointed ministers is to send telegrams to the Pope and Lenin, in which he complains that his predecessor has taken the toilet key! The good man is later transferred from his office to the care of a psychiatric clinic.
In the meantime, the Communists are also trying to come to power by overthrowing the Eisner government. In this confusion Kurt Eisner is assassinated by a far-right extremist and anti-Semite, Graf Arco. Toller becomes Head of State of the People’s State of Bavaria for a few days. He is 25 years old by now. The Communists, led by the Russian Eugen Leviné, seize power after a coup d’état and proclaim the Bavarian Soviet Republic. In the meantime, the Freikorps units – some of them already using the Swastika – march towards Munich. Toller tries everything to prevent a bloodbath on a large scale, which would be the result if it would come to battles between the Bavarian Red Army and the Freikorps.
It is known from history books that the revolutionary Munich episode was crushed with extreme brutality. Hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed supporters of the left parties were shot on the streets of Muncih or simply beaten to death when the Freikorps marched in. Even today, 100 years later, it is hardly bearable to read Toller’s account of the murder of the pacifist Jewish writer Gustav Landauer, who was in police custody; In other cases, prisoners were “shot while fleeing”; a Munich publisher later boasted how he “shot down captive revolutionaries like rabbits”. Many of those who excel in murders later reappear under the banner of the Nazis.
Toller is able to hide for a while during these days with the help of friends. He is wanted for “high treason”. For a while he finds shelter with the actress Tilla Durieux (in the book her name is not mentioned; Toller only calls her “my friend” to protect her from persecution and slanderous allegations); Rilke also offers his help. In the apartment of a couple that hid him at great risk for themselves, he is finally caught. The Freikorps soldiers decide to murder him on the street together with several other prisoners, but in the last moment an “official” policeman prevents the worst.
The last part of Toller’s autobiographical book describes his time in various Bavarian prisons. He rejects a personal amnesty from the Bavarian government in 1920, as long as even one of his fellow revolutionaries was exempt from the amnesty. A defining characteristic of the Weimar Republic’s judiciary was that it often allowed violent offenders from the right-wing milieu to go unpunished, even for murders, whereas socialists or communists often received the most severe punishments for minor offenses. A fact that the statistician Emil Josef Gumbel has also clearly proven in his publications. The anarchist Erich Mühsam for example received a ten-year prison sentence, although, according to today’s legal understanding, he had not committed any criminal offense, while the putschist Hitler, on the other hand, received a minimal sentence, which he had quickly served in privileged conditions. It is no coincidence that Toller’s first depressive relapses fall into this period. He committed suicide in a New York hotel in 1940.
I was a German is still an astonishingly fresh confession of a man who became a fighter against war and for social justice as a result of personal experiences and inspiring meetings with some remarkable personalities. An important book, worth reading!
Ernst Toller: I was a German, Paragon (Tr. Edward Crankshank); Eine Jugend in Deutschland, Rowohlt
The year 2019 is almost over and it is time to look back at my reading and blogging experiences.
After a hiatus, I started again to blog more or less regularly and I hope this will be also the case for 2020.
As for my reading, I didn’t keep a diary to track down the books I read this year, but the number is approximately 130, so roughly two and a half books per week, of which around 60% were fiction, 40% non-fiction. Almost all books I read were “real” printed books, only one book was read electronically.I read books in four languages (German, English, French, Bulgarian).
Every book year brings interesting discoveries, pleasant surprises, some re-reads of books I enjoyed in the past, and a few disappointments. Here are my highlights of the last year:
The most beautiful book I read in 2019: Arnulf Conradi, Zen und die Kunst der Vogelbeobachtung (Zen and the Art of Birdwatching)
Best re-reads in 2019: Michel de Montaigne, Essais; Karl Philipp Moritz, Anton Reiser; Salomon Maimon, Lebensgeschichte (Autobiography)
Best novels I read in 2019: Marlen Haushofer, Die Wand (The Wall); Uwe Johnson, Jahrestage (Anniversaries); Jean Rhys, Sargasso Sea
Best poetry books I read in 2019: Thomas Brasch: Die nennen das Schrei (Collected Poems); Johannes Bobrowski, Gesammelte Gedichte (Collected Poems), Franz Hodjak, Siebenbürgische Sprechübung (Transylvanian Speaking Exercise); Yehuda Amichai, The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai; Anise Koltz, Sich der Stille hingeben (Surrender to the Silence); Mahmoud Darwish, Unfortunately It Was Paradise; Vladimir Sabourin, Останките на Троцки (Trotzky’s Remains); Rainer René Mueller, geschriebes, selbst mit stein
Best Graphic Novel I read in 2019: Art Spiegelman, Maus
Best SF novel I read in 2019: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Doomed City
Best crime novel I read in 2019: Ingrid Noll, Halali
Best philosophy book I read in 2019: Ibn Tufail, The Improvement of Human Reason
Best non-fiction books I read in 2019: Charles King, The Moldovans; Charles King, Midnight at the Pera Palace; Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom; Adriano Sofri, Kafkas elektrische Straßenbahn (Kafkas Electric Streetcar); Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost; Lucy Inglis, Milk of Paradise; Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, Sacred Trash; Sasha Abramsky, The House of Twenty Thousand Books
Best art book I read in 2019: Hans Belting, Der Blick hinter Duchamps Tür (The View behind Duchamp’s Door)
Best travel book I read in 2019: Johann Gottfried Seume, Spaziergang nach Syrakus (Walk to Syracuse)
Biggest book disappointment in 2019: Elena Ferrante, Neapolitan Novels
Favourite book cover in 2019: Ivo Rafailov’s cover for the Bulgarian edition of Marjana Gaponenko’s Who Is Martha? (this edition is upcoming in January 2020)
Most impressive translator’s work: Jennifer Croft’s translation of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk; Vladimir Sabourin’s translations in his Bulgarian poetry anthology Радост на Началото (The Joy of the Beginning)
Most embarrassing authors in 2019: Peter Handke; Christoph Hein; Zachary Karabashliev
Good as always: Vladimir Sorokin, The Blizzard; Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart; Ismail Kadare, The Traitor’s Niche; Jabbour Douaihy, Printed in Beirut; Georg Klein, Die Zukunft des Mars (The Future of the Mars); Phillipe Claudel, Le rapport de Brodeck (Brodeck), Kapka Kassabova, Border; Naguib Mahfouz, The Midaq Alley
Interesting Authors I discovered in 2019: Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds; Olga Tokarczuk, Flights; Isabel Fargo Cole, Die Grüne Grenze (The Green Border); Hartmut Lange, Das Haus in der Dorotheenstraße (The House in the Dorotheenstraße); Erich Hackl, Abschied von Sidonie (Farewell to Sidonia)
And which were your most remarkable books in 2019?